I’m often asked what motivates me to write about Milton, a place I’ve only recently arrived at, relatively speaking, and where I have no family roots. I think I’m now ready to explain myself more fully, so this will be a personal essay, rather than one about the usual topics I post about.
On a recent trip to Turkey and Greece, my first trip to either country, I came face to face with my roots. This sojourn of two weeks had a marvelously unsettling impact on me, one that I am still processing. Since most of my readers don’t know much about me, I’ll have to divulge a little of my life story in order for any of this essay to make sense.
Born in the U. S., I was the child of immigrant parents, refugees from the chaos of post-WWII Europe. They were both members of an ethnic Greek minority in southern Albania, in a region where you are what your language and religion say you are, not necessarily what the geography of your birthplace dictates. My father was born just two years after Albania broke free of the Ottoman Empire, and my mother a few years after that. For their entire lives, however, their birthplace was just an inconvenient truth; all that mattered was their steadfast, passionate identification with the country that lay about 50 kilometers to the south of their ancestral villages: Greece. Assimilation in Albanian society for them, despite the advantages it might have offered, was more than undesirable. It was anathema.
My mother grew to adulthood in the village she was born in, and rarely encountered people from outside her ethnic enclave. The isolation ended her schooling after six years; she would have to go to an Albanian-language boarding school to advance further. She told me once that she had though of becoming a teacher, but that was not going to happen. My father, on the other hand, was sent away after finishing primary school, to live with relatives in Greece and further his education there. He would spend his formative years in Corfu and Athens, not in his home village. He made it through high school and normal school (teacher’s college), and taught the primary grades for a time.
World War II and the civil war that followed would upend my father’s life; there was no future for him in a war-ravaged, impoverished country. There was no going back to Albania, either, even if he wanted to; the Iron Curtain had sealed that country’s borders and would keep them that way until the end of Communism in 1991. He made the decision to emigrate.
My mother’s family also made the decision to leave, and that involved putting their lives in the hands of a smuggler to cross the border to Greece. With family members ready to receive both my parents, they crossed the Atlantic in separate voyages in 1948, not aware of each other’s existence until after being introduced a year later by mutual acquaintances. After a short engagement, they were married in 1949.
Barely aware of what they might find in America, and overwhelmed by the pluralistic society they encountered once they arrived, they clung fiercely to every aspect of their origins. As many immigrants have always done, they settled in a community of others like themselves, in New York City. They went regularly to one of the many Orthodox churches already established there, and their circle of friends was comprised exclusively of Greek immigrants, some from their home villages in Albania, and others from Greece proper. English was never spoken at home.
When I was born, I was immediately sequestered in a linguistic, cultural and religious bubble which would last until I went to school. Somewhat subversively, I learned to speak English from Looney Tunes characters, which I watched on the Philco television my father bought when I was about three years old; I was fluent before kindergarten. When a Greek parochial school was started in our community, I was one of the first students enrolled. That was when I began to realize how very small my world was.
The school day was divided between two very different academic spheres. In the morning, we learned our three R’s in English, reading from textbooks that recounted the adventures of the famous Dick and Jane who roamed their sunny, leafy suburban streets on trikes and bikes, and lived in single-family homes with grassy yards and white picket fences. In the afternoon, we learned to read our parents’ language from a 1955 primer with its own version of Dick, Jane, and Sally: Mimi (a boy), Anna, and Lola, all three about the same age as their American counterparts. These children lived in a small village in a multigenerational household, kept chickens, walked past wheat fields and orchards to go to school and church, cooked on wood stoves, and took short trips to the seashore. If not for the language, the setting could easily have been Milton in 1955. At 9:00 AM every school day, we pledged allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, then recited the Lord’s Prayer in New Testament Greek; both of these recitations were mechanical, if the truth be told.
For me, there was a growing tension between the morning and afternoon worlds at school, with both seemingly disconnected from my everyday experience. We lived in a crowded apartment building in New York, and my parents’ ancestral homes were beyond reach behind the Iron Curtain. I wouldn’t get to visit a real farm with olive trees until I was in my thirties. Of course there was safety and security within the bubble, but for me it came at the price of an inexorable disengagement from home, school, church, and the idealized world of Dick and Jane as well.
Fast forward to the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, when I found myself adrift. My peers and I sought to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Ultimately, that didn’t work for me. Instead, I sought assimilation – whatever that meant, whatever the cost. I latched onto a corporate career and a secure and safe life in a bland bedroom suburb. My son and daughter would lead a Dick and Jane life, and they were the primary reason I was able to achieve a kind of reconciliation with my parents. Beyond my role as husband, father, and provider, the question of who I really was remained unanswered for most of my adult life.
You may now wonder, “What, if anything, does this back story have to do with Milton?”
When my wife and I were scouting locations for our retirement, and visited Milton for the first time in 2010, I was immediately and strongly attracted to the town. Walking along Federal Street in the Historic District, I felt I had stepped out of a time machine into the 19th century (if I ignored the cars zipping down the street). And, while New York City had plenty of historic neighborhoods from that era, Milton had a small-town, human scale to it that made it drew in an outsider. It was a purely emotional reaction to the place, one that I have heard other transplants say they’ve experienced on their first visit.
The real revelation would come a few years later, in 2014, after we had built a house just outside the town limits and settled in as retirees. It was in that year that I visited the Lydia B. Cannon Museum on Union Street and began researching and writing about the people who have lived in Milton through its two centuries of boom, bust, and reinvention. I discovered a calling: some have dubbed me a “historian,” but I am more of a storyteller, albeit with standards I try to maintain. I have looked at the town throughout its history, often through the eyes of its inhabitants who left written anecdotes about it. The life stories of some long-dead Miltonians became more familiar to me than those of my own relatives.
Something was still missing, and it would take this year’s trip to the eastern Mediterranean to finally open my eyes to what it was. Having been steeped in the history, language and religion of the region throughout my childhood, it was quite emotional when I stepped into that world for the first time. Unlike what you experience living in an immigrant community in New York City, there was no competing imperative of pluralism and assimilation in Athens or Rhodes; the signage in restaurants, hotels, and highways were all in Greek; the people (other than tourists) spoke the language I grew up with, were genuinely interested in my family origins, and beamed with pleasure when responded to their inquiries. It felt like “home,” even if my real childhood home was contentious and often dour.
Then there was the history – thousands of years of it, everywhere. The opulence of Istanbul’s mosques, the nine cities layered over the site of Troy, the broken grandeur of the Acropolis in Athens: I reveled in all of it. I am sure I trod the same ground as my mother and father did in Piraeus, where we arrived at the end of our cruise and where they left for America 75 years earlier.
My identity is inextricably bound to my parents and their forebears, their language, culture and Orthodox faith. There is no reason to run away from it now, but to embrace it. The urge to write about Milton’s history – or tell stories, if you prefer – is rooted in the upbringing and education that exposed me to thousands of years of mythology, war, and civilization, much of it imparted to me by teachers who were storytellers at heart. History was a living, breathing thing for me as a child. And, perhaps, at some level, I felt something in Milton and its surroundings that reminded me of the rural Greek stories I absorbed as an early reader. But, where that history was a palpable presence in my daily life, I had the strong sense that much about Milton’s past was hidden and in danger of being forgotten in a generation or two. That is why I write – so Milton’s own stories do not slowly disappear or lose relevance.
Let the academics study the ancient world of Greece and eastern Mediterranean; I’ve left my heart there, but I’ve found my niche right here on the Broadkill.