By Janet Hubbard
I had just spent five days in Paris organizing a writer’s workshop in Burgundy, paying a visit to my favorite hair salon, and joining some artist friends at Bar Hemingway. Then I telephoned my friend Noomi to announce I would be soon arriving in Rhodes. She suggested it might be safer for me to stay in a hotel since a strange new virus was spreading across Europe from Wuhan, China.
“I’m not worried,” I said. “We’ll be fine.” It was early March.
Two days later I was walking out of the airport into the Greek sunshine. I met Noomi at her apartment, and we joined her Swedish girlfriends for pizza. Noomi had just finished her third chemo session. She was bald, and though she wore make-up, she looked fragile. But that didn’t dampen her spirits. We were happy to see each other, and her friends regaled me with stories of how they’d come to Rhodes on holiday in the 1960s and end ended up marrying Greek men. All five of them, including Noomi! Afterward, I jumped into my rental car and continued on to Noomi’s country house in Lahania, about an hour and a half south of town. She would follow a couple days later, after she had rested from her treatment.
The ochre country house, designed by Noomi and her husband Vangelis. sits regally atop a hill, overlooking the Aegean Sea. The rooms have unusually high ceilings and tall doors leading out to porches or verandahs. At first, the house felt hollow and stark, especially when the winds whistled around the corners. Yet once Noomi arrived, the place seemed much more welcoming, and I looked forward to our ten day visit before my return to Paris.
Noomi had warned me that she might be down for the count due to her chemotherapy. She rested in her room with the door closed, and I cheerfully took over the management of the house. I drove to the small supermarket and stocked up on fresh vegetables, chicken, and lamb and made the kitchen my domain.
Four days later, the American Embassy in Athens notified me the virus was spreading and I had 24 hours to leave the country. It was that or shelter in place, indefinitely. My clothes and books were still in Paris, but there were no flights available. I was frantic. When Noomi emerged from her room the next morning she said, “Stay here, Janet. It would actually be a blessing. I can’t be alone in the county while going through chemotherapy.” And so it was agreed that I would wait this out on Rhodes. I had everything I needed—my wing of the house included a bedroom looking out onto an olive grove, a small space with a desk and chair, and a private bathroom.
Our daily routine was simple. I started preparing our main meal at noon, we had a light lunch and by three Noomi was in her room, resting until five. She would have a coffee in the kitchen, then at seven we would move to the living room and have a glass of wine. Though we’d met two years ago on my previous trip to Greece, we were discovering one another on a whole new level, as we sat there by the hearth.
Slowly, the story our lives emerged. We’d each left home at a young age to escape a convention—she left a village in Sweden for a Greek adventure, and I left a small southern town to pursue my writing in New York. She was raised with two brothers and I have three siblings that I speak with almost daily. We were close to our grown children, but neither of us had a man in our lives. Two years ago, she’d lost her husband, Vangelis, and I was long divorced. Here we were two independent women in their 70s, wondering about our final acts.
I am used to probing, but Noomi was oddly reticent when I asked about her family life. When the topic of mothers came up, she said only, “Mine was a saint.”
“A saint!” I laughed, “I would never apply that word to my mother. She was a Steel Magnolia used to being in control of her domain. She designed and decorated our big, brick house with huge white columns. She directed the church choir. At her 90th birthday party she had one hundred guests. She was such a strong personality, that my brother once said that we, her children. would never know who we are until she’s gone.”
Noomi asked, “Was he right? Do you know who you are?”
“The answer is yes. I have come into my own as a woman and a writer. ”
“I’ve done nothing with my life,” she said, surprising me.
“What? You’ve worked as a nurse, founded a tourism company and raised a son.” I added, “You also married a creative but complicated man with an international career, and you managed it all quite well.”
“My mother was a saint,” Noomi said, once again, almost as if she were delivering an ultimatum. If being a saint means being stoic, I thought, and standing up to impossible odds, then Noomi was just like her mother.
