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Booknotes Memories (4): Wife and Family

Effie SoterEffie SoterALL ABOUT EFFIE


Reading Anna Cornwell’s Only the Birds Are Free brought my wife Effie’s personal World War II saga to mind. In the early ’30s, her father had deposited his wife and four children in Greece (to preserve their Greekness of language and morals) while he worked away in Brooklyn, N.Y., sending checks and showing up for short periodic visits at their outpost in Athens. (This Greek immigrant pattern even gave birth to a common Greek identifier Μπρουκλις, “Brooklys” that summed up the phenomenon, even when the absentee father was really in Chicago, Boise, or Grand Rapids.)

Upon being graduated from her Athens “gymnasio” (high school) in 1939, the 18-year old Effie was gifted with a visit to America to see her father. Shortly after her arrival here, Hitler forces overran Greece, and Effie’s mother, sister and two brothers were stranded there for the next five years. Her mother and siblings were all U.S. citizens— Effie was the only one Greek-born—and, thanks to the Red Cross, this helped them survive during the occupation. In America, after visiting with her father, she spent the next five years in Worcester, Mass., with her mother’s sister, Aunt Xanthe who was married to a successful restaurant owner there. What to do? First off, from Aunt Xanthe learning how to dress American style and, then, how to make superior pastichio and kourambiedes—two techniques that remained alive through the years. Naturally, also continue more formal schooling, to become conversant in English (French had been the common Athenian bourgeois second language choice); and then on to college—in Worcester that meant Clark University—where I was an ASTP Army trainee, and where our divergent life paths serendipitously crossed. And stayed entwined up to the present moment. To the Greek-American me (almost all Greek-Americans had village roots), a “girl from Athens” had a bit of the aura that “a girl from Paris” held for almost anyone else: sophisticated, worldly, soigné, wow! When I was shipped off to my relatively un-bellicose tour in Europe, our romance continued by mail. Effie, a dedicated student, went on, after Clark, to achieve a Master’s Degree in Social Work at New York’s Columbia. At the War’s end, there were serial emotional reunions with her mother, sister, and brothers, as they each arrived in America and settled temporarily in Brooklyn.

Effie worked off her scholarship agreement with a Social Work agency in Cincinnati, and then joined me in Chicago where I was a student; and we enjoyed a Midwestern bit of la vie boheme. Soon, we were married, had three sons, one of whom is the Peter of this operation. The other two are Nick, a San Francisco lawyer, and Tom, a writer/editor and Improv Theater teacher and impresario. Oh yes, Effie and I are still here, too.

When the Chicago ad agency I worked for transferred me to New York in the early ’50s, I had to find an apartment for my wife and our infant Nick (and another in the hopper) and I wanted to replicate our Chicago Hyde Park (pre-Obama) environment: near a university, and a body of water, and, for affordability, also near a ghetto. A study of Manhattan neighborhoods, pointed to Morningside Heights, and always having found our Chicago apartments, through walkabouts, I continued the practice in New York and spent weekends walking into every building on Riverside Drive from West 72nd Street to 120th Street asking doormen, supers, and emerging residents, “Are there any apartments available here?” I hit the jackpot at 114th Street with a classic two-bedroom, full dining room, eat-in kitchen, views! at slightly more rent than our Chicago apartment, even though it was one floor above the lobby (not an ideal New York location).

And that was our first Manhattan home; four years later, we moved in the same building up to a seventh floor three-bedroom where my retired and ailing parents moved in with us (and the one out of the hopper, our second son Tom, was now toddling around, and there was another one in the hopper, Peter to-be!), and the views were much more enticing.George and Effie in 404 Riverside apartment, 1998.George and Effie in 404 Riverside apartment, 1998.

During the next decades, our walkabouts brought us to our final two Drive apartments, a bit more upscale, a bit larger, and a bit more wonderful (one was even featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section and later played a significant role in Nora Ephron’s movie You’ve Got Mail, appearing as Jean Stapleton's apartment).

Time Marches On, and we’re now a block and a half from the Drive—but, happily, with a backyard garden to weed and hoe come spring. On October 1, I went through a residential move that found me in a West Harlem “below grade” one-bedroom apartment—thanks to an offer that couldn’t be refused from niece Anemona and Josh, her husband, who had eight years previously bought and moved into a West Harlem townhouse with a finished below grade apartment, which they had been using as an “attic” dumping ground. The offer included The apartment at 404 Riverside Drive.The apartment at 404 Riverside Drive.welcome access to a garden, and, the move, alas, created many dozens of mysterious cardboard boxes encasing almost half a century of family and career memorabilia—photos, term papers, letters from early departed co-workers, friends, relatives, et al., phew!

As for the recent election, if it hadn’t interfered with my typing, we’d have kept our fingers perpetually crossed. But, with the wonderfully welcome results, here’s wishing all of us the best of all our hopes! There indeed was a Lincoln, young, inexperienced, oratoricaly blessed; and there really was an FDR and a JFK—how more elite could you get? And now, there really is a Barack Obama. Hooray, America!