Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash
Set simultaneously in Greece in the late 1960s and Seattle in 2016, Domino Days tells the story of an American military family caught up in the changing times of the 60s and the political life of Greece during the 1967 Colonel’s coup d’etat. The title refers to the Cold War “Domino Theory” of the threatened fall of nations to Soviet Communism but also to the changes one family undergoes when their move to Greece and a family tragedy force each of them, particularly Ella, the wife and mother, to find who they are in the world, separate from their familiar cultural context and stifling family roles. Sophie, the narrator and present-day granddaughter of Ella, struggles with the loss of her mother and the realization that she must face personal and political challenges of her own.
Prelude: Seattle 2016, Sophie lives to tell the tale
After giving up her once thick grey hair, all of her body fat, both breasts, and all of her savings to fight for her life, my mother, Penelope, died anyway. It’s been almost a year, and I’ve returned to grad school and Victorian literature, especially George Eliot, who once said, when writing a novel, to not hold anything back, to put everything into each one. Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a novel in hand or close by. For me, novels carry more truth than we can ever find in the world around us. But my mother watched with what I now see as an odd mixture of pride and impatience, saying she had a real story to tell and one day would write it. Then she would tell me a bit of it—whichever memory struck her at that moment as worth airing. She might mention climbing down from the third floor balcony of their Greek home or conspiring with communists in the basement of an Orthodox Church, or she might even allude to a romance with a handsome ill-fated boy. But it was always like getting a fleeting glimpse of someone’s private drama through the window of a moving train. What was really behind those strangers’ intense expressions, that raised arm that might have been threatening or might have been a spasm of affection? My mother’s stories were just that—spasms, mysterious spasms—and that’s the way she liked it.
When the cancer hit, she began to keep a journal where she wrote her current, often frustrated, thoughts interspersed with memories, many of them those teenage years in Greece in the 1960s. Now, with her death, I’ve inherited her journals and the need to tell the tale she was always going to tell but never did—not fully.
I have never aspired to be a writer, but my mother’s story floods my chest and takes up all of my literary oxygen. It fills my lungs, and not writing it is like not breathing, like inhaling and inhaling again, unable to exhale.
But why take this on now, with the world in such dire straits? We face impending climate crises, increasingly cruel warfare with desperately fleeing refugees, the rise of so-called strongmen, the squelching of imperfect democracies, the cruelties of racism, and of course increasing wealth at the top and poverty below. Now when Penelope would have railed against the injustice, why now do I turn inward, why look back into a past I didn’t even know? Why now?
Penelope’s Journal: University Hospital, September 1, 2010
Lying here with the IV dripping poison into my veins, I stare at the television floating above the bed, watch the muted CNN news of the "Occupy" protests—those people gathering around the world to object to the horrid economy and all its unfairness. That was me once, marching in the streets for one cause or another, but not now; now protesting is out of the question, useless really. When you can’t stop your own body from oppressing you, how can you stop anything else? Still, Seattle is rumbling, and across the world, Athens is intense—their demonstrations have rocketed from peaceful protests to violent conflicts where a few protesters with rocks and bottles face a brigade of police in riot gear with tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades while the rest of the demonstrators resist with loud voices and limp bodies, hanging heavily as they are dragged away. I love them all, but all I can do is pull the covers over me and wait through the clash of clammy hospital air and hot passions of the streets.
As I watch the chaos, I can’t help thinking of Greece, of our days there in the 60s, an American Air Force family so unprepared for what was to come. These days, the news is full of Greece—will they default? If they do, will European banks weaken? Will the U.S. stock market fall? Will China lose their international market? Will the world’s paper money house of cards come tumbling down?
I know something about houses of cards. Just last year, as the so-called “Great Recession” wound down, I lost the only place I’d ever tried to buy, the only place my grown daughter could see as a family home, that apartment in a building that needed more repairs than it was worth, that building full of barely middle-class people without recourse in an economy that couldn’t provide financing. With the word “foreclosure” hanging over us like the shadow of a film villain who drives hapless widows from their homes and ties maidens to train tracks, we knew we had no real options.
So I get it—I know what Greece is up against. I know what they are going to have to steel themselves to do—Greece will have to step out from under the house of cards, let it fall as it may, and rebuild itself with whatever it has left. Just as I did, or thought I did. What the hell, when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
Why am I obsessing over debt, my own or Greece’s, or how we do or don’t protest? Is this really about those days in Greece? This moment of clammy nausea, here with just hospital curtains between now and then, these two worlds glued together like shoe leather. I want to be in those chaotic crowds, to feel the heat of the conflict. I want to be in the streets, but not here in Seattle—I want to be in the streets of Athens again...
