Stolen Memories

A Mother's Day Memoir

We had just finished throwing a party, and the last couple of guests were standing at the open door offering farewells to their hosts – my parents, George and Effie Soter.P“It was a marvelous affair,” said one of them.

“Simply super,” said the other.

“If you wait an hour,” George said matter-of-factly, “Effie will have the album of the party ready for you to look at.”

Although Effie wasn’t actually that fast, she could create a photo album fairly quickly. And I’m not talking about what pass for photo albums in this high-tech age: the albums that are automatically and randomly assembled by Facebook or Apple and are often stored in “clouds.” All of these would have been a mystery to my mom, who produced albums the old-fashioned way: she pasted photos into a book.

It was a hobby that many have taken up over the years, yet I can’t imagine anyone but my mother producing albums quite like these. Physically, there was nothing particularly unusual about the volumes. They would range in size from 4- by 5-inch booklets to bulky 9- by 12-inch  loose-leaf albums with binders that clicked open so you could add the cardboard, cellophane-covered pages that displayed your photos. No, what made these books unique was their content. They weren’t just collections of photos. They were expressions of my mother’s personality.

It was, for example, her puckish sense of humor that led her to create two 4- by 5-inch albums about a lemon tree that she owned, which, to everyone’s amazement, grew real lemons (and would later be used in lemon pies). I don’t know how it started, but whenever guests came over, she would, with some pride, ask them if they wanted to see her lemon tree. They would agree, of course, and agree further when she asked them to pose for a picture with the lemon tree. My father joked that Effie had lost here mind when she produced a commentary-free collection of friends, family, and others posing in what was officially titled The Lemon and Friends, but was soon referred to as Friends of the Lemon, which somehow seemed more fitting.

But the lemon book was a gag, hardly rising to the level of her other books, which memorialized people, parties, holidays, events, trips, and even celebrity customers who came into Greek Island, the boutique store of Greek artifacts that my mother and father owned and ran. That volume, called Customers, had pictures and/or newspaper clippings of the celebrity, along with a copy of his or her check. Arranged alphabetically, the stars included: the songwriter Betty Comden (a purchase of  $45.90 in 1976); newcaster Walter Cronkite ($17.20, 1981); folk singer Judy Collins ($74.32, 1970); actress Faye Dunaway ($1,568, 1975); director John Frankenheimer ($272, 1976); boxer Rocky Graziano ($425, 1984); actress Katharine Hepburn ($172, 1975); actress Julie Harris ($307.80, 1976); actor Jeremy Irons ($27.59,1984); actress Joanne Woodward ($91.80, 1975); ex-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ($308, 1976); composer Stephen Sondheim ($78.30); playwright Neil Simon ($54.07, 1978); novelist Kurt Vonnegut ($62.64, 1975); and actress Shelley Winters ($50.24, 1980).

Many of the albums included more than photos: they were often chock full of what we now might call “extras” – sample menus, airline ticket stubs or rail passes, telegrams (remember them?) , and even a lock of hair from my first haircut. The albums usually, though not always, included hand-written commentary. Effie has a peculiar style, writing in a kind of shorthand that gives the books a breathless feeling, almost as if she is on the run, taking notes on the fly. “Decided [to] leave today,” she writes in one book. “Everybody to leave today. Stayed at the beach practically all day. K didn’t stop cooking. Left early afternoon. No traffIc.” In another volume: “Thursday May 19. Late for the plane. Sat alone. No talk. Nick met us at the airport. Had rented a car for the duration of our stay.” She would frequently refer to herself in the third person: “George and Effie stayed in this house – Paid in advance.” She includes a copy of the receipt for $260 for four nights. There is also the business card of the owner of the bed-and-breakfast.

In The Trip to California, May 1988, Nick’s Graduation (from law school) Effie’s telegraphic style quotes her eldest son (“As Nick usually said, ‘No ambiance but very good food’”), relates a visit to the grandmother of Nick’s wife Dora (“She played the piano for us...Showed us around the garden – a delightful lady.”), offers critiques (“climbing, always climbing”), and even has a James Joycean inner monologue (“Let’s go to the park and have a picnic. Why not? The graduation is not until this evening”). She also chronicled events in the car as they traveled:

sites/default/files/43974_11.jpgon a full page without a photo she writes about her five-year-old grandaughter, Eva, whose nickname is TT: “When bored – long ride – nothing to do – TT would scribble notes like the following and pass them to the appropriate people.” They are faded drawings addressed to passengers in the car. The one to Effie said: “From Titi to FE. I love you very much.”

The California album opens with an invitation from the school: “The graduating class of New College of California School of Law invites you [my mother had underlined this word] to join their commencement celebration, Saturday, May 21, 1988 at 7 P.M., First Unitarian Church, 1187 Franklin at Geary Blvd, San Francosco.” Below that, in Effie’s unmistakable handwriting is the story of the album, set out as clearly as the opening of a Dickens novel: “The graduating class included Nick Soter. The ‘you’ meant George, Effie, Tom, Peter. We all went. George, Tom, Peter had all been to San Francisco. It was Effie’s first visit. And it was fun.”

Effie worked on the albums obsessively and relentlessly, taking great pride in the final product. As the years went by, these books became more elaborate – if that were possible – with ever-expanding hand-written commentary. In an untitled album from 1986, she started it off with these words: “‘I have a week off,’ George says. ‘Have to take it now. Shall we go to London?’ Effie – surprise of surprises – says yes. Tom says yes. Peter wasn’t asked. He just came back from Chile anyway.” Our plane ticket, for a flight on PeoplExpress is included.

