Monday, April 16, 2012

So he sang – Manuel Patterakis, August 19, 1933 - April 8, 2012

As my cousin lay dying, we talked.  We talked a lot about his life.  About his childhood in Hiawatha, Utah, his early years there with my dad.  About moving to Modesto when he was nine.  About his sister, Grace, and his brother, Chris.

Manuel told me about attending Modesto Junior College.  About studying Accounting because he was going to be an accountant.  About the music instructor he was lucky enough to encounter there at MJC.  The instructor who - when my cousin Manuel told him he was studying Accounting - responded with a single word:  Bullshit.

And as my cousin Manuel told this story, he started laughing, laughing at the twin memories - the first, where he had envisioned himself as an accountant, and the second, the memory of this music teacher expressing the strong and salty opinion that Manuel's life would of course center around music.

So he sang.

And it was these many years later, as my cousin lay dying, that he laughed at the memories.  Still able, even under the cancerous circumstances that led him to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto, still able to laugh.

I was glad that Vicki - widow of Manuel's brother, Chris - I was glad that Vicki, who did so much for Manuel, who loved him so much, who showed her brother-in-law such care and tenderness, I was so glad that Vicki had sent me a reminder to visit.  To take the short trip from Alameda and say hello to my cousin.

My cousin Manuel - Manoli to me, always - played such an important part in my life.  If that life has a soundtrack, Manoli is the singer.  His voice - that huge baritone - was present at so many significant occasions.  When Karen and I got married in Modesto, in 1990, he sang us down the aisle the same way he sang my parents down the aisle at the old Greek church in Stockton in 1962.  When Elizabeth was baptized, and then Kristina?  His was the voice in the choir loft - singing, rejoicing.  Sang for my brother, George, and his wife, Karna - for my brother Dean, and his wife Laura.  So many happy ceremonies, so much singing.

Of course, Manoli was there for the more somber moments, too.  When my father died, Manoli sang him to his rest.

Manoli sang so many to their rest - his parents, his siblings.  All eight of the original Katsufrakis clan, my Yia Yia Elizabeth among them.  Manoli's mom - my Yia Yia's older sister.  Thea Helen the matriarch of the Katusfrakis kids.  Those eight pillars who are such an important part of my history, who still cavort in my head if I close my eyes.  Drinking Metaxa, turning a lamb on a spit.  Yelling, dancing, singing.  So much singing.

As my cousin lay dying, he joked - I worry I won't have the backbone or the bravery to face that final journey the way Manoli did - because as he lay dying, he laughed and wondered who was going to sing him to his rest.

The words we sing - the words Manoli sang so often for so many - are simple:

Eternal be, his memory.

But the words carry such great meaning - and so Manoli wondered aloud who would sing for him.  He said that Father Jon - who for so many years at so many of those celebrations and commemorations has had his beautiful voice complimented by Manoli's beautiful voice - Father Jon said he'd record Manoli and put a cassette player in Manoli's casket to cue up when necessary.  And as Manoli tells me this story, he's laughing with that great laugh of his, the laugh somehow always lighter and more playful than I expect.

He's laughing.

During that visit at the hospital, Manoli spent a lot of time talking about his teaching years, years that were relatively unknown to me.  I was a kid for most of them.  But my cousin sparkled when he talked about those days, especially about Peterson High in Sunnyvale.  His emotion was reciprocated after news of the severity of his illness began to spread.

First, some former students set up a Fan Page on Facebook (where I stole the pictures you see here).

Then, in early January, more than 100 of them traveled to Modesto to sing.  For him.  Traveled from up and down California, from Utah, to remind him of the incredible impact he had on their lives.  How, because of his music, his teaching, they'd always remember Mr. P.

And finally, these students who had traveled for him - then sang for him.  So he sang right back.

The next time I saw my cousin, the last time I saw my cousin, he was recuperating at a rehabilitation facility in Modesto.  They'd tried to class up the joint with dark wood paneling, and it of course was exactly what the doctor ordered, but there was no hiding the fact that it was a Dying Place.  It's there right at the end of Granger Avenue - near the apartment where my cousin lived with his mom for so many years after he retired from teaching.  Near the apartment where his mom, my Thea Helen, spent her last days in a hospital bed they'd set up in the front room.  So it was Granger again - a Patterakis again dealing with the dying of the light.

That last visit was a softer one - Manoli's voice not silenced, but quieted by the cancer.  There was less laughter, too - though still some.  God bless you for that, Manoli.  Bless you for that.

