An Elegy To My Grandparents
I can always recall in wonderful detail my Grandparents’ house; its deeply subterranean basement, one that radiated a smell of powerful, earthy dampness that would fill my nostrils; the green lawn with its sloping backyard, full to the brim with rosebushes and vegetable patches, ending in a snaking little stream which babbled away quietly at the end of the property. We would throw stones over the rotting wooden fence and watch them plop into the water; I would lean my tanned little shoulders over the fence, balanced by my Grandfather Nick’s guiding hands. He had probably been telling me a story as we ventured around the lawn in his husky broken English, coloured by his thick Greek accent, beginning with ‘Once another time…’ in a slight rewording of the traditional fairy tale opening. There was a sealed-off well in his backyard, paved across with slabs of roofing tiles, over which a peeling wooden trellis grew grapevines. From this vantage point, we could pick grape leaves for my Grandma Stacy’s Dolmathes recipe, and Grandpa would tell me in hushed tones about the monster he had trapped inside the enclosed well.
“Put your ear to it, you can hear him! He’s trying to get out.” he would say, and I would gravely obey, straining my little ears, my cheek pressed hard against the rough tiles. I struggled to hear the monster banging around under there, imagining his furry face in the dark, awed and terrified.
“How did you catch him?” I would ask, and he would explain, inventing a slightly new method each time. I believed in Grandpa’s story so sincerely that I would obediently avoid the well at all times, unless he was by my side. I cannot remember if my Grandfather was a tall man; just that it had always seemed so from a seven year old’s impressed eyes. He seemed to have giants’ hands; calloused, olive-skinned; the big, strong hands of a farmer’s son, as he would peel apples and pare them into halves for my snack, or extract juice from fresh oranges and encourage me to taste it.
When the time for dinner came near, my Grandmother would call for me – “Christina-mou!” she would say, a Greek term of endearment – and I would enter the small kitchen, filled with the rich scent of cooking lamb and tart lemons, coagulating with the stringent smell of cleaning fluids. I would happily dart through the garage and onto the back porch, carrying utensils and plates to set the patio table on warm days. The throaty sound of the native language would float through the screen door, often at a bickering pace. I could catch a word or a phrase that clarified the argument; typically about the lamb’s readiness. I would kick my dirty feet against the chair impatiently until Grandpa collected me and we would play our favorite game, hide and seek. I would run into Grandma’s perfectly-decorated parlour, with its pale pink carpet and white sofas, valuable crystal vases and knick-knacks scattered around like patient targets for a child’s well-placed elbow or kicking foot. I’d dive behind the sofa, squeezing my tiny body between the wall and the furniture and trying not to move. My breath was heavy and warm with the sweetness of Grandpa’s hard candies, the ones which were always in his coat pockets. Or perhaps I’d run into the bedroom; stare at the armoire covered in ancient photographs and Greek Orthodox icons of the saints; and dash behind the door for cover. As I waited breathlessly, I could still smell the remnants of Grandma’s fancy powder puff, which I had once naughtily uncovered and promptly dropped on the carpet.
My Grandfather had the hands and the kindly, sun-worn face of a farmer’s son, yes; but he was also a war hero, a survivor of the Nazi occupation and brother to a well-known Resistance fighter, and an immigrant who learned English late in life and worked several jobs to create a good living for his family. Most of all though, I knew him as a storyteller. The stories mostly took place in a little fishing village called Kataraktis, on the Southern tip of an island in the Aegean, Chios. A mere 5 miles from the coast of Turkey, the island’s location caused no small amount of distress in its history. This beautiful little village is where my Grandfather came from and where stories abounded about its nightmarish past, his adventures as a youth, and his experiences during the years of Nazi occupation and the Greek Civil War. In 1822, the Ottoman Empire committed genocide on Chios, killing and torturing thousands; there is a Delacroix painting called The Massacre of Chios which depicts the event. In 1881, an earthquake ravaged the landscape, an event that changed the lives of some of my Grandfather’s relations. These things helped to shape the nature of the stories I was told; they were mystical and dark, tales of hallowed ground and curses and ghosts, of the horror of war and divine punishment. At my age, they really should have frightened me to death, yet I can’t ever remember being anything other than fascinated. Amidst the horrific legacy that the island inherited, there was a stubborn pride and strength of character that the Chian Greeks had utterly intact. The little village of Kataraktis has been touched by time and tourism, but when I look at photos of it, each story I’ve heard seems to pulsate through the images; the concrete piers, the olive groves, the ancient churches.
