Talk to Your Yiayia . . . (And if you don’t have one, find a grandma!)

imageI love my husband for so many reasons, but for one that I had never expected. He taught me how to appreciate old people, especially how to hold my yiayia’s hand, caress her cheek, lie in bed with her.

When I was in my 30s and still single, an old maid by Greek standards, my grandmother wanted me to find a good husband. She was the product of another generation, and though she believed every woman should be married, she quietly celebrated the fact that I dated and had many lovers before “settling down.” I know this because she was always a naughty yiayia, asking me very specific questions about my boyfriends, “So he has big . . . thing, yes?” Then she would roar with laughter.

imageStill, despite our openness about sex (not typical for a Greek grandmother but mine had lived all around the world and was very open-minded), her and I were not especially close. That is, until my husband came into our lives.

The first time Hugo and Yiayia saw each other, in the summer of 2004, it was love at first sight. They met, he held her hand tenderly, and she said in English (one of the six languages she spoke), “You good man?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“You love Kimi?”

“Yes,” he said, “very much.”

“Good, good. Now you listen to my anecdote.”

My grandmother started telling him a dirty joke about an Italian soldier with a macaroni stuck up his derrière, and he continued to hold her hand while sitting on the bed beside her. Yiayia had been bedridden for almost twenty years (mostly by choice). I’m tired. I don’t want to get up. But she ambled to the bathroom till she was ninety-four without a cane or walker or help.

I had heard the joke countless times, so I went to the kitchen to make a frappé because she didn’t care if I were there or not. She had the attention of a handsome young man, and Yiayia always preferred boys to girls—her grandsons were her favorites; the granddaughters she could live without. When I came back into the room, my husband was lying on her double bed beside her, chuckling, “Yiayia, tell me another joke!”

“Oh, you like?” she said and grinned at him.

“Yes! Yes!” while laughing from his heart. I stood there and thought two things: I don’t think I had ever—in my adult life—lain next to my yiayia, and second, I had never seen her so illuminated. She adored Hugo and he adored her. Every summer we would visit Greece and he would lie beside her, kiss her forehead, touch her in a way that was foreign to me. I always kissed her quickly and was never that physically close to her. Why? Because I had the crazy idea that old people didn’t need touch.image

I watched him throughout the years and I learned. It was osmosis; the more he loved her, the more I did, too. The more he caressed her, the more I wanted to, too. He leaned on her shoulder, stroked her hand, and always kissed her forehead when he came and when he left. He learned this from his own Peruvian upbringing. His family is inimitably kind to old people, so when my mother-in-law gave up her spacious bedroom to her mother-in-law for the last few years of her life, I wasn’t surprised.

Hugo’s grandmothers were extraordinary women. Mamama (my mother-in-law’s mother) was already lost to Alzheimer’s when I met her; she was gentle and sweet, loved to sing and dance, visions of her at our wedding in a polka dot red dress, twirling on the dance floor, fill my mind’s eye as I write this.image But before her illness, I heard Mamama was strict and would lift her skirt, giving Hugo a kick in the backside if he misbehaved.

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Nana at ninety-five, a year before she died.

Nana, my father-in-law’s mother, on the other hand, was still sharp at eighty-eight when I met her, a statuesque woman who lived alone. Nana mostly sat in a recliner, but one could see that she was still a tall woman with straight shoulders and extensive legs. Nana went to Peru from Normandy in the 1930s, and though she had been in Peru since she was a teenager, she still retained a strong French accent and an air of arrogance.

I adored Nana. Her hair was white and fluffy, smelling like a strawberry patch; she always wore a matching necklace and earrings, her lips painted bright red by the woman who took care of her during the day. She sat upright, but with great labor, shortened breath, told me about France, stories of love and heartbreak. I only regret not writing them down and asking more questions because they are bit and pieces of images, but not a clear story in my head.image

Unlike Nana who I immediately admired, the feelings towards my own grandmother were more complicated because we had had our share of troubles. When I was young, we were jealous of one another and constantly vied for my mother’s attention. When Yiayia would visit California for three months of the year, I was told to give up my bedroom and, as a spoiled teenager, was quite resentful.