My mother survived the first horrible attack of breast cancer, a dramatic recovery after they threw everything they had at her, but then in an ugly twist of her plot, the cancer reappeared. Just weeks before she reached the much lauded five-year point when she was supposed to be celebrating having beat the odds, it found its way into her bones. In a typical attempt at comic relief she joked, “You know, life is short—I feel it in my bones.”
Once again my mom lay in hospital beds under flickering fluorescent lights, either having chemicals injected to battle the cancer or sugar water dripped into her to rehydrate her parched cells. Throughout that second barrage of chemicals and radiation, they’d send her home each time with little or no hope that it would be the last time—one way or the other. Even in those days, she talked in breathy waves of memory, but in spite of the pain, the drugs, the ebbing of her life, at times her story came out not just as a few anecdotes, images, random memories, but as a flow of thought and experience that had shaped her life.
My mother, Penelope, known usually as Nell, was a classic baby boomer, born in ’52 of parents desperate to appear better than they were—better off financially, better spouses, better parents, better, better, better than their equally striving neighbors. They conducted their family life within a tight code of secrecy. No one should ever know about the times they couldn’t pay bills, the fights, the yelling and swearing and drinking and all around private chaos. What happened in the family stayed in the family, that is until those boundaries fell apart.
But I’m getting so far ahead of myself that I can’t think. I don’t even want to tell this story—my mom’s last days are still so much with me that I wake up in the morning ready to pick up the phone and speak with her again, just as I did so many times during that last year. Or during those days, if she was too weak, I’d speak with my Uncle Sam, who, after twenty years of working in various positions in Chicago government offices, heard that the cancer had recurred in spite of the mastectomy and showed up at his sister’s door, suitcase in hand. She let him in like he’d just returned from a lengthy adventure, and soon they were sipping coffee together, quietly reading, and looking up in unison when I walked into the room.
Seeing the two of them together had a horribly sweet, gut-gripping effect on me that still happens each time I even think of calling my Uncle Sam, so usually now I just don’t.
When my mother was finally sent home with hospice care, they thought she’d live a few weeks, but she held on for almost three months. Weeks and weeks of saying goodbye—each day you beg God for one more day, having converted to a believer under the circumstances, and each day you dread another day of suffering, hers and that of everyone around her, including your own.
So now I hold her journal in my hand, her memories in my mind, and her unspoken dying wish in my gut. She wanted—wants—me to write the story of her mother Eleanor, Sister Annunciata, and Professor Thalia Whitton, the women who taught her how to be a woman in this crazy, unpredictable world where you could get cancer and die before you even had to worry about being old.
Most of the stories she told of Greece were not set in the classic, shimmering sun and bleached-white villages of the islands, though some were. Most were set in the dry lands southwest of Athens or in the mountains to the north. Her experience was never the romanticized vacation of jet-setters, Onassis spotters, or retired couples on Mediterranean tours of ruins and perfect little sunspots. Her stories were set in the world she knew as the daughter of an Air Force sergeant and his wife, a frustrated college dropout. Where was that girl’s voice, that young woman of the 1960s?
When I opened Penelope’s last journal, she spoke to me first in her final voice, the dying one, not a motherly one speaking to her grieving daughter, but one of a woman struggling bitterly through her last days. She spoke of the pain, the frustration of having her life under attack from the inside by the ravenous cancer cells and from the outside by the corrosive radiation and chemotherapy.
What a term chemotherapy is, an oxymoron—poison treatment. Toxic cure. Deadly counseling. I take it in physically and reject it in every other way. It is my bitter cup—I am eating bitterness as the Chinese say; I am swallowing my own bile.
The months have passed, and my mother’s words from my childhood, from the hospital, from her diary have soaked into me. As I look around my apartment, I see little to hold me here, in this place, this time: shelves full of books from more than a century ago, my mother’s old Smith Corona electric typewriter that she kept like a relic of her own coming of age—now mine to preserve—curtainless windows behind tangles of overgrown plants, faded Buddhist prayer flags, and paper stars from last year’s Christmas decorations. The walls are mostly bare, with just two art prints tacked up: one of Emily Carr’s thick, twisted tree trunks, one a charcoal self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, her famous eyebrows having flourished into a bird flying up from the bridge of her nose. One of my favorites of Kahlo’s paintings is of her lying in a pool of blood in a hospital bed with her hand pressed against her distended belly and vein-like ribbons reaching from that hand into the air around her where they are tied to images of her loss—a drooping flower, a snail, a lifeless fetus, the bare bones of a pelvis, the torso of a dressmaker’s form—while an industrial Detroit lurks in the background. But it’s too grim to be displayed on the wall, to be taken in willingly or unwillingly every day. So here I am now, in my small, neglected apartment, and what draws me most is the thought of hot coffee and Penelope’s story. Now that she is gone, her girlhood surrounds me, holds me, and begs me to listen.
