After racking my brain looking for trouble, I even told Webb about the night before I left for college, when I went out egging cars with my high school buddies one last time. Not much to report or worry about. Nothing in my background would keep me out of the White House.
I was born the second child of a solid Greek family in Fall River, Massachusetts, and baptized George after my grandfather, a missionary priest who left the Peloponnesian village of Neohorio in 1938 for Montana to minister to Greek immigrants scattered across America's west. His job was to make sure the members of the flock kept their faith as they sought their fortunes, to remind them of who they were and where they came from. More than a place of worship, the immigrant church was a piece of home. A year after his arrival, just before the war, my grandfather was joined by his family. The oldest was a five-year-old boy they called Lamby, Bobby, who would also grow up to be a priest --and my father.
A boy when he sailed from Patras in 1912, my mother's father worked on the railroads from Ellis Island to Salt Lake City before settling in Rochester, Minnesota, where he opened a shoe repair shop. Only after he made his start did he return to his village, Kalithea, to bring the teen bride chosen for him back to America. When he died in 1974, his business was the oldest in town, and his fellow merchants marched down Main Street in his memory. But he was most proud of the fact that all five of his children, including my mom, Nikolitsa, had attended college.
My parents met at a church youth convention in Minneapolis, where my mom was studying public relations at the University of Minnesota. Dad was on a field trip from seminary, and there was probably no better place to meet a woman willing to become a presbytera, literally "priest's wife" --a word that captures the idea that everybody in the family of a priest has a responsibility to the family of the church. The presbytera is a kind of first lady. She has an official role as hostess and helpmate but can't let people get the idea she's assuming authority that isn't hers. The daughters, like my sisters, Stacy and Marguarite, sing in the choir and teach Sunday school. The sons, like my brother, Andrew, and me, become altar boys.
I was only four when I first served. Going to the office with my dad meant going to church. He would slap a little Mennen on my cheeks after he shaved, and we would head to the place only men could go --the altar, an inner sanctum separated from the rest of the congregation by a screen of icons. Often it was just the two of us back there. I would watch him whisper prayers as he vested himself in satin robes. Then I would hold out my own robe for him to bless, and the service would begin.
My first job was carrying a candle, making sure to hold it straight without staring at the flame. Once a year an altar boy forgot, hypnotizing himself and fainting to the floor. Responsibilities increased with age and size: Bigger boys took lanterns, and the biggest carried the cross. My favorite job was tending the censer. After placing a pebble of incense on the charcoal in its gold bowl, I got to walk backward, waving the perfumed smoke in my father's path as he carried the bread and wine around the altar.
I soon became a reader as well. When I was six, the bishop came to my father's new parish in Rye, New York, and placed his stole on my head before clipping a bit of my hair to symbolize my servitude to the church. "Axios," the bishop proclaimed. "He is worthy." Axios echoed back from the pews --a word weighted with expectation, a word I would hear again if I were ordained. On Sundays after that I would read the Epistle or recite the creed, remembering to speak "loud and slow" --the instructions my dad silently mouthed to me before I faced the congregation. At nine, I appeared on my biggest stage yet. Archbishop Iakovos opened our church convention with a liturgy at Lincoln Center, and I was chosen to stand by his side and hold his staff. Monday's New York Daily News ran a picture of the bearded prelate in a tall gold crown next to a small boy with bangs and hands clasped in front of him. For a day, I was a star.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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