Even Steve McQueen Gets the Blues

When I was eight years old, my parents dropped me off early on a Friday evening to spend the weekend with my Greek godparents in Long Beach, California. It was the first real quality time I’d have with them. My Greek godmother Angie — that is, my nouna — was a spicy, jet-set woman with red hair, a crooked nose, and an impish grin that revealed a dazzling gold tooth planted towards the back of her jaw. Angie was married to a gentle guy named Ike, a Greek Jew from Salonika (Thessaloniki), who was technically my nouno even though he was Jewish. They lived in a two-bedroom condo in a bleached out complex. When not hugging and smooching, they were yelling across the apartment at one another in a language I didn’t understand.

That night after dinner, I squatted on the living room floor by Uncle Ike’s elbow as he sat in his sagging, cracked-vinyl easy chair, watching sitcoms and lustily devouring sunflower seeds. Uncle Ike’s hair splayed out from the sides of his head like Albert Einstein. For the first time, I saw him without his sports jacket, relaxing in his stained wife beater that was wrinkled beneath the shock of grey curls on his chest. His short socks sagged on his skinny ankles, and the print of his shorts blared louder than the television.

Po po po po,” Uncle Ike muttered, grinning at the onscreen antics. (That’s Greek for oh dear oh dear.) As he leaned back in his creaky chair, that’s when I noticed it: numbers drawn sloppily across his forearm. I had never before seen a tattoo, much less one like this. I stared, unable to imagine why Uncle Ike would have such a thing, especially since the Old Testament had admonished us against putting a “mark” on the body. My mom and dad had converted to Judaism from Greek Orthodox just a couple of years earlier. Thanks to that jerk Leviticus, I wasn’t even allowed to wear the tattoos I found in Cracker Jack boxes.

Naturalization application for my Uncle Isaak "Ike" Hagouel.

Notice that he indicated he has “no visible, distinctive marks.” Poor Uncle Ike!

Uncle Ike continued watching the television, spitting out the seed shells, unaware of me staring at his arm. Or maybe he was and he chose to ignore me. I wanted to ask him about the tattoo, but I somehow sensed that my questions might ruin his otherwise perpetual good mood.

After I’d gorged on cartoons the next morning, Uncle Ike took me to the nearby park where grizzled immigrant men hunched over wooden tabletops, studying chess and checker pieces. “You want to go play?” He indicated the wasteland of leafy trees and damp grass.

Although dressed in shorts and t-shirt for shenanigans, my bookish self didn’t really think much of the outdoors. I shook my head, pointing to the backgammon board under his arm. “I want to play that.”

“What, this? Is backgammon. Somet’ing for old men.”

“Can you teach me? Please?” I loved playing board games with my overly competitive father and my spoilsport babysitter. For my birthday that summer, my parents had thrown me a party at the local pizza parlor. After everyone had left, I’d cried because all I’d gotten were dolls instead of games.

Uncle Ike squinted, his upper lip curling. Just as I thought I’d annoyed him, his lips pulled back into a great smile. “I teach you backgammon. Come.”

We sat at one of the benches — cool against my bare, chubby thighs — and he opened his backgammon board. I gawked at the two marble mosaics of the Star of David embedded in the wooden box. Uncle Ike acted as if it were nothing special. We played numerous times that morning, tiny dice tumbling over the Stars as we dumped them from the velvet-lined cup. I eventually won. After lunch, my nouna took me to the beach, where I collected stinky little seashells that gleamed like jewels. I was starting to really enjoy my time with them, even though they didn’t have kids for me to play with.

That is, until that night. Long after my nouna had tucked me in the guest bedroom, I awoke to the haunting sound of a man weeping. It had to be Uncle Ike. I lay there frozen with horror as my uncle wept in the master bedroom down the hall. My aunt was talking in Greek, pouring her undecipherable yet soothing words over him. I was so direly embarrassed that I said nothing the next day, pretending that I had slept through it.

Sunday evening, my parents came to pick me up. On the way home, I brought up the midnight weeping. The subject plunged the interior of our golden Pinto into a murk. After a few moments, my dad spoke.

“Your Uncle Ike has nightmares because he was in a concentration camp.”

“Really? What happened?” I still knew little about Nazis, and mostly just from TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Wonder Woman.

With a grimace, my Dad told me that Uncle Ike’s family had been wealthy Jews living in Thessaloniki when the Nazis took everything away and started shipping Jews to work camps. The Greek Orthodox Church resisted the Germans and assisted the Jews, but they couldn’t help everyone. When the Nazis found the strong 20-year-old Ike, as well as his younger sister and parents, they shipped the entire family to a work camp. Ike immediately tried to escape, but they caught him. As punishment, they forced him to watch as they killed his family. More motivated than ever, he tried to escape again. This time when they caught him, they emasculated him.

“What does ‘emasculate’ mean?” I asked.

My dad shifted nervously as he shot a pained look at my mom. The amusement on her face seemed to say, Way to go, Steve. Can’t wait to see how you dig yourself out of this one. At last he said, “It means they hurt him so that he couldn’t have children.”

So this was why they had no kids! Anyway, the Nazis obviously didn’t watch many Steve McQueen movies, because according to my Dad, Uncle Ike then recruited a teenage boy and together they broke out for good. Still, to this day my uncle had nightmares where he woke up screaming, banging his head on the floor, the headboard, the walls. The crying had been a tame event in comparison to what my nouna usually encountered.

That night back in my own bed, I thought of my sweet Uncle Ike and that ugly tattoo, wondering how anyone could suffer so much and be so cheerful.

Uncle Ike died many years later, yet long before my nouna. I had just moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco when that spicy redhead finally exhausted her zest at 85 years of age. The day she passed away, I stood beside her hospice bed in the very bedroom where my uncle had been crying. It was my turn now to mourn in that room as I held her withered hand.

A few days later, a family friend named Sophie called me to the apartment. She was the estate executor. The blinds were drawn and small ceramic lamps cast shadows in the corners. It seemed considerably dimmer without the savage twinkle of my nouna’s gold tooth.

“What would you like? You get first pick.” Sophie indicated the surrounding furniture. I couldn’t bring myself to select anything. My nouna had given me a ring before she died, asking me to think of her as I wore it. That seemed more than enough for me. Sophie swept open one of the closets and removed a gorgeous old woolen coat from the 1950s with a lush fur collar. She held it against me and made happy noises about the way it looked. I agreed it was beautiful and took it.

But just before she closed the closet doors, I noticed the wooden box high up on the closet shelf. I pointed, my heart fluttering in the sickly heat of grief. “I’ll take that.”

backgammonbox“An old box?”

I carefully withdrew the box from where it was crammed between a wad of rag towels and several dusty knickknacks. When I wiggled open the thin brass latch, the box opened to reveal the Stars of David embedded in the board. One of them was chipped but still lovely.

Sophie sighed. “It’s too bad they never had kids.”

Tears blossomed in my eyes. Just a godchild, I thought. But I realized I could carry their blood in more ways than one…

 

Son of man, keep not silent, forget not deeds of tyranny. Cry out at the disaster of a people, recount it unto your children and they unto theirs.

Yehuda L. Bialer

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