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In the fall of 1977, I proposed to my then- and long-time girlfriend, Janet. We set a date in May, over six months away, which my soon-to-be mother-in-law explained was barely enough time to make proper arrangements. That meant Janet and I would have to spend the Christmas of that year introducing the other to various out-of-town relatives. Everyone from both families was coming to Ann Arbor, MI, that Christmas to meet the other’s intended. We were both the first child from our respective families to get married – which signaled a generational shift which both of us had been oblivious to when I made and she accepted my proposal.
It meant sitting through two Christmas dinners, one in each household. Her family had Christmas dinner at noon; mine at 6 p.m. (Somehow tucking away two massive dinners was less of a challenge in your late teens and early 20s.) I met her menace of uncles and aunts at her parents’ place at midday. (All of her father’s numerous brothers were well over six feet, and wanted to assure themselves I would do right by their innocent niece. I am not sure how well I succeeded in assuring them, but I survived the dinner.) Then it was time for Janet to meet my family.
She had fewer parental siblings to deal with. My mom had one brother, who lived in town, had met Janet previously, and approved of her. (Something about her being the making of me.) He was there with his family. Both sets of my grandparents were there (a minor miracle because my father’s parents had had an acrimonious divorce decades earlier, and his mother lived out of town.). My grandparents had all immigrated to the United States from Greece, except for Yaiyai (grandmother) Lillian, my father’s mother, who was born in the US a year after her parents arrived.
For some reason this made Lillian the most ardently chauvinistic of the four grandparents about her Greek heritage. Did you ever see My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Lillian made the bride’s father in that movie look positively accommodating to non-Greek culture. As far as she was concerned, if you did not come from Greece or were not descended from Greeks, you were only a generation or two removed from the apes which had descended from the trees. Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and Northern Europeans – it made no difference – to her they belonged to the lesser breeds. Italians were barely acceptable, especially the southern Italians which had interbred with the Greeks since ancient times. Everyone else? Forget it.
Also there was my dad’s younger brother, Jack. Jack had been married (to a woman whose first name was Jill – it was on her birth certificate, just as Jack’s birth certificate had Jack as his full first name), but by 1977 they two had split up. At least part of the reason for the split was my grandmother. Jill was a very blond, very patrician WASP. Further, she and Jack had never had children. At every opportunity, Yaiyai would hold forth on Jill’s manifold (in Yaiyai’s eyes) flaws. Yaiyai was not the sole reason for the split, but she did her part.
(My dad was the “good son” in this setting. He had married a good Greek girl. It was about the only time he was the good son. Lillian had a long list of reasons why he was inadequate, and why my mom was a miserable choice independent of ethnicity. Lillian was a horrible mother and mother-in-law. Fortunately, Dad had a firm ally in Sophia, his mother-in-law, Mom’s mom. Since Lillian was afraid of Sophia, she left my parents alone when in Yaiyai Sophie’s presence.)
Lillian came prepared to disapprove of Janet on ethnic grounds. Janet came from English and German stock (her ancestors came to the United States from those countries in the mid-1700s to early 1800s). However, she also had dark hair and brown eyes – like most Greeks (except for the many Greek women who dyed their hair blond and wore blue contact lenses). As we would often joke later, she could “pass.” So Lillian could not condemn her simply based on appearance.
When dinner started, my maternal grandfather, in his role as family patriarch, sat at one end of the table, while my father, as host, sat at the other end. It was a very long table because it was two tables set together to accommodate all the guests. I sat in the middle, to be available to everyone and Janet sat to my left. To my surprise, Lillian sat next to Janet, rather than at the more prestigious position on one side of her eldest son. Uncle Jack sat next to his mother.
Dinner started as usual, with Papouli Perros (my mom’s father – papouli is Greek for grandfather) opening with his usual interminable prayer. (Ended, as usual. After Papouli went on for what Dad felt was long enough – generally as Papouli was just getting into his stride – when Papouli would pause for a breath, Dad would interject a loud “Amen.” We would all echo the amen, cross ourselves, and dinner would begin. My brothers and I laid bets on how long it took before Dad said Amen.)
My wife had been silent through dinner, intimidated by the family tradition and ceremony. (Much as I had been silent through most of dinner at her parent’s place.) I was trying to think of a way to get Janet involved in the conversation. To my surprise, Yaiyai Lillian, when passing Janet a platter of food, turned and asked Janet, “and what is your last name, dear?”
She asked the question sweetly; likely as sweet as the poisoned apple the wicked queen had passed to Snow White. I wondered what was up, before I realized why she had asked. Lillian was trying to learn whether Janet was Greek.
“Potter,” replied my unwary bride-to-be.
“And what is that shortened from?” Lillian followed.
I suddenly realized what was happening. Many Greeks changed or shortened their names when they came to the United States. Paraskevopoulos would be truncated to Poulos, or as in the case of the father of Texas oilman George Mitchell, changed to an American name like Mitchell.
My fiancée, unaware of the trap, just looked at my Grandmother puzzled. This was a piece of Greek culture to which she had not been exposed.
My Uncle Jack, without missing a beat, suddenly interjected, “Potterdopoulos, Mother. Pass the potatoes, please.” He then led Yaiyai off on another topic, before she could return to the subject. Janet, still puzzled, turned to me for an explanation. I whispered to her that I would explain after dinner.
Dinner continued without the incident Yaiyai had been hoping to ignite. Lillian was a drama queen, who had to be the center of attention. Due to our upcoming marriage, Janet and I were the center of attention at Christmas dinner that year. Lillian had been trying to make a scene to reclaim that position as her rightful due. By forestalling her attempt, Jack achieved a little bit of payback for all the put-downs he endured due to his ex-wife’s non-Greek background.
Lillian warmed up to Janet after Janet and I had our first child, the first grandchild for both sets of parents and Lillian’s first great-grandchildren. Great-grandchildren trumped ethnicity for her. Jan and I gained a joke to share. For years afterward, if Jan was asked if she were Greek, she would often respond saying, “I was once told my name was shortened from Potterdopoulos.”Published in