An undeciphered envelope and the bastardized version of my Greek family name were all that remained. It had been nearly one-hundred years since Eppocratis Dimitroulas left his Greek homeland, never to return again. The cultural connections disintegrated; the family relationships waned. Three generations had passed since he left his family behind, long enough ago that his memory surely had faded into antiquity. But perhaps they still knew of him… Perhaps they knew of us?
I couldn’t wait any longer; I had to know… I had to go… I had to find my ancestral home.
Throughout my life people have enquired about my apparent Greek ethnicity; I’ve always embraced the perception with pride, but could never move beyond the unsettling guilt that the connections to my ancestral heritage had been lost. I never felt worthy of “being Greek,” yet I adored the cultural associations and historical accolades, such as Socratic philosophy, Olympic heroism, and the enquiring connection to Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility, and the harvest, affiliated with my family name while growing up in the transient city of Washington, D.C. The time had come to earn that distinction and restore my family’s Greek roots.
We knew very little about my great-grandfather’s past. As the story goes, he left his village during his teenage years with one of his cousins, arriving in The Bronx in America. Immigration and customs officials butchered his name to Sam Dimetres, the spelling of our family surname remaining relatively unique to this day. Eventually settling in Springfield, MA, he adapted to American customs while effectively pressing the reset button on our family’s Greek heritage. We believed that his parents were named Petros and Georgia, and we knew that he had numerous siblings at the time of his departure.
An empty envelope sent from Greece and adorned with Greek writing had been found a few years earlier in my grandmother’s basement; it was the sole relic remaining with any direct connection from my great-grandfather to his family. The envelope revealed the name of a village Magoula, which we learned was located in the Peloponnesian countryside near Pyrgos, Elias. With the envelope in hand and a micro-fraction of our family tree at the ready, my immediate family (my parents Patty & Wayne, sisters Kara & Jac, and myself) embarked on our long awaited journey to Greece.
We knew the likelihood of finding anyone who would have any recollection of Eppocratis Dimitroulas or knowledge of their direct ancestry to his parents, Petros & Georgia, was akin to a blindfolded, spun-out game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Even if we met a distant relative, who knew if we’d get along, or if we’d even be welcomed?
The odds were stacked against us, but we didn’t care; despite the negligible evidence and limited knowledge of the town beyond its location on a map, our optimism grew as large as the chances were slim, like a candle-blowing birthday cake wish that just might come true if wished hard enough.
This expedition to seek out my Greek family and ancestral homeland was three generations in the making, and the time was now. No amount of hope could be spared.
I woke up in Athens in an exhausted stupor; my excitement had not allowed me to sleep. George, our wonderful bilingual driver-for-hire, waited patiently for us outside our hotel. He had been well versed in our family’s quest to connect with our Greek heritage and honorably embraced the role of guide and interpreter.
The four-hour journey through the Peloponnese to Magoula was decorated with endless landscapes of olive groves and grapevines and was punctuated with dreamy conversations of a storybook reunification with our Greek family fit for a Disney movie. We were determined to knock on as many doors as possible for clues and agreed to embrace any hospitality should it be offered.
Magoula is a small village with an agrarian lifestyle that has not changed much since my great-grandfather left. A single main road slices through the town, with side roads leading up and down the bountiful hills and valleys of the countryside. A small cafe and its neighboring hardware store seemed to be the most active places of business, so we parked our van nearby and prepared to explore Magoula.
I eagerly waved my hands with childlike excitement as I greeted the onlookers; however the enthusiasm was not returned. We were met with confused, apprehensive glares as we approached the handful of locals who sat reading their newspapers outside of the cafe. No one spoke English and the novelty of foreign travelers in their town apparently meant nothing at all.
George took charge, asking the crowd if anyone’s last name was Dimitroulas, and my eyes lit up as a few people began to nod their heads. We quickly learned quite a few families in the village shared that same last name or something phonetically similar; in this part of the world, Dimitroulas seemed about as common as Johnson or Jones back in the States. None of them, unsurprisingly, had any recollection of Eppocratis or his parents. Finding a direct descendent of Petros and Georgia Dimitroulas with knowledge of their family tree was like a real life game of finding a needle in a haystack, hidden within the unknown homes of Magoula.
We continued on, searching the graveyards of the local churches for the burial site of my great-great-grandparents, hoping to find clues about the rest of their immediate family in order to complete our genealogy tree. Unfortunately, the plethora of similar, if not identical, family names on tombstones scattered throughout the graveyards made any type of progress impossible.
An empty soccer field, a stone’s throw from the church, teased us with it’s lack of activity; there didn’t appear to be a main square or central meeting point anywhere in town. The side roads were quiet minus the single car that sauntered by, uninterested in the bewildered flock of out-of-towners. A market remained open in the distance, never a customer in sight. The silhouette of a couple, sitting together on a balcony farther up the hill, was slightly visible in between the passing clouds; surely, they must have seen us, but I could never tell if they ever did extend a wave.
