When I was little, I lived with my mother, uncle and Yiayia, my grandmother. I sort of understood why, my father died before I was born, and Yiayia Marigo and Uncle Mike, her youngest son, took us in. We became an oddly assorted family unit, quite different from the ones my friends enjoyed. I always felt like the odd person out, not just because I didn’t have a father, but because I had a remote and difficult grandparent. As I grew older, I appreciated her more, and even now, I see that I share many of her characteristics.
I learned many lessons from Yiayia, the most important being Yiayia Time. This was the time of day when she would shut down and relax. Sometimes it was a nap, other times, crocheting in the front window. Whatever she was doing, it was my cue to let her be. To “unplug and recharge” as it were.
This is not to say she didn’t work hard! She was actually quite remarkable, but as she always said, Πρέπει να παίρνετε πάντα χρόνο για τον εαυτό σας. Χαλαρώστε, κοιμηθείτε ή απλώς σκεφτείτε. Ο ήσυχος χρόνος είναι πάντα ο χρόνος σας. (You must always take time for yourself. Relax, sleep, or just think. Quiet time is always your time.)
Marigo (no one but my grandfather, I am given to understand, ever called her that) left Greece as a teen, to rejoin some of her family. Four children — three daughters and a son- were brought to the US while three sons and a daughter were left with their grandfather. He apparently was well off — an aristocrat from what Yiayia told us — and was educating them all. He particularly liked my grandmother because she was named for his mother and spoiled her. After he remarried (he was 75 and the girl was 20-something, long weird story) and finally had a son, my grandmother decided to come to the United States. She had no desire to play second fiddle to a baby.
Her grandfather paid her way, supplied her with a dowry and she set off on her new life. No steerage for her, or Ellis Island either. It was Boston all the way. When she landed in Massachusetts, her father confiscated everything her grandfather had given her and handed it over to her older sister. Yiayia was less than happy with this and she never let her father forget it. Even when he was 102 and not well, she let him know what she thought about his betrayal. Yiayia had a long detail oriented memory, and knew how to use it!
Nonetheless, she was thrilled to be here. America. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. She loved adventure. She told me that when she was about to leave Greece, she took a clump of earth and threw it in the Mediterranean, declaring she’d never return. She never did. Her love affair with America began with that overly dramatic, yet totally Yiayia-like gesture.
After she married my grandfather and moved to Cleveland, she proved to be a savvy business woman, using money she earned from making bathtub gin and wine, selling it to the police during Prohibition, and betting on horses, to buy properties all over the city. During the Great Depression, she helped her less fortunate friends by letting them live in her houses rent free. She fed all their kids lunch and after school snacks while her friends were cleaning railroad cars or doing other jobs to keep their families solvent. She always said she was feeding her four children, why not a few more?
She was never a stereotypical immigrant — didn’t come in steerage, didn’t wear black forever after my grandfather died, wore headscarves only to keep her coiffure neat and tidy. (Although, she always kept a paring knife and bag with her, because when she saw a nice field of χόρτα or greens, she made us stop so she could harvest them! She loved her greens.)
She even insisted on being buried in her favorite fuchsia evening gown because when she met up with my grandfather they were going to go dancing for eternity. So maybe I get my own iconoclasm from her. I was the one who spent the most time with her in her older years. Wish I’d known her when she was young! She must have been something!
She was a Roosevelt Democrat, and throughout her life the only other president I heard her praise was John F. Kennedy. She sent her sons to WW2 and Korea, watched her son-in-law integrate his troops, helped resettle Greek-speaking Holocaust survivors, not because she was Jewish, but because it was right. She firmly believed in doing what was right.
She also believed in moderation in all things. Her Aristotelian sensibilities led her to work hard — making a home, buying properties, raising children,playing the ponies, taking care of those less fortunate — and make time for relaxation. She thrived on the concept of the γλέντι (glendi) — the party — and was always ready to throw a roast in the oven, make a bunch of diples (honey fried thin dough with cinnamon and nuts on it. awesome) and toss out the welcome mat!
That brings me to her daily rest. Like so many Europeans, Yiayia believed in a daily afternoon nap. Maybe because she rose at 4 am each day — for quiet she said — but by 2ish, she was tired. She’d relax until I came home from school. Her quiet time was usually spent thinking up stories she was going to tell my friend Laura and me while we ate her homemade pizza or rolls. She loved story telling and her tales were wild and wonderful, filled with mythic creatures and for some reason her littlest sister Sprithoula. I never met my great aunt Spirithoula, but I have some wicked ideas of what she was like as a child, if Yiayia’s tales rang true.
Yiayia’s wisdom, which I never really cherished until I was an adult, was her openness. While her standoffish nature stemmed from her early years within her artificially confined aristo world, she was truly an open and accepting person. Her best friends were Russian Jewish immigrants, her far-left (probably communist) fellow Maniots (persons from Mani Greece), our Sabra neighbors, and everyone else who crossed her path. One of my ‘godfathers’ was Japanese Hawaiian and she adored him. Woe betide anyone who uttered a racist or bigoted remark in her hearing. She’d let him or her have it, and believe me, no matter where you were, you could hear Yiayia letting someone have it. She never suffered fools gladly and refused to allow toxic people to cross her threshold.
She was always open and welcoming, except…during Yiayia time. That was her time, and it recharged her, enlightened her and succored her through good times and bad.
When I think of her, I can close my eyes, and see her on an icy winter’s day, sitting in her rocker (that is now on my front porch) making lacy crocheted scarves and doilies, while her eyes look out at the snow bound lawn and her mind weaves its tales and stories.
I miss that and her.
Article originally appeared in Thrive Global, August 22, 2017