After reading Constance Callinicos American Aphrodite, I have delved into a deeply reflective cave both liberated and shackled by the truth of the female Greek American experience as expressed on the pages and recalled in my own life. Her depiction of the Greek yaya, those picture brides of the 1920s, “helpless home bound and dependent” who nevertheless held a magnetic power in the domestic sphere reminded me of my own.
When I compare my grandmother’s life to my own, the chasm of difference between us is so deep and wide, it is a Grand Canyon of difference much much larger than say my American friends with their grandmother’s generation. What women have experienced in three generations in America is equivalent to say, going from the Stone Age through the industrial revolution all in 50 years.
My yiayia born in Sfakis Greece, one of 12, was married off to my grandfather who came with fiddlers on a donkey to court her in the village at the secluded quiet part of Ios island. Her father had substantial lands on the island so even though she was not particularly attractive (in her old age she resembled the mama in “throw mama from the train” with Danny devito ), she was a good catch. She owing to the ferocious Cretan blood in her was rumored to have shot a few Germans during the war when they invaded the island. She wore a perpetual hair net to keep her thin fly away hair from frenzily flying in all sorts of directions from the meltemia, the crazy harpywinds that tunneled through the alley of the Cyclades that could screw your head off and make you mad as a bare hatter. She was completely illiterate. She signed her name with a wobbly x mark. She had however managed to memorize the numbers especially the numbers on the drachma bills and coins. She could with a lot of care and intense looking dial a number from a crumbled piece of paper on the dial phone the holes she’d have to poke her heavy fingers in and mechanically turn to the end of the brake and let loose till the wheel jigged to the start position and then squint holding the place of the next digit with her terrific thumb to find it along the circular dial of the phone and crank it back again. Watching her make a phone call on that old fashioned dial phone was like witnessing a surgeon perform eye correction surgery.
My grandmother would give birth to six children in a stone cottage in the back of the island where the family tended their fields. No plumbing no sink, she’d have to walk close to half a mile to the well and fill two metal buckets with sweet water which shed balance on a wood beam from her shoulders like an ox. Those two buckets of water was the quota for the day, it served to make the meal, wash the dishes, hydrate eight people, and wash baby cloth diapers. There was no electricity to iOS island till well into the 70s so all the days work had to occur with the suns rising and the suns falling. There was no doctor except in the Chora, the main port town, three hours by foot through the mountains. Her kids had to make that trek everyday to go and come back through the wild craggy mountains with life threatening curves and caverns. A whole herd of them would trek out in the early morning at six to make the long walk to school on the other side of the island, little ones 5 or 6 holding hands with their older siblings 10 or 11.
The children would sleep on the cold stone floor covered with goat flokati. Yaya Irini my namesake no doubt was to breast feeding children way into kindergarten for lack of a more convenient food source. After decades of working in the fields, hand washing thousands of cloth diapers in the stream, and doing all the menial jobs around the house , it is no wonder she would scream at you if you as much left a few crumbs on the table and around the floor; that would mean bending down to pick it up.
Yiayia was a tough cookie. Even while illiterate she ruled her house with an iron will. She managed the finances, she told pappou what to do with the money, she even whacked him a few times over the bald head with a fratzola (loaf of bread). I remember encouraging me to go on to university and get a degree which she likened to a “chriso brachioli” (a gold bracelet) around my wrist.
If you compare her life to mine, the difference is galactic. I was born on a different continent, have traveled to 50 countries. I have two masters degrees and speak three languages. I married when I wanted to whom I wanted, both times to a non Greek. I can use an iPhone to post on my blog. I occasionally use the services of a cleaning company to help out with the crumbs around the table. My children are busses to and from school a few blocks away. I can call their doctor on speed dial in case of emergency. I work at a desk and behind a podium with a smart board to do my business.
I do not have to prod you much to come up with a Venn diagram to list the ways your life is different from your grandmother’s. The advances in opportunity, in education, in perspective are immense. What do I have in common with my giagia who was an illiterate stone hut dweller in a desolate part of a remote island in Greece? I have her spirit, her power and her drive. Yiayia was a feminist in her heart, she raised hell when Pappou told her what to do. She reverted to hysterics, the one weapon in her arsenal. She had killed a German or two in defense of her house. She was a warrior. And even while illiterate she knew enough to know that an education for a girl was better than giving her a dowry. Even in her 80s yiayia would rush through the liaki, the open air market, choosing the best mandarin and tomatoes, her muscular thighs like cannons pistoning on pavement, hauling eight plastic bags an equivalent of 12 pounds, up to the third story walk up to her apartment in Athens. I am so proud of my grandmother, more so than I am of my mother who caved into the norms and straight jacket roles her culture handed down to her and then tried to ingrain in me.
Even though “weak” and defenseless in society’s eyes, my yiayia Irini was strong and powerful both physically and psychically. Indeed, an entire Ice Age separates us in terms of life experience, but we share the blood of the huntress and the warrior whose legs stand firm as she pulls the bow and arrow and take aim at the heart of the beast.
How different/same is your life from your yiayia’s? Leave a comment.