My uncle was emphatic: he wouldn’t accept a fake. I was to bring him an authentic tetradrachm from Athens, a coin with the face of Alexander the Great on one side and Zeus on the other. There I was, a newly minted bride of the ’60s in a gauzy peasant blouse and jangling silver bracelets, traipsing around Athens poking in dubious-looking storefronts promising “Authentic Greek Coins for Sale.”
I rejected Alexanders with outsized noses and phony-looking hair, knowing there were hundreds of bogus ones out there. After several unsuccessful days, I was tempted to buy any old coin. But I was doing something for my uncle that he could never do for himself.
Several days later walking on a side street off Syntagma Square on a hot July day, I passed a door open just enough for me to hear my favorite Mikis Theodorakis song with its tangy bouzouki. I stepped inside and knew this was the place. Long glass cases faced each other displaying thousands of shiny coins, like so many military buttons.
A man with a gently drooping mustache and a smile as sweet as a baklava eased out from behind a counter. I tried out the Greek greeting I’d mastered:
“Kalimera, milate anglika?” (Good morning, do you speak English?)
Mr. Giannopoulos made a half bow and introduced himself by saying he had spent a few years in Detroit.
I put away my English-Greek dictionary.
“You have so many coins? Are any of them reproductions?”
As if to ward off any doubts, he raised his hands, palms toward me, in the gesture that accompanies “Okhi,” the Greek word for “No” that sounds as if one is clearing his throat.
Then he opened a glass cabinet and removed a coin the size of an American quarter, only a little thicker. It was a beautiful likeness of Alexander, his curls undulated in raised silver, looking as if he’d just shaken them out after a swim in the Aegean. You could fall in love with a profile like that. On the reverse side, Zeus sat regal on his throne, an eagle perched on his hand as lightly as a butterfly. Some of the folds of Zeus’s draped robe were rubbed off, perhaps by the many hands trading it to pay the mercenaries for Alexander’s army. I wanted to believe that this was the authentic coin I was looking for. I knew I would pay almost any price for it.
“And so, how much does this one cost?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
Mr. Giannopoulos leaned over the counter and stroked his chin.
“For a lovely young woman who speaks some Greek, I will make you a good price. And, of course, it comes with papers of authenticity.”
The price was more than twice as much as my uncle had given me, but I’d suspected Ben’s $50 would not go very far.
Mr. Giannopoulos produced a rolled-up piece of paper in Greek (though, of course, I had no idea what it said) with his own signature and an official looking government stamp. I went straight to the post office down the street and mailed the coin to my uncle, knowing he wouldn’t want to wait six months for my return. I felt I’d accomplished something important.
A few months later, I knew by the shape of the box and the return address that my uncle had sent back the Alexander head. In the package, there was a note on his creamy
monogrammed stationery that read:
The coin is not authentic. Return my $50. Uncle Ben.
He’d apparently consulted someone in Louisville, Kentucky who’d determined the coin was a fake. Didn’t my uncle know how seriously I’d taken his request? I’d done research, eschewed coins with telltale phony signs, and purchased what I believed was a genuine tetradrachm. My first reaction was: I’m not going to send him back his fifty bucks after all the trouble I went to finding his stupid coin. Uncle Ben always had to be right; it was a family trait.
It took me a few days to realize how disappointed he must have been. Since my trip to Greece was one my uncle couldn’t make himself, he’d asked me to be his eyes and legs, and I’d let him down. So, if he thought the coin was a fake—and maybe it was—I wouldn’t argue with him. I sent back his $50 with an apology.
When I saw my uncle again, we didn’t speak of the incident, and never did. The Alexander head ended up forgotten at the bottom of my jewelry box.
Like everyone in our family, I cut Uncle Ben a lot of slack. He’d returned from the Second World War a paraplegic. He would spend the rest of his life on the sidelines, confined to a wheel chair. Becoming an amateur numismatist, a collector of coins, was not the future he’d had envisioned for himself.
Of the four Bailen boys, my mother’s brothers, Ben, was the smartest, the one in law school, the one destined to run the thriving family roofing business. But Sunday, December 7, 1941—Pearl Harbor—changed everything. The next week Uncle Ben and his three brothers enlisted in the United States Army. Ben would be the only one to see action.
We received the telegram at my grandmother’s Thanksgiving day dinner:
Ben Bailen, reported wounded in action. In O’Reilly Hospital, Springfield, Mississippi, Ward 7.
I remember my aunts and uncles crying, some hugging each other. My mother pulled me onto her lap.
“At least he’s alive,” she said.
A few months later, my uncle was sent to the Hines Veteran Hospital near Chicago, which specialized in rehabilitating severely wounded soldiers. Uncle Ben had multiple shrapnel wounds and a severed spine. It took a year of physical therapy before he was ready to leave. On his way back home to Louisville, he stopped to visit us in Ohio. He brought with him a tall, wavy-haired woman named Phyllis, a former hospital administrator at Hines. She had sashayed into Ben’s room with a tad of her red taffeta petticoat showing, and Ben was smitten. She was a match for his irreverent sense of humor and had teased him out of his depression.
“Your uncle said I needed your approval before he marries me.”
Phyllis took her double strand of pearls from around her neck and draped them on my eight-year-old neck, still warm from nestling under her green cashmere cardigan.
“Ben said you love horseback riding, so maybe we can go together.”
It was something my uncle wouldn’t be able do with me again. I gave instant approval, but not everyone in the family shared my enthusiasm.
