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Uncharted water

| Wednesday, February 21, 2018

I’m going to tell you a story about a Greek fisherman’s cap. A hat that wasn’t old enough to be a relic but old enough that I forget where it came from exactly. A hat that smelled like Old Spice cologne and shaving cream. A hat whose every crease and hint of stain I had memorized. A hat I wore almost single day for a period of months when I was younger.

The hat belonged to my grandfather. By every standard, my grandfather was a short man, but he was so strong you almost couldn’t tell. He’d fill up any room he was in with his stocky frame and personality, speaking English in his thick Greek accent interspersed with his native language. In years past, he had fought the Nazis in North Africa. He showed me cigarette scars on his forearms from where they tortured him. He had fled Greece years back, escaping civil war and family betrayal to start again in America. It took time, but at one time he owned three restaurants. He would take my father and uncle when they were kids to the Chicago marketplace at four in the morning to buy supplies for his diners.

Small, black round buttons with anchors on them lined the brim of the hat. I liked to think you could smell the ocean breeze if you concentrated hard enough, putting my nose in just the right spot and imagining myself on the bow of a great ship crossing the Atlantic. My grandfather bought the hat in the Greece when he visited for the first time after coming to America. This was his second trip across the Atlantic.

My grandfather didn’t talk much of his first passage, but I can just imagine what it was like. Sailing into Ellis Island, seeing the New Colossus, striding through security and confidently stepping into a foreign land ready to start again.

Except these weren’t the stories he told me. In fact, he never made it through security. On an icy winter’s day that would normally be forgotten in the wrinkles of time, my grandfather jumped overboard and swam to America. Illegally. In the folds and wrinkles of the hat, you can see piers, snowflakes, hunger and back alleys of those first months in a land that spoke a strange language. With all of today’s questions of illegal immigration, it’s vital to realize that America was in part founded by immigrants. For many, like my grandfather, immigration is about dreaming and going for a better future. My father, my brothers, my sisters would never be here if he hadn’t had the courage to jump ship and believe he could start something out of nothing.

Years later, my grandfather fell sick with pneumonia. He was still a ferocious man but he had grown old and constant trips to the doctor’s office were becoming routine for him. It was nothing. This was a man who fought Nazis, endured torture, swam to the Eastern shore. Every sickness and any sign of frailty were quickly overcome by the man I saw as the Colossus of Rhodes. I knew he would get better. He always did. One phone call early in the morning shattered that belief. I was still a child and couldn’t fully comprehend what the world would be like without him in it. In the days after his death, one of the hardest things to adjust to was that life continued exactly like it had before. There were no earthquakes, no catastrophic changes to the way we lived life.

Sepia, sometimes black and white, photograph memories of him haunted me. “I never got to say goodbye,” I’d tell myself. “I never got to say goodbye.” It angered me that life went on as it had before. I wanted people to remember the short yet incredibly strong man with a personality that extended across all the isles of Greece. He died in Chicago; I was in New Mexico. He didn’t die alone I told myself. He couldn’t have. And that was when we got it in the mail from my grandmother. My grandfather’s black fisherman’s hat, wrapped in white paper.

In the threads of that old hat you could the scars of war, the threads of betrayal and warfare and the compromise of those he trusted most in his life. You could see tenacity; shards of ice from the frosty Atlantic from when he jumped the side of a ship with the courage to start anew in a land that wasn’t ready for him. You could see national pride and you’d probably laugh at the time he said that he’d get rid of any part of him that wasn’t fully Greek. He worshipped Alexander the Great and furiously denied the fact that the ancient ruler might not have been Greek after all. In the lining of that hat was laughter, pain, confidence, strength, anger and a softness afforded by time.

I no longer wear my grandfather’s fisherman hat. The comforting scents of Old Spice and shaving cream have long disappeared. The familiar map of stains and marks were washed away, and now they are replaced by new landscapes of dust. The hat sits on a bookshelf back in New Mexico, miles away from me as I sit writing these words. But in reality, he’s not that far. I realize this now.

One hat could never contain the spirit underneath its brim. I think of him whenever I cross the oceans that life presents me. He lives in the threads, buttons and weaves of my life, when I take tests, find myself in dark alleys and face challenges. He’s there. I swear. You just have to look deep enough. The man who sometimes felt like war came with him to America. The man who laughed like mahogany in between sentences of Greek I wish I understood. The man who showed me what it was like to jump into riptides.

I sometimes wonder what he’d say to me now. He’d put his hand on my shoulder, give it a squeeze. Say something in Greek to me with that mischievous gleam in his eyes, and then softly turn down the street. He’d stop for a second before he turned the corner and give one of his smiles softened by time. Then he’d disappear on his way to another place, Greek fisherman’s cap on his head.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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