Four Generations of Pain

My mother grew-up in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, a working class town bordering Springfield. 

Both her parents were, essentially, the sole survivors in thier families of the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey. When my grandmother was 14, in 1913, her entire family was butchered. She was rescued by Canadian missionaries who smuggled her, over 8 days by donkey, from Marash to the coast city of Mercin and onto a ship to Alexandria, Egypt. My grandfather, who would not meet my grandmother until eight years later in the US, escaped with his parents and sister to Alexandria. After a few months in Alexandria my grandfather emigrated to the US, and his parents, having heard that Turkey was now safe for Armenians, returned to their hometown: Marash. 

A few days after their return home, while my grandfather’s sister was in the market, my grandfather’s parents, my great grandparents, were disemboweled in their home. When my grandfather’s sister, my great aunt, returned home two soldiers tasked with murdering Armenian families were waiting. At the last moment a neighbor bribed the soldiers to spare my great aunt’s life. And that day, with nothing but the clothes on her back, she walked out of town. She walked south to Syria; across the Syrian desert to Lebanon; and eventually to Beirut, where she settled and raised a family. She never saw her brother, my grandfather, again.

In 1936, about 20 years after my grandparent’s escape from Turkey, my mother was born in Ludlow, a tiny town adjoining Indian Orchard. She was the fourth of 6 sisters.

Her mother, my grandmother, was a homemaker. Her father was a shoemaker and the first man to put a zipper in a shoe. He tried to patent his invention but never made a penny from it because he didn’t trust attorneys. The details of that sad saga is another story.

In the 1940s Armenian girls from Indian Orchard did not go to college. This was partly because this was the general fate of America’s first generation immigrants; but also because many Armenian men at the time, including my grandfather, believed that women should not get higher educations. My mother quoted him as saying: “women are long on hair, short on brains.”

But my mother was not short on brains. She was brilliant. And she wanted to go to college.

Just after World War II Springfield, Massachsettes launched the “Springfield Plan.” The Springfield Plan established four high schools: Trade, Commerce, Tech and Classical. Students, at the end of ninth grade, chose a high school and, if they had the prerequisites and grades, they went where they wished. My mother chose and was admitted to Classical, the college preparatory high school.

One day at dinner, towards the end of the school year, my mother announced that she was going to Classical the following September. Her father said: “No. You are going to Commerce and will become a bookkeeper.” To which my mother replied: “I’m going to Classical and I’m going to be a doctor.”

A struggle ensued. My grandfather drank his homebrew arak and got madder as he got drunker. And after dinner he beat her. This is how my mother spent her entire summer between junior high school and high school: with an argument at dinner followed by a beating.

The first day of public school classes in September of 1949 my mother got up, dressed, ate breakfast, and went to Classical.

At the end of her tenth grade year my mother secured a job assembling fan motors at a nearby Westinghouse factory. The work week was fifty hours: five ten-hour days. In order to secure overtime pay, one and a half times the regular pay, my mother worked six twelve hour days, seventy two hours. She saved her pay for college tuition.

The following summer, between eleventh grade and twelfth grade, she did the same.

In her twelfth grade year my mother applied to and was accepted to the University of Massachusetts main campus. And, during her summer between high school and college, she again worked seventy two hour weeks in the Westinghouse factory.

By the end of the summer she knew her assigned dorm room and her roommate’s name. My mother and her soon-to-be roommate exchanged letters in anticipation of meeting and sharing a room.

Two weeks before classes started my grandfather, my mother’s father, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He had no insurance so my mother went to the bank, took out all of her savings, and paid for her father’s surgeries. My mother cancelled her college matriculation.

My mother went back to work but, I understood many years later, her spirit had been broken and she stopped dreaming of becoming a doctor.


In 1952, at a Greek-Armenian picnic in an Indian Orchard park, my parents met and, for lack of a better term, recognized each other. 

My father, a first generation Greek whose parents had come to the US to escape grinding poverty on Crete, was working on his PhD at Yale.

