THE PERSISTENCE OF NASTA
by Helen Ditouras
When my grandmother (yiayia) Anastasia arrived from Greece on a late Friday evening, all seven grandchildren and our respective families gathered to witness her much anticipated appearance. At eighty-five years old, the last time my grandmother had sat in my parents' small, cluttered living room, it had been over thirty years ago alongside my grandfather. A recent widow, she was a fascinating specimen for the twenty of us who huddled together to get a closer look. I had visited my grandmother in Greece about ten years ago. Looking now at her withered face, to my surprise, she had not changed a bit. She was still short and dressed in her customary mourning attire: a black kerchief and a heavy, black wool dress. That she had been wearing black for over fourteen years, an act prompted by her beloved brother's death, was just one example of yiayia's rootedness in religious ritual and irrational superstition.
I remembered having attended one of the yearly memorial luncheons for her brother as a teenage girl on vacation in Greece, and moreover, observing first-hand my grandmother's excessive fear of death. As the servers brought out the habitual memorial meal - stewed lima beans, olives, tomatoes, blessed loaves of bread, halva, and dry, red wine, my aunt beckoned me with a nod of her head. "Look at your crazy yiayia - watch what she's going to do," she said. I gazed at my grandmother who was sitting directly across from me, and watched her nonchalantly pull from her lap a plate wrapped in aluminum foil. As she proceeded to eat, my aunt insisted, "Ask her why she won't eat the food served." Baffled by this act of ritual defiance, I asked yiayia why she brought her own food at the memorial luncheon. In her usual sardonic tone, she retorted, "I don't want to end up dead, like him."
My grandmother's greatest triumph in life was her ability to persevere. Over the years she had lost several of her dearest companions: her brother, her sister-in-law - a kind woman who was the source of yiayia's deepest reverence and relentless jealousy - and recently, my grandfather - the greatest love of her life. Watching yiayia in my parents' living room, surrounded by generations of family, was both surreal and emotional. Watching us back with a sharp, hawk-eyed stare, I realized the look in her eyes had not changed. Underneath the decaying signs of age was the same look of mischief and irony that marked her face year after year. "How was your flight, yiayia?" we asked. "Don't get me started about that," my aunt Helen, who had arrived with my grandmother, declared. "She was angry with the Customs Officers for searching our bags. At one point, she yelled at them in Greek "Why are you doing this to us?! What do you think we are? Communists?" A non-seasoned flyer, the post-9-11 restructuring of North American airports was both unfamiliar and intolerable for yiayia.
One by one, each family member began testing my grandmother in an attempt to measure her collective memory. My cousin Mary, the eldest and most adored of yiayia's fourteen grandchildren, initiated the line of questioning. "Yiayia, do you remember the time when..." she asked. With cocky self-assuredness, my grandmother matched each of her questions with vivid recall and diminutive detail.
In some way or another, yiayia always managed to yield the conversation to include memories of her late husband. Amidst a captive audience, she told the story of her first birth that had nearly killed her. When she delivered my uncle Kosta in 1944, my grandfather, Papou Vaggeli, was off fighting the Civil War in Greece. A stalwart anti-Communist, my grandfather willingly left his pregnant wife in the hands of his sister to battle a war that he firmly believed in. At home, with her sister-in-law, yiayia Maria, my grandmother barely survived. A strenuous home birth and the scarcity of food in wartime rural Greece had left my grandmother gaunt, bald, and extremely sick. Yet her fierce will to reunite with her husband had urged her to fight against the illness that enveloped her small, frail body. During one afternoon, my grandmother, her sister-in-law, and the baby, all sat under the shade of her courtyard fig-tree and watched the villagers go about their daily routines. A local man, a friend of the family, caught site of yiayia and recoiled in horror, "Nasta - what happened to you? You look dead!" With a ferocious vehemence that plagues hormonal, post-partum women, my grandmother hollered, "Die yourself!" Her resolve to live was bold and uncompromising. Day after day, with the support of yiayia Maria, she nursed herself back to health until my grandfather returned.
The cycle of stories forgotten went on into the late night until yiayia, fully exhausted, could no longer engage us. Each of us listened with utmost attention to this little woman who had experienced hardships from another generation, and had been continentally separated from two of her five children - my father and my aunt Nopi, who had emigrated to Canada in 1970. That night, when my grandmother retired to bed and I drove home, I could not stop thinking about this peculiar woman, my yiayia, who in her own, distinctive way, shaped so many of our lives.
Helen Ditouras is an Assistant Professor of English at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan. Her favourite writers are Philip Roth and Isaac Singer, among others. Along with reading, her other passion is cinema: she studied Film Theory in graduate school, and regularly teaches film at Schoolcraft College. Her favourite movie of all-time is Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love.
Although Ditouras works in Michigan, she is a Canadian citizen and resides in Windsor, Ontario with her husband and son. Contact Helen.