The Cousin

            Tolstoy wrote[1] that happy families resemble each other, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. On the whole, our family wasn’t an unhappy one, but it had some unhappy persons in it. Tolstoy–or any other philosopher–would not have made sense of its idiosyncratic relationships and subdivisions, its quirks and variances even if he wrote ten books the length of War and Peace. We were a family of irregulars, possessing genes that gave us some common traits–looks, for instance–but also divergences as wide as the distance between the earth and the moon. One of the most divergent of these types was my father who reminded me of what Diogenes said when he was asked why he roamed the streets in daylight with a lantern; he answered that he was searching for an honest man. In my father Diogenes would have found him. My father was HONEST–in the fullest and most comprehensive sense. I seriously doubt that the thought of cheating anyone ever crossed his mind, although he was in a business-builder–something that would have easily enabled him to do that. And his total honesty made him pay a price. Although very hard working, he remained a man of modest means, for one thing is certain about absolute honesty–you can’t make money with it. Your conscience does not allow you to cheat, and, if you don’t, don’t expect any mercy from those who do. But let me get on with my story, which is about one of his cousins, who was the opposite: this man almost always cheated–and cheated my father more than anyone else.

My father was not an unhappy person; he was MADE unhappy by some treacherous persons in our family, persons that owed him their livelihood and who undermined him instead of being grateful. This sounds like a story that has the potential for high drama–if not tragedy–so I will make a turnaround and tell the funny aspects of it, for there are funny things in the life story of every of human being, and especially in this one (if you wish to hear the tragic side, punch some other key).

Here I will confine myself to the doings of this one person only. He was one of his male first cousins who worked with him nearly all his life but who constantly tried to torpedo his undertakings, steal jobs from him, antagonize him in every way, and who eventually took over his establishment–the sawmill, a rather large workshop where my father employed several people, and, at various times, all his first cousins and other relatives, including the one I’m talking about. I won’t go into all the details of how this cheating took place, for such a story would require another story inside this one. I will only touch on the dishonest practices of this character and will concentrate on the funny side of their relationship.

Let’s call this cousin Takis, a name that did not exist among our numerous relatives contemporary to my father. But one needs a name, so let’s use this one. Takis was not only devious, false in his dealings and an outright liar, he was also extremely absent-minded–and that was the funny side of him. In a way, that was his punishment for his deviousness. He was careless with his dress, sloppy, negligent, and absent-minded. His clothes were dusty, his hair disheveled, his buttons missing, his trouser-legs torn, his shoelaces loose, flying right and left as he walked. And once, after his afternoon nap, he went out of his house wearing his trousers inside out! Oftentimes he forgot where he was going after he had shopped and headed for home and knocked on strange doors, he fell into puddles (and once in a grated sewer), he cut one of his fingers by half when operating the machinery, and even fell from a scaffold, by stepping on the wrong side of a beam, onto a pile of boards full of nails, and did other things that almost cost him his life. One such thing was when, drunk at night, he stepped off his balcony, which had no rails, having mistaken it for the route to the bathroom. He broke most of his bones and he had to be placed in a cast from head to toe for almost a year. When he recovered, one of his legs was shorter by several inches, and he walked with a limp the rest of his life. Since they were partners with my father on a certain project, my father had to pay a replacement for him, while underwriting all his medical expenses. That in itself speaks volumes about my father’s generosity. But I promised a funny story, so I will give you one, and, since my father himself told me the story, I will repeat it as I heard it.

One of the most prosperous merchants in our town , Phillip Meals, a shrewd businessman who bought wine and olive oil during harvest at low prices and sold it later making a profit, wanted a job done in his house, and called on Takis to undertake it. For Takis, despite his mishaps and the ridicule that resulted from them, had numerous friends–not pen-pals or something like that, but tavern-pals, so to speak. My father never went to a tavern after work but came straight home to family and dinner that my mother had labored to prepare. Takis, on the other hand, was not just a drinker, he LIVED in taverns.