How it happened that my two parents, both children of uneducated peasant immigrants, had such different trajectories, is yet another story. But behind their different trajectories was a profound sameness: each of their families came to the US at about the same time. Each father had a little storefront business and each had founded a church for their community. Neither family spoke English at home. And the two family’s foods were very similar: the Greeks ate dolmades and baklava; the Armenians ate dolma and paklava. 

On December 26, 1955 my mother and father were married. 

A year and a half later, in June of 1957, my father successfully defended his dissertation. When he came home my mother had made a special plate of appetizers and had purchased a bottle wine. In the days that followed my mother told my father: “Phil, it’s my turn. I want to go to college.” My father brushed-off the notion and said, I learned many years later: “My role is to make money for the family; yours is to raise the kids and keep the house.” My mother seethed inside, but never said anything until she told me the story when I was in college.

In March of 1957, in New Haven, I was my parent’s first born.  Two years later my sister was born. And six months after that we moved to California where my father had secured a tenure track job as a professor of Spanish at Mills College in Oakland, California.

How it happened that a son of Cretan immigrants became a professor of Spanish literature is yet another story for another day. But how my father paid for Dartmouth is a story that needs telling.

My father was that most sought-after Ivy League ideal: the student athlete. He was a top student at Classical High school (he graduated the year before my mother began) and also the captain of the football team. So my father had his choice of football scholarships to the Ivy League. The Dartmouth coach went to my grandfather’s store and shook my grandfather’s hand. My father, very impressed with this show of respect, decided to attend Dartmouth.

In my father’s freshman year, before the season had even begun, in a scrimmage against Army, my father was cheap-shotted by a cadet. The injury was devastating: torn ligaments, torn cartilage, bone chips off of the femur. My father was carried off of the field with a career-ending injury.

My dad’s blown knee was also a scholarship-ending injury. 

When Dartmouth cancelled my father’s scholarship my grandfather said to my father: “Phil, I can’t afford an Ivy League tuition, but you will go. I will keep my store open later on Friday and Saturday, and I will open on Sunday and skip church, except on Easter. You will eat breakfast and dinner. Skip lunch. Eat a big breakfast. Put a doughnut in your pocket. Between me working more hours, and you eating twice a day, we’ll get you through Dartmouth.”

Of course my father could not afford the surgeries he needed to rebuild his knee. So he limped and did not complain.

At the end of his first semester teaching at Mills my father had the knee surgery he needed, eight years after his devastating injury. Some of my earliest memories are of lying next to my father while he did leg-lifts in bed post surgery.


At Mills my father was an up-and-coming professor, and an “infant terrible.” 

My mother, meanwhile, had managed to escape Indian Orchard, but found herself bereft of the education she longed for. She was deeply pained and suffering. I did not, as a young boy, understand this, but I felt–how to put this?–that she was somehow disconnected. She never did anything overtly cruel to me, but I didn’t trust her.

When I was in the earliest grades of elementary school I would play a kind of Russian roulette whenever I took a glass from the cupboard. Instead of just grabbing the glass most at hand I imagined that my mother had set a booby trap. I imagined that she had put poison in a couple of the glasses so that she could get rid of me. So, when I needed a glass, I would tell myself silently: “mom won’t get me today” and I would pick through the glasses and select one a few rows back. Then, to be sure I was safe, I’d rinse out the glass. 

When my sister was in first grade she came home with a drawing she had made in school. The picture was of a large woman with crazy red hair and a broom. Next to her was a second but smaller female figure. The caption read “My mother hitting me with a broom.”

My mother occasionally slapped us and spanked us, but she never used an implement. When she saw the drawing my mother, to use a common turn of phrase, “flipped-out.” She excoriated my sister and told her that now her teacher would think her an abuser. The next day my mother called the teacher and told her that she had no idea how my sister could have ever imagined such a horror.

Years later I understood where that horror came from. When my sister and I appeared we were the final nails in the coffin that held my mother’s dreams of attaining a formal education. My mother, for decades, carried gnawing resentments: against her father, against my father, and against her children who, by coming into the world against her wishes, forever enjoined her dream of acquiring a formal education. 

