I Took A Shine To Her

The old woman holding my (then) 1-year old, Vivian, is Catherine Mandaleris. She died over a year ago and meant the world to me. She was my Great Aunt on my dad’s side and the last contemporary of my YiaYia Bessie. She was an old Greek Lady, an original Samaras girl; she was sassy to the bone.

I connected with her right away. Though I had probably encountered her a dozen times in my life at big, fat, greek weddings, I did not really know her. I met her, woman to woman, when I moved to Richmond, VA in January of 2012. I was 35 and she was 83.

I didn’t have a place to stay. 
She had an extra bedroom. 
We were related. 
I moved in a day after calling her to ask if I could.

Living with her was incredible. I was so interested in her whole life — what it was like for her as a young girl, her worldview throughout her marriage and into her own motherhood and grandmotherhood. This lady was a gem/tough cookie/class act — “a real dame” as my own mother would say. She was the kind of woman that you have to use olden-timey words to describe because modern words just don’t exactly capture her essence. She was equal parts humility and moxie. She was sophisticated and pure. She was fearful and glorious.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t somehow grabbed the opportunity to hang out with her sooner. How did I not know how great she was? Was it some funny secret to keep the elderly female badasses from us?

She was special. Her words spoken drilled into my soul and and every damn second we talked, I was swimming in appreciation. Sometimes we talked for hours at a time and a few times we had to stop talking because I was tired.

She would say really old school stuff about her husband Gus that made me believe in black and white television. I asked her how she knew they were in love and she replied as if she had been waiting 50 years for someone to ask her that question: “Well, I took a shine to him and he took a shine to me.”

She would giggle. She had this great half-laugh, which also might have been a a cough. I could tell she missed Gus so much, mostly because she’d say, “I miss him so much”, and to hear it made your own heart long for him … for her.

I asked her thoughts about gay people as a Greek Orthodox Christian, feeling my way through a possible conversation I might have with her one day, and she simply said “I don’t understand ’em, but I don’t have anything against ‘em.” And, we moved on to eat more feta.

Then, there was the time I asked her what craziest thing that ever happened in her life and she said without skipping a beat, “It must have been the time Gus and I stayed in a brothel.”

Um. WHAT? There was a lot of stuff like this. At (many) moments, I wish she was a drinking woman.

I lived with Thea Catherine for just 2 weeks. Every day, she got up early to make me a full breakfast — coffee, sugar, milk, eggs, butter, toast, butter, feta, olives, pita and butter. And, she had dinner warm when I came home from work (more feta, more butter). I told her it was not necessary but she insisted — as YiaYias do.

She kept on saying she didn’t understand why I was so interested in her. But, then she would take her time answering, like she was swimming in appreciation.

How can I NOT be interested by someone who has lived on this earth long enough to gather so many stories? Seen the dramatic change in our societies civil and human rights? Seen long wars come and go? Someone old enough to have only ever been with one man, remaining heartbroken from the the day he died until the day she would?

She admitted she was not the most independent woman when she married Gus and for many years of the years she was with him. She traveled with him, waited for him to finish work and kept the home, had the kids and then cared for him, the kids and all ailing parents on both sides.

She took care of everyone. I asked her what she wanted to do when she was my age and she always started with, “I did what I had to do.” Though she would always get around to saying, “Well … (long pause) … I suppose I would have wanted to have energy like you!” Giggle/cough. She talked about her sisters so much and the twists and turns of being a part of a big family of Greek girls.

Catherine was thoughtful, consistent and honest. She was also all of the things you think of when you think of women who lived and breathed through young lungs during the 1950s — pure, proper, responsible. And her hair was great.

And still, wrapped in the aging little package of a woman of her era was a modern sensibility and personality that couldn’t help but hit you hard. They say this is the Samaras sass. It makes me so proud to be related to one of the originals.

Catherine was definitely an original.

Less than a year after I moved out and back to NYC, I married a woman. I didn’t tell Catherine because I was a coward and there was enough family bullshit swirling at the time about my same-sex choices. Though I did introduce her to my future wife while I lived in Richmond, I didn’t invite her to my wedding. And, man, did I felt the void that night. I’m not certain she would have traveled to New York City, but she would have wanted to. I know that.

I did not want to keep the truth from her when I got pregnant and certainly not once Vivian was born.

I called her, nervous as hell and with a rushed and shaky voice and blurted out “Thea Catherine, I’m coming to Richmond and I want to introduce you to my wife.” She waited a long second and replied with a little bit of a West Virginia accent, “I heard you got married …” — she didn’t even pretend to end the sentence, letting silence turn into worry and then settle into guilt.

Well played, Thea Catherine. well played.

When Mayme and I made it to Richmond and to Catherine’s house, she had — to our delight — invited her sister Kay and daughter Elaine over to dine with us for lunch. She made it an event. She celebrated Mayme, my wife, and our baby in my belly. She didn’t skip a beat. My guess is that she didn’t read up on how best to talk to same-sex couples, she just used her heart to guide her reaction and engagement. She asked questions. She listened. She treated us like she loved us. Because she did.

I told her about our friend Michael, Viv’s biological father. She asked if he was a good man. We said yes. She believed us.

I apologized for not telling her about the engagement and the wedding and admitted I was nervous she wouldn’t accept me to which she replied “I may not understand it, but I love you.” She apologized to me for it being hard for my family to accept.

Mostly, I remember her smiling and celebrating. She was a robust reflection of my own feelings: happy.

I knew she wasn’t going to live forever. I knew she was tired and ready to see Gus. And so I vowed to call her more and to visit.

I year after Vivian was born, I took her to meet Catherine. 80-some years apart, these two could not have been more compatible. Viv crawled around and giggled on Thea Catherine’s lap. Thea Catherine, becoming more forgetful, continued to ask the same questions over and over — what kinds of foods and toys Viv did Viv like, how was Mayme doing and were we going to have more kids. It was a grand day.

She died a few months later. To this day, one of the most important trips I ever took was to pay my respects to her at her funeral. I would have walked around the world twice on bare feet to honor her.

Now, I love the memory of Catherine asking the same things over and over. Each time she asked she did so with authentic curiosity. Every time I answered, she responded with deep joy. You can’t fake that kind of genuine love.

It’s hard to explain how much I love this woman and how important she is to me. We would have been good friends if we were the same age. I like to think we were good friends even though we weren’t.

I am so sad she is gone. And, I am so glad I have hours of conversations to replay sitting at her kitchen table. I replay a version of my life where I live in her house for months. Another version where Mayme and Viv and I would visit her for long weekends and stay in the bedroom upstairs. Another one still where she would call the Priest at my church and urge him to baptize Viv and being so important to the church, he might consider it. And, my favorite, one where she would visit us in NYC and I could introduce her to all of my friends.

I think now about how I will be 83 one day and possibly encounter a younger relative. And that I might have an extra room in NYC to offer. And that she might ask me about my life with an eagerness to really know.

And I would tell her.