Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Memories of Marmaras

In the 1950s, George and Thianna Marmaras operated a produce stand on Highway 99 just north of Turlock, California. Those were the days before the highway morphed into a freeway destroying all the small farms and businesses in its path; before Interstate 5 opened up to the west to steal away commercial traffic; before Modesto, Tracy and Turlock became bedroom communities to feed the insatiable growth of the Silicon Valley; and when the Southern Pacific still ran steam engines on its Central Valley lines. Those were the days when I was still spending portions of my summers with the old Greeks in the San Joaquin Valley.

George Marmaras was already in his 70s when I knew him, a wiry little man with white hair and the dark, wrinkled skin of a farmer. His wife Thianna was a typically large, matronly woman who always wore loose cotton dresses, kept her hair in a bun and, retrospectively, reminded me of a cross between Golda Meir and Eleanor Roosevelt . She didn’t speak English as well as George but well enough to serve the occasional customer who would stop at their ramshackle stand. Both of them had been long time friends of my grandparents and, along with several other Greek families, lived within a few miles of their house.

We referred to our grandparents place as “the Farm” but it really wasn’t one in the true sense as there was no livestock or outbuildings…only acres of vineyards and peach orchard. But the Marmaras place really did seem farm-like to me. They had chickens, dogs, a goat, and great big barn. Their residence, however, was pretty tiny, even to a 10-year old boy like myself. It was a simple wood house, built in the 1920s perhaps and probably no more than 700 square feet in area. And it smelled of old wool, pleasant must and coffee.

My grandparents would always take us “visiting” to the Marmaras place at least once during the summer, usually late in the afternoon when the oppressive valley heat was starting to abate. While it was still daylight, the old folks would sit outside in the shade of an umbrella tree, eating fresh-picked grapes and watermelon and talking the melodic language of my ancestors while I explored the grounds. The Marmaras goat was confined to a small enclosure but would come close enough for me to feed it pieces of paper or any other garbage that I could find. As darkness settled in, the moths and the toads would come out and the night air would come alive with the sound of crickets and frogs.

That was when the old Greeks retired into the little house. Thianna would brew up thick Turkish coffee in a small brass pot and serve its silty residue in small cups. There would be plenty of baklava and kolouthia for dessert. The women folk (there were usually other Greek neighbors visiting as well like the Christodoulis family from nearby Keyes) gathered in the small living room and knitted and talked, knitted and talked. I never knew what about but I imagine the conversation was laced with lots of gossip and news from the old country. Meanwhile, the men sat around a small table just off of the kitchen playing loud hands of pinochle. Some of them kept their hats on the whole time, and cigarette smoke filled the room. A big jug of Cribari was always nearby.

Usually by 10pm, the last cup of coffee had been served and the pinochle game was ended, and my grandparents and I would say our goodbyes on the tiny porch and slip away into the starry valley night. Looking back now, it seems like such a faraway time, simple and uncomplicated, etched deeply into memory. How many pieces of that farm have affected my life? My love of the heat? The wide open spaces? The attachment to ramshackle buildings? Who can say. By the mid-1960s, the Marmaras farm was gone along with George and Thianna whose warmth and good humor will live on whenever I revisit those boyhood summers of the mind.