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South Africa, 1981. Yiayia would come stay with us for a few months of the year wherever we were living.

When Yiayia passed away last year, my mother flew to Greece, and came back with a stack of photos and a card that I had made for my grandmother that she had apparently saved throughout the years. It was from one of those visits.image I’m trying to remember the good times, not the bad, and also the happy times not the sad.image I don’t remember making the card or creating that horrible poetry, but I must have always been searching for recognition from my tough grandmother who thought putting horse manure in her daughters’ Christmas stockings would create laughs, not tears and years of distrust whenever my mother and aunt received a present. Yiayia had a twisted sense of humor, playing practical jokes all her life and wetting herself (because she laughed so hard) when her victims responded with disbelief. But Yiayia also loved fiercely, lived frugally, and saved, saved, saved—so with the manure-filled stockings, she also presented her daughters with a dozen 18K gold bracelets each; and before she died, gifted each of her three children a house. Yiayia was complicated and, as a child, I didn’t understand her—and didn’t care to (or at least that’s what I remembered till I saw this card).

My mama wanted to get rid of my homemade card and almost didn’t show it to me; she said it reminded her of a time when Yiayia and I didn’t get along. My mama is a very diplomatic woman, a perennial optimistic, someone who compartmentalizes love and chooses to only save good memories. Unlike her, I use all situations to grow and learn. My mama only wanted to remember the last decade, the one where Yiayia and I loved each other deeply and openly. It was finally through my husband’s silent actions and, unbeknownst to him, teachings that, at the end, Yiayia and I had the relationship I had always desired.

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Yiayia with her adopted parents (her biological aunt and her husband). This is the photo I plan to use on the first page of my novel with the dedication.

FullSizeRender-5A decade before meeting my husband, while I was in Greece, I sat rigidly on the side of Yiayia’s bed. I was just filling time, so I asked her about her life. What I didn’t expect was a waterfall of stories about travel, relationships, jobs, and dreams; her birth on the island of Imbros and her subsequent adoption, her life in Nigeria and Egypt; about her Ally “friends” who were stationed in Egypt during World War II; about her assembly line position changing the headlights on Jeeps; her desire to go to England and be reunited with her British boyfriend.

My novel, Red Greek Tomatoes, was born that day. I wrote a few notes about my grandmother’s life and stashed them in my computer; then, years later, in 2010, I started writing and in 2012, the first complete draft of my novel was completed.

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2004

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2014. A month before she passed away.

Last year, I lay down on my yiayia’s bed beside her, our legs crossed, and I touched her leg, commenting about her ever-so-soft skin (skin that I’ve luckily inherited).image Yiayia told me that when she had met my grandfather, he told her she was ugly but, thank goodness, she had soft hands, so she could rub his penis well (Yiayia always used proper terminology). Hugo was sitting on the helper’s bed beside us and laughed loudly. Yiayia at ninety-four, still so feisty, so naughty.

Then I started telling her about the character, Dita, from my novel. Dita is the grandmother character, a Greek girl who lives in Egypt, spends her time with the Allies at dance halls in the early 1940s and is—for her time—promiscuous. My yiayia listened quietly, but when I told her that Dita loses her virginity, she pretended to be horrified.

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Yiayia in Alexandria, Egypt. So beautiful. This was the first photo I had ever seen of her so young and so happy.

“But, Kimi! People will think I was poutana!”

I responded with a smile, “She’s not you, yiayia. Yes, I used some of your background, but she’s her own person.”

“Hmmm, well, she sounds like poutana to me!” Then she laughed her deep, throaty laugh.

Every summer when we would leave, I would asked her, “Yiayia, what do you want me to bring you next year?”

Her answer was always the same, “I want big, handsome Peruvian, like Hugo.” My husband and I would laugh, kiss her, cry, and then the following year we were back to lie with her on her bed and listen to her joke about the Italian and the macaroni that had to—of course—be included in my novel.

Last year was different. Hugo and my aunt had gone upstairs to visit her from my aunt’s home downstairs, and found Yiayia on the floor. For the last week of our visit she had to be in diapers and could no longer walk herself to the bathroom. When her helper was changing Yiayia’s diaper, the woman asked if I wanted to leave the room. I looked at my yiayia, “Can I stay?”