I sat with my friend for her fourth and fifth chemo treatments, and they were grueling. I expected Noomi to crumple afterward. But the next morning, she’d emerge from her room fully made up and smiling, determined to be brave. Once she confessed that she had awoken in a panic with an arrhythmic heartbeat. It was then the floodgates opened, and this proper, reserved woman began to speak of the many losses in her life—her parents, two brothers, two good friends, and then her husband, all to sudden illness. Noomi had been taught, probably by her saintly mother, never to look back and to shut out anything unpleasant. But that wasn’t really possible anymore, now that the pandemic was raging and we were hearing about the body counts on the news each night.
Our evening talks were an anchor. Jokingly Noomi started referred to them as the interrogation hour. One day she sighed, “Oh, Janet. All this talking about the past, what’s the point?”
“We tell our stories,” I said, “to make sense of things.”
Noomi grew more animated as I recalled my first meeting with her husband. With his hat dipped jauntily over his forehead, eyes full of curiosity, white beard, long white pony-tail, owl earring dangling from his left earlobe, Vangelis Pavlidis cut a rakish figure. He had a voice that matched his sizeable physique, and he spoke a carefully enunciated English.
“He told me that he learned two-thousand English words when he spent a year in Maine,” I said. “But I didn’t do so well with the name Vangelis. My tongue wasn’t used to shaping it, and at first, I heard myself saying, Van-jelly!”
We recalled the night we all went to watch the eclipse of the sun and the simultaneous rising of the moon. Vangelis wore a cape and his signature hat, as we walked up narrow, winding roads to the top of a hill.
We conjured up Vangelis singing with his friend Nikos, and his son Saavas, in the café. Vangelis pulling out his harmonica and playing with passion. Vangelis cooking Greek dishes in his kitchen. Doffing his hat in Rhodes City indicating that he wished to cross a busy street. How the car came to an abrupt halt as he bowed, hat in hand, like a chivalrous knight.
Finally, Noomi recalled the time she dropped us off in Rhodes Old Town, in the pouring rain, and Vangelis gave me a tour of the historic buildings.
“Yes, his great-grandfather had been the first Greek mayor of Rhodes,” she said. “He grew up during the late 1940s playing in the Old Town, before the medieval city had been restored. As a boy, he had smoked his first cigarette in the basement of one of these historic buildings.”
Later he would write and illustrate the classic book on this fortified city.
“My husband studied art,” Noomi went on, “but still didn’t feel that his style of drawing, so like the late Renaissance masters, would be accepted anywhere. Then he saw the work of David Levine–the GREAT Levine, he called him–the American cartoonist whose work appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. One day Vangelis sent his first drawing to a journal called Omada that belonged to the big newspaper chain, and that was the beginning of his long career.”
All of us had been shocked when Vangelis died, two years ago, after a failed surgery to repair his gall bladder. His presence was still palpable, especially in his studio which still held his drawing table and his pens and brushes. And now Noomi was trying valiantly, to make a new life, on her own.
By the end of April, we were aware that the pandemic wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. Greece was a role model for the rest of Europe: it had shut down early and insisted that we that we follow the rules— social distancing, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks. I worried constantly about my son, an ER doctor in New Hampshire. I kept calling the embassy and the airlines, hoping there would be a break in the travel restrictions.
In the meantime, I was getting nowhere on my novel. I did complete an essay on home, however, inspired by Lawrence Durrell, a former resident of Rhodes. The author of The Alexandria Quartet, said that hunkering down in various places allowed him to discover “the spirit of a place.” Like Durrell, I am happy anywhere, as long as I have a decent bed, good food, and a writing desk. Every winter, for the last few years, I’ve rented my New England house and hit the road. Destination: Paris and the French wine regions where I have researched my books. Sarajevo, where I helped a woman write about the 1990 war in Bosnia. Rhodes for rest and relaxation.
While I’m something of a vagabond, as April wore on, I found that part of me that was a nester. For the first time, I missed my small Vermont community and my cozy little writer’s cottage by the brook.
