Sunday, March 20, 2011

Yιαγιά's Afghan

Last Monday I was at my computer at work and a message from my sister Tina popped up from Facebook. It was breviloquent. 10 words. 42 characters. “Just to let you know that Nick's mother passed away.” The funeral was to be the next day.

I later found out from my mother that Nick’s mother, Arianthi, passed away on the previous Thursday, before the earthquake in Japan. I probably would have gone if I had found out earlier, but as often happens, it was not to be. Just like when my wife Liz passed away, my mom came out. I told all the rest of the family to stay home; we’d have a memorial service for Liz in California. But as often happens, it was also not to be.

My brother in law, Nick, his family is Greek. His mother, Arianthi, whom we all called Yia-Yia (Yιαγιά), was a wonderful person. As was her husband, Demetri. But first, the afghan.

It must have been in the 1970’s. When my mom and sister and Arianthi got on a kick making these little throw blankets. I don’t know how I got hold of one, but it has been in my home for ages. It was a favorite of my wife Liz, when she would sit at her chair, watching a movie with the cat on her lap. Waiting to get better. Waiting to be able to see again, to be able to get up and walk unassisted to go to the bathroom by herself. But as often happens, it was not to be. Liz passed away, at 48. Ten years later, Arianthi followed her at the age of 93.

I often sit on my couch and watch a movie with the little afghan covering me. It comforts me; it reminds me of Liz and Arianthi. I think about the hands that made it, the energy that went into the making of something with love. I think about the bodies it kept warm and comforted over the years. Now it is older and kind of ragged in places, but I wouldn’t give it up. If fits me. It connects me with someone who I didn’t see very much but  with whom I felt a connection.

I read her obituary. I knew most of the stories, about her and her husband fighting and hiding from the Nazis, with desperate hunger and  in a world gone out of control, all with young children. About losing a son, about coming to America, not knowing the language. About raising three kids, all whom she was so very proud of.

I used to stop by her and Demetri’s house in San Bernardino on my way back from college in Santa Clara to my home in Palm Springs. Demetri (whom everyone called Jimmy) worked in a restaurant and the two of them could really put out a spread. Today that duty has fallen upon my sister Tina, and she learned well from Arianthi and Jimmy, in the ways of Greek cooking in America. Those were some good meals. It didn’t matter, when I would stop by, there would always be roasted potatoes, usually some lamb, a little wine and greens, horta, lovely greens, bitter and laced with olive oil. I am hungry just thinking about it now.

Later on when I became a vegetarian for a time, she was one of the people in my family who understood. She would pinch my cheeks, and say to me with her bright little eyes, in her cute little Greek-English accent, “You don’t worry about it. It was horta that got us through the war, me and my Jimmy and the children. And then she would tell me her personal story about just how tough and dangerous their life was in the 1940’s in Greece. “We had nothing, we had nowhere to go, we had only ourselves,” she would recount,” and by God we learned to rely upon our family first.” Family is to the Greeks like it is to the Italians. In fact, it was from Arianthi that I learned about my Greek side, just from watching her. I really miss seeing her all these years. And now, well, she’s on the other side.

And her family, come’ va? Well, they made it in America. They are the quintessential Americans. They are, like the Italians and any other dispossessed people that make it to our shores, what this country was invented for. To bring your dreams and plant them in your yard and to harvest bushels of horta and live and dance and drink wine and dance some more and love and keep the flame burning for as long as one can.

Dear Yιαγιά, thank you for being in our lives. Thank you for bringing your children to America and thank you for keeping our hearts (and our feet) warm with your love and your life and your beautiful little blankets.

Arianthi Coussoulis - "Yιαγιά"

Arianthi's daughter Tina

Arianthi's son, Greg with his niece Angela

Arianthi's son, Nick Coussoulis, husband of my sister Tina

My sisters, Julie and Tina

Julie and Tina's children

Demetri and Arianthi Coussoulis sitting at the table as I will forever remember them

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