Acts remembered -- grace empowered

Pictures from Latin America flash on the evening news. In the morning, my mail brings pleas for assistance for the children of El Salvador. Their parents stand on the precipice between the right and the left, between indigenous resistance to oppression and outside interference. I search the eyes of children I see in those pictures, and I remember.

I remember what it meant to be a child caught in the middle, to feel the confusion of a distraught world. What are these children thinking? What do the words that separate their own people mean to them? Do they have moments of grace to keep them from sinking into fear?

The first time I heard the fearful word was on a Monday. How could I remember , and yet, how could I ever forget?

Monday was washday. The house smelled of warm suds and the kitchen was steamy. Kyra Katina's hands looked like sponges whose wrinkles would never smooth out. The only other smell in the kitchen was the pot of bean soup simmering on the red-tiled grate.

We Greeks were still an occupied people, but the news had a way of filtering through. The Germans were being badly beaten on many fronts. The Greek resistance was growing in the mountains and spreading in the cities.

Daddy came home that afternoon, as he always did, to eat with us. What was on his face that made me hear the word and remember it as it sounded then? ''I'm afraid of what I hear in the agora,'' he told my worried mother. ''After the Germans leave, we'll be in the hands of communists.'' And there was such foreboding in that word that in my fertile imagination there arose a picture of a rare image in Greek mythology -- a monster, dark and menacing. What would happen to us when the image became reality?

The day came when we knew the Germans were leaving. The port of Thessaloniki, deep and natural, coveted through the centuries by nation after nation, looked like Hades. Mines and sunken vessels had littered it for months. On that last day of the German retreat, word reached us that the electric substation near our home would be dynamited in the night. All of us Katsarkas climbed the hill to Grandfather's house, to love, safety, and prayers. We gathered on the balcony and watched the dark night spreading over our beloved city. Flashes of red illuminated everything in horrible clarity. German mines, planted in the harbor, were going off. The British and Americans were bombarding the Germans. The waterfront was in agony. Flaming pieces of ships shot madly toward the sky. The earth and the sky became one in a monstrous conflagration. But the fury did not move up the hill. Our homes were safe.

Our parents awakened us at dawn. The electric station had been spared and we could return down the hill. We started before even the vendors appeared in the streets. The narrow alleys and cobblestoned paths of the old city were deserted. The quiet lay all around, ominous beneath the staccato drum motif of the explosions in the bay. Who hid in the doorways, lying in wait for departing Germans?

We had reached the street behind our own. My father walked slightly ahead, carrying the baby in his right arm and holding my hand with his left. Immediately behind us, clutching the hands of my older brother and sister, came my mother.

We were almost home when, without warning, from behind an abandoned milkwagon , a man leaped at my father. He was wearing the recognizable emblem of the guerrillas -- down one shoulder and across his chest ran a bandoleer filled with cartridges. I still see him coming at us out of nowhere -- a dusty figure -- a diagonal bandoleer and a flashing gun slung from his shoulder. I remember screaming without making a sound. My father's hand tightened on mine, and then, the man's arms were around my father, hugging him.

Recognition, whispered conversation, a callused hand resting briefly on my hair, and urgency all around. He escorted us home to safety, and I kept thinking , ''This then is a communist.''

Daddy told us his story. They had been together in the menacing mountains of Albania when the Greeks, in a six-month-long burst of ancient courage, beat back Mussolini's Italians. After that Hitler intervened, and the war took a different course; one friend returned home to an occupied country, the other to the mountains and armed resistance.

In 1944 when the occupying forces left Greece, Daddy's fear became reality. We were caught in the throes of a communist uprising. A civil war erupted in an already devastated country. The horror of it was that even the heroes of yesterday -- the gallant resistance fighters -- no matter what their true loyalties, became identified with the enemies of today -- the communists.

To compound the tragic irony, the security battalion forces claimed for themselves alone the word patriot, and nobody dared use the other word that suited many of them -- collaborator.

The country floundered in misused words as it thrashed in violence. Many inside Greece understood the bitter ironies, took no sides, and simply endured; many on the outside misunderstood, and interfered. And the war continued throughout the awful decade. But to us, the children of the '40s, the words did not matter. Acts of grace mattered and were remembered. And strangely, acts of grace came, as they continue to do, from the most unexpected places, at the most crucial times.

I have thought since then that those who fear communism in an impersonal way would never understand this moment of grace which made me see the man with the bandoleer as a person with a past and a present but, in the terrible years that followed, perhaps of no future. There I was, feeling compassion for a man who belonged to a label of fear. And from him had come a warm memory of camaraderie on frozen mountains, and an act of manly affection.

For the children of El Salvador, of Nicaragua, of Lebanon, where do the small acts of grace come from, and will they also remember them as healing?

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