“Mama,” I’d ask every so often just to catch her off guard, “you prefer Niko to me and Kati, don’t you?”
“Of course not,” she’d respond. “I love you all equally.”
Yes, we all know the politically correct answer to the question. But deep down in the heart of me, I always knew my parents preferred the son, the “gio” over the “kori.” I think to a certain extent all Greek families prefer the boy over the girl. It’s part of the patriarchal bias.
And this is how I know.
- Males get to eat first. It is at meal times when each family member’s position of power is revealed. First to be served that deep dish of fasolada is, of course, the patriarch of the family, the father. Next to be served, no matter how young or immature, is the Greek son or sons. After that comes the daughters of the family, in chronological order, and lastly, comes the mother. It differs little from one family to another. Those who eat first are those who are valued first. And the mother is the perpetrator of this hierarchy. Without fail, a Greek mother lavishes her greatest attention and by extension joy, on her son(s) as opposed to her daughter(s). Father and sons would garner the choicest chunks of meat on the center platter, and somehow they were always allowed to without question or objection, while the daughter(s) would get the bonier, more scantly clad bones of meat. The mother would get the scraps of the animal, a gizzard or chicken wing, or perhaps nothing at all if by then the pot had run out of contents.
- Males get unlimited “outside” privileges in comparison to their sisters. “How come Nick gets to go outside and play with his friends?” I’d ask my mother, “while I’m older, but I have to stay inside doing the laundry?” My question uncovers the sexual double-standard assumed to be a given in a Greek household.
“Because he is an ‘arseniko’ (a male) while you are ‘thilikya’ (females). There are more dangers in the world for a girl rather than a boy.”
The differences in treatment my mother would always dump on the apparent differences in nature between the male and the female sex.
“We are only trying to protect you, koukla mou” was my mother’s defense. Protect us from what? My brother who was the youngest, most catered to and hence, most irresponsible, had more probability of getting in trouble. My sister and I excelled in school, obeyed the injunctions of our parents, helped with the housework, while my brother ran around with dirty fingernails and smudged t-shirts playing manhunt. Little Niko at thirteen got to stay out late with his friends while we girls at 16,17, even 18 had to defend our right to stay out past ten on a Friday. We had to pass through the seven toll houses of our parents’ investigation—who are you going with, where are you going, who will meet you there, what are you going to do there, how are you going to get there, how are you going to get back, what happens if you have an emergency, etc., etc. Biology determined social destiny. We were so precious princesses, we could not walk out of our golden tower.
- Males are given more attention in and outside the home. My mother would spring to her feet when my brother came in, a basketball under his left arm, and demand, “Ti echoume na fame?” She’d scramble to the kitchen to serve his food, place knife and fork within his reach, fill his glass with ice and water. When I’d come in after a long day of work, she’d announce from the living room, “There’s broiled chicken in the grill, broccoli in the pot, and salad in the refrigerator. Help yourself.” This was subtle socialization at work. As a woman, you were supposed to serve, especially the males; you were not supposed to be served.
While making our weekly supermarket treks, as any faithful Greek girl is forced to do, my mother voices the rationale behind the choice of spare ribs over the beef chuck steak or—“O Nikos really likes spare ribs.” When we order Chinese on Fridays, she chirps up from the confines of the kitchen, “Don’t forget to order the beef with broccoli for Nick!” When we are taking walks through the park, “I wonder how your brother is doing?” she ponders anxiously, as if he’s six instead of twenty six. “Ma!” my sister protests, “he’s not a baby! He’s a grown man! He can take care of himself.”
“Kala,” she responds, “that’s what you think now, but wait till you become a mother. Then you will understand. Your paidi is always your paidi.” But we know it’s more than that. There is something supernatural about a son to a Greek mother.
When Greek mothers meet at the butcher’s check out line or at the vegetable stand, they answer each other’s “How are your children?” questions first by mentioning their “Yio.”
“O yios mou spoudazee yiatriki.” “My son is studying medicine.”
“O yios mou vreke kali doulia.” “My son found a good job.”
“O Yios mou areboniastike.” “My son got engaged.”
“O Yios mou” this and “O Yios mou” that. The “Yio” is a mighty figure that looms large in their world;
- Males can get away with much more and not get penalized. As much as he’d do wrong, Nick was the golden child. Even after he demolished the car in a night of partying or when he’d run a credit card bill of $10,000, or when he from so pampered an existence did not even deposit his finished plate into the sink along with his soiled fork and knife, “Astone,” my mother would come to his defense, “Paidi eine, eine kourazmeno. Siga, siga tha mathi.” She’d tidy his room, haul his laundry, send his mail without ever asking him to reciprocate in any way. “Your brother has never given me any grief,” she’d remark. “You girls have given me much stenachorgia.”
Is it any wonder, then, that the Oedipal complex did after all originate from the confused mother-child dynamics of some young boy and his mother in ancient Greece? Greeks were the first to found the Oedipal complex and have long since played out the drama of the nursery. The blatant acting out of this complex is apparent not only in my family. I have heard of the shamelessness of mothers who would prepare two glasses of warm milk for their two sons, both in their 30’s and MIT graduates, before they went to sleep. Of mothers who brag about their sons virginity at birthday parties, who have a speed dial function to their son’s cell phone to keep constant tabs on them, “Pou eise paidi mou? Pote tha ertheis spiti?”