It hadn’t been long at all, but she already looked different: a bit taller, tan and wearing clothes I hadn’t seen before. She looked beautiful. Dad took my bag out of the car and they both led me inside the house. Anna said, “Wait till you see my room; you’re not going to believe it! Dad bought me rainbow sheets and painted rainbow clouds on my bedroom ceiling! He’s the best dad ever; you’re not going to want to go home after being here.”
Anna showed me her new clothes and gifts while filling me in on the details of her new routine. She said, “There is always food in the refrigerator, he cooks at night and takes me to work with him during the day. It’s fun because I get to work the cash register, spend time with him, and eat candy. Dad is just so completely different from Mom that it seems impossible that they could have ever been together and from what I can tell he hasn’t been serious about anyone since.”
I asked Anna, “Are you going to stay living with Dad or come back after the summer?” Without hesitation she said, “I’ll do whatever you want to do, because we have to stay together. She then asked me, “Can we stay and live here?” I said, “What about Mom, I don’t feel like I can just leave her and how could we live a normal life after the way we’ve been raised? But I don’t want us to be apart; I was really sad without you.”
Anna said, “I’ve missed you too, but not Mom though. And you’re right, it is strange sometimes being in a normal house with a normal responsible parent. I mean he checks on me, he asks me if I’ve brushed my teeth and stuff like that, it’s weird. But if we did move in with Dad full time we’d definitely be safer, we wouldn’t have to move from town to town anymore, and it would give us both a chance to go to school regularly.”
We could hear Dad calling us from the other side of the house. We left Anna’s room and followed the yummy smells and his voice until we found him in the kitchen, cooking dinner. My dad smiled a lot, which I found soothing. It made me feel calm and that everything was okay, which was exactly how I liked everything to be: happy, calm, and okay.
With much pride in his thick Greek accent, Dad said, “We are going to have a feast with the entire family tonight!” He waved me over to the stove, inviting me to taste something he was stirring in a big pot and asked, “Elena, would you like to take a swim and relax before everyone arrives?”
I said, “Actually, I would much rather help you cook and prepare for all the guests.”
He smiled and said, “Okay, you can help, but not now. Nowww you must rest and swim. Then later you can help me, is that our deal??” He gave me a hug and in agreement, mocking his Greek accent, I answered “Yes, that is our deal.”
Anna and I put on our swimsuits, ran out to the pool, grabbed a floatie, and jumped in. The temperature difference between the water and air was perfect.
As the sun started fading out of our day, the trees, house, and swimming pool were cast into different colors starting with pink, and then changed to shades of orange and then red the closer it got to setting.
Drifting around the pool together, I said to Anna, “I really love Dad; I think he’s a good man. What do you think of him–what is he like so far?” Half hanging on her inflatable raft, she answered, “He’s perfect! He sings Greek songs to me when we drive in the car and he buys me presents and candy whenever I want. He wakes up at the crack of dawn everyday and works really hard. And I don’t think he has a girlfriend, because all he does is work and at night he’s here with me. He really cares about being a good dad and I think he feels bad about not being around for us.”
Anna continued, “Your timing with looking for Dad was perfect! Did you know we all have birthdays coming one right after the other over the next 7weeks? Yours is June 7th, mine is July 6th, and Dad celebrates his July 21st. He doesn’t know his real birthday because he was born at home, but celebrates it on the day he first came to the United States. Isn’t it wonderful, Elena, that we all get to celebrate our birthdays together after so many years?”
Dad came out of the house carrying a plate of snacks and catching the tail end of what Anna was saying and added that he wanted her and me to plan a combo birthday party for all three of us. He asked me, “Would you and Anna like this?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond but, accepting his graciousness, I simply replied, “Yes.” He handed us our towels and offered us some fruit, cheese, and crackers.
We sat together talking and I noticed that while Dad was happy and clearly relishing his fatherhood, he seemed slightly subdued, perhaps tired. I told him after I got showered I would help him and if he wanted he could teach me how to cook.
Dad’s house slowly started filling up with our extended family and everyone came, carrying gifts in celebration of Anna and my arrival.
