Friday, December 3, 2010

Turning Away Wrath

I know that I have a sharp tongue, which is why I have to make a special effort to keep it under control. My angry letters to erring commercial institutions are legend in our family. Just last month, I let Volkswagen have it, and as a result, after several visits to the dealer, my car is finally repaired. Last year when an orchestra member criticized Nicodemus for not doing something he had in fact done, I wrote her an e-mail which I think shriveled her right up. She hides when she sees me coming.

So this morning when a driver yelled at me in the parking lot, I was careful to give a soft answer. “Why don’t you park it right?” he screamed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You’re half way into my parking bay,” he said, getting into his ugly truck, which was a full four feet away from my car.

“I’ll back up,” I said meekly, and then tried to do so with my hand brake on, I was that rattled. He gave me a dirty look and drove off. I would like to think that, as Stephen Gaskin once advised, that I had taken a bit of meanness out of the world, but I am not that good, and I stewed over the scene for a while.

I remember the last time I ever hit a child of mine (for hitting his brother). I could see my handprint on his sweet face, and I told myself that I would never, ever lose my temper with the children again.

Nicodemus, who can be bitingly sarcastic, can also be a master of the soft answer which turneth away wrath. When someone remarked, thirteen or fourteen years ago, that he didn’t know why people our age bothered to get married, Nicodemus replied “Well, we’re rather conventional.” Anyone who knows us knows better, but the sarcastic man was left speechless.

Once when he was substitute-teaching at a local elementary school, a little girl tugged at his jacket and complained that so-and-so had pushed her or taken her pencil. “Forgive him,” Nicodemus said. I don’t know if she knew what that meant, but I imagine she still remembers it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Time Travel: The American Farm School

I had a Facebook friend request this week which catapulted me some 9,000 miles east and 50 years back in time, to Christmas, 1958 at the American Farm School.

We had just moved from Athens with our five-month-old son to the school outside Thessaloniki, Greece. We had a small upstairs apartment in a staff housing unit. The kitchen had a deep north window for food storage and a hooded charcoal burner for cooking; I had no idea how to use them. The power went off at 10 P.M. unless the poultry department was incubating eggs, in which case we had electricity all night.

I said I had to have a refrigerator, and the Farm School came up with a kerosene refrigerator which worked fine. I said I had to have a stove, and unknowingly I caused a crisis in the life of my downstairs neighbor, Demetra, who took the bus seven miles to Thessaloniki to do her baking in a public oven. Demetra calculated the cost of the public oven and convinced her husband, George, that she should have a stove at home.

Next door in the upstairs apartment lived Margaritis and Hariklea and their daughter Efthimoula, who was a little older than our son Nonda. It was Efthimoula who invited me to be her Facebook friend yesterday.

Life in the small community of the Farm School was pretty communal. Everybody spoke Greeklish except the 200 high-school-age boy students, who had to go to class.

I substituted at the English class once and taught the boys to sing “Camptown Races”. For months, the students would greet me on the path with “Doo-dah, Doo-dah”. We had the best milk in the world from the school’s fine Jersey cows. I would simply shake a quart bottle to make butter. There was always ice cream at the dairy, and because the boys learned animal husbandry, we could get meat, chickens and eggs from the proper department and vegetables from the huge class garden. Home repairs became classes for masonry, carpentry, plumbing and electricity.

We moved from the apartment to a beautiful stone house on campus. We had fig trees and a view of Mount Olympus. Our teenaged nanny was in heaven with 200 boys about, and she seized upon any excuse to take Nonda walking. We had dance classes on Saturdays, a shopping bus, and a beach bus for the mothers and children in the summer. I had little jobs teaching music at Pinewood, a school for foreign dependents at the edge of the Farm School campus and working on public relations and scholarships for the school. Occasionally I helped teach short courses in theater for people from nearby villages.

It was another lifetime. Actually, it was paradise.

Nicodemus and I visited the Farm School a few years ago. We saw the old house and Princeton Hall, which was the main school building. We visited the Orthodox church where Ed was christened and looked at the 20-ton rock the boys rolled from a neighboring town for a memorial to Theo Litsas, a saint who was my dearest friend; was, in fact, everybody’s dearest friend. I scooped up a little red dirt and brought it back home.

On Theo’s grave are these words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

(Photograph is Nonda in the manger scene, 1958. Unfortunately, there were fleas in the hay and Nonda got bitten.)