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Daughter of Zeus and Hera

CreativeParents has a Conversation with Zaphra Reskakis, the Yiayia Grandma Storyteller

When Zaphra Reskakis started writing down family stories for her grandchildren, little did she know that a few years later she'd be a fullfledged writer and storyteller, publishing work on the internet and dramatizing her childhood on stage.

How did you decide to write stories about your family?

Z. I'd read an article in a magazine that said "Don't tell your children your family stories -- they don't want to hear them. Tell your grandchildren." I started telling my grandchildren stories of growing up. When I veered from the original they'd say 'Yiayia," which is Greek for grandma, "you didn't tell it that way." So I thought maybe I should write my yiayia stories down. It's been rewarding.

I feel that this second part of my life is the beginning of my life, my creative life.

Before you started writing you had an entirely different career.

Z. I worked as a pharmacist for 40 years, but I'd always wanted to write. I was the editor of my yearbook in high school and my intent was to go to college and be a writer but my parents, who came to New York from a little village in Greece, never gave up their idea of raising me as a traditional Greek girl. My father didn't want me to go to college but my mother said an education was like wearing golden bracelets. My mother won and I went . When I said I wanted to write and be a journalist , they both said "No way. You'll be running all over the world meeting men." So they pushed me to become a pharmacist, which they somehow thought was a mainly female profession. As it turned out, my class at Columbia was comprised of 90 boys and 10 girls.

What are your family stories about?

Z. I've been writing a book tentatively titled "Daughter of Zeus and Hera," Zeus being my thunderous, chauvinistic dad and Hera my religious, manipulative mother.

Dad loved to dance and joke while my mother was always proper, always maintaining her place in her idea of society. Dad said dancing with my mother , Caliope, was like pushing a truck and mom said that my dad was nothing but a "paliatso", a clown, and a "teneke" , "a tin man ," "an empty-headed man with no brains ." They constantly bickered, but I still sensed that they loved each other and me. However, as you can see, the language they used was very colorful.

I thought everybody's family shouted and argued behind closed doors. One of the stories I tell is of the fear I had when I was a child as my parents argued, and the small , silver icon I would hold tight as I covered my ears. Tragic as it sounds , I tell the story with humor, because now it is funny although then it was not.

What else do you write about?

Z. Besides my childhood I write about my marriage, divorce and career as well as the influence my background has had on my life .

For instance, I write about how, when I was eight, a friend and I established an Ant Hospital. We decided to close it when the mortality rate of the hapless patients, the ants on whom we were doing appendectomies, reached 100%. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually have a career in a health field.

How do you remember so much of your childhood?

Z. I remember people and incidents, not the exact conversations. I know what my characters were like so I can reconstruct what they say. The Greek culture is very rich with expressions. My mother had a phrase for every situation. My mother was very religious and my father was critical of the church. I can reconstruct their conversations just about verbatim.

Does it make you feel uncomfortable writing about real people?

Z. It would have been harder writing about them when they were alive. I could not have written about many incidents when they were happening . I needed the years of distance, and can now use humor and sarcasm to cover the pain. But it's theraputic and exciting. When people laugh or tell me they like my stories, it's rewarding . Their positive reactions are still a pleasant surprise.

You've published a number of pieces on the internet.

Z. It's a great feeling to see my work on the internet. I've been published in, lose your identity, and Mrbellersneighborhood. I have also been published in "What's Cooking" magazine and "Reminisce" magazine One of my stories will be published in "Storyteller", a quarterly magazine, in the July-August 2001 edition. Another of my stories, about the hospital I worked in, is being included in Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul , publication date August, 2001.

How did you go from writing to storytelling?

Z. When I read my pieces aloud in writing class several people said they were filled with vivid dialogue that would lend itself to the stage. One evening I went to a meeting of Greek-American writers at the Cornelia Street Cafe. It was somewhat intimidating since the people there were mostly published writers and poets and I was not . But I saw that a Greek woman, Barbara Aliprantis,had storytelling sessions with featured tellers. They also held storytelling "swaps" at the cafe on the second Tuesday of each month.

I went and listened for two months and then at Easter time I prepared a story about organizing a traditional Greek Easter celebration for the Greek-American soldiers in Germany when my husband was stationed there in 1957. I didn't have a pot that was big enough to make the "mayeritsa",a Greek Easter soup and had to improvise by using my baby's sterilizer. All sorts of incidents can make for good stories.

So you continued going to the storytelling "swaps."

Z. One time the storyteller who was supposed to tell at Cornelia St. Cafe had come back from Africa with malaria and Barbara asked me to step in and tell a story for 20 minutes. I said "yes" immediately but when I hung up I panicked. I told the story of how my father built a retirement house in Greece without saying a word to my mother. He said "if I told her 3 years ago, when I started planning and building, she would have aggravated me from then on. This way I only had to listen to her for a month or two." But those few months, before they returned to their Greek village, were filled with recriminations. Again, I've tried to turn difficult and painful reminiscences into drama and see the humor in the sadness.

I recently went up to MIT for a conference sponsored by LANES , the New England storytellers and my mentor Barbara ( who is receiving a National Storytelling Award this year) encouraged me to swap up there . These were nationally known storytellers as well as emerging tellers . It was helpful that the people there were all so warm, nurturing and encouraging. I will be telling the story I told about my father's restaurant ,the B29 on Columbus Ave and 89 St. in New York (circa 1944) on June 12 at The Cornelia St Cafe monthly meeting where I will be a featured teller.

How does your family react?

Z.My grandkids come to my performances and bring their friends. They've told their teachers about my internet stories. One of them told about how I was a person they really admired and another brought my writing in to Show and Tell.

One of the best parts of storytelling and writing is that it keeps me busy, thus giving my children peace of mind . It also keeps my grandchildren closer. Being a grandparent is great because you have the time to influence their young minds without the responsibilities. When my grandchildren sometimes complain that I have more time for them than their parents do, I tell them that I don't have to worry about putting food on the table. I assure them about how nice it is that all I have to do is talk, listen and play with them.

How does it feel becoming a published author and storyteller at this phase of life?

Z. It keeps me young. It takes the responsibility of being a parent to your parents off of my kids. It's a burden for a child to worry about a parent. This way I'm a mother, not a burden. And they respect me more. They look forward to my coming over, visiting and telling stories to the grandchildren.

Doing something for oneself in later life is the biggest gift you can give your family. You give your grandchildren the gift of self and your children the gift of freedom.r


(Zaphra wants to thank Patty Dann and Richard Goodman, teachers at the New York Writer's Voice at the Westside Y, who encouraged her writing. )

Zaphra Reskakis will be telling her B-29 story at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York on June 12. For more information contact

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Copyright© 2001 Dr. Istar Schwager


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