Flashback Friday: Dad's American Dream

When my family and I lived in New Jersey, my gentile father owned a kosher deli. As immigrants and struggling business owners, mom and dad had friends and clients from all nationalities and walks of life. I remember long, spontaneous, Sunday dinners--our home was crowded with guests who, like my parents, had come to this country in search of the American dream. But even though we started to prosper financially, my parents made a surprise decision to leave the city in search of a peaceful, simpler, and safer life in the hills of Virginia.

Simpler, however, is a relative term.

Even though I was only an eight-year old at the time of our move from New Jersey, much about life in 1970s rural Virginia surprised me and stood in stark contrast to life up north. The most striking difference was both the lack of diversity and people's initial reaction to my father who, as a Greek immigrant, may have been the only "foreigner" in a 30-mile radius of the county's center.

A few months after we arrived, Dad spotted a small little restaurant for sale along Highway 220. He met with the owner about buying the property, using the profits he'd made in the sale of his deli.

"You seem like a nice man," said the owner to my father. "So, I am gonna tell this to you straight. I cannot in good conscious sell the restaurant to you. People 'round here don't like foreigners and they won't eat a meal cooked by one."

"I appreciate your honesty," my father replied quietly. "Go ahead and sell me your restaurant. I know I can make a success of this place." And with this exchange of words and thought, along with his cold hard cash, my father became the owner of a small little restaurant in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Dad understood that the ethnic cuisine of his deli days wasn't going to fly in rural Virginia. So with mother by his side, dad opened a country-cooking restaurant, soul food if you prefer. Eggs, grits, ham hocks, fried chicken, country-style steak, chick livers, mash potatoes, collard greens, fried apples, green beans featured prominently on the daily specials. It took years before dad introduced spaghetti to his customers, the only hint of ethnicity on the menu.

From 6am to 10p every day of the week, mom and dad worked side by side to make the restaurant a success by winning over the community. Even the children were put on display to further this goal. Blonde, bouncy, and bubbly, each sibling had a role to play in the family business. I cleaned the tables and sat customers. Chrissy worked as a dishwasher. Chico eventually became the short order cook. Everyone got in the act.

However, it was my father, the county's only Greek, who became the heart and soul of the restaurant. Although people around those parts were leery at first of this foreigner, dad's warm and sincere smile, firm handshake, and natural charisma drew folks from as far as an hour and a half away to regularly patron his shop.

"Hello, cousin." How are you doing, my friend?" With his thick Greek accent, dad greeted and thanked everyone who walked through his doors. The hard worked paid off. As the years passed, both dad's popularity and the business grew. The physical building expanded three times in less than 15 years. Dad's profits soared even though he barely raised prices over the same period of time.

For the most part, the years of success brought happiness to my father, who enjoyed working the long hours even though it meant he missed so much of life at home. The primary duty, as he saw it, was to provide for his family and to make sure we never wanted for anything or experienced the perils of poverty as he once did.

Dad strived for and attained the American dream that he and his old Sunday dinner friends from New Jersey had so often talked about. Dad lived the classic immigrant tale of rags to riches, overcoming obstacles and challenges through hard work.

But after twenty five years, hundreds of employees, thousands of customers, and tens of thousands of meals, dad decided to retire in his mid-50s. It was time for my father to sell the restaurant to one of his employees and to spend more time with mother.

To honor my father and his years of service, my siblings and I quietly invited former employees and a few longtime customers to the restaurant on dad's final night of work. Word spread beyond our list of personal invites. As dad worked in the kitchen, hundreds of people gathered in the dining areas to wish him well. When dad, still oblivious to the growing crowd made his way out from the kitchen for a final time, the crowd that had gathered spontaneously stood and offered ovation in appreciation of my father's years of service and friendship. This became only the second time I would see my father cry. This man, once warned from doing business in the area, was no longer a foreigner in the community. He was, in fact, a citizen, supporter, and friend.


TamWill said...

Oh Diane I really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing a piece of your memories.

Your Dad sounds like a man with a Robust personality..is that where you get it from? You definitely inherited his spunk :O)

THis post left me with one thought..MORE!!

Dan-E said...

what a great post. your dad sounds like a character, the type that seems to be getting far too rare these days.

you're telling us that he never tried to sneak in some greek cuisine as a special every now and then?

utenzi said...

That was very touching, Diane. I got all misty with that last paragraph. Unsought recognition like that is such a wonderful tribute.

Too bad that your family didn't introduce baklava to the Virginia hills though. Or better yet--kataiffi (however it's spelled). My favorite Greek food (confection). Eating sweet things like that makes it quite evident that Greece is the cradle of all things civilized. LOL

Ms Bees Knees said...

that was *such* a touching story! what a wonderful tribute to your poppa! i hope he knows how proud you are of him.