My birthday is in two days. I’m going to turn 28 and, among other emotions, that utterly blows my mind. I had a conversation with two of my younger cousins, probably 10 and 7, but their ages jumble in my mind in a big family like mine. They were holding my daughter, Kate, all of 7 months. They were adorable. Their care for Kate is real. I mentioned babysitting one day, and their eyes lit up with excitement.
I looked over at my cousin Athena, also a teacher, who is nearly a decade older than me. I told the kids that their relationship with my daughter could be a lot like my relationship with Athena. She is older than me, and I’ve always been happy to look up to her. Kate will look up to them. She babysat me often when I was a kid. We’re the godparents together for another one of my younger cousins. I’m sure they will also babysit Kate.
I said to the kids that one day Kate would have a child of her own. They would likely have children too. Their kids would one day be as excited as they were to hold Kate’s kid.
|Yaya holding Kate at her first Greek Fest!|
Another emotion that I feel these days is nostalgia. My family is quite incredible, and we’ve made a lot of memories together. Like any family, we all have our flaws. I’m a bit too stubborn, this cousin is a little selfish, that cousin doesn’t come around as much as we all wish. Nothing extraordinary, just regular family stuff. What makes my family so incredible is not so different from what might make your family incredible – it’s the older family members that make our family so special.
I’ve grown up identifying heavily with my Greek ethnicity, even though I’m technically only 50% Greek. I’ve travelled to Greece twice. I had a kick where I wanted to learn to speak Greek and got good enough to blend in while I was in Greece. I listen to Greek music, was a part of a ethnic Greek Dance Troupe until a year ago, love to cook Greek food – you get it. So we call my grandparents on my mom’s side, the Greek side, Yaya and Papou. (Pronounced yi-yuh and pah-poo)
Here’s a story. My papou loved our annual church golf tournament. It wasn’t because he loved to golf. In fact, I’m not sure I ever saw him swing a club. No, he loved to drive the beer cart and talk to people. That was his gift, to communicate, to love, to connect. Several times as a kid before I was old enough to play in the tournament, he would take me with him in the cart.
Papou always collected things. That’s another memory. He would come home from garage sales with junk upon junk. Sometimes I remember Yaya getting mad, but mostly we all just kind of laughed at the hobby and marveled that he could ever find anything in his garage.
One of the things that he liked to collect were golf clubs. So this particular year, probably when I was 7 or 8, Papou brought out a putter with him so that I could go onto empty greens and putt the ball around while we were driving around the course. And so it was, every few holes, we’d pull up to a green, I would go putt and he would stay in the cart talking and watching me.
One of my flaws, especially growing up, was that I let things simmer under the surface. I always acted calm, but I often had anger or frustration waiting to explode out of me. This flaw used to come out on the golf course. As anyone who has ever played golf can attest, it can be so infuriating. And so it was with me that day at the church golf tournament; I kept missing the putt I was hitting, getting more frustrated and frustrated, and eventually felt like I was going to snap. So I looked over to the cart and when I saw that Papou was not looking, I slammed the putter into the ground. This was not the first time I had done this with a club. It felt good, then immediately bad. This time, the head of the putter broke off and stayed lodged in the soil. I picked it up and jogged over the cart and told Papou that the club had broke and that I wasn’t sure how it happened. I claimed that I was using it like a walking stick and, snap, it popped off.
Papou didn’t say anything, but he didn’t seem mad either. Thinking back, I know that he knew what I had done. Clubs don’t break themselves. But in the moment, I thought I had gotten away with it. I hopped in the cart and we went on our way, delivering beer to the golfers and having a good time.
As we were walking out to the car to go home after the tournament had ended, Papou put his arm around me and told me that he loved me. I’ll never forget that hug and all of the guilt that it brought out inside of me. On the drive home, as we were nearing my house, he talked for the first time in the car ride – Someday your anger is going to break something that can’t be repaired.
|Papou holding one of his many great-grandkids.|
I will always remember that lesson. I will always remember him teaching me to drive a stick-shift in his old, beaten up brown pick-up truck in the giant parking lot behind the old Honeywell Plant. I will always remember warm summers floating in the pool, eating kolouria made fresh from Yaya’s kitchen and Papou’s hands. I will always remember Papou and Uncle Jim arguing about the Royals and the Chiefs. I will always remember carving miniatures out of bars of soap. I will always remember the airplane models, the Braniff cups and napkins, the stories - made up and real - of people who he got to talk with during his days with Braniff or in the Air Force.
I will remember these things and I will cherish these memories and I will never forget that they are more important than a houseful of objects. I will cherish watching Kate grow into a young woman, having kids of her own and getting to make my entire life about their happiness and comfort, just as my Yaya and Papou have always done for their kids and their grandkids. I will savor every moment watching my younger cousins help teach Kate how to play, and learn and laugh and fight.
And in the midst of all of the joy and happiness, I will occasionally get sad.
Five years ago today, Papou passed away. It was merciful – he had not had an enjoyable end to his life. But it was hard nonetheless. I will get sad thinking about Yaya alone in her house in between the moments of noise and chaos when the kids come to visit her. I will get sad thinking about my dad and how I can call him whenever I want, knowing that my mom no longer has this joy. I will get sad sitting in church in the same pew our family has sat in for decades, almost able to feel the presence of Papou and hear his voice sing along with the ancient chants.
And then I’ll find my wife, Kate, my parents, my brother, Yaya, all of my cousins – I’ll find these people and I’ll know that they are Papou. That is why our family is so special, and why your family is so special. We are the living embodiment of all the people who have come before us. We are their voice, their song, their prayer, their lesson, their love. We are them. We are all Papou because we carry him with us in every moment. We hear his voice, and through us, that voice is passed down to our children.
One last story, from Papou’s last 4th of July. My wife, mom and I marched through his bedroom singing songs and shooting off imaginary fireworks with our hands. Papou let out several of his full-belly laughs that we all heard too rarely in his last months of life. But in that moment, on that day, Papou was happy. I can close my eyes and hear that laugh, see that smile, feel his hands. I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget Papou.
May your memory be eternal, Papou.
Thanks for reading this blog! I hope you'll consider taking a moment to comment below and turn this into a conversation. Whether you are an educator or not, we have all had common experiences with education both good and bad. I want to hear what you think!
About Me:My name is Alec Chambers. I am a high school history and government teacher at a small, urban public school in Kansas City called Center High School. We regularly kick tail. Among many awards, we were named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2014. I don't just teach at Center- I also graduated from Center in 2006 after attending Center Schools K-12. I have a degree in Political Science, a second degree in International Relations, a third degree in Education and a Master's of Arts in Teaching. I have an unofficial degree is soccer. All of those degrees have led me to the high-paying teaching profession! I have a newborn daughter and am married to the most awesome woman on the planet. Seriously. It's a proven fact.
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