Belleville
    Jerry Stamatelos

Every Sunday for nearly a year, I woke up knowing my maternal grandfather was in another province. The night before though was business as usual. Say grace at the dinner table; prayer at bedtime. Always mind my manners; never raise my voice. A list of doís and doníts compiled by my mother while he visited from the motherland.

Too much formality and austerity for an 8-year old, I thought; however, in the tight configuration of the Greek immigrant family, itís as a mother she gains esteem, authority, and affection. The measure of a woman, and consequently, how she perceives her own worth, is in terms of her household accomplishments in the range of mother and homemaker. Itís no wonder I had no allies, no one to join me in protest of this unsolicited coercion. I couldnít plead my case to my father because heíd say, as always, "Listen to what your mother says."

Such were my fatherís answers — curt. His successful commercial activities had thrust him into Canadiana, with ever-improving English skills and serviceable French. He was a man possessed of a single-minded ambition whose working-class ethic left him quite unaffected by sentiments of family. He brought home the bacon, but was never there to eat it with us.

Belleville took my grandfather—papou—away for a full day from Montreal. That was all I needed to know. I could care less where he went and why. I could be a kid again every Sunday.

Papou unknowingly reduced the list of doníts. I didnít mind having him around — just not in public. It was so embarrassing having all eyes on us. I had to go through that crushing ritual at least once a week. The first time I laid eyes on him was at the airport where immediate and extended family gathered to welcome him. The only notable exception was my father; he was always a notable exception. Papou was one of the last passengers to come out of the gate. He was statuesque, but bizarrely dressed in an ankle-length black cassock and high black stovepipe hat, somewhat reminiscent of the Hassidic Jews weíd come across on our way to the Greek movie theater of record for our Sunday ritual.

There was a perverse irony here. Papouís look was more representative of those who "didnít believe in Jesus" than an Orthodox priest. Non-Jesus believers according to my mother, who sent me mixed messages of bigotry and tolerance.

"Why Belleville?" Wide-eyed interest got the better of me one day.

"I have to go where people need me, in Greece or here in Canada," he said, then launched into detail. I took refuge from a vein of Belleville accounts by tugging on his silver spear-shaped beard as I bumped on his knees. I wasnít big on concepts like faith, responsibility, commitment and obligation.

I accompanied papou to Belleville on his final Sunday in Canada. I was willing to forego the unease his appearance caused me because I had a mystical identification with a city somewhere in Ontario that swallowed him up from the moment I was put to bed on Saturday night until I got back from school on Monday afternoon.

Finally, we were in a place where he commanded reverence, not mockery. Papouís face glistened in the curling mist of candles and incense. The glossy abundance of his long beard and colorful brocaded vestments radiated with the lambent glow of a Byzantine king. His chanted prayer, wailing psalms resounded to every corner of the church. His heavy, self-conscious piety hung over his flock. There was an irrevocable dignity about him.

The church bell rang with an urgent clangor. A low murmur of greetings and chat hums over the congregation. Mass had come to an end.

A quiver played on this burgeoning Greek Orthodox communityís first clergyman as he stood before the altar and spoke of his time here and how the church had been built with a most promising prospect of success, a blossoming ethnic community spun together in mighty devotion.

The parish president followed with many thanks, and introduced the newly-assigned priest. Had it not been for papou, the church would have remained closed until now while waiting for a permanent arrangement. Papou bent down and took me into his arms. My suspended feet hung like a limp fish. Big red teardrops splashed down on me as I unfurled my arms from the comforting hollow of his neck.

The traditional black clerical vestments papou never deviated from invited jeers one last time. The tall, lean "man of the cloth" disappeared behind the departure gate. I wish he could have stayed a little longer in Canada, even if it meant being seen with him in public.


Jerry Stamatelos is a freelance contributor of Greek-Canadian and Greek-American affairs to the English language press worldwide. Heís been a columnist for Athens News, Hellenic Times and The Flow. He founded Nostos, a publication geared to Canadians of Greek heritage, and translated the best-selling authorized biography The Lonely Path of Integrity from the Greek. He teaches Media Studies at an independent, coed school in Montreal, Canada, and is working on Losing my Religion, his first chapbook.
 
 

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