Penelope’s Journal, September 2015
Am I a bitter person? A bitter woman, the more likely phrase. My life has had its biting disappointments, its bitter ribbons of unresolved loss, of fear, rejection, anger. But there were other ribbons. Ribbons of love, of pride and good work. Henry left before Sophie was old enough to remember him being around, went off to make a valiant attempt at growing up free of the burden of too-young parenthood. And there was Sophie, needing me, a constant reminder that I was her bottom line. That if I had no other purpose here, I had her.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where -' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Maybe it's a blessing that Mom died when she did. Right now, she’d be filled with the need to act and so many issues to address that she’d be caught in the paralysis of uncertain choices. When this would happen in the past, my Uncle Sam, her perennial little brother, would joke, “Remember Alice—if you don’t know where you’re going, any choice you make will get you there.” And, like Alice, Nell would be angry at the nonsense around her, with Alice’s nemesis, the Queen of Hearts, a stand-in for the politics of the day. Nell would be beside herself.
So where does that leave me, her daughter, her inexplicably introverted offspring? I would sit across the room from her as she ranted about the latest political crisis, the latest crucial issue spinning out of control because of the latest political impasse. Were they all the Queen’s minions, or were some better or worse than others? If there ever was a balance, it seems to have tipped heavily in the worst possible direction, in a direction that much of the rest of the world is also tipping toward, into the fascism Penelope saw as the worst of all possible worlds. But now she’s gone. Now, I, her daughter who always avoided dealing with strangers, who never wanted to join any groups, who had no desire to speak out and be heard, now I am left alone to deal with this world. And with my own choices.
Will the story of her time in Greece give me any answers? Weren’t their lives defined by forces beyond their control? What did they do? And is that the lesson—what to do, or is it what not to do?
But Penelope wasn’t just about politics, I also heard from the young girl who watched the adults in her life, soaking up their longings, their denials, their moments of honesty, their disappointments, their weaknesses, and their tenacity.
Penelope’s Journal, February 7, 2011
I wanted to know why my mother was so grim, why she watched my father like he was the guard posted at the edge of her refugee camp, like she wasn’t sure if he was there to protect her or to confine her. I wanted to know why they rarely talked, even though when they were in the room together all I could feel was their awareness of each other.
She was the ultimate sponge, the “teach me how to live” pleader, the one who worked to construct some reasonable map of the world she was determined to explore. And I want that map as well—I want to see into the lives of the women she watched, discover what she discovered and what she might have missed.
My mother had a rough kind of beauty. She was just a bit overweight, ten or fifteen pounds, and usually looked tired, but she often smiled in a kind of wan way, a way that seemed to say, “Who me, amused?”
It seems Penelope had a number of lovers since the man who fathered me left when I was a baby, some I vaguely remember, some I’d heard references to, but in her last years before the cancer returned, there had been no one. When she died at sixty-three, she’d lived without romance for well over ten years. My mother, who had so much to give. Maybe that was the extra weight she carried.
Still her thick, glossy grey hair and dark green eyes had defied it all, had declared, “I am alive and brimming with vigor—I dare you to see me otherwise!”
And me? My own life has been a patchwork of school, scrambling for money, brief relationships, and few close friends. I left my old college friends from Indiana University, in the state where I grew up, where my grandfather had settled with his two bereft children and then mostly left them to raise each other. I left it behind as if I were the stranger in a strange land my mother had always purported to be. Technical writing had brought me to Seattle. From editing medical journals full of the diseases and disorders of humanity, to promoting a strange mix of amoral techie companies and non-profit do-gooders, I made my way through the beginning of the twenty-first century, writing this promo copy or that newsletter until I couldn’t take the pace or the erratic meaninglessness of it all. Then, encouraged by Penelope, in spite of pushing forty, I returned to school. Roaming the campus of the University of Washington with a romantic view of graduate studies in what was once the program of Theodore Roethke and Richard Hugo, I soon discovered I was most definitely alone for what seemed an indefinite expanse of time. At thirty nine, I was older than any of the other students in my program, especially the men. The men and young women were mostly enthralled with critical theory and experimental fiction, while I struggled along, an undecided, unfocused student of literature caught between older, skeptical professors and younger, cynical fellow students.
