We are coming up to the one year anniversary of my beloved Mama’s passing on November 26. In Greek tradition, this is considered the end of the formal mourning period. For the one year memorial, I have been tasked with organizing a prayer service. Our relatives in Vancouver want the mnemosino to take place at St. George’s Cathedral.
I don’t want to say goodbye. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her; that I don’t miss her; that I long to hear her sweet voice and have her call me “kotoula mou” - my little chicken - in much that say way that I call EM.
Coming to grips with the loss of one’s parents is the final act of individuation. I don’t know if I’m ready to be an adult just yet.
I came across these photos taken before our trip to Europe when Mama was still able to leave her room at Mount Saint Mary’s and there were still those small bright moments of lucidity. They are among my dearest possessions.
“Life is not the greatest good. Death is not the greatest evil. We are all going to pass. Not one of us will remain here. We are not citizens of this world but citizens of Heaven. This is not our true home. We are merely passing through. Our true home is Heaven.” ~ Saint Paul
I love you Mama for you are my dear one - always.
Tomorrow, Dev, our chicken and I will go to church to commemorate six month’s since Mama’s passing.
Today, we started our own tradition and made Koliva. I watched Mama make these countless times, for other relatives and for my father.
There were tears mixed in with the ingredients. Especially when Dev said, “And one day, our chicken will make these for us.”
I am sitting here, listening to the rain, typing on the computer, trying to make sense of all these jumbled emotions and memories.
The wheat kernels I watched my mother prepare express the belief in everlasting life. The wheat kernels that Dev and I prepared this afternoon are our prayer that Mama is in a place of light.
Growing up, I was not allowed to participate until the end. My mother was the one who carefully mixed all the ingredients; I used my artistic skill in the decorating and presentation of the final product. Today, it was Dev doing the mixing and the talking.
Tomorrow morning, I will sprinkle the top with confectioners’ sugar, pressing down with waxed paper to ensure I have a smooth, compact top. With toasted almonds, I will form a delicate cross in the middle of the mound and on either side I will script my mother’s initials: E. S.
I remember, as young girl, attending Sunday School. The lessons were interesting enough and I would often come home with tons of crafts, stories and paper icons. The one-hour catechism class was the fun part.
The Divine Liturgy was not. Picture me dressed in a silly yellow dress with matching ribbons and black patent shoes, sitting for two hours, watching the back of the priest’s head, and listening to the cantors drag out each Amen. I trained myself to tune out the painfully long service, conducted in a language that even my parents didn’t fully understand, by staring at the iconography that covered the altar, the dome, and the church’s walls.
I knew that if I behaved, at the end of the service, I would join my parents in the adjoining hall and enjoy something sweet; something called koliva served in styrofoam cups with little plastic spoons.
While Koliva is served in remembrance of the dead, I will always associate the boiled wheat with breakfast cereal.
When my mother was twenty-four years old and working as a nanny in Athens, she traveled to the island of Tinos, on March 25, to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. In the Greek Church, this is the most extraordinary event in human history: the Incarnation of God.
Having lost her father at such an early age meant that Mama had no dowry; her choices for a husband were limited, so my mother focused all her maternal longings on becoming a Godparent.
The cathedral in Tinos and the surrounding monastery is dedicated to the Theotokos. For hundreds of years, Christian pilgrims have made the journey to venerate the sacred icon housed within its walls. And on this Aegean Island, protected by the veil of God, miracles are commonplace events.
During this special day, it is difficult to get more than a few minutes in front of this wondrous Icon, as there are hundreds upon hundreds of people squished together like sardines, vying for their private, distinct moment with the Mother of God.
It is a mysterious depiction: on the surface it is like any other icon comprised of wood and paint, and yet there is something intangible that warrants a second look. It is the warmth and authenticity of the message that draws the devout back. It is easy to identify with the young Mary and the complexities of her situation. She cannot understand how she can bear a child but in total obedience she accepts the Divine Decree. In that moment, she recognizes the probable consequence for herself – the scandal, the disgrace, perhaps even death. Still, Mary gives herself up completely.
Much like my grandmother before her, my mother kneeled before the Mother of God and prayed:
Please, my beloved Theotokos, only you know why I have traveled all this way, only you know the longing. Please do not turn me away empty-handed. Bless and untie my hands. Help me baptize a young child.