The sun began to feel hotter as we continued on, drifting along the main road with our faces decorated in the hesitant smiles of fractured optimism, hoping our relatives would make like a fairy godmother and magically appear in a flash of harmonious white light to complete the fairy tail. We were losing something much more than momentum; we weren’t making a connection, and we couldn’t help but start to lose hope.
While contemplating a return back to Athens as the number of streets to explore and doors to knock on continued to dwindle, a twenty-something guy wearing a disheveled, red Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt walked towards us with the kind of stroll that suggested he had spent the previous night out. His eyes grew wider as he got closer, his curiosity seemingly matching our own. Inquisitive, jovial, positively aberrant and rollickingly enamored with the random pack of foreigners wandering through his hometown, he introduced himself to us as Alkis.
Alkis was born and raised in the village, but currently lived and worked in Athens. He had returned home for the weekend to visit his mother, and had just left his house to buy a pack of cigarettes.
As George explained our ambitions to find our ancestral family, Alkis excitedly volunteered to help lead the way, delighted to help us on our excursion.
Alkis, blessed with the affability and infinite wit of a Hollywood TV show host, was a godsend if there ever was one. He knocked on doors, called friends and family from his cell phone and seemingly put the town on alert that an American family had returned “home” to Magoula.
He led us to different homes and plots of land that belonged to people that shared our last name, but none of them knew anything about any distant American relatives. Even his efforts were unsuccessful however. When all else failed, he invited us back to his home to share some coffee, local wine and good conversation; a wonderful gesture which would have made the journey worth it unto itself.
The countryside seemed to glow as we gazed at the endless grape vines rippling in the distance from the deck of Alkis’ home. As I enjoyed my wine, I began to come to terms with the idea that my Greek family would most likely remain a mystery forever. Nevertheless, even if I had left Magoula with nothing more than a new friend, a taste for the local wine and a memory of the town, I would have considered the journey a success.
At that exact moment, Alkis’ mother, on a whim, suggested that we speak with Diamanto, the elderly lady who lived directly across the street.
Diamanto, an exuberant woman nearing her 88th birthday and blessed with the type of smile that could melt Medusa’s heart, had been born and raised in Magoula. Draped in an aura of old-school wisdom with a balanced display of wonder in her eyes, she enjoyed relaxing on her outdoor balcony, taking in the timeless views of her ancestral homeland. She lived in her beige and reddish-brown home, perched on a hill whose land had once been collectively owned and divided among her ancestors, with her daughter Mary and Mary’s husband Dimos, a retired police chief from Athens. Mary and Dimos split their time between Athens and Magoula, and they happened to be home for the weekend.
There was the highly unlikely but not impossible chance that Diamanto had known of my great-grandfather, or perhaps known other members of his immediate family. It seemed nearly certain that she was our last hope.
Alkis and I, guardedly optimistic that good fortune lay within reach, trotted over while the rest of my family enjoyed their wine and coffee. A moment after we knocked on Diamanto’s door, I was greeted by Mary, whose stunningly familiar face stared back at me with an improbable set of blue eyes identical to my own.
As Alkis explained the reason for our visit, Mary signaled for Diamanto and Dimos to join us. Inside her living room, a large, antique portrait of Diamanto’s father hung ominously from the wall above the couch. Set in a dark wood frame wrapped around a weathered, off-white rectangular border, the black and white photo featured a man dressed in formal attire with a bushy mustache, slightly offset eyes, and a haircut parted directly down the middle.
The picture on the wall was an image of Nikos Dimitroulas, father to Diamanto and grandfather to Mary. Baffled yet fascinated, Mary quickly confirmed that her mother’s maiden name was, in fact, Dimitroulas.
The five of us quickly took a seat in the living room as Alkis, gushing with renewed anticipation, began to ask all the right questions. “Diamanto, your maiden name is Dimitroulas, right?”
“Yes, it is…” she replied, her eyebrows raising slowly above the circular rim of her sunglasses as her voice quivered with curiosity.
“Do you remember the name of your grandparents?”
“Well, I believe their names were Petros and Georgia…”
I was on the edge of my seat… I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as Alkis translated the conversation back to me after each question.
“Your father, did he have any siblings? Did he have a brother named Eppocratis?”
I could see the wheels turning inside her head as Diamanto recalled images of her family from generations long ago. She glanced constantly at the image of her father mounted directly above us.
“Well… yes, he had six siblings… and I believe he had a brother named Eppocratis… But he was the one that left for America before I was born. I don’t know what happened to him. He never came home, so I never got to meet him.”
My mind became numb amidst a surreal haze. Tears filled my eyes as my lips began to tremble. Alkis beamed as he pulled me closer to Diamanto.
“Diamanto, I want you to meet my good friend Kevin Dimetres. This is Eppocratis Dimitroulas’ great-grandson. He finally came home, and he came here to meet you and your family.”