When dinner would eventually come, it would be delicious – and neverending. I would be encouraged to eat until I could eat no longer, and then encouraged moreso. The holidays doubled this tendency; on Greek Easter, I would leave the house so stuffed I used to curl up and fall asleep in the car. “Christos Anesti!” Grandpa would shout, and we’d crack our dyed red eggs together, symbols of the blood of Christ. “Alithos Anesti!” I would chime back, and I would sit with the more damaged egg, loser of the traditional game of luck we had played. It was truly an irony then, that it was Grandpa who had lost all his luck. The same luck which had kept him whole and relatively unscathed through years of brutal civil war seemed to have left him – he had emerged instead with an aggressive and painful lung disease. As I grew older, it became difficult for him to play Hide and Seek and our other adventurous games for too long – he had to keep stopping to catch his breath. I would harass him, pleading with him to carry on. I was too young to understand his pain. Sometimes we would sit in the backyard, restful, talking about buying ourselves a zoo.
Each year he laboured more and more for breath, until he became accompanied by these strange green tanks; ones that made it nearly impossible for him to play games anymore, as he was forever attached to them. He could no longer drive; there would be no more time spent buckled into the backseat, laughing and dancing to his cassette of Greek music, delightedly unaware of his recklessness as he threw both hands off the wheel and over his head, shouting, “Opa!” The spirited stubbornness of his and my father’s arguments, they too had faded. They were forever bickering over borrowing tools from each other’s garden sheds or accidentally running over Grandpa’s hedges; hands were always flying as they cursed at each other in a collision of two languages. The arguments had quieted now; the whole house had quieted. Grandpa was confined to his bed, with a solemn nurse at his bedside; the rosebushes and lemon trees were left to our much less able care. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t sit outside in his chair anymore, in a vest and trousers, hands dirty from his weeding and planting. I was ten when my mother woke me early one morning, and told me that Grandpa was gone. Just like that – vanished off the face of the earth, as if his whole brave life had been deleted from collective history. How could it be so?
I held his amber-coloured Komboloi, traditional Greek worry beads, and sat silently in the funeral home, facing death for the first time in my young life. A swell of tearful relatives arrived, many elderly, with their familiar accents and papery hands and plates of baklava; kissing me on the cheeks, embracing my Grandmother. My prim, dignified Grandmother; always the lady, hardly had a tearful moment over the course of those few days. She spoke kind words, murmured, “Nick, you’re all right now,” but never a crack in her voice, never a tear. I couldn’t fathom it then; I hardly can now, except for some thought towards her upbringing, her endurance of hardship – maybe it created in her a pride even stronger than grief. Several years later, as a teenager, I visited my Grandmother in the hospital for the last time. I had never seen her in such a way; she was always properly dressed, stylishly done, sharp as whip. She would flit around the kitchen busily, telling me about when she spotted Greta Garbo on the street in Manhattan, or singing cheerfully as she cooked away, usually her favorite Bing Crosby tune, ‘Domino’. But now she was grey-faced and ill; doused with morphine to ease the pain of the life that was leaving her day by day. It caused hallucinations; ones that recalled her domestic life; she thought she was making apple pie. She asked, “How many for dinner? How many of you?” Moments of lucidity came and went – in one of them, she held my father’s hands in her own thin grasp and said, “Smile.” Dad did his best approximation and we all tried to do the same, standing in that sterile white place, hating to leave her – all too aware it would be the last time.
When she passed, I knew that I had not only lost two of the most loved people in my life, but an entire world; cultural ties to a Greece I had never been to except in stories, and a language I had never spoken except in passing words or phrases. The memories of a language I once had known the sounds of so well now grows vague in my mind; the visits to the stained-glass beauty of the Greek church have ended; and most of all, the hundreds of stories – the family members I never learned the names of – the details of old photos I had always been curious about – they are lost forever now, their recovery more unlikely as the years pass. I regret my failure to have asked all the questions, to have heard all the stories. There is an overwhelming sense of loss at the things never said, the all-too-short amount of time I had with them; the fear that their memory will grow weaker over the vast span of the years. Regretful as I am, I too must be thankful. I must be thankful for the childhood they gave me; for the fierce pride in my background which they instilled in me; and for the magic of those stories, perhaps most of all. This has been an attempt to remember and to record all the wonderful things Nick and Stacy Potamousis gave to me; and still, it is not nearly enough to describe how much I was given, or how dearly grateful I feel for having had it.
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