I remember my excitement the day our 3rd grade teacher, Miss Cayemberg, told us we'd soon have a new student joining us. She said Alex Sivas had moved from the country of Greece and spoke no English! (This was exotic stuff for little Green Bay, Wisconsin, which was pretty much all-white back then.) Pretty soon, Alex arrived, and I was thrilled to meet my new, chunky, dark-skinned pal. Each day, if we students finished our work early, we could help Alex with his English, so I always worked as quickly as I could, so I could help him. I loved playing the teacher role, and he was a very nice kid, who said very little but smiled a lot, so I liked him.
The thing I liked most about Alex, though, was his mom. I soon learned that they lived on the street that my siblings and I took to school every day; we walked right past his house. (It turned out that Alex was actually supposed to be in the next grade up, my brother Dennis's grade, but he was in my class because of the language barrier or something, so Dennis and I both knew him.)
Now, I have to backtrack just a little to remind you that we were poor back then, my family. I don't remember going hungry or anything, but I do remember the food stamps, free lunches, and eating a lot of oatmeal and Cream of Wheat for breakfasts. We were also very skinny kids. So, back to the story....
Every day, Dennis and I would stop at the Sivas's house to pick Alex up, and we would be invited into the house by his mom, would insist that we wait in the nice, warm kitchen. I still know very little about Greeks, but I do know that they love to eat, and Alex's family was no exception; his mother was always cooking or baking something when we went to his house. Mrs. Sivas would always try to get us to eat! With a twinkle in her eye, she'd squeeze my little cheeks and say something enthusiastically and cheerfully in Greek that I'm pretty sure was, "This child is clearly dying of starvation! We must plump her up!" Of course, by comparison to her healthy, chubby son, I probably appeared emaciated, but I thought it was pretty funny (and of course, I didn't mind the attention, not to mention the extra food.)
I called Dennis when I was writing this, and he recalled that Mrs. Sivas was always "pushing bread" on him, which he would end up "chewing for about a half hour!" but I don't remember that. My food memory from the Sivas household (and my mouth has now started watering) is the taste of Alex's mom's delicious "moon" cookies. I don't know what they were called, but they were shaped like little half-moons, were rolled in powdered sugar, and had chopped almonds in them. Mrs. Sivas may not have known English, but she knew the language of food, and she spoke it every time I saw her. I adored the attention she showered on us. I was bummed when Alex and his family moved away.
Flash forward to the early 1980's. I was in a dance club that also happened to have a pool table, and I somehow found myself (uncharacteristically) playing pool with a charming, handsome, dark-haired guy in a clean, white undershirt and gold chains. He made me laugh, because while he was handsome, his giggolo look and confidence were a little over the top. I was standing there looking at him, listening to him say something about my shot, when something clicked inside me suddenly, and I asked, "Is your name Alex?"
It was him. He didn't remember me at first, but did when I helped fill in the blanks. We put the pool sticks down and just caught up for a few minutes. He said he had moved around a few times but settled in Green Bay. His parents were doing well. I reminded him of Miss Cayemberg's class and about how his mom was always feeding us, and he remembered, but not in the way that I did; he smiled, but just politely, and before long, we had nothing left to talk about, so we parted ways.
I guess our connection stopped at the affection we felt for his mom; we had nothing else in common.
Today, I'm not skinny, but I do make a point to make cookies now and then, including the kind inspired by Alex's mom. I bake and cook when I can and share what I have with others, hopefully with the same love and affection of cooks before me...
...because, like it or not, food says love in any language.