Effie writes full paragraphs of memories in this album, recalling how George had surprised her by flying in her sister Stella from Greece. “Can’t get over it,” says Effie. “Delighted.” Other moments included a menu from the Tate Gallery restaurant; programs from stage productions of Pride and Prejudice and Interpreters and Queens (starring Maggie Smith and Edward Fox); and frank comments about a one-man show we saw starring comedian Rowan Atkinson (“Tommy’s suggestion – thought I would be bored. Stella thought she would be bored. Instead, we all loved him – and it was FUN – FUN – FUN –”). Among the “supplements” in a New York Times piece about Atkinson.

These books, besides recounting events and trips, also put the lie to an enduring myth about my mom: that she was hard and unfeeling. Indeed. One of the many stories often told about her involved a second cousin who had been talking to Effie on the phone about an intractable problem.

“What would you do in my situation?” the cousin asked Effie after talking with her for some time.

“If I were you,” my mother said cooly, “I’d jump out the window.”

In contrast, the albums preserve the softness and sense of fun that was so much a part of my mother’s DNA, and was on display in a mid-70s album called Friends & Family. This was less inspired and more functional than other albums but still holds its own            fascinations, featuring an alphabetically arranged collection of, well, friends and family. Although that isn't quite true. In the 1976

sites/default/files/1955-1960-TomNickPeter-062.jpg

 presidential campaign, we received a fundraising appeal from the Republican Gerald Ford. This was strange, because we were lifelong Democrats. Stranger still were the “extras” included with Ford’s letter asking for some money: two snapshots of Gerald and Betty Ford, with comments seemingly handwritten on the backs of them (“This is a favorite picture of mine,” Ford says of one picture). Instead of throwing them away, Effie put the two photos in her Friends & Family album, filed under the letter “F.”

I also remember an oft-repeated phrase –  “Let’s take a photo for the album” – that cropped up at the oddest times. My mother and I visited my father in the hospital once. He had been sick and had tubes in his mouth and nose. My  mother arrived and said, “Look at you! Where’s my camera – I have to take a photo for the album!” Although my father couldn’t speak because of the tubes, he frantically wrote on a notepad, “NO NO NO!” Afterwards, I realized that she had never intended to take a picture, that it was a joke meant to hide her real feelings, for as we walked out of the hospital, she said, “It should have been me in there, not George.”

But the strangest time the phrase was used was at an incident where Effie wasn’t even present: George’s death. George died calling for my brother Peter, grabbing for our arms as though he were being sucked away. After he died, his eyes and mouth stayed open in a frozen mask of horror. It’s an image I’ll never forget. “Take a photo for the album,” Peter said.

One of her last albums comes from 1994, after she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease but before it had done its worst. Indeed, Effie was at her most verbose in this untitled volume that chronicled trips to Greece in 1993 and 1994. The descriptions are more detailed than ever before, including a bizarre caption in which Effie noted some facts that she had apparently read on the the airplane’s video screen on the back of the seat in front of her: “Thursday, August 5, 1993. Temperature outside the plane at 7:30 A.M. 54 degrees below zero. Altitude 35,000 feet.” It was as though Effie realized that she was losing her mind and wanted to preserve whatever curious minutia she found however trivial. She detailed a day in her telegraphic fashion: “Saturday, August 7, 1993. Stella and Thoma [Stella’s son] to the eye doctor’s. G. [George] out renting a car. Decided to go to Kokovi. St.  [Stella] upon her return from the doctor’s said no to the trip. Effie annoyed. G & E drove to Kokovi alone. Greek drivers speeding like mad. Scary. Got to Kokovi.” Elias (George’s cousin) and Katy (his wife) were there, as was Katy’s mother, Effie noted, adding: “House on top of the beach. Small but pleasant. K. killed herself to be pleasant and accommodating. Ate at their house, stayed at the Kokovi Beach Hotel (7.700 drachmas per night, Elias paid).” One later entry is telling, only of importance to my mother: “The four of us came home. Played cards. George won.”

The albums offer portraits of the little things in life: the frustrations, the joys, the boredom – the “everydayness” that gives life texture and meaning. They recall the very things we are apt to forget if we don’t have something to remind us of what happened on that average Saturday, that pleasant day when we went on a trip to Greece, 25 years ago.sites/default/files/Effie 1.jpg               

For, in the end, it is the saddest and cruelest of ironies that my mother, who cherished her past and did so much to preserve it, was struck by Alzheimer’s disease in the early 1990s. Although it took nearly 20 years for the illness to wipe her memory out entirely, by the time she died in 2011, the woman who could produce an album “in an hour” was gone, replaced by a person whose face would still light up when she saw you but who had no recollection of who you were or what you meant to her. Her memories of the air speed of the airplane or who won the card game, or how scary the ride were all gone. They had become stolen memories that now only existed in those odd albums.

Looking at the books today, years later, I wonder how anyone could miss the significance of these curious artifacts of one woman’s life. To me, they are a profound expression of love: for the family, for our friends, and for the good times we had experienced. But they were also a way for Effie to express her feelings about life –  a time capsule of her thoughts and emotions, a road map to her past, offering as clearly as possible a last testament by this remarkable woman. Ultimately, they are a collection of clues and contradictions laid out for us to follow that would allow us, for one brief moment, to be with Effie once again.


April 6, 2018