Now, before I go on with the story, let me engage in a little amateur psychology on two points: why was Takis so absent-minded? And why did he drink? Amateur psychology doesn’t hurt any–because it’s free and harmless, while professional help costs money and may or may not cure what ails you. So I asked my father the first question, and my Uncle Stathis the second. My father’s answer was that Takis was so constantly preoccupied with his devious plans to undo someone or other that he couldn’t think of anything else, and that’s why he fell into puddles when he walked the streets. That may or may not be good psychology, but it was a rather astute observation. Stathis’s explanation was simpler and therefore more likely. And it was based on facts. He said that Takis was unhappy with his marriage and he didn’t want to go home evenings after work, and that’s why he preferred the taverns. Some of his explanations were filtered to me through my father, who also knew some of these facts directly or from Stathis, who had told him certain details. Takis had married soon after my father had, sometime around 1930. His wife was the daughter of a well-to-do orchard owner, called Magos, a sort of benign autocrat, who provided his daughter with a generous dowry (30,000 drachmas, a good sum in those days), and that money was used to buy Takis a spacious house near the harbor in the south end of the city, where he and his brothers lived for many years. But Takis was unhappy with his bride from the start. For one thing, this union was the result of match-making (as was my father’s), and the bride, Anthoula, was a rather large-framed woman, not particularly attractive, and twice the size of Takis, who was small. Soon after the engagement, as a result of a mosquito bite (they said), one of her legs grew to the size of a Greek column, and it oozed something ugly. It healed eventually, but Takis was so repelled he took to drinking. And in those years once a match was sealed, it couldn’t be undone without bringing dishonor (and possibly a gunshot or two) to both families. Stathis noticed that Takis had been going to a tavern for a month or so, drinking heavily. He went there, and found him in a wretched state, taking one sip after another, crying and repeating to the customers next to him: “I don’t want her! I don’t want her!” Stathis eventually talked sense into him, and the marriage took place. But Takis’s initial dislike for his wife grew and he avoided home, taking more and more to drink. The irony was that Aunt Anthoula–I remember her personally–was the nicest person in the world; large, yes, but open-hearted, kind to the neighbors, and always having a nice word for us boys and giving us some little treat or other when we visited her house. That’s all I know; I would be lying if I said anything more than that on the subject.

But let me return to my main story (which after this may sound like an epilogue).

Takis’s imbibing also had its rewards. It brought him into contact with those who preferred that style of living, since being a tavern frequenter in those days didn’t carry the stigma of an alcoholic. Taking a sip and eating a tid-bit after work was seen as a rather harmless practice, natural for those that spent their day working hard and liked some relaxation and socializing afterwards. And, inevitably, one who goes to taverns mixes with others there. Our town had its share of habitual drunks, one or two of whom had become the butt of jokes, but ordinary tavern regulars who harmlessly took their ouzo and mezedes[2] were viewed as people who sought to spice up life just a bit. That was the way with Takis (more or less), who, though known for his deviousness and dishonest practices, had also managed to make enough friends, many more than my father, thanks to his drinking habits. And friends give you jobs, especially those friends who can’t very well tell the difference between a job well done and one done poorly. That way Takis had won an unfair advantage over my father. And when Melas, who also liked taverns (though not to the point that they could harm his business), saw Takis there they had become sort of pals, for nothing helps camaraderie more than a couple of drinks together. So Meals, who also dealt in lumber, which he imported wholesale and sold it to the various carpenters in town at considerable profit, asked Takis to do a job for him.

Melas had a spacious house with a wide terrace near the harbor and wanted to build a sun roof there to keep warm in the winter months and for his wife to dry their clothes, for these houses had no back yard. So when he decided to build his solarium, as he called it, he called upon Takis to do it, though he knew very well that Takis had a tendency to blunder; but their camaraderie at the tavern won him over. My father was an excellent builder, but Takis, as we said, profited from his “contacts” with people going to local taverns, and he possessed a certain villainy “charm,” if you will, for lack of a better word. His limp probably helped. But let’s not be wicked (which I don’t want to be–just factual).

So when he took over the job of building the solarium, he used the only method possible–making a number of glass panels–about forty–that would be placed overhead in frames, as a glass roof to the terrace, so the sun rays could go in, but not the cold winds of the winter. Our town was close to the snowy mountains of Epiros, from which blasts of cold air blew sometimes for whole weeks and froze the streets and unheated homes.

