Saltar grupo de enlaces

Library - Articles & More

House of Light and Shadow
By Nicholas Gage
Source: The New York Times Magazine external link, January 15, 2006 - Lives
audio! Listen to this story external link read at the TP Podcast!

For the first years of my life, the house in Lia, the Greek village where I was born, was my whole world. I never wandered anywhere unless I could look back and see it. Then when I was 8, during the Greek civil war in the late 1940's, Communist guerrillas drove my family out to use it as a detention center for perceived enemies. When the insurgents began collecting children to send to indoctrination camps behind the Iron Curtain, my mother arranged for me and my sisters to escape, but then was imprisoned in her own cellar with 30 others. On Aug. 28, 1948, she was one of 13 prisoners taken to a ravine above our house and executed. They were killed some distance away because the fields near the house were already filled with shallow graves.

After that, we avoided the house. Eventually rain eroded the beams, the slate roof collapsed and the walls crumbled. After a trip in 2001, I reported to my four sisters that so much vegetation had grown up that you could barely see the ruins. "Good!" my oldest sister, Olga, exclaimed. "I hope it disappears."

We were far from pleased then when three years ago my daughter Eleni, who bears my mother's name, announced that she was going to rebuild our abandoned house. "I'm not saying we should forget what happened there, but it's time to turn those ruins into a home again," she told us.

Despite our protests, she moved to Lia in the spring of 2002 and spent 10 months rebuilding the house, exact in every detail to the original except for the addition of electricity and indoor plumbing. She also wrote a lovely book about the experience.

When the house was finished, I went to Lia and was surprised at the pleasure I felt seeing it as I remembered it. But I had no desire to spend time in the house, especially after going into the cramped cellar where our mother was incarcerated. There on a white sheet on the stone floor were laid out artifacts found in clearing the ruins, including guns and spent bullets that may have been used in executions.

Over the next three years, I could never bring myself to spend a night there, staying instead in my grandfather's house lower down the mountain. I did not fear, as I suspected my sisters did, that I would see ghosts of those killed there. What I feared was that if I slept in the house, I would see in a dream what suffering my mother endured.

My sisters often reported to me dreams in which our mother appeared with some message from the land of the dead. In my dreams, she was always engaged in scenes from the past, baking bread, churning butter, laughing at my pranks. These dreams have kept her alive for me, and I did not want them to change.

But last August it seemed impossible to avoid staying at the house. My niece, her husband and two daughters arrived at the village, and there was no place to put them up except in my grandfather's house. That left me without a place to sleep. I decided my only recourse was to spend the night in the house - but to stay awake all through it.

When I drove up to my old neighborhood, all the nearby houses were dark and silent. I walked through the arched gateway my father built, into the flagstone courtyard and up to the veranda. I opened the front door, went into every room and turned on all the lights. The bed was in the megali kamara, the great room reserved for visitors, which as a kid I took pleasure invading when no adults were around. I sat at the table and tried to work on a lecture I had to give.

After a while I decided to lie down and read. When I grew sleepy, I took a shower to wash away the drowsiness. I returned to the bed and looked at my watch: 2:34 a.m. I picked up the book again but eventually sleep overtook me. As much as I had tried to avoid it, I found myself dreaming. I was in the orchard behind our house, and I could hear my mother's voice calling: "Nikola! Nikola!"

I turned and saw her standing by the fig tree I used to run to first thing in the morning to pick the fruit. She was holding down a branch with several ripe figs and beckoning me to come. I walked slowly at first, but when I saw that she looked as I remembered, not as she was described to me being led to her execution, I started to run toward her. I was about to reach her when I was awakened suddenly by the crowing of a rooster. I looked at my watch, and it was 6:17 a.m.

I'm grateful to my daughter for rebuilding our house. I feel immense relief that I was able finally to sleep in it, even though it was out of necessity. Next summer I plan to sleep there several nights without fear about what dreams I will have. We spend most of our lives trying to come to terms with our childhood. I am 66 years old, and I am halfway there.

Nicholas Gage, the author of seven books, told the story of his mother in his 1983 memoir, "Eleni."