My grandmother was an amazing woman. I described her briefly in my first blog post, but that mention really didn’t do her justice. Born in a tiny village in Northern Greece called Kato Lesnitsa, my “YiaYia” had only a sixth grade education, but was the wisest woman I have ever met. We spent a lot of time with her growing up including most summers when she came to visit us in Pennsylvania, and during Christmas vacations where we visited her in Florida.
My brothers and I gave YiaYia many nicknames over the years including “Little Boss” (she was under five feet tall), “Myrtle Turtle” (I have no idea where this came from but it made us kids laugh), and “the General”. From two of her nicknames, you probably get that she was as tough as nails. When she was watching us and we were misbehaving, she could stop us in our tracks with a glance or a disapproving word in her thick Greek accent (“how long you gonna keep doing that?”). However, she did have a softer side (especially for us grandkids) and if you made her really laugh you got the reward of seeing her belly shake. YiaYia berated us for wanting to go to McDonald’s: “I make you a much better hamburger!” (YiaYia’s hamburgers were Greek-style, kind of like giant meatballs, full of oregano and seasoning, not really what we central-Pennsylvania kids were hankering for at the time).
She was definitely tougher on me than my brothers: “Eleni, why you no learn how to crochet?” “Eleni, why you no help your mother more?” “Eleni, why you cut the fruit that way?”. At the same time, she waited on my brothers and called them “palikaria” (tough to translate, but something like brave young lads) or “levendia” (also tough to translate, but loosely, gentlemen); expectations for them were lower. When I was a pre-teen, it would make me furious. Once I mentioned this to my mom and she replied, “Don’t you know? Your YiaYia thinks women are far superior to men.” As I got older, I came to realize this was true; her expectations were great for me because that was what she had learned was needed for women to survive in this world. When she was sixteen, the same age as my eldest daughter is now, my YiaYia had come from her tiny village to join her much-older husband in Detroit. After my grandfather (Pappou) had a series of strokes that disabled him, she took over as primary breadwinner and tended bar in the family tavern while raising two children. Like I said, tough as nails.
Once she retired, YiaYia lived with her sister and brother in a little house in an area of Miami known as Little Havana. Although YiaYia could not speak Spanish, she made friends with her Cuban neighbors and area shopkeepers and was beloved. So, in addition to her toughness, another defining characteristic of my YiaYia was her ability to transcend race, ethnicity and class and befriend just about anyone. After an encounter with a new person, she typically would have learned their life story and have dispensed some advice to them.
My Christmas memories of YiaYia are rich with those times in Little Havana, having big dinners at her table in her tiny immaculate house, making and eating vasilopita (New Year’s bread where a coin is embedded and the recipient is considered to have “luck” for the coming year), picking oranges, grapefruits, and lemons from her citrus trees, being sent to El Osito market down the street to pick up Cuban bread, and catching lizards in her back yard.
One of my funniest Christmas memories of YiaYia occurred after I got married. My husband Pat and I came to Florida to visit my family for the holidays. My parents had gone out to do some shopping and left us to monitor the Christmas dinner turkey that was roasting in the oven. Suddenly, we heard the sound of my YiaYia’s size 6 loafers sneaking into the kitchen. We listened closer and heard the oven opening and something being shaken quite vigorously. After we heard YiaYia go back to her room for her afternoon nap, we decided to investigate further. When we opened the oven, we discovered the surprise. YiaYia had covered the entire 20-pound turkey in OREGANO. Turkey greek-style. Pat and I laughed so hard as we blotted as much of the seasoning off as we could, and later as we sat down to eat, we didn’t say a word about the incident and neither did she.
A couple of years before she passed away in 2005, YiaYia gave me the gold bracelet that she had worn for as many years as I could remember. This is the bracelet that she wore while kneading countless loaves of bread, while tending bar, while meeting so many strangers who became friends and while telling her stories of the village. Now, I wear it every day and sometimes when I catch a glimpse of it, I feel a little of my YiaYia’s presence and strength. While I frequently think of my YiaYia, and often dream that she is alive and giving me advice, it is at Christmas that I miss her the most.
I wish all of those who read this a very happy holiday season and hope that you are making great memories with those you love.