The family suspected Phyllis was after Ben’s pension. As a Hines administrator, she had access to his records, knew he wouldn’t live long, and would be eligible as his widow for government money. I heard my mother and her sisters whispering, “Why would a healthy young woman want to marry a paralyzed man?” When I was older, I understood the subtext: with whom one couldn’t have sex. It seemed obvious to me they were in love.
The summer not long after Ben and Phyllis were married and had moved into their new ranch-style house, I received a letter addressed to me from my new aunt:
Your uncle Ben and I would like to invite his favorite niece to spend a week with us during your summer vacation.
I felt very grown-up, excited to go on a visit without my mother. After a four-hour car trip to Louisville, we arrived. I don’t remember saying a proper good-bye to her, though it was my first vacation without her.
My aunt and uncle’s house, built with government funds for veterans, was fitted with extra-wide doorways and ramps. There were no rugs or steps. I got used to riding from room to room on the back of my uncle’s wheelchair, my aunt Phyllis’s arms cradling around me on the chair handles, pushing us. Children adapt to whatever reality is presented to them, and I accepted that my uncle lived in a rolling chair.
In the evenings we had dinner on the screened-in back porch with its pots of white jasmine sweetening the hot humid air. Before bedtime, I waited for the clatter of the steel chair wheels on the wooden floor, a signal that my uncle was coming to read to me from his thick book of Greek myths. He told me stories of the Greek gods and heroes. His favorite, Alexander the Great, had wanted to conquer the world and almost did. Maybe, as a young man, my uncle thought he, too, might explore other worlds, but now the only ones he’d conquer would be with his mind. Discussions of distant civilizations became a part of my next ten summer vacations with him.
By my teens, I was strong enough to grasp the back of my uncle’s belt and swing him into the driver’s seat of his hand-operated car. We then could make our getaway with no one knowing.
In the car, we sang our favorite songs, “Cement Mixer” and “Mairzy Doats,” just as we had before uncle Ben went away to war, when we rode around in my grandfather’s roofing shop pickup. We learned to navigate the riverbank’ terrain to avoid rough patches with the wheelchair.
Once situated on the banks of the Ohio River we’d settle in for an afternoon of fishing. I don’t remember our talking much by the gray, tepid water on those sticky July days. We’d sit for hours, dawdling over our aimlessly floating lines, never expecting to catch many fish.
I was squeamish about baiting the hooks with worms. But my uncle Ben would have none of my excuses.
“You can’t always only do the things you like in life,” he said.
So I learned to squish translucent bodies onto curved pins, wiping the excess goo on my shorts. In all those summer hours we spent together, my uncle never complained. He seemed well-adjusted to his new life. Marriage suited him as did working a few days a week in the family business.
One afternoon, after I had maneuvered him back in the car, he sat with both hands on the steering wheel, looking straight ahead. And then, in slow motion, he listed slowly to the right until his head dropped softly into my lap. He began to cry. I patted his head, noting to myself how strange this was, and I cried too.
Up until that moment, I saw my uncle only in relationship to me. It was in his tears that I realized his sorrow, how his life had been truncated, and I experienced for the first time the helplessness of compassion.
After I graduated high school, the summer vacations to Louisville stopped. I went to college, got married, and accompanied my husband on a project to Greece. No surprise that after my bachelor’s degree I was working on a masters in ancient history. In Athens, I took a field archaeology course, though I didn’t expect to dig up tetradrachms any more than I’d expected to catch a fish in the Ohio River.
A few years after I returned from my Greek trip, my uncle died peacefully in his sleep at age 65, after a short bout with pneumonia. He lived longer than anyone expected, due, I’m convinced, to my Aunt Phyllis’s loving care.
Not long after the funeral, I was rummaging around in my jewelry box. Buried under my tangle of dangling earrings was the returned tetradrachm; I took it out and stroked the silvery texture of Alexander’s curls.
“How beautiful you are.”
The next day I drove to my silversmith friend Marissa’s studio and showed her the Alexander head, asking what she could do with it. She turned it over a few times in her hand, looking perplexed and then pleased.
“I’ll put a simple rim around it, and you can wear it as a pendant.”
I went to the best jewelry store in town and bought a linked silver chain, paying significantly more for the chain than I had paid for Mr. Giannopoulos’s coin.
Depending on my mood, I wore the pendant with Alexander shining out at the world, every inch the conqueror, or sometimes I turned it over to show majestic Zeus with his bared, muscled torso, not unlike my uncle’s. The necklace traveled with me over the next thirty years, covering almost as many miles as Alexander had in his lifetime. Then, on one of my many moves from country to country, I lost it. I don’t remember where, but I remember how distressed I felt. The necklace had become my tangible link to my uncle, losing it was like losing him again.
Last summer I took my grandson on a trip to Greece to celebrate his thirteenth and my eightieth birthday. It was a journey to show Emmett places that had been meaningful to me and to explore new places together. Before we left, I gave him this essay on the Alexander head which I was in the midst of writing.
“We should try to buy you another Alexander head in Greece, Nana,” he said.
I knew I could never afford to replace it.
On the last day of our trip, strolling around the Plaka in Athens, we came upon a card table with a straw baskets full of coins. We rifled through them and found a good likeness of Alexander. The price was two euros.
“Definitely not a real one,” said my grandson, with his newly acquired numismatic knowledge.
Whether the tetradrachm was a fake or not had never mattered to me. Its value was its connection to my past, and now, to the present. I was happy to have my Alexander head back in my life, encasing my memories, every one of them authentic.