Introducing Magda's Father . . .
Lesson One – Epistles to Friends and Relatives
When my father first arrives in Montreal from Athens at the age of twenty-six, he is immediately sent by the Department of Immigration to learn English in the evenings in the basement of a small community church that also served as a Bingo Hall. Under harsh florescent lights and seated on chairs that while impressive to look at are uncomfortable to sit in, he is one of many immigrants struggling to learn the rules of this strange tongue. Though the air smelled of stale tobacco, poutine and perfume, he is still able to reference his familiar world.
During his twelve-hour workday, my father washes dishes and scrubs toilets at a local diner near Montreal’s General Hospital. On Thursday evenings with Kyrios Smith in the church basement on Chemin McDougal, he learns that in order to succeed in Canadian Society “Men must respect their place in the community in which they live by promptly and effectively replying to social and business correspondence.”
While the instructor, Kyrios Smith, thin-lipped and flat-footed, makes his pronouncements on the differences between spoken and written English my father stares at the black and white portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and dreams of unwashed fishermen with their khaki pants rolled up to their knees, pulling in their nets; fish leaping out, red-yellow A’s, silver-blue D’s and orange-green G’s.
Tsiph, tsiph, tsiph – the drops of rain gradually grow louder, calling my father back to the task at hand, learning how to compose an engaging and proper epistle to friends or relatives. Though it is published in New York, his teal blue textbook, Ellino-Angliki Epistolographia, has a British Flag glued on the cover.
The introductory paragraph to the lesson produces the following warning: “Should you neglect your social correspondence, you will soon find yourself alone, without support, without love and without friends.”
“Remember to include interesting tidbits of information in your letters to your loved ones. Share your life with them. Ask them about theirs. There is no room for indifference.”
My father wants to write about his last night in Athens, his evening out at the bouzoukia with his friends, the chestnut-hued stunning girl, sitting cross-legged with shapely legs, her alluring appearance of innocence, the quivering of his stomach, matching the shaking of something else between his legs, the broken plates and trampled flowers, the anticipation of his journey to this new land, the bruising loneliness of Montreal Streets, the love he feels for the sick and the dead, the horrid case of diarrhea he was forced to clean up one afternoon, the insatiable hunger for his mother’s meatballs and fried potatoes, the perfect stillness of a dimly-lit church — beeswax and incense mingled with lemon-blossoms in the spring, and the undeniable truth his hands smelled of cauliflower and bleach.
Using his best handwriting and the examples provided in his textbook as guides, my father cobbles together the following epistle for his curious Kyrios Smith:
Dear friend Smith,
It doesn’t seem possible that the lad I was bouncing on my knee just a little while ago was bitten by a dog. I ran into James the other day and found out you did not have the rabies. Everyone is looking forward to seeing you.
Do you remember selling newspapers? Of course, it’s still a long way from where you are to the point where you’ll be planning operations, but you are heading in the right direction.
If I forget to put in later, let me say that everyone of us is well. Only Grandma has a sniffle cold. Something serious. Mother wants to know whether to send her down with those nut cookies you like. There are some things she is going to miss like the art galleries and gorgeous shops.
My life here passes very quickly. Well, it hasn’t been bad enough to complain. Try your best to come for a visit real soon.
With much affection,