So here I am in grad school, still not clear who I am or why I care more about 19th century literature than 21st century life.
I need to get into the skin of my mother’s mentors. I need to absorb their lives in order to absorb hers. I would be her life—I would be the women she had studied so intently. I can’t write her biography—a straightforward account of her life would not do what she needed to have done, nor would it use what I have to offer, a belief that a novel, a world in and of itself, can contain all that is true of a human life.
Part One: The Stantons in Glyfada
First, of primary significance; genesis, in the beginning
“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother." — Margaret Sanger.
Chapter 1: The Trip Abroad, August 1966
They stood in the JFK Airport line with their bags, the maximum number allowed per person, and since there were three of them, not counting the baby her mom was still pregnant with, that meant six huge pieces of luggage. They’d managed to get them all piled onto a metal cart that her mom and little brother Sam shoved through the crowded departure area while she carried their overnight bags and hurried along behind. In their nervous bustle, they nearly ran into a tall, thin hippie with hair trailing down his back, cut-off shorts, and an old duffel bag over his shoulder. The duffel bag reminded Nell of the war in Vietnam where her grandfather, “the Colonel,” had gone, and his hippie-look reminded her of the Beatles who had claimed they were better than God or something like that. She couldn’t take her eyes off him until he turned and stared at her blankly, and she shifted her gaze back to the cart.
To Nell, her mom looked ridiculous, huge and fretty, angling the cart around the hippie and pausing to hold her belly like she was pushing the baby up under her ribs while insisting that Sam keep his hands on the cart. They did their best to keep up with her or they knew she’d be twisting around constantly and they’d all end up in a pile with the many strangers rushing around them.
That her dad could go three months ahead of them and leave them alone to manage this trip was just stupid in Nell’s eyes, and she knew she had to step up. They had most of a day-long trip ahead of them—it had been three hours from Indianapolis, two hours here in this wild New York airport, and many more hours of flying over the ocean and most of Europe to get to Greece. Nell knew she was mature for her thirteen years, but she also knew she shouldn’t have to be worrying about whether her mom was going to faint away from all the pressure and hassle.
They survived, though, and many hours later at the Ellinikon International Airport, their dad stood, staring through a glass wall at them while Greek men in rumpled uniforms dug through their bags. He waited there, smoking his Pall Mall cigarette, and shifting his weight from foot to foot. His own grey uniform was less rumpled, his hat, like a folded paper boat, sat askew on his curly dark hair, salt and pepper along his temples. His face looked just a shade less grey than his uniform.
The customs men continued to dig and ask her mom questions about what she’d brought into their country. What had she brought? Nell remembered folding and stuffing as much as they could fit into the luggage. They had clothes for every season, though Nell had read that the weather never got as cold as Indiana. Her mother had slipped in two family photo albums, like she might never see all those relatives again, and she brought medicine, vitamins, and powdered milk. They’d heard the milk in Greece wasn’t safe to drink and that most of it was goat milk and tasted horrible. And there was the receiving blanket her grandmother had knitted for the new baby, school clothes for her and Sam, and her mom’s pre-pregnancy clothes for the days ahead.
Finally, they moved in a tired jumble through the steel-framed opening and watched as their dad kissed his wife and pushed her hair out of her eyes. Then he jostled Sammy and joked about him having been the man of the family before holding him up in the air and laughing at his red face and squirming body. Ella took her shaken boy, holding his hand with one of hers and patting it with the other until he calmed down while Nell’s dad told her how pretty she’d become and that all the boys must be lining up to see her, which she knew was ridiculous—she was sure she was the dorkiest girl in eighth grade, being taller than most of the boys and wearing rummage-sale dresses, while everyone else was wearing stretch pants and sweatshirts. Add to that the frizziest hair around, and she was sure anyone would get the picture.
They all packed into a dark van, borrowed from the NCO Club, with no windows in the back, and soon were driving across the countryside from Athens to Glyfada, from one of the most famous places in the world to one of the least. When people at home had asked where they were going to live and her mother told them “in a neighborhood in Glyfada,” they stared blankly, usually asking whether it was near Athens or the Air Force base. Not that her family could clear that up—they didn’t have a clue; she’d seen her mother shrug and explain, “You know, Will is so busy in his new rank as a Sergeant and in a foreign country, he just doesn’t have time for those details.”
Nell had watched her parents all of her life. They lived their lives like members of a carefully structured clan, knowing exactly what was expected of them, playing their roles, going suddenly silent when they realized they’d stepped over those well-drawn lines. An expert observer even at her age, Nell was a budding cultural anthropologist. She was a reader, had consumed Blackberry Winter and felt a kinship with Margaret Mead, who was driven to know how cultures work. Nell’s culture was her family, and she had systematically learned the language and the morés.
