Reading Between the Lines

Name: Charlie Tsouvalas

Year: Class of 2013

Hometown: Arcadia, CA

Intended Program of Study: Chemistry


My grandmother is a champion of diligence, responsibility and the resulting success these qualities produce; however, maintaining the family nucleus trumps success any day.  Knowing Charlie3 this, I was not completely flabbergasted by her melancholy smile when I confessed my attending Johns Hopkins in the fall.  I say “confessed” because the look she gave me was heart-wrenching, as if I had done something awful, but if it was awful, it was done out of necessity.

This is the worst type of crime for both convict and society. For the convict, he never asks forgiveness for an act he deems morally correct, yet endures the guilt from those he loves most. For the society, it can neither outright condemn him nor embrace him with open arms. This is the purgatory-like relationship I found myself in with my grandmother, like stale bread that you can eat but despise as soon as you chew it.

I’ve always felt closest to my grandmother since we love the same books, laugh at the same jokes, and accurately interpret the feelings of those around us.  It was the latter ability that we utilized on one another that fateful afternoon when I decided to attend school across the country.  My grandmother is not a selfish woman; she understands that I deserve a school that I’ve strived towards, but at the same time, those instincts honed by the Great Depression, WWII, and Vietnam War tell her to keep family close.

A few weeks of chewing that stale bread and the both of us silently agreed something needed to change.  My grandmother proposed she write a list of all the things I would need while away.  She took out that yellow notebook paper with the blue lines and began to write in what I call her Old World chicken-scratch cursive.  I stood over her hunched shoulders and deciphered “nail clippers” and “Advil”.  I thought to blurt out that I could buy these items while in Baltimore, and furthermore, that I would be detained in the airport if I accidentally brought the nail clippers as a carry-on.  But I decided not to say anything.  Maybe this would comfort her knowing I was ready to fight the world bearing nail clippers in one hand and a child-protected bottle of Advil in the other.

I left her alone for a week.  Let the list consume her as she sat there for hours pondering over years of experiences and encounters to find every possible tool and gizmo that I might need to survive.

Charlie2One summer day I came across one of her iconic yellow sheets of notebook paper with the blue lines.  It was filled from top to bottom, but as I glanced at the first word it did not read “nail clippers” but “Lysol”.  I then noticed a floating “6” completely detached from the rest of the list.  I couldn’t comprehend this number amongst letters until it hit me in the stomach like a wave on my beloved Californian coast – it was a page number.

Unlike decoding the enigmatic meaning of the floating number, the implication of the six-page list became instantly obvious to me.  This was not a list of trinkets I might need while gone for intervals of time over the next four years.  This was a goodbye list.  I was furious.  To think my grandmother would insinuate I was leaving my family, moving on to bigger-and-better things, was outright repulsive.  Being the learned scholar that I was, I did the first thing that came to mind – I went to my mommy.

As I ran up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom while simultaneously looking down the list, I stopped dead in my tracks.  There towards the bottom of page 6 on the yellow notebook paper with blue lines was not that Old World chicken-scratch, but my mom’s loopy cursive.  A minor detail easily overlooked, but one that broke my case and my heart. This transition from one writing to the next was also an agreement, a reality that my mom and grandmother were in accordance with one another.

In the spirit of the Obama campaign, things got worse before they got better.  But more importantly, they did get better.  While it seems simple enough, only when a family is faced with such hardships does it realize how tough letting go, even for a short while, can be.  Plenty discuss the turmoil endured by those getting into college and the hardships once they enter, but few divulge that gap in between: a time of fear and doubt and stale-bread relationships.  Charlie1

But as I said at the beginning, if I have done something awful it was done out of necessity.  Causing grief for those we love is no easy burden to carry, but keeping ourselves sheltered and ignorant for their comfort is more dangerous.  My family knows that I will be right back home every holiday, and even when I’m not there, I’ll always be thinking of them.

As for my grandmother, she realizes that there is always some uncertainty, always that adventure that must be sought after.  I’m that electron that may go far and wide yet always comes back to that loving nucleus I call family.

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One Comment

  1. Charlie … what a great tale. Make sure you save that list your grandmother made for you … it will always bring back great memories. Enjoy your orientation week.

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