By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"I remember as a child--growing up in this place I've built again--when my grandfather would sing to me," Popie says, squatting down on a large white rock by the path. "Sometimes he and his friends would get together, have a bit of wine, and start to sing. His song went, 'A pine tree lived all alone in a big plain. And he was 200 years old, but stood straight as'--well, we don't have a word in English to mean this, but--'he stood straight and handsome in his youth.' So I put my grandfather, my pappou, throughout the yard where he can again sing this to me."
All around the island, day lilies and malvas are in full bloom, fleshy and a bit reckless. The traffic along River Road runs steady, with an occasional car slowing down to look at Popie's island. She's back there, 5 years old again, before the war and before her self-styled exile. In a dream not long ago, she tells me, "there was my grandfather's hand, huge and bent by arthritis. He was sitting like a pine tree under our mulberry bush with his cane, maybe eating some bread and milk. On the next stone, I was sitting, and we were talking together about everything on the earth. Then I saw an image in the sky with his face, but at the same time, I was seated, a girl, in the palm of that huge hand. And he was telling me, 'Popie, you had no choice.'"
The choice Popie is talking about has haunted her for years. In 1951, she came to America on a Fulbright scholarship to study genetics at the University of Michigan. At that time, she says, educating a girl in Greece was thought to be like throwing money into the sea--foolishness, and a waste. But she'd ranked first in her high school at Thebes, which caused a kind of alarm in Schimatari. "They threw up their hands and sort of wailed, 'Heaven has fallen, and the school has been bitten by a girl from a village!' Well, I had, as they put it, taken the letters. Popie Marinou was a smart one, which posed a conflict. My father was a farmer, well off, but he wanted a son who would earn a living sitting on a chair. What they got was Popie, a sorry state of things since God, they thought, had only a limited amount of rain and God had rained on a girl."
There were 5,000 applicants for the Fulbright, she recalls, and only a dozen prizes. During the month before the exams, she read, slept, and ate English, which was not taught along with French, ancient Greek, and Latin in school. And in the late summer of that year, after winning a scholarship, she got on a boat at Pireaus, waved to her grandfather on the dock, and set off for a year abroad. "That year," Popie is fond of saying now, nearly a half-century later, "has turned out to be a very long year."
In the meantime, she married her husband, now a retired economics professor, and eventually earned a Ph.D. after a long hiatus from the academy spent raising three sons, one of whom designs and builds pyramids, sculptures, and zoos for Popie's mythological stone creatures in the backyard. What has haunted her, and what her grandfather meant to chase away in the dream, was the common enough and terrifying idea that by keeping with the times--staying home with kids, suspending her education for the sake of her husband's career--her life would come up short of its promise.
"What woman doesn't know some version of this?" Popie muses, bending down to yank a weed from the path we're on. "For me, here I was--the girl who was told she could walk on water, alone in a house in Minneapolis with my head and my history, having the waking nightmare. It was 1989. I was over 60 years old. I had abandoned my country. Everyday the ceiling stared back. There were stacks of newspapers everywhere, unread. I could find no work to fit my training. And there was not enough joy brought to me by the life I had composed. Regrets? Many. But, according to my nature perhaps, I had had no choice. Now, though, it was time to go and find some healing. All along, I have heard that the dead do not speak to us. But on the advice of my dead grandfather, who you see is now a pine tree singing in the wind, I went."
And that trip by way of Greece and beyond, Popie says, rising from the stone she's been sitting on and nodding toward her miniature island, was the genesis for this symbolic adventure she has now embarked on in her strange garden.
"How did it all begin?" Popie asks, to no one in particular. She sweeps back her gray hair and lights up another smoke, leaning against a massive boulder a neighbor brought over as a gift--an offering--from the discard pile in his yard a couple of years ago. She calls it "Picard's Throne." Most mornings, residents from the senior center down the street walk by, and many stop to rest here, on the throne Popie's strategically placed for their use. Like the entire garden, this spot is as public as it is private--no fences, no thorn bushes. Many of the thousands of stones she's dreamed into meaning have come from friends, and many more from strangers who happened by one day and then on purpose the next, bearing crates of Japanese rocks, volcanic lava, quartz and geodes and agates from their travels. They've been metamorphosed into mountain ranges and rivers, cairns and grandchildren and memories and, crawling on its belly for a good 20 feet across the lawn, a quirky dinosaur christened, on a hot day's whim, Popiesaurus Rex.