A family story by Theodore Modis
I am sitting by my mother’s hospital bed. She is 95 years old. When her temperature goes up she sometimes enters a state of delirium talking, singing, reliving old memories, or venturing into new fantasy ones. At these moments I am reminded of my grandmother who at the age of 86, and due to no diagnosed illness, she permanently entered a fantasy world. What triggered that event was a technological development in the recording media.
In the mid 1950s the first local radio station made its appearance in Florina, the little town of northern western Greece where we lived. One of the first programs the radio station aired was an interview with Paraskevi Modis. I remember the radio-station staff showing up at my house with some cumbersome equipment they called tape recorders. They were interested in my grandfather’s life, and in particular they wanted that Paraskevi sing for them the folkloric grassroots song that emerged spontaneously when her husband was assassinated. She did, they recorded it, and then played it back to her. That was it! She went into a crisis about the “devil machine that took her voice” and the next day she snapped into her fantasy world.
At he turn of the 19th century my grandfather, Theodore Modis, was a prominent merchant of Monastiri (today Bitola in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia), a commercial junction in the southern Balkans under Turkish occupation at that time. Turbulence was brewing, however, as the Turks were preparing to leave. The Ottoman Empire retracted leaving behind disputed land. Greeks, Bulgars, Albanians, and Serbs organized themselves into committatos. My grandfather was head of the Greek committato.
The publicized funeral of Theodore Modis in Monastiri in 1904.
On September 5, 1904 someone entered the office of Theodore Modis and shot point-blank at him. The event marked the formal beginning of the Balkan wars and my grandfather was declared a Greek national martyr. As for Paraskevi, she did not accept her husband’s death peacefully. She decided to enter the armed struggle, transformed her imposing three-story house into guerrilla headquarters, and supported the Greek fighters in every possible way. It wasn’t long before her house became target of attacks. Eventually a targeted bomb set the house afire. At the last minute Paraskevi threw out of the windows whatever valuable could be saved, stashed everything on a horse-drawn carriage, including her two small children (Yorgo an Aglaia), and headed south toward already liberated Greece.
Among the “valuables” she tried to salvage at the last minute was … well, a dress!
Paraskevi was a beautiful woman. Light complexion, rosy chicks, and sky-blue eyes. Her looks had become legendary when at 22 she was seen at her window by passing Theodore who promptly asked for her hand. Their life as a couple was glorious, furious, and short. Well-to-do Theodore owned the biggest house in Monastiri, bought extravagant clothes for his wife, but was also fiercely jealous of anyone setting eyes on her. For her part, Paraskevi, was self-asserting, strong-willed, and at times she concealed a gun in her bosom and even slept with it. The couple quarreled often, and rumors say that on one occasion she had her husband at gunpoint.
Paraskevi and Theodore Modis in the late 1890s.
Coquetry was not the reason Paraskevi tried to salvage a dress while her house was burning. And yet, preoccupation with dressing ran in the family. Theodore’s grandfather—this is Yorgo’s great-great-great grandfather—most probably also named Theodore according to the strict tradition of passing first names from grandparent to grandchild, was extremely concerned about his dressing. His last name was not Modis at that time but some weird long difficult-to-pronounce name that my grandmother once told me and I forgot. But Yorgo’s great-great-great grandfather made a point to follow and dress according to the latest fashion. To keep up with trends he regularly ordered fashion magazines from Vienna for his tailors. Before too long the nickname Modis (from mod) was slapped on him and eventually became his last name.
However, the dress Paraskevi tried to salvage had more pragmatic value. It was a traditional Balkan dress decorated with golden coins. Several lines of golden pieces had been sewn in rows decorating the bust of the dress. The arrangement had small coins at the extremities (grossia) and progressively larger ones (flouria) toward the center. The row with the biggest coins doublas (from double)—pronounced as in hoopla—weighted heavily and had corresponding market value.
When I first set eyes on the garment as a little boy, large parts of the lower dress were missing. In the decades that followed, the garment would surface on occasions and another golden piece would be cut off for a special purpose (at some point, my mother removed a whole bunch of them to supplement my sister’s dowry). The last time I saw the garment Louise’s doubla came off. By now the one-time fancy dress resembled a rag.
As Paraskevi grew older and older she witnessed the disappearance of her friends and relatives one by one. This is the predicament of people who live long lives. They see many of theirs pass away. In the beginning the bad news would shake her and sometimes make her cry. But as the decades piled up her reaction to bad news became more and more concentrated around one central question: When the time comes, does one become aware that death is imminent? An odd premonition of what was in store for her.
Her excursion into her fantasy world lasted for a couple of months. During this time she called people with different names, Florina became Monastiri, and the Greek army was soon going to come and liberate it. But a few hours before she died she abruptly came back to reality. Not only she became lucid and clear minded, but she also asked to see a couple of persons she had been mean to. When they came to her bedside, she asked for forgiveness and only then she died.
The women in my family tend to have long lonely lives full of drama and emotion, which are invariably centered on one or two male figures. Several years ago I convinced my mother to write up her autobiography under a theme like “One Century, One Life”. She did, but when I read the manuscript, I suggested a different title: “One Love, One Life.” Instead of recounting her rich experiences spanning the better part of a century, she had described only a few idyllic years she spent with my father. Now she no longer sees well enough to write. The last thing she wrote was a dedication to Yorgo in the only remaining copy of her book. She just also used her last visiting card. It is in the red velvet box containing Louise’s doubla.
My grandmother in her fantasy world called me by her son’s name, Yorgo. Now in my mother’s delirium the name Yorgo also comes up. As with my grandmother there is confusion now too, in my mind, as I am sure in hers. She could mean her husband, me, or Yorgo.
Yorgo posing in “his” Square Theodore posing on “his” Street
in Florina, Greece. in Thessaloniki, Greece.