It's been nine years since we moved to the house we are in now. Before that we lived right in the heart of a small town. There's a certain culture that comes with small backyards all emptying toward a commonly shared alley. The kids all know that even though their own yard is small they have the alley and they have all the yards in the neighborhood where they have playmates. For the grownups, there is a sharing of responsibility and of communication. Of course, every neighborhood has the one family who causes trouble or imposes on the other families. We had ours too. For the most part though, everyone was together in the sense of community.
The neighborhood was made up of generations too. We had everything from young married couples to elderly retirees who could tell us the history of our houses and their inhabitants. We had large families and we had widows. Yes, there were one or two gossips who had nothing better to do than pry for information and share the findings. Again, that was the exception, not the rule.
One neighbor, in particular, was brought to my mind recently. We knew her first and last name but to us she was known as Yia-yia, Greek for grandmother.
In the years we were neighbors we watched Yia-yia deteriorate physically but she always had a quick smile and sweet demeanor. She often invited Calypso over as a playmate for the granddaughter who visited frequently. Initially, it was to give the little girl some companionship, later she admitted it was because Calypso had a calming effect on the granddaughter and it made watching her a bit easier. I also offered to have the girls over at our house frequently as well. Plenty of times I'd come over to check on things and make sure the girls weren't wearing out Yia-yia too badly. I'd always wind up sitting down to a cup of tea and some sweets or fruit. I was visiting a Greek grandmother after all....and she was glad for the company...who needed to be fed.
Many of you know the names I use for my kids on this blog are not their real names. Their real names are Greek, partly as a nod to my own heritage. Yia-yia, of course, recognized the names and very early on needed to do a bit of gentle investigating of my pedigree. Now understand, since I am adopted, I did not grow up in Greek culture. I have met a number of other Greeks who let me know it is not even worth calling myself Greek when they find out I am not Orthodox, do not speak the language, and know no one in Greece. Ah, but growing up surrounded by Germans the question always was, "Why don't you look like us? Where are you from?" You see how it goes.
In any event, I'd encountered enough folks with narrow ideas that I was a bit reluctant to offer too much information. With Yia-yia, I found quickly that I had no need to be concerned. She was quite open-minded about it all. It was actually a doorway to innumerable conversations with real depth. She was Greek in all the ways a "true Greek" would say it mattered and she was proud of it, but she had her own ideas as well, ideas the other "true Greeks" found disturbing enough that Yia-yia had learned to keep those thoughts to herself. So we understood each other and were safe with each other. We didn't agree on everything but we had a level of respect that allowed us to have wonderful exchanges of ideas and learn from each other.
I found that once all the kids were in school and there weren't little girls to be monitoring I missed seeing Yia-yia as frequently as before. I knew from conversations that she struggled with loneliness, especially as her health failed. I'd make solo visits so we could share a cup of tea. She was a very well-educated woman with a wealth of experiences and I so enjoyed hearing the stories of her life. I think she enjoyed having someone to tell them to. She was full of encouragement for a young mother too....and for a fumbling gardener.
Anyone who knows me knows I possess the black thumb of death where green things are concerned. I kill plants with a cruel efficiency. Each spring, I always got some baskets to hang off the porch though. One year I got it in my head to attempt a flower garden on the side of the house facing Yia-yia's. Mr. Lime turned the ground for me and fertilized it all. I got flats of annuals and planted them. They thrived for a brief period of time. Of course, the year I had this flash of brilliance we had such a bad drought we were under severe restrictions. Watering was only allowed with grey water. I'd dutifully carry the kids' bathwater out to water my garden. The sad blooms were withering. What few were left then got chewed off by rabbits. It was the most pathetic excuse for a garden ever seen. I was resolved not to go through this exercise in futility the next year.
One hot August day I sat with Yia-yia on her back porch. We sweated out the lemonade as fast as we drank it. We bemoaned the extreme heat and I mentioned how demoralizing the garden experiment had been. She brightened as she said, "Oh but it was so nice to see your flowers! Since my legs have been so bad this summer I haven't been able to get out of this house. Your garden gives me something pretty to look at." And thus, my resolve was gone. I knew I'd be attempting again the next year so Yia-yia would have something other than the siding on my house to look at if she was confined to her own house and porch again. She wasn't asking me to keep it up but I knew her world was becoming smaller and it frustrated her tremendously. If my sad little flowers could give her some smiles, it would be worth it to keep trying. I did manage to find a few that I didn't kill as quickly as others...as long as the rabbits weren't thinking it was their personal buffet. Yia-yia even asked me to plant a couple little flowers someone had brought by for her. In that following non-drought year the garden did only marginally better under my special brand of incompetence but Yia-yia was happy. When I did have a few small successes she beamed like the sun to see it.
I'm just glad our friendship blossomed more heartily than those flowers. By this time my own grandmother had passed and Yia-Yia had filled the void with her own gentle wisdom, humor, and sweetness. Our family moved a couple years later but I continued to visit Yia-yia on occasion, though not as often as either of us would have liked. I sent her cards at Christmas. A couple of years ago I received a letter from her daughter informing me Yia-yia had been moved to a nursing home and no longer recognized people even in her own family. She had requested no visitors. I was truly saddened to hear that.
A few days ago I ran into another former neighbor who told me Yia-yia left this life rather a while ago. I was sad to hear so long after the fact. I miss her and her smile and her giggle. I miss our little visits on the porch. May she rest in peace and may the flowers in heaven bloom gloriously for her.
Αιώνια να είναι μνήμη σας, O αδελφή μας, οι οποίοι είναι άξιοι της μακαριότητα και αιώνια μνήμη.
γιαγιά, μου λείπεις.