Godzilla and Grandma: Where the Night Winds Take You

Taking a walk late at night has a wonderful effect on me -- on my sleep, my dreams, and my creativity. A couple of weeks ago, I walked home from our local Greek Festival and aside from twisting my leg (okay, if you're going to walk late at night, make sure you have the flashlight on your phone pointing at the ground!) it sparked wondrous flights of fancy, letting my imagination soar. Last night, I walked with my writing partner, Paul, and we talked about all the different projects we wanted to accomplish and the stories we wanted to share.

I went to bed, anticipating a night of dreams and insights into my psyche, the human psyche, anything's psyche and...

Nada. Oxi. Nothing. Rien.

I awoke at 4-ish, worried that my dream-life, so much a part of me, would fail forever and my creativity would take a nose-dive and I'd be lost and...

And then I realized I was still asleep. How did I know? My grandmother, Yiayia, was disguised as Godzilla and sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a frilly hair kerchief and crocheting. Instead of destroying Tokyo, she was making a tea cozy and enjoying a "cuppa" along with some kourabiades (Greek powdered sugar cookies). Ever see the scourge of the Pacific with a sprinkling of powdered sugar down its chest, holding a tiny little crochet hook in its tiny T-Rex-like arms?

Didn't think so.

I really woke up then, laughing, and knew the direction a character in one my stories was going to take.

I suppose I should explain the Godzilla thing. Yiayia was a consummate storyteller, even though she was usually coolly detached, very formal, and rarely warmed to children. When she told stories however, she'd light up and become a child-magnet. She'd mesmerize us with her tales, and one of them was about the monster that lived in the base of the ancient pine tree in the backyard. He was a friendly monster and watched over us when he wasn't following the long, winding underground tunnel and having adventures. Yiayia convinced one cousin so thoroughly about the monster, that whenever he came to visit he'd take a bowl of food outside and leave it for him. I still don't know how she did it, but before he left, the food was gone and a small thank-you note was always left, usually with a marble in the bowl.

That monster, which I always called "Al," was a regular feature of my childhood and I spent hours looking for him, only to be told he was away but that Yiayia would share his adventures after dinner. He loomed large in my imagination.

Another connection to the monster and the fictional terror of Japan occurred when I was quite small, about three. My cousin Mike was babysitting a bunch of us at my house while our parents were off at some adults-only affair. It was a Saturday night, and he was a disgruntled teen without a date. Instead of having us all bunk down and get some sleep while we waited for the parents to return, Mike let us watch a horror movie on late-night TV. Because I was the youngest -- and admittedly the most spoiled of the lot -- I sat on Mike's lap in the place of honor, watching from a safe vantage point.

The movie? You guessed it. Godzilla.

We watched entranced as Tokyo was demolished by the shrieking brute and guns and ammo blazed around him. Then my grandmother came in and threw a conniption. Even as Godzilla was bellowing in the background, my Yiayia was yelling at Mike in the foreground. Not about the movie, mind you, just that we were still up after 1 a.m.

She appreciated a good story but bedtime was sacrosanct.

Ever after, the combined sounds of Godzilla and Yiayia's bellowing remained fixed in my mind, and I always thought that could be what the tree monster sounded like when he was upset.

Whenever I got into trouble after that, whether it was missing dinner, getting a "C" in Math, scorching the kitchen, or driving through the rear of the garage (you know, typical kid stuff), I had a recurring nightmare where my grandmother would be scolding me, turning into Godzilla, and then making that awful sound. It scared me plenty.

When I finally confessed this to Yiayia one day, she started laughing so hard she nearly fell on the floor. She loved the idea that she was this nasty monster in my dreams, and thereafter until her death, she teased me about it.

When I was in graduate school, she and I had the opportunity to talk as adults. I'd call home and we'd spend two or three hours on the phone talking about everything. Although she was distant with children, her rapport with young adults was extraordinary -- but that's for another time.

I finally asked her why, in all the stories she told us when we were children, she always cast herself as the villain, even when she was the narrator. She was always the wicked witch, or a monster, or a demon, or Hecate telling the tale.

She thought about it for a moment and answered, "It makes me more interesting, unique, and you remember me more."

She had a flair for the dramatic, to say the least, and wanted her character to remain front and center in her listeners' minds. She's one of the reasons I always rooted for the Wicked Witch of the West, even before it became fashionable to do so. (The other was getting to meet Margaret Hamilton, my uncle's ex-acting teacher when he was a boy -- I'll tell you about that later too!)

I don't have Godzilla dreams too often anymore, so it was nice to have it the other night. It reminded me that, while writing, it's important to develop distinctive villains and make sure that the nastiness is unique.

Yiayia would be thrilled.

I have to run outside now. Even though it was felled by a storm a few years ago, I still have the stump of that ancient pine tree, with its long, winding underground passage.

It's teatime and I have to feed the monster.