My father could never sleep before my exams. It did not matter if they were the qualifying exams at the end of 6th grade or my English proficiency test. For weeks before the test, he would sit across me at the dining table that saw three marriages and an equivalent number of children in his life. There would be flashcards and endless repetitions. “Πάλι, κόρη μου! Πάλι!” Again, my daughter. At some point, my mother would intervene. “Χρήστο, άσε το παιδί να ξεκουραστεί λιγάκι! Τα ξέρει!” Let the child rest.
Greek is a language of exclamations.
I wish I had learned incompletion younger. I wish I had learned to leave flashcards unturned and words unmemorized.
By the time the exam came around, my father would encourage me to put the books away. You know what you know. Trust your knowledge. Trust the process. I would sit on the balcony and feel the late spring sun on my skin. He would be up all night, pacing. When I emerged in the morning, he’d be at the bottom of the stairs, bellowing “κόρη μου! πουλάκι μου! ” My daughter! My little bird! Trust what you know.
It is the night before my PhD comprehensive exams. Because my universe has yet to meet symbolism it hasn’t loved, it is also Greek Easter. At the age of 8, with the grandiosity that befits involved fathers, he declared with certainty that he “just knew Roxani is going to be an academic.” I didn’t know what that meant then, and I’m not sure I fully do now.
I know migratory hearts, and the whiff of lamb and tsipouro. I know the misogynist jokes my father would make around the fire with the rest of the family–those same jokes that the feminist I have become would resent, but the daughter I always am can recall with fondness. I know I carry them with me: I know I am my mother, wiping down every surface with chlorine the night before the exam, as though this is a test in home economics. You cannot take a test with a dirty home, and the very act of wiping everything clean calms you.
I know all the balconies at which I have studied: IB biology, ancient Greek, the SATs, my first thesis, back when it felt impossible to fill the pages. I know how to glue my head against the window here in Boston so I can feel some light on my face, as though this Greek can only learn by photosynthesis.
I know that Easter and fathers and pre-exam jitters and saudade layer atop each other. I know that grief sneaks up on you when you are trying to pack ‘the canon’ into your head (and I know enough about feminist inquiry to question what counts as the canon, to know it has earned the quotes around it). I know how to tell grief apart by its taste. This is not the cutting, surprise grief, the kind that has made you nauseous before. It is the sweet, quiet accompaniment.
The sense that even though there will be nobody at the bottom of the stairs tomorrow morning to exclaim “πουλάκι μου!,” there has never been a test I have taken alone.