As the evenings grew warmer, Noomi and I gave up our “fireside chats” and watched CNN until we couldn’t bear it any longer. The pandemic news was impossibly bleak, we turned to Swedish noir shows on Netflix, like “Marcella” and “Quicksand.” It was easier to cope with fictional deaths than with real ones.
By now, I was itching and scratching – and longing for my own routine. I’m used to working to the sounds of nature. Now there was orchestral music coming from Noomi’s section of the house, along with audiobooks, the volume turned up loud, and the sound of animated phone conversations as Noomi connected with her friends. I knew these were her lifelines. And the truth is, I felt jealous. Here she was in the comfort of her own home, with her son nearby, and so many people to check in on her. I longed for my own tribe!
My friends emailed that I must be enjoying my extended time in paradise. Yet Rhodes was a false idyll. There was little variation in our days, and Noomi and I were literally locked up together all the time. How we both longed for a distraction!
I took great joy in the minor discoveries I made on my daily walks, especially when I stumbled across a new flower in bloom. And I was grateful when, one day, some friends ventured up the hill to our house and stood on the other side of the gate to wave hello. Noomi came to life when a neighboring farmer dropped off eggs or came to clear brush. But that was it for human contact.
We couldn’t join the local outdoor yoga class because, as a cancer patient, Noomi had a high risk for contracting the virus. Both of us were longing for the company of others. But by now, I was deeply homesick, and longing for my Vermont writer’s cabin. Noomi loved being in this house because it was a tangible manifestation of her life with Vangelis and their love for one another. It was filled with their essence—not mine.
In May, there was still little hope of getting off the island any time soon, so I tried to deal with my increasing restlessness by taking Noomi’s black dog, Mavros, on long treks to the beach. Then he developed a sensitive paw and the vet said, “Let him rest.” I continued exploring on my own and on those outings, I conjured up memories of my childhood, growing up in a southern tobacco town in the 1950s. Back then, home had consisted of two residences—a formal five-bedroom house in town with a garden that was my mother’s pride, and my grandparents’ farm ten miles away. Spinster aunts came to stay and my great-grandmother taught me to play Canasta as she dipped snuff. Cousin Helen often visited. Noisy and brassy, she had married at least twice and now taught school in other countries. Her stories whetted my appetite to see the world. She was a sharp contrast to Aunt Paige, who’d never been anywhere interesting. She just sat on the verandah consuming Coca-Cola and smoking cigarettes, fanning herself on humid afternoons, and threatening to expire from the vapors. (One day, she did.)
Noomi loved hearing about these characters and said, “Janet, I think you have a new book. The Southern Stories.”
I nodded. “You may be right.”
While I’d been urging Noomi to explore her past, I had come to realize that there was gold in mine.
At last my travel agent managed to booked me on a flight to Athens, then from Germany to Washington, D.C. and finally to back to Burlington, Vermont. On June 8th I sat for the last time on the verandah with Noomi looking out to sea. On impulse, she embraced me, saying “to hell with social distancing!” When I phoned my daughter. Ramsey. and told her I was finally on my way, she said, “I can’t believe it. Are you really coming home?”
After four flights, I landed in Vermont on a late spring afternoon and drove home as the sun set. My neighbor had turned the lights on for me. For a while, I stood on the doorstep and peered inside the house. I could see the books and the paintings in my living room and the old stone hearth—I had birthed my daughter there. I noticed the new chairs on my cozy sun porch and the kitchen lamp I had so proudly shipped from Paris. On the window ledge, a vase my son had made, years ago, when he was in eighth grade. Then I looked down the hill toward the brook and saw my writing studio. From here, it looked like a human-scale birdhouse. This place is the fixed foot of my compass, I thought. The secure attachment that allows me to travel to faraway places. I opened the door and burst into tears.
Janet Hubbard is author of the Vengeance in the Vineyard novels Champagne: The Farewell and Bordeaux: The Bitter Finish and Burgundy: Twisted Roots. She has also written twenty-five non-fiction books for young adults, and is a writing coach and editor. Watch for her new novel, The Eloquence of Grief.