“You like smell shit? Okay, stay!” She laughed. But changing a grown woman’s diaper, who is still sharp as a Sharpie, is no laughing matter. The woman wore rubber gloves. It took several buckets of water and endless wipees—a grueling fifteen-minute process of her legs being yanked up in the air, Yiayia turned to one side, then the other.

When the woman left, I sat close to my yiayia, the room still smelling less-than-delightful, but in that moment nothing mattered. I tried to be light-hearted; inside I was breaking. “What do you want me to bring you from the States next year?”

She smiled quietly, not the naughty-girl laugh, “Nothing. Yiayia is ready.”

I asked her, “Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” she bravely admitted. “But Yiayia not want live like this.”

Goodbyes are always painful, tears drop on the keyboard as I write this, but last year, I knew the goodbye would be forever. I never questioned Yiayia’s strength and determination to live—or die—the way she saw fit. The final morning before my 7a.m. flight, I went upstairs and Yiayia screamed, “Leave! Why you come up? We say goodbye last night!” I had saved an extra twenty minutes for a final cup of coffee with my yiayia, and I’m so glad I did. I was calm and relaxed. I sat beside her, held her hand, and left nothing unsaid. I cried while looking back; she had tears while blowing me kisses.

Twelve days after my return to the United States, she died quietly while holding my aunt’s hand. In a few weeks, I’ll be in Greece and attending Yiayia’s one-year memorial. My novel will one day be dedicated to this venerable woman, and all other women, who broke the mold for how “good” girls should act. Through their daring and unapologetically unique behaviors, women—like my yiayia—paved the way for future generations of women—like me—to have choice.image

I’ve learned so many lessons over the last few years; an important one is that old people have so much to share. I hope you take the time today, or the next, to ask an elderly person about his or her life. Listen, really listen. And maybe even hold their hand while they talk.image

In loving memory of Constantina Gialias. February 10, 1920 – August 12th, 2014.

The Moment When One Knows It’s Time to Quit a Job and . . . Yet Another Love Story

(Singing) “On the road again,
Just can’t wait to get on the road again…”

Actually, I can. Today marks six weeks of commuting on the train between San Diego and Los Angeles for my job. Not fun. ImageThe train ride itself is gorgeous and relaxing, but living in two different homes: two sets of clothes, two toothbrushes, two tins of Bravo coffee is tough. Mostly though, being away from my husband leaves me feeling blue and leaves my indented pillow much too fluffy.

Last week at the train station, (it may have been hormones, it may have been the projects at home I had left half-finished, it may have been that I get sappier the older I get) I just didn’t want to leave, so I was crying. Of course, my husband held me patiently and told me the phrase we use to cheer each other up: “We’re almost there.” But I could not stop the tears. A part of me felt silly, the other was indifferent to the stares. So I held onto my husband as he squeezed me tight.

ImageWhen the train arrived, I had to let go. I boarded and through a tear-stained face, I tried to find a seat. Darn, it was packed. A blonde, athletic woman in her 50s smiled warmly, so I plopped down beside her. She looked at my wedding ring, and the conversation went something like this:

“Sorry, but I saw you out of the window . . . with . . . ahem . . . your husband?” It sounded like one of those question statements.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Where are you going?”

“San Diego.”

She pursued: “How long will you be away?”

I was a little embarrassed. It was Sunday. “I’ll be back Wednesday.”

“Oh?” Another question statement, then, “You must be a newlywed!”

“Well, yes, kind of.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Almost ten years.”

“Ten years!” She gasped. “That’s not a newlywed!

I guess I feel like a perpetual newlywed. Yeah, I guess at the ten-year mark I better start saying: “no, not a newlywed no more.”

“Gosh, when my husband would go on a business trip,” she continued, “after only a year of marriage, I was relieved.”

