Submitted by Elaine
Thomopoulos (copyright 2006)
Old Gloves: a 20th Century Saga
Fractal Edge Press, 160 Pages, $15,
“An Immigrant Family’s Unfulfilled Promises and New Beginnings”
by Elaine Thomopoulos
In “Old Gloves: a 20th Century Saga,” Beatriz Badikian-Gartler paints a picture of immigrant life with bright colors and vivid imagery; with pain, pathos, unfulfilled promises, as well as hope for new beginnings. In describing her novel, she says that the novel is based on her family’s history: that the family’s story is the skeleton and she adds the flesh. Flesh and blood is what she does add, making each of her characters alive, as if they are in the room with us. It shows them in all their humanity, including their imperfections and foibles, as well as their love, courage and perseverance.
The saga, which spans 70 years, starts with two families, one Armenian and the other Greek, living in small villages in Turkey at the turn of the century. In 1922 Turkish soldiers force the families, along with thousands of other Christians, from their homes and on a horrendous “death march.” The families escape to Greece where the son of the Armenian family, Grigorios, and the daughter of the Greek family, Eleftheria, fall in love, get married and begin their odyssey to Buenos Aires, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Badikian-Gartler relates various compelling vignettes about the families, including the loss of family members and friends during the death march and their difficult resettlement in Greece as refugees. She tells a riveting story about how the Greek refugee mother, who escaped to Greece with her children, is reunited with her husband.
“A bearded haggard-looking man faced her, a faint smile on his lips. ‘I have nothing to give you. Go away,’ she said in a loud, angry voice. His clothes in tatters, his face smeared gray, his hand extended, she looked at his fingernails, brown and long. ‘Go Way,’ she repeated and moved back to close the door. Then he said, ‘It’s me, Evgenia, your husband. It’s me, Odyssea.’”
Badikian-Gartler enables her readers to feel the fear, pain and anger of the young Armenian, Grigorios, during the German occupation in Greece. He narrowly escapes the clutches of the Germans after being out with his friends at a Kafenion after curfew. Badikian-Gartler writes, “Every morning they printed in the newspaper the names of those who had been executed the night before. The next morning, as Grigorios was having his usual coffee in the same Kafenion of the night before, he read his friends’ names in the newspaper. The coffee cup shook so that he spilled it all over the newspaper.”
Life in Argentina is not the paradise that newly married Grigorios and his wife Eleftheria imagined. The young wife writes her mother, “One thought plagues me day and night: will I ever see you again?” The couple struggles and we are witness to their quarrels and difficulties, including their young daughter Alicia’s illness with polio in the 1950s. As the years pass, we also witness teenager Alicia’s assertion of her independence and her dream of becoming a poet.
The book goes on to describe the family’s life after they arrive in the United States in 1971. They learn that the streets are “paved with garbage not gold.” Alicia experiences the meanness of her great-aunt who wants them to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. The family escapes the New York aunt, joins friends in Los Angeles and finally settles in Chicago.
In 1978 Alicia’s parents leave Chicago to return to Greece, leaving her in Chicago. She ponders the question many immigrants have asked, “Where is my home?” and answers, “I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since I left Argentina. Back there it never occurred to me to question it. But here … I don’t feel completely at home yet. I’m not as miserable as I was in the beginning, but there is a tiny part of me that believes I just arrived yesterday and will be returning tomorrow. Strange. I feel very temporary. I see my surroundings as new all the time, and yet I feel a certain ease coming and going in this city. Maybe if I stay a few more years, I’ll accept it as home. Or I’ll just get so used to it and never question it again. Or maybe I should go back to Argentina. But I have no one there, except friends and neighbors. ”
She also questions her identity, saying, “When people ask me, what’s your nationality? I never know what to answer. What do they mean? Where was I born? Or what are my parents’ nationalities? Everybody is something else in this country. Nobody is just American. But if I say Argentine, am I dismissing my parents and grandparents? Am I forgetting everything they went through and pretending they didn’t exist? Am I Greek and Armenian then? I don’t feel Greek and Armenian; all I know is the stories I heard from my parents about their own struggle, their parent’s struggles and so on and so forth … Later, after lunch, I’m going to jot done the stories they used to tell me-before I forget them. They’ll come in handy someday. I can use them in poems -- maybe I’ll even write a novel."
This is exactly what she has done. Badikian-Gartler has written an outstanding first novel, based on the family stories she heard over and over again ever since she was a small child. Badikian-Gartler says that many of the incidents relayed in the book actually happened. Both her mother’s and father’s families suffered in the Asia Minor death march. Her maternal grandmother truly did not recognize her bedraggled husband when he appeared at her door. The Germans executed her father’s friends during the Occupation. She and her mother and father faced the same kind of struggles in Argentina and the United States that she writes about in her book.
Questions of identity that bothered the young Alicia of the novel are the same questions that the author faced when she emmigrated with her mother and father from Buenos Aires to the United States in 1970 and which continue to nag at her today. Life as an immigrant is not all about going from rags to riches, but also about not fitting in, pining for family and friends left behind, prejudice, quarrels, sickness, and unfulfilled promises. Yet, as illustrated in the novel, there is also love and an unending hope for new beginnings and a better life. Badikian-Gartler herself struggled to achieve that new beginning. Despite the opposition of her father, she enrolled in college and became a writer.
Badikian-Gartler, who speaks fluent Greek and Spanish, earned a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants in the language arts. She was named one of "100 Women Who Make a Difference" by Today's Chicago Woman Magazine. She is the author of "Mapmaker Revisited," a collection of poetry, "Akewa is a Woman," a chapbook of poetry and is co-editor of "Naming the Daytime Moon," an anthology of Chicago women writers. Badikian-Gartler has taught at Chicago's Roosevelt University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Newberry Library. She currently teaches at Northwestern University and will be conducting a writing workshop on the island of Andros, Greece from July 1st to July 3, 2006. She lives with her husband David in Chicago. For further information and to order her book see her website: bbgartler.com.
Elaine Thomopoulos, Ph.D., is editor and contributor of the book, “Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois” and Project Director and Curator of the Greeks of Berrien County, Michigan Exhibit.