My mother kept her silence but her frustrations and anger and resentments, I realized years later, were like a cancer in her. The unease and fear I felt as a child was not imagined, it was the result of my mother’s so-to-say discordant vibrations: motherly love mixed with the resentment of her children’s existence.

In November of 2006 my son Luke was born in New York City. Eleven months before, in a hospice on Cape Cod, my mother died with my father, my partner Ruth and me at her bedside. When Luke was born many commented that my mother died only two months before her grandson Luke was conceived, with the result that my mother died not knowing that I would become a father, and she a grandmother, by both of her two children.

For a long time, somewhere buried, I carried the question: “How did it happen that Ruth and I began trying to conceive a baby just after my mom died? When an answer first appeared I turned away from it. But the same answer kept appearing, again and again, like a light getting brighter as a dimmer is turned up. And the answer, I admit and now reduce to writing, is this: as long as my mother lived I had no impulse to father a child.


Mathematical analysis requires parentheses. The parentheses indicate which terms act on which terms, and how the results of the parenthetical operations relate with the whole. And as I write this story I’m confronted with the question of where to put the parentheses.

If I put parentheses around the relationship of my grandfather and mother, I see monstrous violence and abuse. But, if include in that parentheses, my grandfather’s escape from Turkey, his parents brutal murders, his sister’s narrow escape and 400 kilometer trek across the Syrian desert, and that my grandfather never saw his sister after he departed Egypt in 1914, I see a yet larger horror. I see in my grandfather an unfathomable suffering and scaring, and see his violence toward my mother as a mechanical result of his having endured unspeakable violence and pain. If you drop a bomb in the ocean you don’t just kill the proximate fish, the resultant wave kills children on a beach miles away. 

If I put parentheses around my father’s dismissal of my mother’s dreams I see terrible insensitivity, egomania, and stupidity. But, if I include in those parentheses that fact my father’s parents had second-grade educations; accepted gender roles as natural absolutes; and note that my father was the product of Dartmouth and Yale–schools that did not admit women–I can see how in 1960 my father never imagined that his wife had need of a college education. And then, if I note that in 1960 my father had begun teaching at the most respected all women’s college on the west coast, the picture gets grayer. 

And, if I put parentheses around the untold number of microaggressions that I now see my mother directed at me for decades, I could pronounce her a monster. But if I include in the parentheses the suffering that my mother endured as she worked so hard to achieve dreams that were wrenched from her, I see her abuse as waves propagating through her from a bomb she did not drop.


Is my family’s sad story the rule or the exception?

Open any history book and we have the answer: in the main human history is a chronology of crime and violence and horror. In fact, we can say without exaggeration, that human history is mainly the chronology of war and the convalescences that follow. Generations removed from any war can, and have, discovered in their family histories what I have found in mine. All of us carry, if we have eyes brave enough to see, the accumulated pain of our ancestors in our souls.

Would seven year old Philip Metzidakis have worried that his mother was trying to poison him if his grandparents, 50 years before, had not escaped the massacres that obliterated most of their generation: my great grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, cousins and others whose names are lost to time? I think not.

Mankind, I am quite certain, will not get more civilized: wars and violence and corruption and abuse will remain humanity’s center of gravity and, taken together, the one constant.

Nevertheless, I believe in individual transformation. A man or woman is not obliged to trust their basest impulses and thus pass-on, like a virus, their anger and suffering to their children specifically and the world generally. We can be large enough not to ascribe blame without consideration of context. I affirm that individuals can, with consciousness, interrupt in themselves the waves of horror that propagate through the world’s peoples, collectively and individually. 

My son Luke has never been afraid to drink from a glass in our family’s kitchen cupboard.

Eight Days in November

In September of 1976 I was scheduled to begin my sophomore year at Swarthmore College. Instead, I decided to take the semester off and travel aimlessly, mostly by thumb, around North America.