I smiled. I never feel that way when my husband and I are apart. I always miss him terribly, and based on his calls, notes, and texts, I think he would say the same about me. See here’s the thing: I like my husband. I don’t just love him. I am certain the woman on the train also loves her husband of twenty-five years. She told me she was very happily married, but liked time away from her husband to “get things done,” and “be with her friends.” She said what worked for them was time apart. I understand that may be the case for some couples, but as cliché as it sounds, Hugo is my best friend. Time spent with him is easy, fun. I hear people all the time say “marriage is hard,” but for us, thankfully, it’s easy; the easiest thing I have ever committed to in my life. Granted, we have had a few challenges, a few sticky situations, but it was never truly “hard.” Just life stuff that couples have to deal with. And we have a village of family who support our love, mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, fathers, etc.

ImageBut this last month has, in fact, been hard. It made me reflect upon military families and how difficult every good-bye must be. I was bidding adieu just for a few days; I can’t imagine the sadness when your partner leaves for months on end. But they do it. And their strength humbles me. I also know that long-distance partners learn and adapt—resilient men and women, who stand strong for his/her significant other.

Despite my peppy train-mate, my strength was wavering that day. I thought about resigning and giving up my Fall classes at UCSD. I started picturing the faces of my students. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching them; I’ve enjoyed the program, the hours, the bosses, my colleagues. Okay, I’ve especially loved the students, especially those who hold on and become my sweet, young FB friends; others who I lunch with, others who private message me for advice that goes far beyond the classroom. Meeting new students every year, semester, or quarter has always been my favorite part of the job.

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“So, you are a teacher?” The blonde woman said when I started grading essays to keep my mind occupied.

“Yes,” but I think I will be quitting my job this week.

Popular wisdom dictates not to quit a job before you have another one, but ethically, I couldn’t stay committed. I had three classes that would need a replacement instructor. My bosses, thankfully, received my resignation letter with warmth and offers to be future references. I felt confident that I had done the right thing.

So, today, after this train ride to San Diego to give my students their final exam, I will no longer be (singing) “on the road again . . .”

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And my fluffy pillow will once more have its familiar grooves.

“Young Love. ‘Real’ Love?”

The new girl walks into her high school AVID class and sits next to a tall, skinny guy with lip piercings, ear gauges, wearing a Jack Skellington T-shirt. She’s a Marine kid and just moved back to the U.S. from Okinawa. Little does she know that he’s a military kid too and has gone to twenty different schools in sixteen years. The boy sees the new girl and thinks: “Who wears plaid dresses in high school?” He also thinks: “She’s kind of cute.” It’s not necessarily “love at first sight” but a friendship is formed and soon love blossoms between two people who genuinely like each other. They start dating and now, three years later, they are already talking about marriage and babies; not tomorrow, but when they graduate from UCSD in a few years. As I sit across from them for what was supposed to be a one-hour lunch, I ask them what they would say to people who are skeptical about their relationship because they are so young. Andrew responds: “I’d say that our age isn’t really a negative force in our relationship . . . we both grew up in the homes of high school sweethearts, so we don’t have much negativity internalized for young relationships because we’ve seen what they can grow into.” Both Savannah’s and Andrew’s parents have been married more than twenty years, and they tell me their parents still seem very happy. Nothing is perfect, they admit, but both sets of parents have served as models, “We learned from them to never go to bed mad. Work it out. Fight it out,” because “nothing should be big enough to come between us.” When I ask Savannah what she would change about Andrew she answers: Nothing. “I am not saying he is perfect,” but she tells me she loves him just the way he is. This young woman seems to understand something that took me twenty years to figure out: you can’t (and shouldn’t) change others. Accept them as they are—or don’t—because people don’t really change, not inherently, that is.

I start thinking about all the frogs I had to kiss till I met my charming husband. Can you kiss Prince or Princess Charming at sixteen and make it last “forever”? When divorce rates are at about 50% in the U.S. and finances are what cause most marriages to fall apart, can two young people who say that “in a few years, we may be struggling really hard to make rent on our rinky-dink apartment while paying off student loans, while providing for our cat, and maybe even our kid” make it for the long haul AND be happy?

