My grandmother’s hands
A story of memory and family, motherhood and second chances.
My grandmothers hands.
I keep remembering her hands, how she knitted a sweater, how she stirred the pot of piping hot semolina for the taramosalata she used to make for lent, the way she drank her afternoon coffee. How she mended everything with her expert sewing skills. All these small movements she used to make with nothing grand or exceptional about them, but only that they were hers. She had a way of being delicate and strong at the same time.
I recall the shape of her hands as she held mine. We would run together holding hands as we crossed the busy highway towards her house. I remember how soft they were in mine. She always had very soft hands, her wedding ring on one and a petite watch adorned her wrist. Years later I would hold her hand when she was in the hospital, after her stroke. I sat by her side changed her diapers and made sure she had something to listen to on a small transistor radio even though she wasn’t much into music.
I read to her, I told her stories, I sometimes sang to her, and she sometimes recognized me so purely, like she didn’t have a trace of her aging and forgetfulness. But more often than not, she would get lost in a distant gaze when we would sit together in the kitchen drinking our afternoon coffee, especially towards the end. I remember her making a overtly strong comment about my tattoos, that she would not have made if not losing her etiquette along with her brain sharpness. I laughed it off, knowing full well she didn’t mean what she said, and took her hand and drawing a small flower on it said “see there you go, your a whore too, I know you were jealous and wanted a tattoo as well” and I winked at her and she slightly smiled, realizing that yes I was making her laugh and she loved it.
I remember her somber smile and I can’t describe how sad I feel that she has been gone since 2008. I will never forget what she had done for me over the years. My grandmother was my second mother in many respects, and at times a surrogate mother when my own mom would travel for work for extended periods of time. At the times that dad would join her, I would spend many weeks at my gran’s house virtually living there until I would rejoin my “real” family again.
She was my protector my confidant, the person I would tell secrets to and make her swear that she wouldn’t tell my parents. I loved her so damn much. And she loved me. She would sing to me when I was a young girl, “My little eleana my little girl”, and I would smile and just know she accepted me exactly for who I was. I didn’t need to be anything but myself with her. I may have hidden my true self from others, trying to be obedient or likable or pleasant, but with her I was my wild self, my inquisitive, wonderful self. I felt at home, sometimes more than I did with my parents.
I slept in a converted loft. It was my uncle’s bedroom when he was a teenager, and was mine when I was in junior high school. I spent for hours up there as a young girl. I did my homework, read books, took afternoon naps, played hide and go seek with my cousins. It was my castle. As an adult I would visit for long weekends to keep her company until she died in 2008. I sometimes would nap with her when I was much younger, hearing her light snore and air leaving her lips when she slept next to me. And I would pretend to sleep too, and just sit there, and daydream as she rested next to me. The ceilings in her house were so high I would squint to look at the details around the fixtures, those two plain rings of molding that would adorn the hanging lamp above her bed.
The light would faintly come through the shutters as the summer sun would submerge into a pleasantly cool evening. She would lightly stir, wake up and slide her feet into her house slippers, taking the short walk to her kitchen. It was her daily ritual after her afternoon siesta I would emerge soon after stretching my body in an animated way so I would convince her that I had slept as deeply as she did. She would place the small coffee pot on her old fashioned electric cooker slowly stirring the water and the coffee grinds until they were blended perfectly and then add a short teaspoon of sugar for taste. She made mine a touch sweeter as I had a passion for anything sugary and sweet as a youngster.
We drank coffee as companions, we sat side by side, she at the head of the table and me to her right, and lot more after my grandfather died, she and I became companions. We would take our coffees on a tray with some of her home baked orange biscuits, and we would watch television together. All the American soap operas were her favorite at the time, and later on the Brazilian soap operas replaced them. We would read small articles from the tv guide, or she would bring out a book and read to me, usually stories for youngsters but from a traditional Greek author or some religious text that she felt compelled to share with me.
I remember when she would have a hard time getting up from her arm chair and I would help her up until she got stronger and could move around more easily. Her hands would grip mine and we would get up together and she would say “opa” and smile lightly after getting her footing and felt strong enough to stand on her own. I would massage her hands with olive oil to alleviate her arthritic aches and pains. Even though her body would get weaker, her grip was always strong and confident, and reassuring. I knew that she would protect me no matter what. She was my angel, my wing man, my caretaker, my mom, my father, my whole family.
I would come home from school and cry at her shoulder about those mean boys who bullied me and she would turn to me and say, “they mean nothing, don’t pay attention to those boys. YOU know who you are, so don’t let them think they are anything more than pesky annoyances.” I tried but it wasn’t always easy. I was a sensitive as a young girl, and I took things very seriously and personally as a young child, and often would get bullied even by my own family, but when others bullied me she would swoop in like a lioness protecting her cubs and, take care of business. No one could say anything to Eleni Kouneli and I wanted so much to have her wisdom and courage and strength. She was my inspiration, my rock, and my yiayia.
And I miss her.
May 1st, 2017 marked the 9th anniversary of her death, and not a year goes by that I don’t see her somehow in my dreams or near me. I am connected to her in an inexplicable way; she is there for me when I need her to be by my side. I can’t fathom that she has been gone for all these years, but at the same time I always feel her with me, guiding me, letting me know that she has my back. She smiles at my woes knowing that I have a lot more to learn about life and people and how strong I can be. She doesn’t worry about the mistakes or the wrong turns because she knows that I will eventually find the right path.
I could use her wisdom right now. I am going through one of the toughest times in my life and I feel a deep sorrow that only she could soothe. I know she would give me the right advice and the guidance I needed. She was twice my mother twice my protector and in so many ways my teacher. She would say something that would make sense that would ease my pain and show me that everything will be alright. I wish she could talk some sense into that boy who hurt me in grade school, or any other boy who has hurt me since, but honestly, I know she would say, something to help me rise above it all.
Thank you yiayia for your presence in my life. Your wisdom your courage your strength and tenacity. I will strive in every way to honor your faith in me.
I plan to write a longer series of stories about my grandmother, and other women in my family in the coming months. My hope is that out of this will arise a more solid body of work in a form of short stories. I wish to share these stories with people in my life, and my loyal readers. Maybe you will enjoy them. I know she would.
Happy Mother’s Day.