“If you marry anyone other than Greek, kakomira mou, I will disown you,” said flat out the father of one of my dearest friends. The injunction that she should at all costs marry Greek or bring on her family insufferable shame sat at the back of Lisabeth’s conscience, hers and her two other sisters, like the sword of Damocles, since their first signs of budding womanhood. After she and her sisters graduated from university and embarked on their respective respectable careers, their parents were secretly speculating which would be the first daughter to don them the pride of telling their neighbors and God-fearing churchfellows, “My daughter is getting married!” But ten years passed and not one of their “kores” even showed an inkling of approaching the matrimonial state. They started getting nervous. So, they relaxed their standards. “As long as the boy is Orthodox, then you have our blessing.” Ten more years passed. Their daughters ranging in age from early 30’s to late 40’s. Still no sign of a “gambro.” They were now in their 70’s. They would be disgraced if out of their three daughters, not one, not a single one would be married before the time came to meet their maker. So, they relaxed their standards even more—“As long as he is Christian, he’s alright.” By now, they were panic-stricken. They have one more degree to go before the passive stubbornness of their daughters and the merciless passing of time break them entirely—“As long as he is a man, kore mou, you have our blessing!”
For the majority of Greek-American parents or for that matter any parent of the Greek diaspora, the most crucial task revolving around having a daughter is the guarantee that first, she get married, and two, that she marry Greek, and three, that the “gambro” be a doctor, lawyer, or corporate businessman. The issue of marriage is paramount. The natural course in a girl’s life is the following—grow up, go to school, get a good job, and then find “ena kalo paidi,” get married and have a few kids. Notice the end of the line, the end all and be all, the full culmination of a girl’s life is marriage and motherhood. Should she win a Nobel Peace Prize, find the cure for cancer, self-actualize, become an expert in her field, all these are incidental. What really matters is that she find “ena kalo paidi” and fulfill her biological destiny. And if she should not, then at least from the parents’ point of view, she has not totally been successful. There is always that part in her parents’ heart that she did not fill. Children are supposed to bring a train of more children, so one can see one’s family tree spread its branches far into eternity. A daughter that does not do these things has not satisfied the debt she owes her parents. She has been selfish. She has betrayed their hopes; she has squelched their dreams.
And so she pays. Emotionally she is made to feel as if she is worthless, ungrateful, a failure. She is not trusted in general company. There is something wrong with her if she is not married by the time she is 35. Or she is pitied. “The poor girl. She never got married,” “Kaimeni [“Burnt”], she stays home alone on Saturday nights.” She missed the boat. No hope for her. Spinster. As if the only happiness existed within the confines of marriage. But there it is. “Patria” [“Marriage”] is a given for the Greek-American girl. The pressure to marry is piled high.
“Kali tihi” [“Good luck”] my mother’s friend, Tasia, offers me as a parting farewell instead of the usual “Yiassou.” It means “good luck,” meaning good luck in finding a husband for yourself, the one area of human life that is needful of luck. It is the accepted Greek expression to give to an unmarried person on the first meeting. Marriage to the Greeks is, of course, a matter of luck, of fate, not choice or self-will. You either have “kali tihi” or the opposite “kaki tihi” and that is that. You stay married whether your “tihi” was “kali” or “kaki.”
Marriage confers status to the child and by extension the parents. An unmarried daughter no matter how far we’ve progressed into the 21st century is a disgrace. An unmarried child, especially a daughter, is suspect of all types of rumor. Maybe she’s gay? Maybe she’s ugly? Maybe she’s sick or mentally ill? It helps if you have a decent job or you are finishing up law school or medical school, but these things only help extend the deadline by which you are supposed to get married. In other words, they provide a good excuse to pesky acquaintances who are constantly asking about their children.
“How’s your daughter doing? Tin padrepses? [“Did you marry her?–Notice the choice of grammatical voice in this typical Greek phrase.] “No, she’s still working on her Ph.D. It’s better she finish her schooling first.”
“Oh, entaxi, [OK]” the inquisitor responds appeased; he has bought the alibi.
When the grace period for making an acceptable marriage ends, however, Greek-American parents get very anxious. Guilt and self-doubt enter into their minds—“Did I do something wrong? Did I not raise her right?” They are quite vocal in lamenting the fell stroke of fate that has cursed them.
