In Memoriam: Henry Ingwersen

For those of you who really know me, you know how over-educated I am. I have three degrees: a BA in Anthropology, a BA in Art History, and a Master of Library and Information Science. Lots of education, lots of student loans I’m still paying, but a head crammed full of stuff.

What you may not know is that I seriously considered getting an MFA in Creative Writing after I finished my BA in Art History. But at the time, in my early twenties, I did not have the requisite portfolio nor the maturity to complete such a program. Library school was a much more practical option, so that’s what I did.

But I never forgot about the MFA. It’s always been sitting in the back of my head, but I had too much student debt and no money to pay for more school. Until now, that is. Let me tell you a little story about how we now are solvent and have the money to pay for school.

My husband, Kosta, used to work at the library too. (I met him on my first day of work here in January of 2005, but that’s a story for another day.) He had been working for the library about a year when I came in. And in that year he had met a patron named Henry. Henry was a cranky old WWII vet that took a shine to Kosta because my husband knows his history and the classics (i.e. Greek history). He once invited him out to dinner and that became a weekly occurrence for the two bachelors.

They kept up their weekly dinners for ten years, even after I came into the picture. Except when we were on vacation, every Thursday night would find Henry and Kosta at Perkins, or the Olive Garden, or the Clock.

Henry had lots of fascinating stories. He was a pilot in WWII and flew P38’s over New Guinea. He was awarded a bronze star. He was a career army man who was stationed all over the world: Paris and Gibraltar and Reykjavik and Beirut. He even did a tour in Vietnam because he had been stationed in Duluth and wanted out. (Well, it does get a bit cold in the winters.)

Henry was married once, briefly in the 1950s but after his divorce was a confirmed bachelor. He loved Danish design and liked to draw and work with wood. He was highly intelligent.

But he was also a mean old cuss. I went to dinner with them a couple of times. He would curse at babies crying in restaurants, complain about everything from the food to the music, and would leave a $2 tip if he was feeling generous. Kosta always put down more cash when Henry was walking out.

But Kosta kept going out with the old man. Henry didn’t have many friends and was rather alone in the world. So when about 8 years into their friendship he asked my husband to be the executor to his will, Kosta agreed. Henry did have two living sisters, but they were far away and both nearly as old (Henry was about 89 at this point.)

When Kosta agreed, Henry said this next: “By the way, I’m giving you my condo.”

Kosta protested. Surely it should go to his family? Didn’t he have nieces or nephews who might want it? But Henry was adamant. He said, “No! I don’t like those sons of bitches.”) Alrighty, then.

So Kosta was written into the will.

Henry died of lung cancer that spread to his brain. It was swift and I don’t think he suffered monstrously. He had fallen at home and had been taken to the hospital and later rehab. He knew he was dying and didn’t want the treatment. But we saw him suffering in the nursing home and got him out of there–he could afford round-the-clock nursing care so we did that for him and he died peacefully in his own home.

Which now belongs to us.

We’ve been living there for a year and a half. You can’t believe what it means to not have a rent or mortgage payment. We paid down our credit cards. And now, when I’m thinking of a career change, suddenly, magically, I am able to work towards it.

As hard as Henry was to like, I will be forever grateful to him for this gift. The place might be a little rundown (the kitchen and bathrooms are still 1979 original) but by God, it is ours. And it doesn’t even freak me out that he died in the very same room where we now sleep. I think he went peacefully, knowing that he had been on the earth 91 years and it was his time to go.

Thanks, Hank, for the gift. It keeps on making our lives easier in new ways and I have a sense of relief that I will never be homeless. That’s no small thing during this pandemic when so many are out of work and unable to pay rent. I am damn grateful every day to you.

May His Memory Be Eternal

It’s a lovely sentiment to say when someone dies: May his/her/their memory be eternal. I first learned this when I married a Greek, as this is their blessing instead of saying, “my sympathies,” or “my prayers are with you and your family,” or, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

It gives a beautiful message that the deceased will continue to live on in the memories of others, passed down through generations of family, or networks of friends. Even though it is a Greek saying, and they are mostly Eastern Orthodox, there is no religious connotation to the phrase, making it applicable to all.

