My dad speaks perfect English with a Greek accent.
He emigrated to the United States in 1952, leaving behind a Greece annihilated both by World War II and a subsequent civil war.
Dad was only seventeen when he fled all he’d ever known: pervasive death and famine. He’s rigorously honest, but lied on his paperwork and said he was eighteen—a legal adult who could travel solo—so he could escape Nazis, communists, monarchy, and the ensuing bloodbath that resulted from this maniacal trifecta.
I’ve seen photos of him from when he arrived in tiny Yakima, Washington to live with his uncle. Dad was emaciated, almost skeletal. Still, he had gorgeous, jet-black hair and a fierce determination in his eyes.
When Yakima locals mocked Dad for his dark skin or foreign language, he pummeled the first few, which settled the matter for good. Farmer’s kids were no match for a teen who’d already outwitted SS officers.
By the time my brother and I were young kids in Seattle, Dad had earned his Master’s Degree in Public Administration while working full-time as Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for our county. He earned a 4.0, to boot. My mom soon became an attorney and my folks imparted both an intense work ethic and a pervasive sense of empathy to us.
So, perhaps it’s unsurprising I’ve called my senators, congresswoman, state attorney general, and governor opposing both of Donald Trump’s unconstitutional travel bans. And with one of my closest friends, I recently took to the streets to protest the same. The immigrants and refugees in question remind me of Dad and I firmly believe I have a moral obligation to help defend their rights.
What is surprising: Dad, who in my most recent birthday card called me “the love of my life” in a non-creepy way, is completely pissed at me for protesting. He’s acting like I joined a commune or some other counterculture group from the 1960s that still annoys him. (Greeks: we created drama, geometry and, most likely, grudges.)
At the heart of the matter: Dad voted for Trump and I voted for Hillary Clinton. My father has always been a moderate Republican and I’ve always been a liberal Democrat. When I was editor of my high school’s newspaper, I wrote editorials opposing Reagan’s nuclear policies and tax cuts (yes, I was that kid), but Dad was proud, despite disagreeing with me. We’ve always joked about our differences and rarely has it been a big deal.
Now, he’s eighty-three and congestive heart failure is laying waste to his body and, on bad days, his spirit. He has been hospitalized three times in the past year. We know the inevitable is encroaching and the last thing we should be doing is arguing about an administration in which neither of us actually serves.
But I can’t believe he voted for Trump and he can’t believe I can’t believe he voted for Trump.
How the hell did we get here?
Dad says his mother thrashed violently against the paramedics and kept reaching for him, the oldest of her three young sons. She shrieked his name over and over.
He tried his hardest to run to her, but his grandmother held him back. He recalls sobbing, unable to break free.
He was six years-old. His mother, Litsa Dremousis, was twenty-six.
They never saw each other again.
My Yiayia (Greek for “Grandma”) had contracted tuberculosis. The Nazis occupied Greece at this time and Greek doctors were on the front lines, treating soldiers. Because TB is airborne and spreads rapidly without proper medication, Dad’s village set up a makeshift sanitarium. Yiayia had to be quarantined.
We know she died in the sanitarium. However, we don’t know where her remains lie, her date of death, or even her birthday. The Nazis dumped her body into a mass grave and burned the town records.
TB ravaged Yiayia’s body and the Nazis destroyed all traces of her.
Yet I can’t recall a time when I haven’t known the stories of my namesake’s life and death. When my brother and I were little, Dad would cook us breakfast each Sunday. Mom got to sleep in and Dad would enthrall us with tales of his horrific childhood in Greece.
He chose to craft his stories so that they were alternately funny and matter-of-fact. In them, the goats he herded could talk, as could the wolves that stalked them in the hills. He gave them goofy names and silly catchphrases. He explained to us that when his mother died, he and his brothers became orphans under Greek law, although their father was alive and well. (An anachronism that has since been remedied, thank god.) He lived with his father in a lean-to in the forest, while his brothers were given to different families. My Papou (“Grandpa”) George, was fighting in the Greek resistance and usually left Dad to fend for himself.
Dad told us of the famine that swept through Greece, how he saw townspeople so hungry, some picked lice from their own hair and ate it. He recalled live and dead worms floating in the well water and being so parched, he drank it anyway. Once he lived for eleven days on nothing but onions and red wine. He told us the onions burned his empty stomach, “but the wine made me a little drunk, so it wasn’t all bad.” He excelled at benign gross-out humor, telling us how he used leaves for toilet paper and, in desperate situations, rocks. Then he’d laugh and serve us bacon, eggs, toast, and orange juice, never chiding us this one meal might’ve fed him for weeks at our age.
Of course, contrary to Dad’s joke about the wine, it was all bad. Obscenely cruel and deeply scarring. Now that my brother and I are safely ensconced in adulthood, he’ll unveil additional horrors—the time a Nazi lit a dead Greek on fire just to further terrorize Dad—and it’s clear he made our childhood stories lighthearted so he could metabolize his epic pain. As his own death looms closer, he confides that his mother’s death has always haunted him. Sometimes he sees her in his dreams.
Does Dad not see how much he has in common with the refugees and immigrants now targeted by Trump?
How can a man of such prodigious intellect and warmheartedness not understand why I resist the current administration?
To answer these questions, we must first examine what sustained Dad, what kept him sane throughout his mom’s tragic death, his dad’s war-necessitated neglect, separation from his brothers, near-fatal starvation, abject poverty, and bearing witness to evil at an age when my brother and I were still learning to ride bikes.
As it is for so many immigrants, the United States was more than a potential destiny for Dad. It was hope, an education, a career. It was regular meals, a home, and maybe a wife and children.
America was freedom, the end of seemingly endless war, and the promise he could be the man he envisioned himself to be.
He’d get to America or literally die trying.
When Dad was nearly eight, Papou George gave him to a cafe owner so that Dad could generate income. He slept in the attic above the cafe. The owner often beat him. Seventy-five years later, Dad still dreams of this, too.
But this professional experience, abusive as it was, allowed Dad to land a better job at a cafe in Athens, Greece’s capital, when he was ten. Athens was home to myriad newspapers and magazines that customers would leave behind.
When Dad bussed the tables, he kept the publications and stashed them in his attic cell. He had excelled in his brief time at school before Yiayia Litsa died. But these discarded treasures were written in formal Athenian Greek, not everyday colloquial Greek. So, after working twelve-hour shifts, Dad would lie awake and study them, teaching himself to read the formal Greek spoken by the educated and the powerful.
In doing so, he learned of the world outside Greece.
He learned about America.
He was certain that if he worked extremely hard, America could be his salvation.
It’s not that Dad agrees with all our government’s decisions; he doesn’t. But while I march and call my elected representatives because the refugee and immigrants’ stories remind me so much of Dad’s own, Dad himself views my protests as a betrayal of the nation he loves so much.
I love the United States, too. Like a house I was raised in, though, I know it up close and can spot its many fissures.
But Dad struggled for years so that he could become an American. It was his goal before it was his identity. My house is Dad’s mansion.
For him, it’s divine in a way it never will be for me.
So while I defend those who remind me of Dad, Dad defends the nation that gave him the opportunities I take for granted.
We’re each being American the best way we know how.
TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.
Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Photographs provided courtesy of author.