“Vasana, Panagiotti, my kore is still not married.” They commiserate with each other over their “mavri mira” [“black fate.] They flip the onus on the daughter—“Why are you torturing us this way?” The pro-marital climate erupts into a maelstrom at the dinner table—“It’s a shame to see our only daughter not married yet. Ti krima, we are going to die without ever seeing a grandchild. Ti furtunes [“What storms”] we have to bear!”
And so it comes as a given that daughters and sons, but daughters sooner and sons a bit later, will marry. When we were children shopping in JCPenney’s, passing through the layette aisles with cutsey lace raindrop sockies and ruffly caramel-pink baby dresses with matching bonnets, my mother would sigh, “When you grow up and get married, I’ll have a reason to buy these things.” The pressures to get married start early for girls. “You know Penny, Maria’s older sister? We met her at your cousin’s wedding last spring, remember? She’s had a beautiful baby boy. Didn’t waste any time. Let’s see when you and your sister will experience such joys.” Sickening!
For a Greek parent a child is always seen as a child until the day they get married and can start their own family. Adulthood is not granted on the grounds of sexual maturity nor economic independence nor emotional maturity. No, only marriage and marriage only warrants a Greek daughter adult status.
“Ma,” I asked my mother one Sunday while slivering green beans, “when in your opinion does a child become an adult?”
“Well, for a mother, the child will always be the child. But obviously when they get married and start their own family, then, yes, they are adults.”
“Even if the son or daughter is 35 or 40 years old? Aren’t they adults then?”
“Koita na deis [“Look to see”]. A child can grow up and become an adult, yes. But he does not experience the full responsibility of adulthood until he is married. So, neither is it acceptable that they move out until they get married.”
“Not even if they are 55?”
“Ti na sou po [“What can I tell you?”] they would have the right to, but it wouldn’t be right.”
“That’s ridiculous! It’s a rezeli (“disgrace”) if a child is 45 and still living with their mommy and daddy.”
And to this, my mother donates her stock response that signals the end of the discussion whenever these impassable controversies that have no real answer come up—
“When you become a mother and a wife, you will understand.”
In essence, you can never grow up unless you marry.
Greek-American society is so geared towards marriage that to choose to delay marriage or, heaven forbid, never marry at all, is anathema. No better sense can you get of this general consensus than by eavesdropping on the conversations of middle-aged women dressed in dark blue suits and cultured pearl necklaces with short cut, salt and pepper hair who gather for coffee at each others’ residences on the weekend for dinner or social get-togethers.
“My niece won a very prestigious award at the university where she works. She completed her doctorate in epidemiology and was conducting top-secret research on AIDS. She’s in her late 30’s, early 40’s but she’s not married. ‘Aren’t you gonna get married soon? Think about yourself for a change,’ I told her.”
“My Dora just got engaged to a bright young lawyer from Chicago. Doxa sto Theo [“Glory be to God”] you know, I was getting worried.”
“Ti na kano ego? [“What am I going to do?”] My daughter won’t go out for a café, she’s so shy. She goes to work and then stays in her room all the time. How is she going to meet anyone?”
“Oh, you mean the girl is 28. When is she going to marry?”
My mother’s face dropped dead one day when I told her I was thinking of foregoing marriage.
“Min les aidies [“Don’t talk stupidity’]” she barked. “Marriage is a God-instituted grace. Being alone is not good for anyone. You wanna wind up like that 55-year-old bachelor Kiryako who shot himself? Starting a family is the natural state of any decent human being.”
Greek mothers, and by the way it is the mothers who tend to apply the most pressure for their girls to marry, transmit these mores more subtly. A person cannot be named without a gratuitous mention of their marital status. Whenever we chanced to meet a new acquaintance through a mutual link, mothers are instant informants of marital status almost instinctively.
“Do you see that lady with the white hat standing behind Mr. Barbounas? She’s Dina’s younger sister. She never married.”
“Paul Sferis, you know, he’s married to a poli kali kopela and has two boys.”
It’s as if a person does not exist by herself unless she is part of a unit. The Greek mother’s mind conceives things in pairs for some reason. If you are not married, you are really only a half a person. You have not fulfilled your great destiny of finding and joining with your better half. So the pressure to marry for a Greek-American girl is great and gets piled on practically right after she is capable of reproducing.