So Takis set about making the panels, probably with the help of my father, for all this was done in the sawmill workshop, and in a reasonable period of time he had them finished and brought them over, and, because night-time was approaching, he placed them in rows against each other on the terrace. Next day he would start the work of putting them on the roof of beams, already built.

But just as the north wind brings freezes, the south winds can also wreak havoc, in a different sense. This was the famous sirocco, the southern humid blustery stream of air that comes over the Mediterranean from the depths of the Sahara. When it blows, it comes with no warning, winter or summer (but mostly in the winter) in tropical storm blasts and blowing every light or unsecured object in its way.

That’s what happened that fatal night. The sirocco came, unannounced, and it blew everything in its path, including the panels laid against the wall by Takis.

To be fair, it wasn’t his fault. Who could have foreseen the whims of a sirocco? The upshot was that the glass in the panels was turned to broken ruble, lying smashed on the terrace. It was a big mess, a total disaster.

Deals started pulling his hair in indignation, but of course he couldn’t blame Takis for the sirocco either. And Takis pulled his own cheeks in protestation, asking Delas’s pardon and promising to undertake any other job the man would give him without pay.

Melas accepted the arrangement willy-nilly, and asked Takis to build him a ceiling in his basement, where he stored his casks of olive oil, a bit larger than a cubic meter in dimension. He had about half a dozen of them there, and these were items he could hardly move out of the way, so Takis had to step on them to build the ceiling, which necessitated nailing boards on the beams on which the floor upstairs was based.

That was a harder job than Takis thought at first, and he asked my father’s help him do it, and my father also brought along his brother in law Panos, who usually did jobs for him. Melas agreed to pay them their wages. They would have to step on something or other to drive the nails to the boards, working almost upside down, like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, except that this job was less artistic.

Though they build a small scaffold, they, inevitably, also had to step on the olive oil casks, which were covered with boards, to keep the mice from falling in.

The boards were disaster traps for the careless, and that is what Takis was. First he almost gave Melas another nervous breakdown when he knocked off several electric bulbs from their sockets that were attached to the walls to light the place–things very expensive in those days, as he moved boards around. Of course Takis apologized but that did not put Melas in a better frame of mind. New bulbs were brought in, the place was lit again, and the work went on.

It wasn’t easy for any of them, but my father and Panos managed to hold a board at a time in place, one holding, the other nailing. Takis chose to take the easy route and, instead of asking one of them to help him, he climbed on the top of one of the oil vats, from where he thought the job of nailing a board would be easier. Far from it. And while driving in a nail, he stretched himself, stepping on one the boards aslant, and the board slipped from the vat surface, and Takis fell into the vat. He was short, and he sank into the oil to his shoulders. Lots of the precious liquid spilled out.

He started screaming, “Get me out of here! Get me out, damn you!”

But Panos found the scene so funny (it was) that he could couldn’t help getting amused, and his sides split with laughter. The head of Takis was barely out of the oil surface, and if he wasn’t pulled out, he could choke to death.

Delas were there too, and he wasn’t laughing–he was furious. Another disaster from this careless man!

He went inside and got a big pan and, while my father and Panos managed to drag Takis out of the cask, Melas forced him to step on the pan, and all three started squeezing Takis’s clothes to get all the olive oil out of them they could.

No need to say that Takis was dismissed instantly, and Delas vowed not to employ him again.

………………………

 

The story has an epilogue. For one thing, I personally liked Uncle Takis, for he was not one of those that tried to bully me when I was a child, as uncles used to do those days. I had heard stories about him from my father, almost none of them flattering and agreeing with the descriptions I gave above. But one detail should not be missed. That was when Uncle Takis died. My father told me about this later, for at the time I was in America. Takis died in the mid 1960s, around 1965, of cancer. Despite their differences, my father went to visit him at his death bed–his last visit. I don’t know any other details of what they said survived, except one: Takis’s last words to my father were, “You were the one God loved.”

 

Note: When I was in my home island a few years ago, the son of Philip Melas, Makis Melas, a shop owner, who was my classmate in high school told me the above story of Takis mishaps in his father’s house. so I heard it from a second source, which validates my father’s story.

 

 

 

 

[1] His first sentence in Anna Karenina

[2] Choice morsels, like roasted slices of octopus, or other sea food or bits of roasted entrails, and other such fare.

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