When my Greek grandfather turned 100 years old, I asked him what kind of gift I could give him.
“Always vote,” he said.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “I walked from the top of Greece (then Turkey) when I was 14 with my two cousins to Belgium, where I sailed to America. I got free. I could work and send money to my mother, sister, and brothers back home.”
He arrived on July 4, 1904. His name was Pagnagiotis Chletcos. Eighty-five years later, he and his wife Marianthe and their six children became the first American family of two generations to receive Social Security benefits together.
My grandparents worked hard to be good American citizens. My grandfather started rolling cigars in New York City. He was then taken to Philadelphia to work. Soon after, he worked in a cigar store dressed as a Turkish boy, selling and rolling cigars. He later became a waiter, then a head waiter. He worked at that job until he was 78 years old.
He raised six children: a principal at the School for the Deaf (Theresa), an executive secretary (Elizabeth), a pharmacist’s assistant (Georgia), an insurance salesman (Ernest), a pharmacist (Demetrius, my father), and a piano teacher (Despina).
Both my Greek grandparents arrived at Ellis Island from the same Island of Lemnos, but at different times. When they married, he was 20 and she was 14. She married to escape her uncle’s home, where she was essentially a nurse and maid. They remained married for 78 years, living in a row house down the street from Independence Hall in Philadelphia for most of that time.
On that same 100th birthday he suddenly told us a story. He had a baby brother he’d never talked about, a baby born just before his father was killed by lightning. My grandfather was eight years old. Their grieving mother wasn’t feeding the baby, so my grandfather and his older sister stole the baby and hid him in a cave. After three days, they had to give up their plan, and the baby was sent to relatives living in Egypt.
My grandfather looked for him until World War II stopped most communication from the old country. He told this story for the first time that night, and even his wife didn’t know of his search.
On the other side of my family my Scotch-Irish great-grandfather Samuel Bailie and my great- grandmother Sarah, long dead at the time of my birth, married after he bought her indentured service arrangement following a shipboard romance and marriage. Family myth had it that her spendthrift ways (a human hair wig for each day) made him put his fortune in an endless trust which was broken up 21 years after the death of his oldest child, who lived to 102.
My parents met and married after my father’s Air Force service. He gained a college education in Philadelphia, where I was born and grew up.
Every American/immigrant family has drama and tragedy on both sides. My family was no different. My parents’ union from different cultures and religions created great fiction in our family. My escape from being not quite pure enough for either side pushed me toward art and theatre, where I could to express myself.
At 19, the death of my mother sent me out into the adult world, and music and art became my purpose and career.
Fortunately for me, my high-school education taught me most importantly how to learn. At 40 I got an opportunity to do make-up for a Brooklyn-based soap opera, Another World. I began what ended up a 25-year career. I worked in all aspects of television, from daytime to primetime to news, even up to working for the Secretary General of the United Nations.
My grandfather took up gardening at 79 years old in his back-alley car park in midtown Philadelphia and I got to assist him. This constantly expanding Shangri-La had roses, peaches, figs, a grapevine. He was given an All-City Gardener award at the age of 101.
Gardening became a passion for me, and beautiful Hudson Valley became my home after visiting here. Wandering around my flower beds and vegetables, I feel my grandfather with me, pulling a weed here and deadheading a flower there, appreciating the scents, songs and quiet around me.
In this land soaked with patriots’ blood, we all have an interesting American story, an immigrant’s story. All my grandparents fled from homelands whose ruling class oppressed their people and gave them little hope of making a living. The United States offered an aspiration and a new start.
These folks lived through the 1918 pandemic, World War I, The Depression, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Each side of my family and the Jewish one I married into were at one time or another the dirt, the filth, the other. Strangers with strange religions, languages and cultures. They worked hard and thus changed the minds of the people who opposed their presence. As a second-generation American, their struggles are my struggles.
My promise to my grandfather to vote has led me to express the dreams of inclusion. My family’s diverse members have inspired in me my great hope in communicating my grandfather’s story that our country continues to embrace the new ingredients added to the American stew. That we celebrate our failures and victories, and help each other find hospitality and fellowship on our beautiful planet.
Melanie Demitri is a lifelong makeup artist. While working for ten years with the makeup team at “Saturday Night Live,” she was nominated for five Primetime Emmys and won three. She is retired, and lives in Hurley.