Yiayia and Papou

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I’ve always loved this ring. It belonged to my grandmother, my mother’s mother. My grandfather gave it to her shortly before they were married in October 1927. She gave it to me on my 18th birthday.

I wore it occasionally when I was much younger but I almost lost it once which relegated it to the locked safety of my treasure box. I’ve been thinking about my grandparents a lot – this month being not only the anniversary of their wedding but also of their respective deaths – so I pulled out my grandmother’s ring a few weeks ago and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I forgot that I have her hands. Seeing her ring on my finger reminded me. Anyway, I figured if not now, when? Seriously.

It doesn’t seem possible that my grandmother has been gone for 29 years today. She and my grandfather, who died 6 years later, were integral, everyday parts of my life. I always miss them, but I feel it more lately. I don’t know why.

When I was little we lived with them in DC, in the house my mother grew up in. After that we saw them at least every weekend and up until they both died, I almost never went to bed without talking to them on the phone. When I went to college, I’d talk to them on the pay phone on my hall and my grandfather wrote me letters every week. There’d always be a little bit of cash in the envelopes, for apples, he’d tell me. I’m not proud to say that I’m pretty sure I used it for booze. I still have his letters, every single one. He was so happy and proud once I finally finished college and grad school; it took me awhile to figure out what the hell I was doing there, and I know that was a source of worry for him. For a Greek man of his generation, he was a very progressive thinker that way, wanting and encouraging education for his daughter and granddaughters.

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In the treasure box in which I keep my grandmother’s ring, I also have all of the letters my grandfather wrote to her while they were courting. She kept them all, every single one. And the telegrams they got for their wedding too. I stayed up late last night pouring over them all.

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I keep my grandfather’s Mason ring in the box too. He had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen. I loved them and I was always touching them and holding them and fiddling with his ring. Which is probably why my Mom took it off his finger and put it on mine as we stood by his bed together on the night he died, 23 years ago. Later, my Dad fitted it with some soft leather inside so it wouldn’t fall off and I wore it for years. In the box as well is the handkerchief my grandfather gave me from his suit jacket pocket, the one I cried all of my tears into when we buried my grandmother.

I also have my grandmother’s wedding dress and bouquet of roses, both are in very poor condition, actually crumbling, but I can’t part with them. I found them wrapped in tissue paper on the floor of one of their closets when we were getting their house ready to sell.

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I don’t remember the details of how exactly my grandparents met or where, I only know that they married in 1927. Once they got here from Greece, my grandmother started out in New Jersey and my grandfather in Connecticut. She worked at a family restaurant and he worked at a lock and key factory. I don’t remember how or why they ended up in DC, only that they spent their entire marriage there in a row house they bought with the cash they’d worked for and saved.

They were born in different villages in the Peloponnese region of Greece but didn’t meet until they came to the U.S. My grandfather came first, on his own at 18 years old in 1916. My grandmother came at 12 years old in 1920, accompanied by her uncle, my great great uncle. In middle school I wrote a story about her journey called, “She Came To America”. I still have it in one of my bazillion boxes in the storage room. They both came through Ellis Island and they both had siblings here to receive them. Neither of them ever went back to Greece; they had difficult lives there, especially my grandmother, and they came here hoping for better but carrying their burdens with them. My grandmother’s mother came here a couple of times but didn’t stay. I remember my grandmother calling for her in Greek as she lay dying. “Mama, Mama…”

My grandfather was a DC taxi cab driver for 50 years. I have so many memories of riding in the back seat of his cab with my sister and grandmother. We’d sing his favorite song, “This Land Is Your Land” and eat peppermint swirl lifesavers, the pink ones, remember? He loved America, he was so proud to be here. He was not formally educated, but was wicked smart. He wished he could have been a physician and he would have a damn good one too. He was highly interested in physical fitness and health and read all he could about it. He could still jump rope well into his late 70’s. His favorite medicine was a shot of whiskey and a raw clove of garlic, and he always reeked of garlic too. I loved that, still do. He was very focused on good nutrition and lectured us about it constantly. That, and keeping our cars well oiled and maintained. He was so proud of his last taxi cab which had 450,000 miles on it. Original engine and all. No lie. He gave me my first car, an old – but well maintained – blue Dodge Dart.