It was then that my mother felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and saw a blonde-haired young girl, no more than thirteen, dressed in black smiling at her. The young girl addressed my mom:
Listen carefully, I know why you came. You came to baptize. In a few moments you will see a woman dressed in black enter the church. She will be carrying a two-year-old girl in her arms and heading for the altar. Be ready as there are others here, waiting for the same opportunity.
It is then that my mother notices a young widow carrying a small child and heading towards the altar. Somehow, Mama found the strength to push through the throngs of people. She reached the altar just as the mother was getting ready to dedicate her toddler to the Virgin Mary.
“Ya Vaptisma, for Baptism”, my mother asks. The woman nods. All my mother remembers of the Church service after that moment is the sea of men, women, children, cantors and deacons, ecstatically shouting Panta Aksia, Panta Aksia, Panta Aksia ~ Ever Worthy.
At the end of the Baptismal Service, when my mother asks the young woman if she has another child, perhaps another daughter around twelve or thirteen years of age, the answer is no.
Mama, I whisper, is that you there,
bent at the door,
darkening the lamp,
waiting for the bridegroom?
Is that you there
with your alabaster comb
piling my hair into a high black nest,
building a home for swallows?
Is that you there
washing the floor
with a mop made of tears?
In the countryside where my grandmother and her husband settled, the hills were littered with small chapels. After her husband died and before the onset of the Second World War, my grandmother would, in her spare time, visit the various homes of Saints. While she swept and cleaned these often-neglected holy spaces, her children would, always under the watchful eyes of Saints, play freely outside.
And so it was that my mother learned, early on, to associate the Church with open skies and the spontaneous laughter of children.
My grandmother and her husband were married in a small chapel on the outskirts of Smyrna in the fall of 1919. Smyrna was then a Greek stronghold; as myth and legend go, there were more Greeks living in Anatolia than there were in Athens.
My grandfather, Georgios, was handsome in the way most Greek men are handsome. Their courtship was brief because he was a soldier in Venizelos’ army.
They lived with my grandmother’s parents, helping to run the family’s small grocery store by the waterfront. Smyrna was thought to be the land of milk and honey and the Greek merchant class prospered.
Within the year, my mother’s sister was born. In August of 1922, word of the approaching Turkish Army reached my grandfather’s ears. It was right before the sacking of Smyrna that my grandfather, dressed in women’s clothing, was smuggled out of Turkey back to his homeland.
My grandmother was forced to flee Smyrna in the middle of the night, leaving everything and everyone she had held dear behind. With her small child clinging to her skirts, she began the terrifying trek back to her husband, back to Greece. The occupying Turkish Army wanted to cleanse ‘Infidel Izmir’ and began to set fire to the city’s Greek Quarter. The piece of wood that she tripped over during those treacherous dark nights turned out to be an Icon of the Annunciation from one of the small churches that the Turkish Army destroyed.
When my grandmother and her husband were re-united in Greece in the early months of 1923, one of the first things they did was place an embossed silver faceplate on the icon to protect it from further damage.
It was now 1924 and the couple finally settled in a small village, in a one-room home, outside of Athens. There were only three other houses remotely close to where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was working, six nights a week, as a watchman in a small factory about one hour away from his home. His days were spent laboring around his property received as compensation from the Greek Government for his efforts against the Turks. He had been seriously wounded in war, long before he met my grandmother, and had never fully recovered. He quickly discovered that this part of Greece was a rock garden of juniper, thyme and oregano – but very little else. The climate was dry and unforgiving but, through his determination and his uncompromising, unfaltering faith in God, his efforts bore fruit.
The long hours eventually took their toll and in August of that same year, he fell gravely ill. For three days and nights, he suffered terribly. The dangerously high fever rendered him unconscious. When the doctor from the neighboring village finally arrived, he told my grandmother there was nothing he could do. It was best she begin planning his funeral.
My grandmother fell to her knees in front of the iconostas and prayed to the Virgin Mary. Please, my beloved Theotokos, you who lost your only son, must know the pain I am feeling. I rescued you from the Turks, please do not let my husband die and leave my young daughter and I orphans in this unfamiliar place. Please, stretch out your veil and make my husband well.