I had told him, I had said that if I could sing, I'd sing for him.  My brother Dean chimed in that Manoli definitely didn't want to undergo that.  Manoli laughed, though.  Manoli laughed.  Manoli laughed and said he would - of course he'd enjoy hearing me sing.

That's about when my Mom walked in.  I told her we'd been having a good visit.  A lot of that was just me reminding Manoli how much I loved him, how much the girls and Karen loved him, how important a role he'd played in all those momentous occasions in our lives.  And I told Mom how Manoli had laughed and said he'd be happy to hear me sing.

Mom recognized the foolishness of that idea and so she leaned in close and asked Manoli if he'd like to sing with her.

Manoli was quiet for a moment before he said, No.  No, Anna, he said, his voice so quiet - the strain of speaking those few words so evident.  But I'd like to hear you sing.

And so she did.

My mom sang a Greek song that she'd sung to my a dad a lot as he, like Manoli, lay dying.  Mom's voice is so pure, so clean - and as she sang, Manoli closed his eyes and smiled, smiled to the beauty of her voice.  The song is simple - a bird who's alone is urged to sing, and through the singing other birds will join in, and so the bird that was alone won't be any longer, will always have company through the magic of song.

I'm crying at this point.  I cried a lot during that last visit, and I was certainly crying then, listening to Mom sing for Manoli, watching him smile at the sound.  Because it made me acknowledge that even though I can't sing, I will - when we gather for Manoli's funeral.

As Mom finished, when she straightened and wiped the tears from her eyes, when she turned to me to ask after the kids - we were all surprised to hear singing - quiet, beautiful singing.  Surprised to hear Manoli - singing.  Manoli with barely the breath to whisper responses as we visited - and yet, and then - reminded I think by the joy in my mom's voice, he sang.

It was a silly song.   A Greek song.  To Kokoraki.  Just a silly, Greek children's song.  Like Old MacDonald, with a different animal sound added to each verse, starting with to kokoraki - a cockerel, a young rooster.  But it made me draw closer to Manoli, still with his eyes closed, as the words came out - to kokoraki ki-ki-ri-ki-ki - as he sang the song.  I'd heard Manoli sing stronger so many times in my life, but this time?  With the words scarcely escaping his lips?  So soft?  Yet sung with such delight?

I have no idea how awful the pain, how terrible his discomfort - but as Manoli sang, he smiled.  As Manoli smiled and sang - I knew he wasn't in that little room overlooking a courtyard in a Central Valley rehab facility.

I don't know if he was in Hiawatha, a Sunnyvale cafeteria, maybe a choir loft in Stockton or Modesto.  But I do know for that moment, as he sang, as he'd sung so often before, Manoli was happy.  Happy because he was doing - even there at the very end - one of the things he'd always done best.

So he sang.


  1. You expressed your feelings about your uncle so articulately, Nick. I hope you don't mind that I share this on Facebook. What a poignant tribute to a much-beloved man...

  2. Dena, that is very kind of you. Both to do, and to say.

    Christos Anesti!

  3. Alithos Anesti to you and yours! And Aionia H Mnimi for your Theo.

  4. Nicky,
    I just read your blog about Manuel. I have tears in my eyes. Cynthia and I always love reading “Drinks with Nick”, but this was the most beautiful entry you have ever written. You captured the moments and our beloved Manuel so well. I always called him Manolaki, because that’s what my dad called him. He spent summers in Carmel, living with my parents, working at their grocery store.
    We visited several times over the past months. During one of the last, I brought hundreds of pictures of Easter parties gone by and other pictures from the priceless archives of my mom’s house. Many of the same ones that we viewed last August at Mitch’s house. He was re-living each moment, and had the details readily available, like it was yesterday. Some pictures were from the 60’s with he and Uncle George at my parents’, with Manolaki at the piano, Uncle George singing and dancing, on a random weekend – celebrating life.
    He would talk about the 50’s, visiting my Yia Yia and Papou Cominos in Salinas with my parents. He talked about Yia Yia Argero Cominos’ kouroulachia cookies, how they were the best he ever had. His level of detail took me there with him as he so clearly wove the tapestry of detail of each moment. I always wished I had grown up in that era, with my older siblings, and he took me there – time and again.
    Thank you for so eloquently and lovingly recapturing the essence or our beloved cousin. As you described To Kokoraki , I was instantly transported back in time to my childhood when my mom would sing that song.
    I was astonished as our memories and feelings for him are the same. He was such a huge part of my life – all of our lives - as they all were, and are today. The eight pillars, hearing him sing, being there for all the weddings of you, Dean, George and all the somber occasions. His voice was the soundtrack of our family and childhood.
    I rejoice in knowing that he, his father, mother, his brother, his sister, his niece, and the rest of the pillars of aunts and uncles are all rejoicing, along with Yia Yia and Papou Katsufrakis. What a party it must be. How fitting that he re-join them in Heaven on Greek Easter week.
    Thank you Nicky for the pit in my stomach and lump in my throat that is both sorrow and joy, somber and proud, reminiscent and rejoicing. Eternal be, his memory.
    I love you
    ps, send me your email so I can send you some GREAT pictures...

