December 1965 was a significant time in my life. Christmas was approaching. Our family lived in a comfortable four-bedroom house in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon. It ordinarily would have been large enough to house a family with three children of significant differences in age and gender, but my parents made accommodations for my mother’s parents, Tasso and Maria, to live with our family. For first generation Greek Americans, as my parents were, it wasn’t unheard of to live with their immigrant parents.

In November I had started dating a lovely girl named Celeste and she would come around to the house frequently. For some reason my mother and grandmother seemed very cool, even standoffish, toward Celeste. Celeste was certainly nice and polite when she was at the house and I could see no reason why my mother and grandmother, both of whom were generally warm and outgoing toward everyone, couldn’t be that way with my first girlfriend. 

My first inquiries about the subject were met with dismissal. A few days before Christmas I decided to insist on an answer. As my mother and grandmother began to prepare dinner, I sat down at the kitchen table and confronted them directly. I asked them why they didn’t like Celeste. My mother glanced at my grandmother, looked back at me and said, “Why would you think we don’t like Celeste? We haven’t said anything bad about her, have we?” It was true. They hadn’t. But I told them that to me they always seemed very cool towards her, not like they usually were with other people. I asked them what was wrong with Celeste. My mother looked again at my grandmother for a few seconds. My grandmother gave a slight nod. My mother looked back at me and said, " Because she's German." If my mother’s tone had been cool when Celeste was around, it was decidedly icy when she spit out the word “German.” 

I was stunned. For a few seconds I couldn’t say anything. I quickly understood it had to be something more than just being German. But what? And why direct it at Celeste? I finally replied and said "She's not German, she's American." "She's German-American," my mother answered. Confused, I replied, “So what?” My mother looked at my grandmother again. This time their eyes remained fixed on each other for what seemed like an eternity. My grandmother nodded her head toward my mother and then walked out of the kitchen. 

Mom poured herself a cup of coffee, came over to the table and sat down. She raised her cup to her lips with both hands. As she took a sip I noticed that her left hand was trembling, as it regularly did and had done for as long as I could remember. She put the cup down and placed her hand on mine. She began to tell me a story that during WWII she and my grandmother spent time in prison in Greece and that my grandmother had been sent to a concentration camp in Germany. 

In that instant, at 16, my life changed forever. I now understood why her hand trembled. There was much more to talk about and much more to understand about my mother and grandmother.