I 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.
Still, 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.
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. But before her illness, I heard Mamama was strict and would lift her skirt, giving Hugo a kick in the backside if he misbehaved.
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.
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.
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. I’m trying to remember the good times, not the bad, and also the happy times not the sad. 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.
A 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.
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). 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.
“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.
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.
In loving memory of Constantina Gialias. February 10, 1920 – August 12th, 2014.