  5. Thank you, Nicky, and Andoni, for sharing your memories of your cousin, Manuel...They're Beautifully written, and I love hearing about his family life.

    I knew your Manuel as "Mr. P." ("Mike" in more recent years) ;-)....I graduated from Peterson High School (Sunnyvale) in 1974, and I have been so fortunate to be able to reconnect with Mike since Nov./Dec. We had a wonderful time with him in January, and I'm so glad we got to sing for (& with him)...It was a Blessing for All of us. I'm amazed that we had such a huge turn-out, considering I only started getting the word out to fellow-students about our plans for a get-together w/Mike at the beginning of December(!). =) It was a Beautiful day and far-exceeded any of my expectations!

    I hope you'll visit the "Mike Patterakis 'Fan Page'" which I made in honor of our Beloved 'Mr. P'...There you'll find many pictures of Mike - from our school days and more recent, along with some videos of him from Oct. '99 (Mike singing & directing at St. Basils), Dec. 15th (a little 'video interview' I did w/Mike) and Jan. 7th (our get-together with him).

    I would Love it if you and your family could share pics/videos/stories/memories of Manuel with us on the FB Fan Page, if/when you can.... I hope to continue to add to that Page, and share with everyone the love/impact Mike/Manuel had with so many of us...!

    If you have any pics you can/would like to email me of Manuel that I could post on his Fan Page, please feel free to do so, anytime...!!

    Thanks so much and God Bless....

    Meg (Conly-) Dondero
    Peterson Class of '74
    (Mike Patterakis 'Fan Page' Admin.)

  6. I too was a member of the Class of 1974 at Peterson High and I can truly say that for the 4 years that I attended High School I looked up to "Mr P." not only has a Great Teacher but as a GREAT Leader! Mr. P showed us how we needed to work together to achieve common goals (like performing Beautiful Concerts for our Families, Friends, Neighbors and Fellow Students) at Christmas time, singing the Fight Song at each Football and Basketball game. We kept us focused and organized while putting wonderful musicals! But my most memorable memory of Mr P was how he stood right beside my Dad on a Saturday morning/Afternoon for several hours, painting the outside of our High Schools cafeteria. I lost my Dad in November of last year and now we've all most our Precious Mr. P. I hope that he and my Dad are painting cafeterias together in Heaven!

    Thank you for sharing your memories and allowing us to share ours!

    Deanna (Isaak) Treigle
    Peterson Class of '74

  7. Andoni - I don't have the words to express my gratitude for your heartfelt response. It would be pointless for me to try and match the sentiment you expressed. I will just say, thanks. All best to Cynthia, hugs to the girls.


    ps. the email is just my last name

  8. Meg and Deanna - thank you both also for the kind words here, but more importantly, thank you for the comfort you brought to my cousin. I know you are both aware of how much his teaching years meant to him - because of the wonderful students he had like the two of you! I envy you both the opportunity you had to have Manoli as a teacher. Thanks again for all you did then - and thank you so much for all that you've done recently. Manoli so appreciated being able to reconnect - and the serenade? He was - as you know - overcome. I'll certainly try and add to your wonderful Fan Page. Thank you again. --Nick

  9. As a member of the Modesto choir I had the honor of getting to know both Mike and Grace. I met them as I was newly married and joined the choir. I'll have to say that both Mike and Grace made my transition from my singing career at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church to the Greek Orthodox Church so very pleasant and joyful. They welcomed me with so much kindness and love. I will never forget it. Many years later I had the honor of singing for both of them in their last journey through our Blessed Greek Orthodox Church. I feel very lucky to have known them. Mike was one-of-a-kind. We sang together on many occasions and each time I left feeling so loved and uplifted. It's hard for me to think of Mike without also thinking of his sister Grace. May they both rest in peace...they will be, and have been, truly missed. ETERNAL BE THEIR MEMORY!

  10. Nina - thanks for sharing those beautiful memories! Grace indeed was wonderful - and it of course doesn't surprise me at all that she and Manoli welcomed you with open arms. I miss them, their brother Chris, and their Mom - my Thea Helen - very much. Thanks again!