Bruce Lansdale Memorial Part 4





A review of




ENARETOS PRESS                        2007 www,


Chapter 9: Dual Challenges, the Farm School and Thessaloniki: 1950s

Fitting into the Greek scene took all the energy and determination I could muster. I was eager to be accepted, even as I was not completely willing to surrender my American ways. I was not used to the traditional expectations of the Farm School where the cloistered environment subsumed my creativity. On the other hand, I found the explicit physical needs of war-ravaged Thessaloniki appealing to my social worker instincts where I could invest more freely. It was my personal dilemma which I tried to resolve, but which I felt needed a transforming overhaul. I was thankful for the patient forbearance of our Greek friends.

On the afternoon of the party, we received an urgent call from town. The thirty-two foot sailboat that we shared with a young American vice consul had sunk after a crack storm in the Thessaloniki harbor. It took longer than we expected to extricate it. The invitations said that the party would begin at 7.30 PM but I had already learned that Greeks were rarely on time. I prayed that this would not be an exception. Bruce reassured me further, “We have plenty of time. Don’t worry.” We no sooner had jumped into the shower than the doorbell ran. It was exactly 7.30.Our dear Foula opened the door, and all the invited guests appeared, en masse. By the time we appeared ten minutes later, the guests had scoured the house, from basement to attic, gathering chairs, and were seated in concentric circles in our living room. “We found the chairs,” Athanasios Pantazis, supervisor of the poultry department, said with a triumphant smile. “Don’t worry. I will ask my wife, Irene, to help you next time.” Bruce had gently explained to me, “Interruptions to our work are not interruptions, they ARE our work.” I tried to emulate Ann Houses’s happy nature, but it didn’t always come easily.

I decided to receive guests on the feast of St. Elizabeth, fully honouring the Greek name day tradition. I followed the ritual exactly. After a bit of conversation, I collected the plates and glasses and soon reappeared with an offering of cake, a small Turkish coffee, and a glass of water. Well-wishers arrived in two’s and three’s during the course of the afternoon. All was going well until the school bell rang at five. A stampede of workers charged the front door. Word had swiftly circulated that I was “receiving.” The living room filled quickly, and I was overwhelmed by the panic of total and complete confusion: Who was on what course? Had I already offered a sweet to this man, or was that one waiting for coffee? It was a three-ring circus, and I was the untutored ringmaster. I was reeling and almost catatonic by the time they left. It had appeared so simple when I called on neighbors and wished them a Happy Name Day. The Greek women made it look so natural. Would I ever learn?

My frustration and despair were closing in. Who could I turn to for counsel? Who could help me neutralize those corrosive emotions? Bruce’s job consumed him. He simply didn’t have time to listen to my housewife complaints. Ann and Charlie were always busy, and even if they had recognized my malaise, they would have been baffled by my need for independence and identity, and my conflicting need to assimilate. In fact, their examples and strong faith only complicated my shortcomings. Their commitment to service and the School’s mission increased my awareness of my own wilfulness and inadequacies.

When David, our oldest child was born, I discontinued attending daily prayer service at the Houses’ and felt enormously guilty for my absence. I used the children and our growing family as my excuse, which only increased my guilt, especially since Ann and Charlie thought of us their children. Without any apparent recrimination, Ann would often say to me, “Oh Tad, we had the most beautiful reading this morning.” And she would go on to share its inspiring message with me. I should have felt uplifted, but I would more likely feel instead pricked by my renegade conscience. I felt they expected a selflessness to match their own that I was unable to deliver. Was Ann disappointed, or was it just my conscience? More and more, I sensed that I was falling short of some unclarified standard. There appeared to be an unspoken expectation of the director’s wife, of what she should be and do. While I respected Mother House and Ann for their selfless devotion to the School, I didn’t feel ready to be so molded. The conflict was deeply internal, and wrenching. I so wanted Ann and Charlie’s approval, but I couldn’t conform to their image of who I should be and how I should behave.

I admired Ann and Charlie and knew their glow came from a deep spiritual conviction. I also realized that they both felt that I did not share their absolute faith in a personal God. I had always believed in an omnipotent God, but I wasn’t convinced that He/She was involved in all my petty needs. It took many years before I was able to grow to a spiritual dimension where I, too, could see God in everything and feel the intimacy of and strength drawn from this relationship. It was only much later that the reflections read at morning prayer from Oldham’s Anthology made sense to me: “All men were God’s sons, if they would but become his sons. Hold us this day, O God, in thy keeping, and grant us thy spirit of beauty and truth, that around us, wherever we go, loveliness, purity, joy may leap into splendid being.” As I began to look about and experience the spirit of the School, I became aware of the manifestation of that loveliness and joy.

