How a Greek prayer book was rescued in Baltimore
“Tell me, who’s that writing? John the Revelator…”
- Blind Willie Johnson, 1897-1945
The small book was nestled inside a velveteen purse with a blousy ribbon for a handle and a metal button clasp to keep it from falling out. The purse was adorned with an image of the Cross surrounded by pink flowers, and the red-covered book was thick with pages thin enough to have been peeled from an onion.
Obviously a prayer book, most likely for a young or adolescent girl, and it was written in the language of the New Testament: Greek. I cannot read Greek (spoken by more Jews in the ancient world than Hebrew) and brought the volume to my friend Xenos Kohilas, an artist, philosopher and restaurateur.
It was from Xenos — who has served my family heaping platters of calamari since his family opened Ikaros in 1969 — that I learned of the poetry of C.P. Cavafy. A habitué of flea markets and public auctions, the first thing Xenos did after removing the book from the purse was hold it to his nose (just above his classic moustaki) and breathe in deeply.
“You can tell where something was kept by its smell,” he said from behind the Ikaros bar, across Ponca Street from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. “This book has a sweetness, like a candle made of pure wax.”
And then, turning to the title page, he confirmed that it was, indeed, a prayer book: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, followed by the Book of Revelation written, as Blind Willie professed in the blues, by John of Patmos.
“It was possibly made to be carried as a gift,” said Xenos, noting that it was published in Athens but carried no copyright date. “Maybe for some little lady going somewhere.”
The “little lady” was Liberty Paterakis Tsakalos, wife of bakery founder Harry Tsakalos and daughter of Harry’s partner, Steve Paterakis: the H and S of Baltimore’s fabled bread empire.
Liberty was born in what is now Turkey in 1920 — in the last months when the Ottoman capital was still known as Constantinople — and by the time she would have been old enough to read, her birthplace was not a safe place for Christians, particularly Greek Christians.
Holding the book up by the silken strap of its purse, Xenos said, “If you carried something like this around, you were asking for trouble.”
And thus, the Paterakis family, like so many other ethnic Greeks living in Turkey (if they were so fortunate), found their way to the United States when Liberty was 8 years old. Here — in the ethnic jumble of Baltimore — Liberty’s life revolved around family, the bakery (where she served as treasurer), and, above everything but family, her Greek Orthodox faith.
Although the sanctuary at St. Nick’s was closer to her home, Liberty worshipped at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation on Preston Street downtown. Because the prayer book and its purse were in such good shape — showing little sign of wear and tear despite its obvious age — it is unlikely she used it for worship.
Most probably is was a keepsake. But no one really knows because no one thought to ask Liberty about it before her death in 2014 at age 94, at which point she had moved from her narrow rowhouse at 101 South Highland Avenue to an apartment in Harbor East.
From time to time, I teach a class in the art of the disposable camera, an old-school technology that uses 35mm film and results in hard-copy “snapshots” once developed at a drug store.
When the images come back, I hold up a picture of a loved one and ask my students if they know the difference between a worthless photograph and a priceless one. The worthless picture is the one WITH NO WRITING ON THE BACK TO IDENTIFY PERSON, PLACE, and DATE.
Thus, it is with Liberty’s prayer book. The tome is unfortunately pristine, not a jot or a scribble. The publisher didn’t even bother to include the year it was printed. Perhaps no one ever glimpsed this jewel while Liberty was living to ask and now everyone who might have been of help has joined her on the other side.
Had Liberty’s grandson Michael not spied it as the family emptied out her apartment after her death, “It would have wound up at a flea market or gotten thrown out,” he said.
Michael, however, has a daughter about the age that Liberty would have been — if that is how the story went — upon receiving the book. Perhaps it will be on her arm the next time she goes to church.
[Photo by Macon Street Books.]
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com.