A Greek Christmas Gift from My CIA Father

hugging parthenon marble
Leslie at the Acropolis when her father was stationed in Greece.


By Leslie Absher

Over thirty Christmases ago, my father gave me something it took many years to understand. It was the end of 1984 and I was getting ready to travel to Greece for a college semester. I hadn’t been back to Greece since I was a kid and knew nothing about how volatile Greece had grown. I didn’t know for example, that for the previous ten years, a terror group called N17 had been targeting and killing American intelligence personnel. I suspected my dad was a spy by then – my mother had said as much once – but years had passed since she had told us and my father had never confirmed it. The fact that he had worked in Greece, and, as I later learned, had been a clandestine officer there, had nothing to do with me in that moment. It was Christmas and I was a sophomore in college. I was traveling to Greece to find the warmth and belonging I had felt there as a child. As I sat on the floor of my room trying to decide if I should pack another sweater, my father strode into the room, his face red with stress.

“Listen,” he started. “There’s something I don’t want you to speak about while you’re over there….” I couldn’t fully track what he was saying. He rambled on, giving me information I didn’t understand. Or want. As he talked, one word stood out, a code word. Was this some kind of spy message? I wondered. I felt as if he had just slipped a secret file into my hands. The expression on his face said, Keep this safe. Don’t let anyone know what’s inside. It’s for your own protection.

That we were having this conversation at all irritated me. I didn’t want to hear any more of his James Bond crap. All I wanted was to go back to my first home, the country where I felt happy and whole, before our family started moving every two years and leaving me rootless.

“Sure, Dad,” I said and immediately tried to forget what he had told me, convincing myself that whatever he was saying about his Greece, it had nothing to do me or mine. I was going back to eat souvlaki skewers and listen to Greek music and connect with a part of myself I still missed.

But when I arrived in Athens, instead of feeling whole I felt lost. Anti-American graffiti scrawled across downtown buildings. At a kiosk, I stopped to read the oversized headline from a newspaper clipped to a string. The words ‘N17’ and ‘CIA’ and ‘junta’ pointed their fingers at me. In an English language paper, an article accused the U.S. of complicity in the 1967 Greek military coup. We arrived in Greece months before the coup – I knew that much. Had Dad been in the CIA then? He must have been, I reasoned, but at that point, I had no real information about what he had known or done in Greece.

For the rest of that winter, I ran from America and from Dad. I studied Byzantium and memorized the names of the heroes from the Greek War of Independence. Inside tiny village chapels, I lit beeswax candles and even though I didn’t know how to pray, I bowed my head under the transcendent gaze of St Christopher, patron saint of travelers. In dance class, I worked to get the steps right, held my handkerchief high, kicked my heels. I spent hours memorizing vocabulary, buying Greek cigarettes, eating Greek chocolate, drinking my coffee the Greek way, medio, with sugar. I wandered down streets in long black skirts, as if I was already a yia-yia, my husband dead, my children grown. I kept score. Every time I fooled someone into thinking I was Greek, I won. Point Leslie. America zero.

My secret followed me anyway. Housewives watched me from their narrow balconies as I came and went from the building. They stared as they beat their rugs and watered leggy geraniums. I felt like everyone knew Dad’s secret. I hid out in small neighborhood cafes where I found myself surrounded by anti-American, anti-establishment, twenty-something students who smoked endless cigarettes and cut their eyes at the world. Were they part of a terror group? I had no idea but I sensed the danger of being who I was and so I waited for one of them to figure me out somehow. Maybe I wanted them to. When they realized I was no ordinary American, I was sure they would leap to their feet and cry out, “Traitor! Daughter of the CIA!” The whole café would jump up and chase me down twisting back alleys. “It wasn’t me! I didn’t do it!” I’d scream but it wouldn’t matter. Nothing I said or did would make any difference at all. I was guilty by association and no amount of running would help.

When the semester ended, I returned safely to the US and spent many of the intervening years sorting out my feelings about the US and the Greek coup, as well as my complicated relationship with my dad. In the process of learning about the coup, I learned that N17 had targeted and killed many people including the Athens CIA Station Chief, Richard Welch, and that sadly, this had happened on Christmas Eve.

Eventually, I came to understand what my father had explained to me thirty Christmases ago. The meaning of that word. And even though so much time has passed, I am still not comfortable writing it here. Back then, what he shared was truly risky. I imagine the difficulty he experienced when he decided to give me this message. On the one hand, telling me would allow me to distance myself from danger. On the other hand, what if telling me backfired and I let it slip to the wrong person?

Sadness and gratitude braid together inside me when I think about that night, and when I think about this time period in Greek history. I feel a deep sorrow for those hurt by the violence of N17 and hope that the passing of time, and the fact that N17 was eventually caught, offers some kind of solace, though I’m sure it cannot be enough.

I feel gratitude too, for the gift my dad gave me that Christmas. Some fathers give guide books or travel dictionaries to their daughters before they study abroad. Mine gave me a secret. A word. A code. And I am still keeping it safe.

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