But sometimes memories aren’t eternal. Sometimes there are lives forgotten.

Working at a public library for fifteen years you get to know a lot of people who are alone. And I mean alone–sometimes they have family far away, but a lot of the time I am the only person they talk to in their day, maybe their week.

Dennis Albright was one of these people who spent most of their time alone. He loved Sci Fi  and old horror movies, his favorite movie of all time was Dr. Strangelove.  Mr. Albright always had blood spots on his face from where he nicked himself shaving. He spoke rapidly, almost frenetically, like he had so much information to share he had to do it quickly before his one conversation of the week dried up.

He was a more than a little odd. Another patron told me he used to be a brilliant physics professor but kind of lost his mind when his mother died. He was a writer too, he had his book self-published on Amazon called “Wiener Dogs at War.” I’m not sure it sold very many copies, but it made him happy. Ecstatic.

When we moved last year I was surprised to see him in our parking lot one day. He lived on the second floor of our building, it seemed. He would walk around and around the parking lot for exercise in his highwater pants, white socks and black loafers.  Every time he saw my husband (whom he dealt with most at the library) he would always stop him with the words, “Let me ask you something,” and then launch into a diatribe about pensions, or his writing, or some other subject. Kosta often had a hard time extricating himself.

But last December it all changed. One morning on my way out to the car I saw two police cars sitting in the emergency drive of our building. There was a woman on the second floor walkway on the phone. I heard her say as I got into my car, “You wouldn’t want to be up here today.” I was mildly curious, but didn’t want to pry as it was none of my business.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that we found out that Mr. Albright had died. And not just died, but lay dead in his apartment for two weeks before the smell began to drift into the hallway. We heard from another couple in our building he had died in the bathroom and the police had a hard time getting to him because he had collapsed against the door.

We were shocked and saddened that he was so alone that the lack of his presence went unmissed for two weeks. What a sad ending to what must have been a very lonely existence.

In January a huge dumpster appeared in our parking lot. And within two days the entire contents of his apartment were emptied into it, filling it to the top. We had heard he had no family save for an estranged sister who apparently wanted nothing to do with him. So into the dumpster it all went, an entire life: furniture and cookware, and papers, and probably lots of copies of his book. In another few days it was taken away and that was the end of Mr. Albright.

But that isn’t good enough for me. He may have been annoying, he may have been alone, but no one deserves to end their life that way. So I’m posting this as a memory of him. I hope wherever he is he has lots of friendly companions and lots of wiener dogs to play with.

I’m sorry, Mr. Albright, that I wasn’t a better friend to you. May your memory be eternal.

The Tale of Two Houses in Greece

My husband is 100% Greek ethnicity, although an American citizen. We have been on vacation in Greece twice since we’ve been married, and over the progression of those two vacations, an incredible story of coincidence and fate occurred.

The first time we went was in 2011. We based ourselves in Nafplio, where Kosta’s aunt lives. From there we took two road trips–one north and one south. On the southern trip I wanted to stop in a tiny out-of-the-way village called Monemvasia. It is a medieval walled city that sits on a rock off the coast and is connected by a tiny causeway.

Monemvasia: The Gibraltar of Greece

Apparently it used to be part of the Peloponnese but broke away in an earthquake in the 600s. The town almost completely died out in the 1970s but it has had a revival in the past few decades. Folks are starting to rebuild the ruins into livable houses and there are a scattering of cute little shops selling local goods, a few hotels and restaurants. Plus the streets have no cars and no bicycles, only foot traffic.

The medieval streets of Monemvasia.

The medieval streets of Monemvasia.

We almost didn’t go. We were due back in Nafplio and weren’t sure it was worth the trip but I convinced my husband that we should do it, even though it was really out-of-the-way. He took two steps through the main gate and turned to me and said, “Oh, we’re staying two nights!”

The door to our hotel room in Monemvasia. Are you dying yet?

The door to our hotel room in Monemvasia. Are you dying yet?