My grandmother worked as a Congressional Hostess at the U.S. Capitol for, I don’t know, 25 years. I loved going there and being with her at work. Congressional Hostess is fancy talk for ladies lounge/restroom attendant. She took care of the Congressional women’s lounge and restroom area and hosted not only the Congresswomen but also the female family members and friends of both Congresswomen and men. She had many friends at the Capitol who just adored her and her Greek cuisine. She was a gentle, sweet, loving soul – who could also curse like a sailor – and she always held the hands of whoever she was talking to in hers. She always smelled like rose petals and she loved vanilla fudge ripple ice cream with banana slices on top. Whenever my sister and I slept over, the 4 of us would always eat that for dessert as we watched Lawrence Welk or Hee Haw.

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My Mom was born first, in 1939, and she was their pride and joy, their everything. Her brother, my uncle, was born 11 years later. He was ok for awhile and then suddenly, he wasn’t. And then everything changed.

My grandparents spent the rest of their lives being devoted parents to a profoundly disabled child. And it was brutally painful and beautiful. AND somewhere in there my Mom got lost in the shuffle and that was brutally painful. And so unfair. My grandparents didn’t love my Mom any less – they adored her – but there wasn’t enough of them to go around or something. They were compromised. They told themselves she was ok. Despite – or maybe because of – the pain, my Mom worked like a dog to make them proud and to realize the dreams they had for her. She was the first in her family to go to college, to finish any kind of formal schooling at all.

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They were always a very regular presence in our lives, like I said, and they helped my parents with us kids A LOT, but they were preoccupied by and sad about my uncle, always. And that was on top of the baggage they brought with them from Greece. They loved us like crazy though, that was obvious, and there were happy times like our regular Sunday visits and cab rides and holiday meals and sleep overs and my grandparents’ 50th anniversary party and our birthdays and graduations.

I remember watching my grandmother – with both sadness and awe – as she fed my uncle and kissed him and looked at him as only his mother could and brushed his jet black hair over to the side like he was a little boy and said prayers for him as she held a small icon of Jesus up to his lips. I never really thought about what it was like for my Mom all those years, especially as a child.

I remember being upset with my Mom sometimes when my grandmother was dying because I hated that I could sense her anger at my grandmother. I didn’t understand it. It took many years for me to understand it, but of course I do now. The 6 years between her death and my grandfather’s was good for my Mom in a way because it gave of them time to make things right. He apologized to her for not being there for her for the rest of her childhood. He told her it wasn’t her fault. Even though she knew that intellectually, she needed and deserved to hear it. I think it took a long time for her to believe it, though.

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Not long after my grandmother died, my grandfather fell and broke his hip in their old house in DC and so we moved him out to Columbia to be nearer to my folks. I used to go over to his senior apartment to hang out with him and then we’d go to Friendly’s or even McDonalds’s once in awhile. He was a health nut but he did enjoy an occasional quarter pounder with cheese.

No matter what, even though it wasn’t at all easy, I’ll never forget the good and loving care my parents gave my grandparents as they aged, got sick and died. Never. It was one of the greatest lessons of love and loyalty and honor and respect I’ve learned, actually.

My uncle outlived my grandparents and became my Moms responsibility. She took good and loving care of him too, even though it was so hard. He died in 1995 when Husband and I were on our honeymoon. It was always a complicated, painful thing for her but I know she would have loved to have a brother to share her life with, I know she still feels that loss.

This morning after taking Boy to school, I had another one of my impulsive ideas and lately, when I get them, I tend to act on them which is totally unlike me. But anyway, I blew off my morning agenda and kept driving on Georgia Ave to Gate of Heaven Cemetery. After my grandfather died in 1991, I used to go there a lot and just sit. And cry. But I don’t really remember going there since then. I’m sure I have at some point but it’s been a long time. Anyway, it took me about 45 minutes to find them. I remembered the general area but not the detailed location, so I walked up and down many, many rows of gravestones. There are a lot of people buried there, obviously, and a lot of Greeks. I finally found them and I just sat and talked to them for awhile, nothing major, just wanting them to know we’re ok, thanking them, hoping they’re resting peacefully, missing them, wondering how in the world they could have been gone for so long and how I’m suddenly 51 and my Mom is 75. Then I left to go buy some flowers and some baby wipes. I went back to the cemetery and cleaned up their gravestone and put the flowers in the vase with water and then I took a picture to send to my Mom. It made her really really happy.

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I didn’t really intend to get into all of this but it’s been on my mind and I went to the cemetery today, so there you go. There’s so much more I could share about my grandparents and our lives together. Maybe I will sometime. And maybe sometime I’ll write about our odyssey with Boy and the parallels to my grandparents’ situation. But not now. They’d adore him, though, my grandfather especially.

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