I was always a good kid, at least according to my Dad. I was quiet, introspective, always thinking and always creating. Even as far back as before my mother died, while the grown-ups were talking grown-up things in the living room, I would be in my room quietly playing with my Star Wars action figures. At birthdays and Christmases, long after unwrapping my Millennium Falcons and Fortress of Fangs play sets, I could be found sitting Indian style beside our artificial tree trimmed with kitschy1970s ornaments carefully cutting out the He-Mans and Skeletors on the Masters of the Universe wrapping paper.
I grew up (somewhat) and learned the value of a dollar and the importance of a dream during weekends selling French fries and stirring egg cream sodas at flea markets, street fairs and carnivals. I finished high school with long hair and a four-year scholarship to NJCU, finished college in five years as a B student with a batch of poems under my arm ready for grad school, and I completed my term at Brooklyn College in two years still sporting a B average but with a better batch of poems bound in customary Master’s Thesis fashion.
Then I grew up some more (sort of), going on to be a Renaissance man of sorts –– published poet, DIY filmmaker, one-time guitarist, part-time blogger, rabid social networker and freelance professor drifting between various universities across New Jersey. Overall, I consider myself pretty fortunate to be living this particular life without anyone telling me otherwise; whenever I wanted to be different, and ultimately when I needed to be myself, I’ve always had a solid limb on the tree of my being out on which I could perch and sing freely, and this limb is my family, which has supported me in everything I’ve done, from tracing comic book covers for some extra pre-teen spending cash to going away to London for a summer to study Shakespearean theater and acting at the Globe to making films today.
But sometimes there are other branches helping to hold you up that you may not have noticed, or perhaps you may never have been aware of.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of my Dad’s death as well as the first anniversary of my discovery of new family members on my Dad’s side. Actually, it’s more accurate to say these hitherto unknown branches of my family tree reached out and discovered me.
I never knew much about my Dad’s side of the family because whenever he would tell me stories about his past, I would be more interested in drawing Ninja Turtles or making up intricate stories starring my Super Powers action figures; I was too young to appreciate them. Instead, I recollect only brief bits: My grandfather John owning a coffee shop in Athens and drawing when business was slow and my Dad crying as a boy whenever school was closed are little more than vestiges now. The story I remember most tells of how my Dad was marooned in New Orleans because of a stomach virus, and his fellow Merchant Marines had to sail back out to sea and couldn’t wait for him to recover. The reason I remember this one is because I wrote up a story about my Dad for my feature writing class when I was a journalism major at NJCU. That tape-recorded interview I did with him captured the last remnants of his voice before the cancer left behind only a whisper.
The only other thing I remembered was that my Dad had a cousin who lived in Florida named Chris Bertos. That’s how I met Andrea Bertos Quintaglie. She reached out to me through a Facebook message with the subject heading “looking for” and a message that read:
Hi John…I’m looking for a John Trigonis who would be my second cousin on my dad’s side (Chris Bertos) This John’s dad’s name was Teddy and has since passed away. I was just thinking of this person & wanted to make the connection…so if you are the right John (because 3 John Trigonis came up) and you would like to connect with your dad’s family respond…Thanx, Andrea
After I let Andrea know that I was in fact the right John Trigonis, we exchanged a bunch of Facebook messages, and I learned so much about a part of my family tree I hadn’t even known existed. Apparently, I not only now had newfound family members here in the U.S., but there’s a whole flock of second and third cousins living in New Zealand, many of whom knew my Dad. And through Andrea, I was able to make the acquaintance of Nina Bertos Androutsos, Nina Bertos Papadopoulos, and many more of our Kiwi cousins whom she had connected with through Facebook and some serious Sherlock Holmes detective work.
Last year, Andrea held a truly splendid and emotional Thanksgiving celebration, and I finally got to meet her, as well as many other cousins of mine, many of whom proceeded to spin some interesting stories about my Dad; many of them recalled instances when he would come to family gatherings, dance, drink and be merry; others reminisced a tale or two that’d been passed down through the years about how the two dads would get into all sorts of trouble when they were younger.
At this festive gathering of newfound family, I also had the pleasure of meeting a cousin of mine from New Zealand, Danny Androutsos, whom I found to be a kindred spirit; he’s a musician who happened to be on a world tour –– something Kiwi men do as a rite of passage. It felt as though all the years removed between the two of us were stitched up in the few hours we spent together that Thanksgiving, as well as the couple of nights we spent running around New York City with wine, tasty food, and plenty of catch-up conversation.
What’s more, Andrea and the family attended the Big Apple Preview of Cerise back in December, 2010, which made the event even more special for me because not only was I showcasing my latest short film to my friends, supporters, funders and family, but I was also able to introduce my brother, sister and family to Andrea, Danny, and my other cousins, and it was a heartwarming spectacle to see them all interacting throughout the evening.
I grew up with a large family from my mother’s side; my brother Walter and sister Renee, as well as my brother’s family –– my family –– not only make up the bulk of the branches of my family tree, but they have also been the trunk, never moving, always there, for good moments like graduating college or not-so-good; when my Dad died on December 14th, 2006, my brother and sister were there for me at three in the morning to let me know that it’ll be alright. Perhaps I’d always taken the idea of family for granted, and now, having had some new dots connected on a part of my Dad’s bloodline I’d known little to nothing about has added more balance to my identity as a Trigonis.
I’ve always been proud of my Greek ancestry even though I still know very little about where I come from; I’m especially fond of my surname; Trigonis (Tρυγώνια) means “bird” or more accurately, “turtledove,” and, interestingly enough, is most famous for its use in the old Greek proverb “Μ’ένα σμπάρο, δυο τρυγώνια,” or “One shot, two birds.” I started thinking about identity and ancestry a while back when a man named Vasilis Trigonis reached out to me on Facebook asking if he and I might be related. What’s more interesting is that he’s from Thessaloniki, Greece, and according to him, in the nearby city of Veria there’s a high concentration of people with our same surname. But I’ll leave this story for another time.
But perhaps Vasilis was right when he wrote that he’s “quite sure that soon or later we’ll discover the story of our ancestors.” And in my case, along came Andrea, and because of her, I’m a few layers deeper to discovering my roots. It never really mattered so much to me when I was a kid, or even when I emerged from grad school with my MFA in poetry. But now, to know that for all these years I’ve been supported by the family I’ve known and loved all my life and a family that has only recently been unearthed but has been there all along gives me a strangely mystical feeling, one that makes me proud of the little I’ve accomplished in this short span of life, and unravels a reason as to why I’ve been able to safely land on any limb I choose without having my song’s get muffled or lost in the leaves. The stronger the limb, the stronger the support for this turtledove to sing from any height.
And if there’s a Facebook in the Great Hereafter, I only hope my Dad might look down past the cosmos this Christmas, 2011, to give this, my latest status update, a “Like.”