My biggest challenge as a boy was trying to fit in. But fitting in was really tough, because I wanted to be 100 percent American while my parents clung to their Greek customs. They pulled furiously one way, I the other. All children struggle to escape their parents so they can define themselves, but mine had roots deep in another world.
George and Venetia
My father was George Peterson, which was not the name he was born with. That was Georgios Petropoulos, the surname literally translating into "Peter's son," and often over the years he told me he deeply regretted changing it. "I wouldn't want anyone to think I wasn't proud of our race," he said. In the scheme of things, however, he kept the more important thing he brought from the Old Country, his bedrock values.
He was from a town called Vahlia, in the mountains of the Peloponnesian Peninsula in southern Greece. It was a poor town, and his family was among the poorest. His father, Peter, for whom I am named, according to the family lore preferred sleeping under an apple tree to working and would move only to find a new patch of shade when the shifting sunlight hit his eyes and woke him up. His indolence did nothing to diminish the imperial tendencies of his wife, my grandmother Nicoletta, who upon meeting new people would offer her hand to be kissed. They tried to keep a garden, but rainfall was sparse and water had to be carried in buckets from a nearby stream. They kept chickens, which provided eggs, and goats, which provided milk, and when a new baby was born in the family, a goat was slaughtered over the protests of the children, who had made pets of the animals. My father had six brothers and a sister, and they all slept on straw mattresses crowded together on the floor of the family's two-room house or, if the weather was good, outside in the yard. Regardless of the season, none of them wore shoes. The shoes their parents wore were fashioned from discarded tires. They told time by the sun since they could not afford a clock, and on cloudy days relied on guesswork.
School was an afterthought. Girls could expect six years of education. Boys might reach higher, but only if they paid a price. They would have to leave home at the beginning of each week, walk thirty miles to a larger village that had a more advanced school, and live in a hostel with other boys until the weekend when they could walk home again. This was not my father's lot. For his older brothers who went off to school, my grandmother would bake a loaf of bread and score it with a knife five times, to let them know how much—or little—they could eat each day with slices from the block of cheese she gave them from her homemade stores. At some point, they started dreaming of America.