When you were uncertain, you said, “Yes, of course,” and when you were scared, you said, “I’m fine.” When you were angry, you said, “It doesn’t matter,” and when you were hurt, you said, well, nothing. They all spoke this language fluently, even eloquently when eloquence was needed. And the biggest moré of them all? When you were faced with outside eyes, you played your roles and stayed in character, no matter what happened.
Now Nell watched closer than ever because, after months of steely silence between her pregnant mother and her rarely at-home father, and then more time while she, her eight-months pregnant mom, and Sammy in a high state of clinginess had navigated the move on their own, they were finally together again. Together, but in a foreign land none of them seemed prepared for. Nell continued to hold on to Sammy whenever he was not attached to her mom and tried not to complain. She was a rare case, and she knew it—most kids her age would have been loudly objecting from the get-go, but not her. She was a true Stanton, a thoroughly enculturated member of the tribe. And she had already been through several family moves, so she knew the ropes.
Right now, her parents sat in the front seats of the rented van. Through the middle of the front window, Nell could see a narrow road across dry, empty land rolling over bare hills ahead of them. Her mother sat sideways, partly keeping an eye on them, partly watching her husband as he drove while staring forward and talking about the house they were headed for, the job he had to put up with, and how they were somewhere between the base and the beach.
The van rumbled to a stop, and Nell realized she had fallen asleep holding onto Sam, who leaned against her, staring straight ahead. Their mom seemed to be rubbing the Greek air off herself, first pushing hard with both hands against her cheeks, then oddly rubbing her upper arms quickly, as if to warm them despite the dry heat. They started moving again, slowly through a neighborhood with big, old houses. Everything looked kind of faded and crumbly—roads, houses, even the trees in the heat of this long summer evening.
“Don’t start, Ella. I don’t want to hear it.” Her dad spoke straight ahead into the windshield. Her mom lifted one hand and opened her mouth to speak. “No, I mean it—just deal with it.”
Nell stared at her dad’s silhouette, a vocabulary word taught in seventh grade when they’d all drawn shadow pictures of themselves, but one she’d already run across many times in her reading. Her father’s face was hard, as if it were carved of the same stuff as the hills in the distance. Her mom lowered her hand to her stomach, resting it on the highest point, where the baby plumped out like an overstuffed pillow.
Just that summer, Nell had started her period and, well, she’d noticed other changes for a while. Sam twisted around and stared at her like she was supposed to do something. “What?”
“Nelly, will you really have your own room? I don’t think you should.” He looked determined, chin high, lips pressed together tight. “You’ll be scared. You won’t have anyone to talk to.”
Their dad turned slightly. “She’ll be fine, Son—you'll both be fine. Your sister's too old to share with her little brother anymore.” Samuel stared at the back of his father’s head, the edge of his jaw. Nell knew Sam wouldn’t argue—he had learned before that he’d get nowhere, and the few months apart had already faded into the empty fields they’d passed. It was as if they hadn’t stayed in Indiana while he was halfway around the world, as if they hadn’t wondered if he’d really left for good, like going to work and never coming home.
They arrived at a huge, three-story white house with strange rust stains down one side, a balcony jutting out of the back half of the tall second floor, and a concrete wall all around the property as if their home was a castle to be protected from the hordes of common people. It seemed to be all one piece of powdery white concrete—the rough, thick wall interrupted briefly by an open iron gate, which they drove through to park by the building they would live in. Another smaller iron gate in the front was almost hidden in a tangle of leaves she’d later find out was an overgrown pomegranate bush. The house was a mixed-up mess. It was huge and whiter than the sidewalks back home but old and beat-up—stained and surrounded by thick ragged vines and shrubs, squeezed between two empty lots full of weeds and huge jagged boulders. But it was the closest thing to a castle Nell had ever seen, and there they were, ready to move right in and reign in this new land.
Penelope’s Journal, February 12, 2011
Who would ever have thought I’d make it this far into a new century, or that any of us would for that matter. Here I am, though, with a disease I wouldn’t have survived in my mother’s generation. Maybe that’s why I have it and not her. I barely remember when I was allowed to need my mother. Do I need her now? Or am I glad that I don’t have to have her here fussing over me, acting like everything was her fault.
My daughter reminds me of my mother, Eleanor—or Ella as she was usually called. Sophie is tender. She’s unsure who she is or why she’s here. I’ve been unsure of many things, many people, in my life, but I do know who I am. How did I end up with a daughter so like the woman who let me down so long ago?