We looked around at each other, astonished and speechless, all of us knowing deep down that words could never do the moment justice. The silence was deafening; no one knew what to do or say next, and for an instant, I couldn’t remember how to breath.
Diamanto stood up, extended her arms in my direction and giggled with joy as she embraced me with the kindest words I thought I’d never hear, “Welcome home, Kevin.”
We did it. We actually did it. We found our family. The wish had been granted. The dream had come true.
But this was not the end of our journey.
Within moments, my family rushed over from across the street, showering Diamanto and her family with an onslaught of smiles and hugs. The similarities between Mary’s eyes and my own had given us a hint of a possible relation, but it was the picture of Diamanto’s father that removed any doubt; the image was nearly identical to my father, like he had traveled back in time.
Mary and Dimos immediately called their relatives to come meet their long lost American cousins. Their son, Vassilis, introduced himself to me as if he had known me forever. Nearly the same age as myself, he exuded a distinct sense of poise and humility with a sage demeanor, provoking a clear resemblance to Diamanta and her recurringly uplifting grins. Standing just over 6’ feet, Vassilis donned an orange polo shirt and the perpetual stubble of so many Greek men our age, which had clearly been passed on to myself. The unlikely family reunion that none of us ever expected began to materialize right before our eyes.
George and Alkis’ acted as translators while we began to exchange stories. Diamanto recalled receiving gift packages as a child from her uncle in America, confirming his mythical existence. The packages came with less frequency as time went on, until they stopped coming altogether. No one else had left Greece before or since.
Remarkably, they had always recognized the likelihood of distant cousins living in America, but no one had any idea exactly who we were or where we might be. They understood that our family name had probably been changed, which made it impossible for them to seek us out. But they never gave up hope; one-hundred years and three generations later, our Greek family had not forgotten us.
Vassilis, who had been educated in Athens and earned a degree in computer sciences, pulled out his laptop to show us perhaps the most stunning and unexpected image of all: the Dimitroulas genealogical family tree. We traced our lineage directly back to Petros and Georgia, the great-great-grandparents shared by both Vassilis and myself. The branches beneath their names listed their seven children, including a single branch for Eppocratis. The space below his name was blank.
It was astonishing; the tiny fraction of our American family tree was the missing link that Vassilis had been seeking for years. As we exchanged information, both our genealogical trees became nearly complete; our families had officially been reunited.
Just as I was about to exhale and reflect on the serendipitousness of the day, Dimos stood at the table, his eyes glistening with a proud smile, proclaimed in a baritone voice, “Come, let us go pick grapes.”
I didn’t ask any questions as we piled into the van and drove down the dusty dirt roads deep into the countryside. We parked near an old cabin amidst rows of tomato plants, grape vines and olive branches.
Vassilis handed me a bag to pick fruits and vegetables as he led me around the farmland.
“This farm has been in our family for hundreds of years. We have grown our food here for generations. We even use the grapes to make our own wine; everyone in Magoula makes their own wine.”
I felt like I was living in a movie; like the scene was cut directly from the film Godfather Part II, when Michael Corleone returns to his ancestral homeland in Sicily. I had nearly run out of emotions at this point; my wildest dreams had officially come true.
“Our great-grandfathers were brothers who worked on this farm together,” Vassilis continued, “That cabin was probably built by both of them.”
I paused for a second, savoring the taste of the freshly picked grapes while allowing the warmth of the sun to saturate the moment.
I could picture my great-grandfather one-hundred years earlier, working diligently in the hot sun, with a barrel full of olives ready to be pressed into olive oil. I imagined him sitting in that cabin, tired from a long day’s work, relaxing amid the backdrop of flickering candlelight as dusk turned to night. I couldn’t help thinking of him working in these fields, at the brink of exhaustion, driven by a glimmer of hope that a better life awaited him in America if he could find a way to make the journey. I pictured him fleeing the farm life of Magoula and never looking back.
I took a deep breath of the dry Greek air, sipped the homemade wine from its empty plastic soda bottle container, and finally exhaled. It all had all come full circle.
I was home.
In the United States, most everyone has their ancestral roots from somewhere else; an integral part of being an American is having pride in an individual ethnic background. My Greek family name projects an intimate connection to my Greek roots, and I’ve embraced it my entire life.
Before we said our goodbyes, I confided in Vassilis how I had always yearned to truly “be Greek”- that is, whenever I’m asked if I’m Greek, I want to say “yes” without feeling guilty or unworthy. I hoped that I had earned that privilege, but I couldn’t move forward without his blessing.
“My brother,” Vassilis said to me with a smile as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder, “Of course you are Greek. In your heart you have always been Greek, and you always will be. This is your home in Greece. We are family.”
The odyssey was officially complete.
I gave him a hug with my promise to return to Greece again and invited them to visit us in America. Our families are Facebook friends, and we will not lose touch again.
Whether Greek or American, Dimitroulas or Dimetres, this journey has taught me that no matter how far a family is flung, it endures and remains strong.