It was then that my grandmother noticed a shadow leave the icon, fly out the window and enter through my grandparent’s front door. It circled the bed, three times, where her husband lay. And then, just as quickly, the shadow disappeared. My grandmother was trying to process what had happened when she felt a firm hand on her shoulder and a voice inside her head. Don’t worry Maria, your husband will get well. There is nothing wrong with him. Take a candle from the Anastasi service and place three drops in his nostrils.
Almost immediately after my grandmother followed the instructions she’d been given, my grandfather’s fever broke and he opened his eyes. Maria, I’m hungry, were the first words he uttered.
And then the second miracle happened. With her husband ill and a small child to take care of, my grandmother had pretty much subsisted on bread and water. Any milk, eggs or meat had been fed, long ago, to her daughter, who was by now, also clamoring for food. Neighbors starting arriving as if on cue, with fruit, eggs, bread, vegetables, meats, honey, cheeses, wine and olive oil.
Continue reading "Smyrna - The beginning" »
I have a framed print from Story People artist Brian Andreas in my office purchased at a Phoenix, Arizona art gallery. It’s called Bittersweet:
February 26 will mark the third month since Mama’s passing.
When my mother was a little girl of eleven, my grandfather became ill rather suddenly and passed away, leaving my grandmother a widow with five mouths to feed. My mother, although not the eldest, was deemed the most capable, and as such was pulled out of grammar school to help support her family.
My grandmother washed clothes while my mother worked for a British man, his wife and their two children. It was a huge household with a groundskeeper, a chauffeur and six maids. It was 1936 and Greece was kept under the watchful eye of Britain as trouble was brewing in the rest of Europe.
My mother was given three separate uniforms to wear depending on the time of day. In the morning, she wore white. Her main task was to help the older girls make the beds and keep the two younger children out of trouble by playing with them in the nursery.
In the afternoon, she changed into her gray uniform. Each day in the spring and through the end of summer she was given the task of filling about twenty different silver vases, of various shapes and sizes, with the flowers and greenery that thrived in the garden. She was given this task mainly to occupy her time. For the time being, my mother was too small to take on the more demanding domestic chores like mopping floors and carrying the large heavy buckets of water from the well to the main house.
It was there, in that enclosed garden, that she befriended a small white dog. Soon, she was sneaking it food and teaching it tricks. The dog became so tame and trusting that it followed her everywhere. And the mistress of the house, who came to love my mother as one of her own children, broke down and allowed her to bring her beloved pet into the house. The small white dog followed my mom as she went through the house completing her chores. And each night, this once-stray dog, now her beloved companion, slept at the foot of her tiny bed, keeping my mother’s feet warm in the winter.
During one of the weekly formal dinners, my mother now dressed, like a movie extra, in a black and white uniform, was serving guests in the dining room. All the while her faithful companion was between her feet, and my mother had to be extra cautious not to step on the dog’s tail, or worse, trip, and make a mess on the freshly polished marble floors.
At some point during the evening, my mother felt something wet around her ankles. The bright anklets of sudden blood were the richest, most intense hue of black-red my mother had ever seen. Using one of the pristine white serving towels, she tried to wipe her legs, but the blood had dried and her scrubbing left a pink cast. To her horror she noticed that throughout the entire dinner she had been leaving drops and patches of blood on the kitchen tiles, in the hallway and on the freshly polished marble floors. When she finally had the chance to break away and clean herself up, she discovered that it was not her body that betrayed her, but her little white companion’s. After that evening, the dog was not allowed back in the house.
Continue reading "Snapshot of Mama at 11" »
I am walking over the world carrying a small bundle in my arms. I fear the bundle is too heavy. I keep walking. I notice the bundle unraveling, growing lighter, less opaque, easier to carry. Sometimes the bundle is an egg. In my moment of recognition, I stumble. The egg smashes. Egg-white and yolk scatter. Sometimes it’s an apple that I accidentally crush underfoot.
In my dreams, on the night after mama’s passing, I had the persistent, uncomfortable sensation that someone was trying to get inside me. An old woman in black with the face of an angel and broken teeth smiled at me while I was sleeping. She wanted to absorb my body. I wanted to remain untainted. She pulled herself closer and her long, damp silvered hair fell like sorrow, like rain. She told me I should stop confusing my body with hers.