Slowly, very slowly, I became part of the extended farm family. I attended weddings and baptisms. I helped drive pregnant wives and newborn babies to and from clinics. I made name day calls and attended funerals. These encounters brought me closer to each family’s needs. Over time, Hastings House became the center of the community’s activities. Bruce and I never locked the doors, of which there were at least ten. People came and went as freely as the air circulating through the house. As they grew up, our children and their friends were among the constant flow, young and old, adding their laughter and sense of light-hearted frolic to the mayhem.

I realized, at last, that my original malaise was because I had felt restricted at the School, which was ready to offer me mundane secretarial tasks, while I searched for a place to “invest my humanity.” It was a limitation of my own making, and with the birth of our four children, I experienced the deeply satisfying role of motherhood. Here at last was a completely self-sustaining, essential role in my personal metamorphosis.

There was always something going on – teas for visiting guests, sewing sessions for Farm School wives, small groups for English lessons. On Wednesday evenings, we began a staff choir, convening in the downstairs community room. Laundresses, deans, housewives, gardeners – we all were eager participants. And although our membership couldn’t hold a tune, our multi-talented director, the beloved Tassos Pappas, welcomed the tone-deaf and the talented with equal enthusiasm. Under his magical baton, we were trained to harmonize with enough skill and pleasant effect that we soon performed at school functions. Bruce so aptly mused, “He could crash tin cans together and make music come forth.”

Just before Christmas in 1956, a surprise snowfall began late one evening. The tufts of fat, falling flakes became more magical by the light of the waxing moon. It was our first snow in Greece. We couldn’t contain our delight, and donning jackets, went out into the darkened campus. As usual, the school generator had closed down at eleven PM and all lights were out. With only the veiled moon to guide us, we made our way to Theo Litsas’ windows. In the soft hush of night, we began to serenade him. It was the only time we ever caught Theo unaware … and in his long johns. In a few moments, he joined us with all the unbridled exuberance of a six-year-old. “What an inspired idea!” he exclaimed. And we continued along the road, singing under the windows of dark homes, gathering eager participants as we awakened them.

Little did we know that evening that we were beginning a cherished annual tradition. Each Christmas Eve ever since, the church bells ring out at mid-evening, summoning a small group to a brief service at the chapel. From there, this core of carollers goes from home to home on campus, gathering new voices at each stop. In the early years, brimming with high spirits, we would take the Farm School bus and go to town to surprise some of the staff. As people came to expect us, they waited for our arrival with all kinds of treats: cheese pies, nuts and cakes, ouzo, wine and liquors of all sorts. On most of these occasions, we wound up well past midnight at our home for a sobering finale: hot chicken soup. I was always unprepared for their exuberance which led them to roll up our heavy rugs, exposing a few dust balls, for all ages to dance.

There was a unique esprit among Farm School families, nurtured initially by Charlie and Theo, and subsequently by Bruce. Each September before school began, the staff and families would celebrate the end of the two-day staff conference by coming to picnic at our home at Metamorphosis. Few families had cars, and so they would arrive, loaded with blankets and baskets of food, on the Farm School bus. Their ease with one another amazed me. Sharing seemed to be their way of life. They shared the food they brought, they shared their parenting responsibilities, they shared their stories, their songs, and their wonderful, abundant senses of humor. We would build a large fire in the outside fireplace and grill sardines, meatballs and mussels. We would feast on food and well being. In the open hearted Greek way, the children were always included in all festivities.

When our physical education teacher, Napoleon Demos, joined the staff, he added another dimension to the picnic. At his recommendation, instead of returning to Thessaloniki following our staff picnic, we would spend the night at the nearby YMCA campsite for indigent village children. The facilities were sparse and rustic. We slept in tents on narrow cots, swatting fruitlessly at the droning mosquitoes. We came to know who snored, the sleepwalkers and the sleep talkers. There was much good-natured teasing.

In spite of the growing acceptance of me as a member of the Farm School campus community, and despite my growing comfort with this expatriate life, for the first two years I felt hostage to the constraints of the territory: my role and the constant expectations of that role as the assistant director’s wife; the rigid limitations of the prerogatives of women; and the inaccessibility of intellectual or professional roles for women. I realized that my limited Greek left me ill prepared to pursue my vocation as a psychiatric social worker. While I basked in school friendships, I nevertheless felt a frustration in not being able to fulfil the role I had been trained for.

