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.

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Fish Lips

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I was at the gym today and saw a woman on the elliptical trainer beside me who had lips bigger than her derrière! My first thought was: “Welcome to LA!” My second thought was: “God, please don’t let me ever want to puff my lips like a cartoon fish!” But then . . . the little pink devil that hangs out on my left shoulder said: “Hey, didn’t you just tell someone the other day that you would consider a face-lift when you are around fifty-five?” Oops. Yes, I guess I did. It’s true I have become more grounded with yoga and other wonderful practices in my life, but I also see my face’s and buttocks’ gravitational pull. Your soul can become one with the earth, but your face and butt need to stay up, up, up! At least that’s what we (mostly women) are pressured into believing.

I had a conversation a few years ago about the mind/body/spirit connection with an ex-student who has now become a good friend. I had mentioned that the body is the least important of the three, and one will encounter happiness through a strong mind and spirit. She reminded me that “the body is our temple” and it is, in fact, with a healthy body that we can strengthen our mind and spirit.

I always think about this as my almost forty-four-year old body bench presses 3 sets of 15 of a 55lb bar. At the end of every challenging work-out—be it spinning, weight-lifting or Corepower yoga, I am always thankful for this body, not because I can still fit into my wedding dress, but because I feel strong and healthy.

I’m at the age where we start to see those around us deal with aching backs, bad knees, and in more serious cases, disease. We experience mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends who fight breast cancer (my own mother is a twelve-year survivor), some younger friends who have had ovaries removed because of the hideous ovarian cancer that hides so well, others who live with less-publicized diseases such as Scleroderma or Crohn’s. These women, who deal with real issues, make me feel less inclined to worry about my wrinkles or belly fat.

ImageBut. Over the years I have a growing number of students who have said to me in evaluations (and in person when I know them better): “You always seem like you are mad” or “You always seem to be critiquing us with your look.” Indeed I do critique (isn’t that the role of a conscientious teacher?), but I have learned that many of these comments stem from my furrowed brow. My pensive look is often read as if I am upset. I’m not. I just have never injected Botox into my face. Or Restylane. Or any other foreign substance. Never had a laser or chemical peel. I am au natural. And I know it shows because of the two deep lines in my forehead. I just don’t want people to think I’m mad.

But. I don’t want to do anything—at least for a while. I like it when I see my brow lift, my eyes squint, the lines around my smile emerge. I’ve earned these lines and I am proud of them.

But. I will be honest. I like them, now, at my age, but I don’t know how I will feel in ten or twenty or thirty years (if I am lucky to live that long). I saw Jane Fonda a year ago in person at her movie screening and then a few months ago on “The View”; she looks fabulous at seventy-five. On the talk show, she discussed her hip surgery and about pushing her body too hard. She still works out, but does exercises suited for a woman in her seventies. She talked openly about finally succumbing to a face-lift, saying she was no longer happy with the image that looked back at her. So, like her, I never want to say never.

As I looked at Fish Lips to my left and contemplated the aforementioned, I felt a bit guilty. I don’t know her personal story and why she chooses to look that way, and at the end of the day, I just hope that people who do plastic or any of all that other stuff that is now available (if you have the money, of course) you first work on a strong body, mind, and spirit. As we say at the end of my yoga class: Namaste. Peace be with you. And with Fish Lips.

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“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”
― Milan Kundera