By mid December I was lounging on Playa Langosta, a lovely beach a couple of kilometers north of the center of Acapulco.

Two months before arriving in Acapulco I was sleeping, with hobos, in a compartmentalized cargo box, perched on top of a stack of loading pallets in New Orleans’ freight rail yard.

When you sleep in a cargo box the one thing you miss above all else is a shower. In 1976 a shower could be had for fifty cents in the New Orleans Amtrak station. Also in the station were two overstuffed black chairs placed, I have no idea why, on the main concourse.

So, every few days, I would get a shower and then sit in one of the chairs. Road life has few creature comforts, so sitting freshly bathed, in a comfortable chair and with a front-row seat to the comings and goings of a major train station, felt luxurious.

One day, while sitting and watching the crowds wax and wane as trains arrived and departed, a very pretty woman, about my age and carrying a knapsack, walked across the concourse, maybe 25 yards from me. I got-up, walked to her, and began a conversation.

She had, a few days before in Michigan, purchased a 30-day train ticket and had just arrived on an overnight train. She was headed to a youth hostel in the French Quarter. I told her that I’d stop-in that evening to say hello and see how she was doing.

About 7:00 I found Judy, I remember her name, in the hostel. She had on a tank top and her upper arm had three or four deep red scratches that ran from just below her shoulder to her elbow.

“Judy, what the hell happened?”

“Some guy tried to drag me into an ally. I got away.”

It was mid November and I had been “on the road” for nearly three months. I offered to hang-out with her and show her how not to attract trouble. She accepted my offer and I moved from the railyard to the youth hostel. 

Judy was exceptionally beautiful. She had a lovely shape, moved gracefully, had long flowing honey brown hair, an open pretty face and a tendency to smile. And somehow, although I was far from a virgin and we zipped our sleeping bags together at night, I didn’t have the impulse to have sex with her. She seemed–how to put this?–innocent and lost and not yet ready for sex.

We became inseparable and spent three or four days together. We listened to jazz, we took walks, we talked. And then, on the fourth day, she announced that that afternoon she would take a train to Tucson, about 1,400 miles west.

I walked Judy to the train station and hugged her goodbye. Then I went and sat on one of the big black overstuffed chairs. And I began to think. And as I sat there I could not believe that Judy and I had not had sex. I decided to catch-up to her in Tucson and, at dusk, walked to Interstate 10 and stuck-out my thumb.

I had an excellent hitchhiking kit: a tent and a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a collapsible bow saw, flashlight and extra bulbs and batteries, rope, ground cloth, canteen, a cheap plastic raincoat coat that stuffed into a pouch just a little larger than my fist and an aluminum tube holding fishing rods tied to my pack’s frame. Passersby joked that my knapsack had a smokestack.

I also carried a cafeteria tray that I had stolen from Swarthmore’s cafeteria as well as a roll of black tape. I used the tape and tray as my hitchhiking sign. I also used the tray as my table when I made one of my staples: open face peanut butter sandwiches. 

My tray read WEST, ARIZONA and when I held it at a certain angle I could hear, reflected off of the sign, the echo of the trucks that had past me.

Two hours later I was standing on the shoulder of Interstate 10 about 50 miles west of New Orleans. The temperature had dropped and a hard rain had begun. My raincoat was in poor shape. The seam that held the right sleeve to the shoulder was splitting apart further each time I raised my arm to show my sign to an approaching car or truck. 

It was cold, I’m guessing around 40 degrees. The rain was driving and the wind was howling and there was no shelter in sight. I was in a miserable spot.

Then, as if to punctuate my situation, the right sleeve of my plastic raincoat caught the wind and blew off of my arm. I watched it blow west down the interstate until I lost sight of it in the dark. It almost felt as if that tumbling end-over-end piece of plastic, vanishing into the dark, was an omen.

A few minutes later a large white van flashed its lights and honked its horn as it passed eastbound on the other side of the Interstate.

