The persistence of pain

Athens in August: the room was hot. The balcony door was open, as always in summer, but Aunt Stassa had drawn the curtains against the afternoon sun, so that no breath of breeze stirred the dry air. Only the polished marble floors gave the illusion of coolness.

Stassa shuffled arthritically back to the overstuffed armchair, asking if I would like another glass of water, or a sweet. Hospitality was automatic in this place, among this generation.

Stassa sighed as she eased her aching joints onto the chair. Over ninety, childless and widowed for many years, Stassa was the second of the three sisters. Her older sister Maria, thin and upright as a sparrow, perched on the couch next to her easy-going husband Nikos.

“You know of the civil war in Greece?” Stassa asked. Her voice was low, practically a whisper. These were things one didn’t speak of out loud. “You know? During the war, the Second World War, Greece was occupied by the Germans, the Italians.” She made a ritual spitting motion against the devil. “It was the Communists who fought back, who led the resistance.”

Maria, whose memory of the morning’s breakfast was vague, but who remembered the War very well, shook her head. “It was a terrible time. Terrible!”

“It was the Communists who fought for our freedom,” Stassa repeated. “And so, of course, they thought that when liberation came, that the Communists would run the country!” She sniffed. “But the big countries, Churchill! Stalin! They carved up the little countries however they wished. Traded them like marbles!”

Nikos shook his head admonishingly. “It was a different world, Stassa.”

“No! It is the same world! It is always the same for the little countries! Why should I be quiet? Churchill gave Romania to Stalin and the British got Greece! Like marbles!” She shifted in the chair and leaned forward. “And so, when other countries were at peace, rebuilding after the War, here there was civil war! The Communists against the government put in place by the British. So much killing!”

“Iphigenia, our little sister,” Maria whispered, “during the War, she left home to fight with the Communists. Father was furious!”

“There was a man, of course,” added Stassa. “Andres was his name.”

“She was so pretty,” said Maria, “a bright little thing! Longing for action, for adventure!”

Stassa caressed her forehead with both hands. “It wasn’t until 1949 that it was over, and the fighters began to come home.”

“There was an amnesty,” Nikos said, “but it took weeks, months sometimes, for the fighters to make their way to their families.”

“We were so happy when Iphigenia came home,” said Stassa, “but she was so bitter! All their efforts, the fighting, the death, all for nothing! And Andres, her lover, he’d been taken prisoner. She didn’t know what had happened to him.”

“Then she got word somehow,” said Maria. “Some fighter who knew Andres, he came back and told everyone that Andres was dead, died in prison.”

“Iodine,” said Stassa. “She drank iodine. It was terrible!”

“Terrible!” Maria and Nikos slowly shook their gray heads, intoning po, po, po, the Greek equivalent of tsk, tsk.

“She was in such pain! The doctors could do nothing! And then, before she died, Andres! He came home! He was alive after all!”

“It was too late, then,” whispered Maria. “She suffered horribly at the end.”

“And the doctor!” Here was the point of the story, the height of Stassa’s outrage. “He told us; he said to us, to her family! That she was a stupid girl! That she was stupid to kill herself over a man!” All three of them shook their gray heads.

I made an appropriately shocked expression, but inside, I sympathized with the doctor. He must have spent years trying to save the victims of war, and then, just as the country was on the brink of stability, there was a young woman throwing her life away, making a mockery of his life’s work.

But a grieving family had looked to him for some sort of comfort and found only condemnation, and that is what they remembered. They did not ask whether there might be contributing causes, did not wonder about the traumas that a female guerrilla fighter must have faced, did not discuss whether the family’s history of depression might be implicated. They did not blame her at all. Instead, they focused their fierce resentment at the overworked doctor who had tried to help, the one man who had condemned her action.

I was reminded of the line from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, that the only family member who was openly bitter about a brother’s suicide was the only one who ever really forgave him for it.

Iphigenia, forever young and beautiful and brave in her sisters’ memory, forever suffering uselessly for love. Never to help in rebuilding the country, never to resolve those quarrels with her sisters, never to have children. Never to give her family the relief of being angry with her, never to apologize, never to be forgiven.

Here were the frail remains of her family, still in terrible pain more than sixty years after her suicide.

And now, passing that pain on to another generation.

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