On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Maria Agustina Castillo returned to Sacred Heart in New Orleans, where she attended high school under the strict supervision of the nuns in the early 1950s.
“I feel like, as women, we’re always trying to figure out the rules of the world around us. We’re raised to listen to the rules of society, as opposed to men, and I sort of realized by the time you figure out the rules, they’ve all changed. Older women carry so many worlds inside them—both the societies that don’t exist anymore and themselves at a younger age. I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored. People of that age stop worrying about what others think.”
When I read those words last Sunday in an interview in the Worcester Sunday Telegram, they struck me as deeply wise, because they encapsulated many things that I’ve learned in my 75 years. And I was doubly impressed because that statement came from my 40-year-old daughter, Eleni Gage, who was being interviewed about her newest novel “The Ladies of Managua” by reporterAnn Connery Frantz.
Eleni’s book is about three generations of women in Nicaragua and the secrets and tensions between them. Her favorite character is the grandmother, Isabella, who was sent as a teenager from her home in Nicaragua to finishing school in New Orleans where she learned things like how to get into a cab properly, how to set a nice table, and how to make fudge. This character is based on Eleni’s Nicaraguan husband’s grandmother, who is still alive today to dispense advice on proper behavior. Isabella, in the book, is the mother to Ninexin, a heroine of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution. She lost her husband to a bullet, is devoting herself to building a new Nicaragua, and is frequently reminded by her daughter Maria and others, “You couldn’t have been a good revolutionary and a good mother.” As Eleni commented to the Telegram, “Guilt is hard to escape, especially for women. You’re expected to do certain things, raise your kids in a certain way.”
Years before Eleni was born, I discovered the difficulties of learning the rules of the game when I married a man from a close-knit Greek family. I was a very naïve Presbyterian from Minnesota. Nick and his sisters had suffered starvation and worse during the Greek civil war and eventually escaped in 1949, coming to Worcester, MA to join their father, a cook, whom nine-year-old Nick had never met. As retribution for engineering the escape of her children from their Communist-held Greek village, Nick’s mother was imprisoned, tortured and executed. (He told her story in the book “Eleni” which was later made into a 1985 film.)
Once I married Nick in September of 1970, I realized I was involved in a game to which I did not know the rules, especially after our son Christos was born ten months later. We lived in an apartment in Manhattan but would drive nearly every weekend to Worcester, MA, to visit Nick’s elderly father and his four older sisters. I was always breaking rules without realizing it. At our son’s baptism, which culminated in Greek line dancing while Nick’s father Christos balanced a glass of Coca Cola on his head, I was wearing a long dress. In church, while my baby was being dunked and tonsured, and holy oil was put on his hair, I would nervously, in the front row, cross my legs. Every time, my father-in-law would stand up, walk across the church and tell me in a stage whisper that I was not supposed to cross my legs in church. (It was a long dress, people!) Also, when I took the baby home, while the party was still rollicking, I washed the holy oil out of his hair. Big mistake!
Nick once told me, in the early years of our marriage, that a Greek wife must always be ready to feed unexpected guests at a moment’s notice. And I have never been a good cook. But luckily he is.
Over the next 45 years I learned—to cook moussaka, to do Greek dances, to speak Greek. And I had two daughters, including Eleni—although having a son first, Christos, gave me a major boost in the eyes of the Greeks. (The three requirements Nick spelled out when we decided to get married, were 1. Quit smoking, 2. Name the first two children after his parents and 3. Marry in his Greek Orthodox Church.)
Well I did all that—It helped that The New York Times sent our family to live in Greece for five years while Nick was their correspondent in the Middle East. Along with our children, I learned the language and the rules of the game. Years later, back in the U.S., when strange odors emanated from my teenaged son’s closet, I wasn’t surprised to find in the pocket of his church-going suit a bulb of garlic that one aunt had hidden against the evil eye. It’s now an ordinary occurrence to have my future read in my coffee grounds by one of Nick’s sisters and, when things seem to all be going wrong at once, the kids and I regularly ask another aunt to do an exorcism against the evil eye.
Eleni said in last week’s article that, as she was growing up, I would point out rituals and celebrations to her—the rules of our game. She became so interested in them that she majored in folklore and mythology at Harvard, learning things she has put to good use as an author of three books. (Her second, “Other Waters” was about an Indian psychiatrist in New York who thinks her family has been cursed.)
It was very gratifying to learn that my early efforts to discover the rules of the game sparked a lifetime’s education and writing career in my daughter. (Well, the Telegram’s reporter referred to me as “Jane” instead of “Joan” but whatever.) The part of Eleni’s statement about older women that gave me the greatest encouragement was: “I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored. [That’s me, for sure.] “People of that age stop worrying about what others think.” [I hope that will be me, as well!]