Friday, August 31, 2012


My uncle Mathew was a real man.  What that meant in my family was: he worked, he brought home his pay, he could fix things and make things, and was afraid of nothing.  He was also handsome and manly; he had dark eyes like Greek olives, brown skin, white teeth, and a fascinating, dangerous-sounding history.  He had an accent, too, and my Aunt Celia liked to say of her sister Lillie, who had been a spinster and, as far as we  knew, a virgin, till she married him, "Vy'd she hef to pick a forriner?" 

Mathew, or Mateos, Georgiou, born in Cyprus, married Lillie, born in Orsha, Russia when they were both in their forties.  Once he told me that she used to dance for him -- this was long before she died, and Mathew, a chef, had sold his knives to pay the hospital bills -- bare-breasted.  How she must have loved him, and he, her.

Mathew had run away from Cyprus as a teen-ager, run away from the British, who, he said, had stolen his family's land, and during the War he joined the Army, where they taught him to cook American style.  He knew Greek cooking, and somehow  learned how to cook kosher specialities, so in the summers he worked the big Catskill hotels, and in the winter, Florida.  He loved the sun, and Lillie did too; their life, which must have been so hard and lonely before they found each other, became a kind of long vacation.  No wonder she danced!

When Lillie got sick the doctors lied to her about what was wrong, but she came from a family where her mother died at thirty-four, and her father in his forties, so she was pretty sure she knew.  She and Mathew were living in New York then, and so was I, a newly-wed.  On one of the days when she'd had her appointment at Mount Sinai, she called and asked me to have lunch with her.  We met in a Chinese restaurant, and when the meal was finished, she took money out of her purse and said she was celebrating.  She had overheard the doctors talking about her.  "I used to stay awake nights wondering if I had cancer ," she said.  "Now I can sleep."  Shortly after that she went into the hospital, suffered every awful thing they could do to her, and died a bad and difficult death.

My Uncle Mathew, who was not my uncle at all, stayed in close touch with me all his life, partly, I think, because I was a witness to the happiness he had had with Lillie.  He married again, a woman who adored him, fathered three beautiful black-eyed girls, cooked, danced, laughed, fed everyone, tended a garden full of figs and lemons and olive trees, and lived to be almost a hundred. 

To this day, I can't eat in a Greek restaurant without thinking of Uncle Mathew, and how Aunt Lillie danced for him.

1 comment:

Eleni Georgiou Strawn said...

Thank you for writing this story! Only you, such a wonderful writer, could so concisely capture the essence of my father. My sister brought copy of your story to read to my mother and I. We were at a restaurant and about half way through the story I burst into tears. This story brought back so many memories of him. It brings me joy to know what a wonderful relationship he had with your aunt. He didn't talk about her much. I think because it must have been very painful.It is wonderful to hear you write about him in the same way I remember him. He was one of a kind for sure!