If you have never hitchhiked maybe you cannot imagine how scary a moment like this is. The van’s driver, who is driving in the opposite direction, is letting you know that he or she sees you and is thinking about you. Any you, cold and alone on the side of the road in the dark driving rain are utterly exposed and helpless. There is nothing to do but try to stay vigilant. 

A few minutes later the van was stopping for me. 

The sliding door opened and a guy with rotten teeth said: “We couldn’t leave you here in the rain. We’ll take you to Houston and let you out under a bridge.”

I was on guard but, for some reason, not afraid. I got in the van.

The same guy continued. “I’m Mark. This is my partner Pete. We’ve been on the road together for 11 years. We just couldn’t leave you there.”

Houston was one hundred miles west. I had no idea what to make of this generosity and I was grateful, incredulous and apprehensive.

Conversation came easily. We talked about the road. About itinerant work. About which state has the nastiest police.

After about an hour I looked up and, to my surprise and concern, saw that we were no longer on Interstate 10 but on US 90, the highway that Interstate 10 parallels and replaced as the main east-west artery across the deep south. I asked what was up and one of my hosts said: “We need gas.”

We stopped in a gas station. Pete got out, walked to the back of the van, opened the rear door, and took-out an armload of miscellaneous things. I had no idea what was happening.

Pete returned, put gas in the van, and we headed west again.

“What was that about? Why did you grab that stuff?”

Pete answered as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened: “We sold some stuff to buy gas.”

“Wait, what? You sold stuff to buy gas to take me one hundred miles west? I can chip-in.”

“No ya can’t. You are our guest. Just help someone else out when you can. Road people gotta stick together.”

Two hours after Pete and Mark picked me up they did exactly what they said they were going to do: they dropped me off under a bridge just outside of Houston.

The next day, a few hours after dawn and somewhere in central Texas, I got picked-up by a couple of poets. We got off the road, went to the driver’s house, and read each other our poems. I felt compelled to keep moving and asked for a lift back to the highway. We got back in the car. As one of the two lifted my knapsack out of his trunk my copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling fell out. 

“Jesus Christ” he said. “You pick-up a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere Texas and he’s reading fucking Kierkegaard.” We shook hands and I made my way up the ramp to the highway.

A few hours later I had made it almost to the New Mexico border, 950 miles west of Louisiana. It was raining hard and my ride, I no longer remember the particulars, had left me off under a bridge.

I didn’t wait long before a guy, he must have been in his mid 70s, stopped to give me a lift. He had a brand new pick-up truck and said, in a heavy Texas drawl, “Careful with the upholstery with that bag ya got there.” I immediately noticed his face. He had deep crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, deep creases in his grey cheeks, and he was smoking a non-filter cigarette.

As he pulled the truck into the right lane he said: “I don’t norm’ly pick-up hitch-hikers, but you look like a drowned rat. What the hell you doin’ under a bridge in a west Texas rain sturm fer?”

I started to tell him about Judy. That she had a train ticket. That I couldn’t afford one…

He held up his hand to stop me. Then he let-out a huge puff of smoke, crushed his cigarette and said: “Son, never do something like this for a pussy. Every gal’s got one.”

That evening I got picked-up by a guy doing 90 MPH. In Deming, New Mexico he got too tired to drive and got a hotel room. He invited me into his room to get a few hours of sleep. At dawn we were off.

Around 2:00 that afternoon I walked down an exit ramp from Interstate 10 into Tucson. At the bottom of the ramp, to my disbelief, was the youth hostel to which Judy had been headed.

I stopped walking and looked at the hostel, 30 yards away and across a street. As I stood there I realized that my time with Judy was over. I turned and walked to the University of Arizona campus, found the student center, and ordered a quesadilla.


Six months later I was back at Swarthmore College. One Saturday I picked-up my phone, called directory assistance and asked for the numbers of all the Andersons in the little town in Michigan that I knew Judy was from. In under a half hour I was talking to Judy’s mother. She told me that Judy was in San Francisco and was working at a bakery. I told her to tell Judy that Phil had called, was delighted that she was fine and wished her well.

Note: I’ve changed the names of the people in this story.