Savannah was my student and is now my friend; she is a thoughtful, fun young woman who loves to read, play board games, and smile a lot. Andrew, who I just met, (though whose face I knew well through Instagram) speaks French, German, Spanish, and American sign language; he’s a lover of linguistics, a young man who speaks like an old soul using word choices like “salient” and “cognitive dissonance” while simultaneously telling me he loves Pokemon. After spending a few hours with them, it all makes sense. Funky, smart girl meets funky, smart guy. There’s chemistry, friendship, similar backgrounds and goals. So why shouldn’t it last forever? As we sit in the sun and eat Greek food, I hear them finish each other’s sentences. They smile warmly at one another, teasing the other while telling me personal stories. One of his “duties,” he explains, is to “wait for her to fall asleep and then take off her glasses.” She rebuts with tales of his forgetfulness, but in the end, it’s all laughs. As I listen to their stories, I can’t help thinking that these two may have, indeed, been separated at the beginning of time. I have come to believe that there is no single formula that makes love work. Sixteen or twenty-six, thirty-six or even sixty-six, when you kiss The One, I think you just know.

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A Tale of Two Pairs of Converse

Last night my mama and her partner invited us to go to a restaurant that has a bar attached to it. We would get there by 5:45 p.m. (to order great food at happy hour prices) then stay till 8 p.m. to dance. My husband and I have lovingly referred to my mom and Brian as “Los Viejos.” Twenty-five years older than us, truth be told, they have far more stamina than we do. They go dancing two to three days a week—from line dancing to ballroom to swing—while my husband and I prefer popcorn and a movie as well as the occasional bottle of wine while sitting outside and admiring the view. Last night, though, we took them up on their offer. At 6 p.m. the bar was empty, by 8 p.m. it was packed. The average age was 55 to 60 years old. One glitzy gal, probably well into her 80s, grabbed my husband while I was in the restroom and got him to dance! Apart from the energetic mature people in the bar, there was a young lady with her family; she couldn’t have been older than 17. Across the room, there was a young man with his family, too. The young man, who looked like a modern James Dean also in his mid-teens, played with his phone for about an hour, but once the music started, he danced with what looked like his grandmother then mother. He twirled them around on the dance floor, danced the swing with a current swagger. He wore a flannel shirt, skinny jeans, and black and white Converse. The young girl also danced with people from her table, and then something happened. I, sadly, missed how it happened exactly, but this young Uma Thurman-looking girl, who was also wearing black and white converse, and the James Dean kid found each other in this room of crowded strangers. They started dancing and it was one of the sweetest things I have seen in such a long time. He held her gently by the waist, rocked her back and forth as they hesitantly asked each other questions. On one hand, it looked like new love, on the other, they just seemed to fit together so well. Their black and white sneakers circled the dance floor as if Mr. and Ms. Converse had finally found each other. It was a beautiful moment.

A Short Love Story

A girl walks into a bar because one of her favorite songs, “Shook Me All Night Long” is playing. In the corner of the dive, a tall, dark and handsome stranger (so cliché but so true) catches her eye. The bar is called “Hobson’s Choice” (which relates to a story about a man who rented horses whose line was “take this one or no other”). So the girl must have also gotten the stranger’s attention because he keeps staring at her. He comes closer to the bar and orders another drink. The girl speaks to the boy. The very first words this young man hears from the girl are “Do I know you from somewhere?” It really wasn’t a pick-up line—she really thought she knew him from somewhere; otherwise why would he stare so openly? (Yeah, right. It was a pick-up line.)

Then, things happen quickly. He walks the girl and her best friend to their car and, in one fell swoop, slides the girl’s seat belt into the slot perfectly as she stares into his eyes. He invites her to see his country, so they travel to Peru. He thinks she takes too many vitamins and her desire to eat fish twice a week is a bit irritating. She thinks he’s too young and can’t possibly want the same things she does. But he does. He forgives the vitamins and she believes him. In less than a year, on December 22nd, 2003, they marry in a simple ceremony in Lima, Peru; and the following year, she has a small wedding, so her mother can see her in a long, pretty white dress.

This man tells her she is funny every day. She tells him he is so kind. They laugh a lot. He gets grumpy, she gets demanding, but they figure it out. Nine years later, she looks at this man and wonders how she got so lucky. She fears talking about her happiness because she’s afraid to jinx it, but she can’t help it because after almost a decade, she is more in love than ever. And if there is a God, then she says a huge thank you for creating this person who complements her so perfectly and makes everything right in her universe.

Just a short little love story that will, hopefully, turn into a long one.

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