A Personal Account of Living in the Greek Orthodox Community in New York and an Arranged Marriage
Most of the kids I grew up with in the Greek village of Karpatos were forced into arranged marriages, but I never thought it would happen to me. I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to be a singer.
When I was 14, my family moved to a Greek Orthodox community. Suddenly, even though I could still barely say “hello” in English, I was going to school and being exposed to all these wonderful Western things. Then, at a neighborhood Greek festival, my mother, who was convinced I was boy crazy, saw me talking to a guy, and decided that if she didn’t marry me off I’d disgrace myself.
She knew a woman who lived in New York with her 21-year old son, who was working as a waiter. My parents went there to arrange a marriage between us. My father told my mother that he didn’t like the prospective bridegroom, but she didn’t care.
I met my husband six days before the ceremony; I remember every nightmare detail of my wedding and honeymoon. Only two states allow underage marriages, so my family, his family and some people from our village flew to South Carolina for the City Hall service. At the end, the lady who’d married us said, “You can kiss the bride.” My husband and I were so embarrassed we could barely look at each other. Then we headed back to the house where we had our religious ceremony. Following Greek Orthodox custom, I went home afterward with my parents.
The next day, my father drove Emanual, my husband, and me to a hotel. When we got to the room, I almost jumped for joy. There were two single beds. My father kissed me goodbye and left. Then a manager came by and said, “We gave you the wrong room,” and led us to one with a double bed. I locked myself in the bathroom the entire night. Emanual didn’t know what to do. He was almost as sexually innocent as I was. The next day, my father picked us up, and we moved in with my parents. I t took a month before I had sex with Emanual. It still felt like I was sleeping with a stranger. It always did.
I had started menstruating when I was 13. After my marriage, I stopped getting my period, but nobody explained that that meant I was pregnant. When I told my mom, she said I was going to have a baby. I had to drop out of school. I was 14. I had a C-section and Sophia was born. I’d sit on my stoop and watch neighborhood kids play. I ached to join them, but I had to clean and cook. My childhood was stolen from me.
Life in the Greek Orthodox community was very cloistered. After I had the baby, practically the only contact I had with the outside world was on Saturdays, when my mother, sister, aunt and I would go to McDonald’s. That was the big treat. Once, my uncle took me to a movie. I watched a lot of TV.
My dearest wish was to go back to school. But after Sophia was old enough, I had to work in a factory with my mother, making men’s jackets. My husband worked the night shift in a restaurant. He wasn’t a bad man. He was good looking and decent, and I if we weren’t forced on each other, maybe I’d have come to love him, when I’d see a young couple in love, I’d feel so jealous. I would ask Emanual, “Can’t you ever bring me flowers? Can’t we ever go on a date.”
My father died and I had another baby, and the four of us continued living with my mother. Couple of years after we were finally able to afford our first house. It was very exciting. But I did all the shopping, all the chauffeuring. I wanted to save money so the children could go to college. Emanual spent his time working in a takeout restaurant, gambling and hanging out with his friends at a coffee shop. He was totally against saving money.
After Sophia witnessed a horrible fight between her father and me, she said, “I don’t understand why you don’t divorce him. He’s not a real husband.”
When I was 28, I became attracted to a man at the factory where I worked. I warned my husband, “You’ll have to start taking care of us or I will go after another man.” He said, “Oh, yeah!” In the Greek Orthodox community, a man can go to a bar every night and have extramarital sex and no one will blink. But a woman can’t do those things. I had the affair and told my husband. He told him mother and soon every one knew. We had a family meeting, my mother, my three uncles and my husband. I said to my mother, “You pushed me into this. You gave me this man. Now you have to send him away.”
She wouldn’t do it. She didn’t care about my happiness, only about what people would think. My husband didn’t want to try to repair the marriage, and he wouldn’t move out. I accidentally discovered he was planing on taking my youngest daughter to Greece behind my back. Emanual and I had a terrible fight and he hit me for the first time. I called the police.
At this point he wanted to end the marriage also and move back to Greece. I paid for his ticket. I walked the five blocks to my mother’s house and said, “I just want to be your friend, for you to ask me over for a cup of coffee.” She shut the door in my face. She still won’t talk to me. I visit my father’s grave and say, “I’m sorry.” But sorry for what? I just wanted a normal life for myself and for my children.
I’m divorced now. I’m seeing someone but I haven’t remarried. I stay in the community and even though I have a huge family, I’m alone on the holidays. I didn’t lie or steal. I didn’t kill. The divorce alone makes my family think I’m bad. But these are my roots. This is my home now and forever. I miss everyone, my aunts, and even my husband. I told my own daughters, “Unless you choose a man who drinks or does drugs or who’s a criminal, I will stay out of it. It’s your life. I’m not he one who will sleep with him.”