As a ‘seasoned’ individual, having experienced both sides of the Greek/non-Greek fence where marriage is concerned, I feel somewhat qualified to address this topic with first-hand experience, even though my story may not be a common one.
Back in the 1980s, marrying a Greek-American was important to me. I attended Greek cultural events, sang the liturgy on Sunday mornings, danced a mean Kalamatiano at weddings and Easter picnics and wondered which dark-haired boy might someday claim me. My parents had me convinced that I could not possibly be happy unless I married within my hyphenated culture, and for a good, long while, I gave Greek boys the old ‘college try.’
As my biological clock began to tick (in those days it ticked loudly at a much younger age) I began to widen my horizons to consider getting to know men from other ethnic groups that might ‘blend’ with my own. This included Russian Americans, Lithuanian Americans, and Armenian Americans, to name a few. I figured that if they could identify with their own ethnic backgrounds, all of which didn’t seem too far-afield from my own, they could at least begin to understand and might even embrace the connection I had to my ‘Greekness.’
By the time I was 30, all my close friends had married or were already engaged and I felt like the last girl standing – almost like the character played by Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Okay, my father would never have said the mean things to me that the father in the story said to his daughter about being old, but I know he thought me much too opinionated and outspoken to ever attract a husband.
Then I met an Italian-American man who was devastatingly attractive. He made me laugh, he talked about his future (I loved that) and he handled my crazy family admirably. And just nine days short of my 31st birthday, I circled an altar table with him doing a different dance –the Dance of Isaiah.
At first, all seemed well. We were in love, we had moved to a new city in the early days of our marriage and our daughter came along much more quickly than we had anticipated, forcing us to go from big kids to adults nearly overnight. But as the years went by and we became confronted with the burdens many marriages face – questionable finances, divergent co-parenting styles, different dates for religious holidays, etc., the differences between our upbringing and belief systems began to pile up. My husband’s diminishing willingness to respect me for who I was and see common ground between us grew in direct proportion to my feelings that I had thoughtlessly left a part of me behind when I married him. And that part of me was vital to my persona.
Hellenic Communication Service’s Peter Moskos, in his article, The Future of Greek America, writes, “Since 1980, over sixty percent of Church marriages involved a non-Orthodox. But even this figure understates the real number of intermarriages as we can safely assume that virtually all those who marry outside the Church – a large if unknown number – are marrying non-Greeks. At one time, Greek parents hoped their children would marry Greeks, now they hope their children will marry within the Greek Orthodox Church.”
Despite that statistic, marrying within the Orthodox tradition was important enough to many Greek-Americans that we could never have pictured ourselves making that commitment on a windswept hillside, with sand between our toes on a beach, or in someone’s backyard. I came to find that attending church together or apart, frequently or infrequently, however, made no impact on how successful our marriage was. When the serious issues between my long-term husband and I showed no signs nor hope of resolution, I finally called it quits. Our daughter was old enough to understand and even support me in my decision, but it led to some emotionally draining times, as most divorces/church dissolutions do.
Shortly after my return to my hometown following the divorce, I was to run into the brother of my koumbara, a well-regarded, gregarious man who had remained single all the years since he acted had as a groomsman at my wedding some 20 years before. To my surprise, he expressed an interest in me that evidently went back for several decades, unbeknownst to me. We shared the bond not only of being Greek and having known one another’s families for years; we were also caring for health-challenged aging parents and could readily understand the loyalty and loving obligation that existed in care-taking them. The reality of the two of us being together after having known one another for more than two decades felt something akin to a miracle. And after a few years I was to reprise my Isaiah trek around the altar table with the Greek husband I had always hoped to have — as our parents no doubt gave nods of approval from above.
So aside from being with someone who has a Greek name, what makes this union so much easier? Okay, there’s always that 20/20 hindsight ‘with-age-comes-wisdom’ element which would accompany me into any subsequent relationship at midlife. But what is most striking to me are the number of things that remain unspoken yet understood between us. We share a delight in our thousands-year-old culture, along with the music, the language, the food, the faith, the dances and a love for the ‘old country’ that has existed in us since childhood. Our biggest conflicts arise over politics (which we handle with kid gloves), whose pastitsio is the best, which Greek words are the most appropriate to describe something, and whose relatives we will visit first when we travel to Greece. It is, therefore, a no-brainer in many ways to be married to a fellow Hellene.
With all the challenges facing marriage on a daily basis, I salute those couples of mixed ethnicity able to hold things together, raise children and continue to respect and honor one another’s traditions and cultural idiosyncrasies. But for some of us, ‘Greekness’ means knowing that our partner understands the ethnic part of us without having to describe it all in words. It’s going to the same cemetery and paying our respects to those family members who came before us. It’s unwittingly hunting for Greek names in scrolling movie credits and saying them out loud, just as our parents did. And it’s listening to the priest chanting the ancient liturgy heard by our ancestors long before our families immigrated to America.
I guess you could say that I fell in love with a man who happened to be Greek, and that has made all the difference.
Journalist and author Dena Kouremetis now offers her new eBook, ‘Climbing St. Friday’, a coming-of-age memoir set in Greece during the military junta. It is available through Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.