Presvytera Melanie DiStefano lives with her husband Rev Fr Joseph DiStefano and their son Michael Seraphim. Together they serve the parish of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Youngstown, Ohio. Melanie has a background in Chemical Engineering and graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity in 2003.
Sometimes help comes in the form of physical help or spiritual guidance, but these days I’m finding my greatest help comes from just being with my extended family and sharing life together. Before my family’s move back to my hometown, I loved the church community we were in but I was so lonely and isolated. I guess I didn’t realize to what extant until we actually had people around us on a daily basis. Before the move, I would look forward to Sundays (which isn’t really a bad thing) so that I could soak up the time with people at coffee hour. After everyone went home it was almost unbearable to get through the rest of the day. Michael’s anxiety with outings over the years really limited our ability to enjoy activities together as a family. During the week we were busy with school and therapies, but weekends were like living in a desert. So were the winter months as we were stuck inside the house so much. I often would glance away from my iPhone just long enough to witness an unbearable reality: we had all become slaves to our technology: my husband on his phone also, and my son on his iPad. We were a poster family for Apple.
Not that we are still not attached to our devices, though I wish I could say otherwise. The beautiful thing that has meant so very much to me these last few months was something I used to take for granted, and even at times disliked: we are now surrounded and infiltrated by family. Many saints warn against the danger of isolation and tell us that it is one of the devil’s goals to isolate people. That is why not many are called to “live in the desert”, to live as monastics, and especially as hermits. Some who are not spiritually mature even lose their sanity when they attempt to live alone. Saint Seraphim of Sarov and St Simeon the Stylite are rare anomalies in the Christian life.
Sometimes it’s difficult to share life with family members who see your faults and “call you on it”. Sometimes we don’t realize we are overstepping boundaries in trying to “help” or “guide” the people we love. Sometimes we disagree on very important issues and mistakenly see these differences in perspective as a rejection of our person or a lack of love or respect. Those are the things I ran from in my younger days; but being away for so long from my little “village” has helped me to see that I would rather face these struggles – bringing them to the Lord for help – than to be without the love, support and fellowship so freely given in my family.
To illustrate these recent insights, let me share with you a day in my small town life…
One brisk autumn morning after my husband took our son to school, I decided to bring the garbage can into our garage before heading out. I was planning to start the day by helping a friend and my mother with a church mailing. The side door entering our house from the garage locks from the inside – something my husband had forgotten a dozen times since we moved in. I had become irritated with his “forgetfulness”, as I was running to answer the doorbell in the morning only to find him standing there. Well, you probably have guessed that I too forgot about the door and found myself locked out of my house with no phone, keys, or jacket. I searched everywhere I could think of for a spare key – to no avail. “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me”, I said repeatedly under my breath as I also laughed out loud at my predicament.
Time was ticking and my mom would have begun to wonder where I was. In any case, I couldn’t just sit in the garage all day! One option was to walk to a neighbor’s and ask to use their phone. But it was not terribly cold yet (in the 40s) so I thought I’d take a walk to the church which was maybe 2 or 3 miles away. I could use the exercise anyway. There weren’t any spare jackets in the garage either and I nearly opted to wrap a white sheet around me, but second thoughts of the small town rumors that could arise scratched that idea.
I set off with a spring in my step, satisfied with my plan. I only had to reach the end of my street to realize it was much colder than I originally thought, even walking at a quick pace. The wind was harsh and I began to shiver. A middle-aged man stopped his car and asked me if I needed a ride. “No Thank you.” I shouted. “Lord have mercy.” I thought. I looked to my right and realized I was standing in front of St John the Baptist OCA parish. Comforting. But there was no way I was going to reach Archangel Michael Church in a healthy state.
Plan B. One short block away lived two of my uncles. One or the other had to be home. I stopped in at my godparents’ first, and rang the doorbell. I saw the front curtains move and a glimpse of my uncle’s face. Standing there with my arms wrapped around myself, shivering, I smiled faintly at him. By the looks of me, he must have thought something bad had happened or I was a little crazy. Thea opened the door. “What happened? Are you OK?” as she rubbed my arms to warm me up. After explaining, I called my husband and asked him to either come home to let me in the house or disclose to me the location of the spare key. Then I called my mom and explained I would be late. Theo drove me to my house and at last, I was in.
On the way to Archangel Michael Church, I passed Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Cemetery. My grandparents are buried there. Blessing myself by making the sign of the cross, I prayed to my grandmother, “Yiayia Themelina pray to God for me a sinner” as I normally do when I pass her grave. The day went on in a sweetly surreal way. Every event seemed to feed into this growing understanding that I was not alone. I had fun with my mother and Rena as we talked and got the Church mailing ready. A parishioner came in asking if my mom could deliver the bread that my aunt had ordered because they couldn’t reach her. I offered to drop it at her house on my way home. My uncle (not the same one) answered the door. He was eating lunch and invited me in for homemade soup. I couldn’t stay as I had to get Michael’s lunch ready for when he came home from school. We exchanged “Thank Yous” and I was on my way. The happiness at these little connections through the day might seem trivial to some, but I can only say it continued to fill my heart.
A few minutes later, as I was heating up Michael’s food I heard someone knocking on the front door. It was Uncle #2 with a container of hot soup secured within a round aluminum cake pan. Theo said, “Keep the pan. It’s Yiayia’s. She used to make Prosphora in it.” I could have leapt to hug him for the gratitude I felt but contained myself and only hugged him respectfully to thank him as he left. Lifting the soup container to examine this “relic” of my beloved, holy Yiayia, tears swelled in my eyes. There on the pan was an indentation of a cross. She always blessed everything she made with the sign of the cross. She would use a knife to lightly etch the cross over a loaf of bread before cutting it. Evidently she used much more force when she cut into her baked item, as the permanent sign bore witness. How incredibly blessed I felt! How secure and loved! Even Yiayia came to visit me! I was home.
Not everyone is fortunate to have such a loving support system: fathers and uncles who remodel your house for you, aunts who help you shop for discounted cabinets, a cousin who digs and installs a new drainpipe in your yard to stop the basement leak, parents who look after your child at the drop of a hat, a mom who helps you clean and folds your clothes, In-laws who rejoice that your close by! Not everyone is blessed to share in life with extended family: celebrating my grandfather’s 91st birthday, hosting Christmas dinner – twice, being invited for dinner at relatives’ homes, witnessing the birth of my goddaughter’s child.
My point is not to try to make anyone feel sad for what they may not have if they aren’t blessed to know a supportive, caring family. Sometimes family members are too dysfunctional or spiritually ill to know how to love and support each other. In these cases I believe God’s grace abounds to fill what is lacking, and He sends His comfort in mysterious ways. Family isn’t necessarily defined by bloodlines: members of a church family or friends can love each other just as deeply. Love doesn’t fit one mold but penetrates lives. My point is to simply say that I am grateful for this chance to be with family again. Grateful that loneliness is a thing of the past. Grateful that He led us home.
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