While I was learning to love my life at the School and reveled in a new-found sense of community, I still felt there was a missing link. Who was Tad in this new world? Would I always be Mrs. Bruce? In those days, there were not many cars in Thessaloniki, and women drivers were a true anomaly. As I drove by, men, women and children alike would stare and point, and often make the sign of the cross over their torso to protect themselves against any potential demonic influence. One day in the depths of an icy Macedonian winter, I went to town dressed in woollen trousers and a jacket. Although I knew that women never wore trousers, I thought I looked quite respectable. I was walking along the sidewalk, engrossed in the shop windows, when an elderly man stopped directly in front of me, bringing me to an abrupt halt. He didn’t say a word. He just spat derisively to the side. He made himself quite well understood: he didn’t approve of women wearing pants.

An acquaintance who became one of my closest friends, Machi Seferdjiis, was a member of an old, established Thessalonian family. A woman of many talents, she was a trustee of the Farm School as well as an official tour guide of the city. She told me that in 1821, following the War of Independence liberating southern Greece from four hundred years of Turkish occupation, there was a blood bath in Salonica and a policy of terror by the Ottoman rulers. It wasn’t until 1912 that northern Greece was liberated, leaving strong influences of Turkish customs. “Salonica has always been a melting pot where Europe met the Middle East, and that’s why, even today, you will hear a mix of multiple languages. Amazingly enough, in 1912 the Greeks were a minority in the city they had always considered historically to be their own.

At the northernmost end of Thessaloniki I discovered Lebet, a home for the destitute, young and old, sane and insane. Several members of the American Women’s Organization, (AWOG), and I among them, visited there often. I once found a boy of twelve chained, naked, to the bedpost of a sick old man. Another institution that compelled my interest was the Foundling Home, where abandoned infants were raised until school age. As a volunteer from AWOG, I visited regularly to help bathe and hold babies who were so hungry and grateful for the infrequent personal attention they received. It was here that fifteen years later, we would take a little black orphan boy into our home as a foster child.

My instincts and training as a social worker were challenged by the acute needs of these institutions so neglected during the war. My experience and my passion were called into service. Here Tad could indeed make a difference, even without a perfect command of the language. Thessaloniki in the early fifties was in a horrendous state of poverty. Those who were able to do so, left, resulting in a mass exodus of Greek workers to the U.S., Canada, Germany and Australia. In town, squatters lived in dark, cave-like depressions in the thick walls surrounding the city. Further up on the ramparts were tiny refugee huts with flattened olive oil tins serving as roofs, windows or shutters. Hungry, bare-foot children lingered under low-lintel doorways. From this high perch the city looked vast; its poverty camouflaged by distance and the sparkling sea. But here, beauty was not a reality. Reality was the grim ravages of war, of greed and lust. For one who had never known the presence of war, it was tragic to me that this city and its children were its beleaguered victims. In 1922, the city received a stream of poverty-stricken refugees from every corner of Asia Minor, and its population doubled overnight.

During one of my excursions into Thessaloniki I met Mrs. Kounio, whose daughter Erika Kounio Amarilio later became my close friend. In 1941, the city was again overrun, this time by the Axis powers. They rounded up the entire Jewish population of about 60,000 people, whose ancestors came to Thessaloniki four hundred years earlier fleeing the Spanish inquisition. The Germans loaded them into boxcars and carried them off to concentration camps. Fewer than nine hundred returned after the war. Among those who survived were Mrs. Kounio and her family. After I explained to her how it was that I came to be in Greece and at the American Farm School, Mrs Kounio, with a ramrod-straight back and braids curled around her ears, looked penetratingly into my eyes. “You have a responsibility,” she told me. “You must never let Americans forget what was done to the Jews of Thessaloniki.”

Stories of survival. A city under siege. A people under siege. I couldn’t help but wonder, which drew strength from which? These people who had endured so much were alive and dynamic. This city which had survived so much was resilient and persevering. I came to understand the relationship between the city and her people was a symbiotic one, each drawing strength from each other, each nourishing the other. I came to love Thessaloniki as my own and was eager to take visitors on a tour with its unique blend of Eastern and Western sights and sounds. I became comfortable in the city and looked forward to my errands off campus. This little bit of independence did wonders for my spirit. My confidence in Tad was being renewed.

Living among these mercurial, passionate people without being subsumed by them was a constant challenge. Like the city they lived in, they have earned the reputation for being strong, proud and timeless, with lives as full as the centuries that Thessaloniki has spanned. It was a privilege for me, both at the School, and in town, to interact as I strove to invest my humanity in even the smallest way, in the hope that somehow I would be able to make a difference. I had to learn how to become one of them, and still be authentically myself. It would be the task of a lifetime and the core of my metamorphosis.

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