We spent two days wandering around this little jewel of a town. There is an old town, which is all in ruins, at the top of the rock. You can climb up there (and it is a hot, stinking climb) but the views are amazing. When we were about halfway up, I stopped and turned and took the following picture:

This is THE HOUSE in Monemvasia.

This is THE HOUSE in Monemvasia.

We had walked by it on our way up and you can’t see it, but the back door is open. It had been gutted, but had been wired for electricity at one time. We fell in love with this house almost at first sight. When we got home we got one of those photo canvases made of Monemvasia (a different picture, but the house is still in it) which hangs on the wall over our TV. We still look at it everyday and dream of buying it, fixing it up, and living in it.

That’s the first house.

The second house belonged to an Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor, although he was known to everyone as Paddy. He was a wild young man looking for adventure that took him all over Europe. During WWII was instrumental in organizing the resistance on Crete after it had been invaded by the Germans. He spoke Greek like a Greek and German like a German and he and Stanley Moss actually kidnapped a German general on Crete and delivered him to Egypt. That in itself is quite a tale, though not entirely relevant here.

Paddy Leigh at his house in Kardimyli.

Paddy Leigh Fermor at his house in Kardimyli.

Paddy settled in Greece after the war. He wrote several travel books and was one of those rugged, live by your wits kind of men who could set off into the bush on foot with a hunting knife and live quite happily. But he did build a gorgeous house right on the water in a couple hours’ drive from Monemvasia called Kardimyli.

Paddy Leigh sitting on his terrace.

Paddy Leigh Fermor sitting on his terrace.

My husband has been obsessed with Paddy and his life, his books, and the house. Paddy died in 2011, just a few months before we were there the first time. He donated his house to the Benaki Museum in Athens, in hopes that it would be turned into a writers’ retreat. Holy Mother of God, could you imagine? But since the Greek economy is in the toilet and has been for years, the house sits empty.

It's a big, sprawling place with spectacular views of the Aegean.

It’s a big, sprawling place with spectacular views of the Aegean.

Now here comes the interesting part. Kosta had heard that some movie director had used the Fermor house to film part of a movie. It turned out to be the picture Before Midnight with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  He was reading about it online and mentioned that when we got the movie in at the library we should check it out so we could get a good look at the house and its grounds. Good idea, right?

One day I am sitting at the Reference Desk. Kosta runs up to me with an astonished look on his face. He asked me, “Do you believe in signs from God?” I said of course I did. Then he pulled out a copy of Before Midnight  and handed it to me:

Before Midnight

Do you see it??? OUR HOUSE in Monemvasia!

I think I gasped and dropped the movie like a hot potato. I still get goosebumps when I look at it. And we did check out that movie and I watched the whole damn thing, and not once, not once, did they show that house in the film. It was just a photo they photoshopped for the cover.

Come on, right? Of all the houses in the world, even all the houses in Greece, and they pick this one. Also, if you notice, the photo is taken in the same damn spot I took mine.

When we went back in 2014 we decided to see if we could peek at Paddy’s house. We peered through the gate, and no one but a yowly old cat was inside. Then we went down to the beach and I had a thought. Wouldn’t there be steps leading down to the water from the house? By gum, there were, and I found them.

The steps leading to the beach at Paddy Leigh Fermor's house.

The steps leading to the beach at Paddy Leigh Fermor’s house and our friend.

Yep, we did it. The gate wasn’t locked so we crept up the stairs to get a better view of the house. It was drool-worthy.

Kosta sitting illegally on the terrace at Paddy Leigh's house.

Kosta sitting illegally on the terrace at Paddy Leigh Fermor’s house.

One more time, side by side.

One more time, side by side.

What does it all mean? I still don’t know. But I take it as a sign that I should keep fighting for my writing career because someday I want to be on the balcony of that house sipping retsina, eating olives, and watching the Milky Way appear in a glittering swathe above my head. I’d even let Kosta come too.

The story’s ending is still unknown. But if I ever get to be a famous author I’ll invite you all over for olives and wine. You’ll know where to find me.