Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

John and Demitroula had an easy, bantering relationship. His was the only horse-drawn wagon in Niata, and he always insisted that she ride in the front seat with him as he drove, a rare display of gender equality in that place and time. But he also warned her, laughingly, that if she got too big for her britches he would assign her to "live spotter" duty in front of the horses, a reference to the dangerous job of locating the land mines that littered the countryside after Greece's past wars. Of course he never did carry out his threat.

His generosity was deep. He had an old neighbor, Stavros, who depended on his donkey, called Kitso, or "helper," to gather wild berries and tsai, the Greek mountain tea also called shepherd's tea. Stavros sold some of what he had gathered for a few pennies or traded it. Returning from church one Sunday with three of his children, Big John heard a commotion as they were passing Stavros's small house. Stopping to inquire, he found Stavros berating his donkey, which had died. "Look what Kitso did to me," Stavros cried. "How could she do this to me?"

Big John agreed that Kitso was a thoughtless beast but joked that she had never done such a thing before. Stavros, not amused, ordered him off his property forever. John hustled away, bought another donkey, and returned the next day to present it as a gift from all the Papapavlou children. They were there as their father knocked on the old man's door and they saw how, still furious, he again ordered Big John off his property. Sadly, Big John explained that his children would have to give the donkey to someone else. The old man was moved to take a look at the animal and then received it with gratitude, gushing with prayers that Big John would live a long and healthy life.

"You had better pray for an even longer and healthier life for your new Kitso," said Big John.

Life in Niata had changed. The young men began to leave for better jobs. Without them Big John could not cultivate his groves, and young women like mother had fewer chances of marrying. So the day came when Big John accepted that three of his children had little choice but to emigrate and join other members of the family already in America. On a mid-September day in 1920, eight years after my father had arrived in America, my mother, Venetia, her sister Patra and brother Demetrios (James), with his new wife Adamandia, boarded a ship called the Megali Hellas in Piraeus bound for New York. They had nineteen days of hell, with passengers falling sick all the way before they steamed past the Statue of Liberty and docked at Ellis Island on October 4, 1920. My mother, like my father, was seventeen when she first set foot in America.

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