Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Once Upon A Time

My uncle was for many years, the family custodian of stories. For an immigrant family displaced from their homeland, this was a big deal for us. Ten years older than my mum, Uncle was the one we went to, to mend the holes in our family history.

One night, when I was a young teenager on holiday at Uncle's beach house, we lost electricity for a few hours. In a flurry of excitement, my aunt found candles and set them around the room, including the top of the now dead TV.

So what do you do, when you can't watch the end of the movie? When the 'lights' brighten only a corner of the room?

My uncle suggested we tell stories. And he went first. His story held us in such a grip, it was the only one we cared for that night. Against the flicker of candle light, he took us to a little Greek village, back to the 1930s when he was a little boy.

He has passed on now, and I'm thrilled to capture some of what he shared. I only wish there had been more nights where the candles cast a glow on his yesterdays.

Here's his story, retold by me.

One summer, the village rang with wedding bells for a teenage bride. Her groom had not pressed for much of a dowry, as he knew he was getting more than what he deserved; the most beautiful bride the village would ever see.

The bride's mother however, did not let the groom dictate her duties. It had taken years to amass her daughter's dowry. Demanded or not, it would serve her daughter well.

All week, preparations had turned the bride's house upside down. Ropes strung atop the parlour window frame and across the small room sagged with years worth of hidden stitching she and her daughter had pieced together. Cutwork pillowslips and bedspreads with tasselled corners caught the envious eyes of maidens. They circled the room to marvel at the cluttered show. Tripped over the family cat as he wove between their legs, hardly aware of his presence against such exquisite handiwork. The mother shuffled everyday tea towels aside to better display her lace trimmed tablecloths, and patterns long held in secret, basked in the afternoon sun.

The bride-to-be smiled at her mother, as she should, pleased to bring into her marriage more than the average donkey carried in a wedding week. Soon the poor animal would labour over cobble-stoned streets to deliver her dowry to the home she would share with the groom and his family. 

After most of the village had toured the room, and only two days before the wedding, the dowry was folded and laid in a bundle of bridal sheets to be carried away. Ropes were untied, the well trampled flokati rugs beaten with a broom handle, and the parlour returned to order. To make room for feasting and celebrating, the bride's mother rearranged the furniture and squeezed what they didn't need into a deep cupboard. The ropes uncoiled from a low shelf where they'd been tossed, and she kicked them back in with the side of her shoe. She would tend to them later. 

She shoved the door with her shoulder, and pressed hard against whatever kept the well oiled door from closing. Her daughter came alongside and together, they shut the door on the mess inside. Celebrations loomed. Cupboards could be sorted any day.

The bride turned to making herself beautiful. But God had done most of that for her. All she had to do was gather her hair atop her head, button her new dress and fasten a demure smile on her flushed cheeks for the long walk to the church. 

A musician tuned his mandolin outside the window, as uncles and cousins gathered to walk their kin to her wedding. The aunts wiped at tears, awash with the hum of happiness.

When all was done, all customs met, all grains thrown to the wind and wine glasses smashed by the bride's heel, the mandolin player pushed away from the front gate, in time to his music. 

The young girl wiped another tear with her sodden handkerchief. Her mother suggested it would not do to enter church with a wet rag like that. So the bride squeezed her way back into the house for a fresh one. 

Against the hurried whispers of her family, the bride reached for the cupboard. It only took a moment to slide her hand in. Only a moment to rest it on the messy shelf. 

From her place of honour at the door, the mother watched, as her daughter's wedding veil tore to ribbons against a sickening screech, the hiss of the cat, and the wail of the beautiful bride. For in a tangle of rope and pitch black, the frenzied animal had been trapped there for two days. It lurched at the first ray of light, its claws adding to the already well kissed and tear stained cheek of the bride. 

A mournful dirge blistered the air, as mother and daughter and every other villager present, surveyed the damage. The most beautiful bride now dabbed at deep scratches to one cheek. 

Minutes dragged into more, and a message dispatched to the church informed the anxious groom his bride was on her way. She would be late. But she would arrive. 

And she did. She buried the raw lines of her cheek against her shoulder, and finally stood before the priest. Gasps did nothing to cheer the mother of the bride. For they held no envy. Their pity rippled across the crowd like the scratch of a thousand little talons. If only she could carry them on her own cheek instead.

The mother stiffened her back and would not look into the eyes of anyone. She had to think. What did the photographer's room look like again? There was a chair, and a backdrop of some kind. If her daughter sat and twisted her gaze up into the adoring eyes of her groom, the photographer would only capture her good cheek. Wouldn't he?

She looked at the priest as he blessed the couple.

The groom already stared at his new wife in adoration. And she returned the blush and smile. Her cheek, already fading in the light of something sweeter.  


And in the crowd of onlookers, beside a flickering candelabra, a little boy regarded every detail... to share with those not yet born in a faraway land he would one day call home. 

Uncle knew all the good stories. I'm glad to remember him this way. Who's the story-teller in your family?

(photo source - the murmuring cottage)