It was amazing to think we had this family all along that we didn’t know existed, and yet here we all were together, laughing, hugging and feasting. It was a stark contrast to how we had lived prior to this night. It felt like being in a dark room and having somebody open the curtains to allow the sunlight in; it was wonderful, and an adjustment.
We had several cousins our age and they asked us lots of questions such as, “What grade are you in? Who’s your best friend? What school do you go to? What’s your favorite subject? What sports do you play? Which clubs at school are you in?” Followed by, “I bet you guys are the most popular girls in your grade. You must have been voted prettiest hair, smartest and most popular.“
I hated to disappoint and I didn’t want to lie, but Anna and I both looked at each other knowing full well we couldn’t answer their questions honestly without creating more questions to answer. So, I took the lead and knew Anna would follow. Instead of lying, I just answered all their questions with a question. It worked out well. I felt like I didn’t sully our relationship with our new family and I learned a lot about them in the process.
The evening had been a full one and was slowly coming to an end; everybody helped clean up and started to discuss a plan for the next day, factoring in a repeat for dinner the next night. I told my dad that I wanted to go to work him, and outside of that I didn’t care what we did.
Statheros Produce Co.
Dad and I woke up for work at 4:30 am because he owned and operated a produce business and that was the time he woke up 6 days a week. The day was intensely busy and went by fast. There were still about 45 minutes left before we could close, but there was a lull in customers that gave us a chance to take a break, so we sat on a couple of orange crates together and talked.
Lighting a cigarette, Dad asked, “Where did you learn to work like this?” I said, “Like what?” He said, “Like a man.” Laughing, I replied, “I don’t work like a man.” He smiled at me and said, “You look like a lady and you work like a man.” I said, “Well, I don’t know; it’s just the way I am. Maybe I got it from you.”
Noticing him light his second cigarette using the first one, I said, “You shouldn’t smoke; it’s really bad for you.” He simply responded, “I know, that’s what my doctor keeps telling me.”
Changing the subject, Dad said, “I feel like I have a second life now that you and Anna are with me again. I thought about you every day and every minute and hoped that one day we would be back together.” His eyes got glassy with emotion and his voice carried a little resentment, which I assumed was for Mom.
He continued saying, “Anna says that you’ve missed a lot of school, and things have not been easy. I want you to consider moving here and letting me take care of both of you. You two are young and I know your mother will never make her job as a parent and your care a priority.”
I said, “I love my mom; I know she’s not a good mom, but she’s my mom. I really want to go to school and we do kind of go, but we move so much that it makes it hard for me to focus and I feel like I’m starting over every time we arrive in a new town. And I worry about Anna a lot and I’m scared most of the time in general. I have to stay on guard and take care.”
I tried hard not to, but I started crying and said, “I have a dream to become a model, but I think it’s mostly because I don’t know what else I would do and I don’t want this life when I grow up and modeling could be a way out. I want to be smart, I want to go to school and be like other kids, I want to feel like I belong. I’m going to be 14 years old and I’ve never been to a dance, or a school party or football game. It feels crazy to me that the places we hide are the very places that we should be hiding from, and the people that are good we have to keep at arms distance because we live in the shadows.”
My tears were unstoppable now and I started to worry that I was opening up too much and giving too much information, but I had opened a door that I couldn’t close….
Looking straight into my eyes, Dad emphatically said, “You and Anna have to stay; you don’t need to go back to Palm Springs. You can live here and I will take care of you. You have cousins, aunts, and uncles, and you’ll make friends at school. I’ll buy you a pretty dress and you will go to a dance and live a normal life. I want you to accept this from me, Elena, for both you and Anna.”
Our break turned into an hour and a half heart-to-heart discussion, after which I felt better for having. It was a gift to be able to confide in my dad; I knew he loved me and that I could trust him. And that was the gift because I didn’t trust anyone.
When we slowly packed up and started our drive home, I had a lot to think about and it was as clear as ever that my choice not only affected my future, but my sister’s as well.
We got back to the house and Dad looked especially worn out, but I didn’t know if he felt upset by our conversation and the things I shared or if he was just tired.
In passing he said, “I’m going to go lay down for a little bit before we start cooking dinner.” The energy and tone of his words made me pause and turn to look at him before answering. I walked over to him, gave him a hug and said “Okay, I love you Dad….”