Some lives are like the mystery religions of old. What is revealed to you is only that which is considered to be of benefit to you at a particular time, with new information only provided once you are deemed ready to advance one more link along the chain of initiation. Once you reach the end of that chain however, you are replete with all the knowledge that if properly used, will ensure your salvation or, according to other accounts, grant you eternal life. This, in my estimation, is the most approximate manner that I can employ to describe the process of attempting in a few lines, to encompass the whole 100 year story of my maternal great-grandmother Πανάγιω’s sojourn upon the earth. I cannot profess the complete knowledge of the subject that is so necessary to claims of an authoritative account of her life; I was told its events in a piecemeal fashion, based upon what she and other family members thought would be appropriate and beneficial both for my character and age and thus lacunae in the story were generally passed over in silence only to be filled in years later, largely by accident. There also needs to be a distinction made between the canon, consisting of the revelations of γιαγιά Πανάγιω herself, al Hadith, or traditions of γιαγιά Πανάγιω consisting of spurious accounts of older family members which are usually self-justificatory and the apocrypha, which may or may not be true and which, when questioned about them, γιαγιά Πανάγιω either smiles or consigns to oblivion. But quite apart from obtaining a telegram from the Queen, the main privilege of attaining the age of one hundred years within a tradition that is largely oral and based on hearsay, is that your life constitutes whatever you say it does, especially when you have outlived all other witnesses.
It is not even agreed that γιαγιά Πανάγιω was born Παναγιώτα Βασιλείου in October 1906, for village tradition postulates an earlier birth, in 1903. What is canonically certain however, is γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s Gorky-like first memory: that of her home being filled with strange black-clad women screeching, her father on his knees pounding the floor and sobbing and her arms being held by an invisible force as she struggled to free herself yelling: “What are you doing? Where are you taking my mother?” For indeed, the margins of γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s entire life will be always embroidered with death. Soon after her mother’s funeral, her father was thrown out of the village and forbidden to return on pain of death by her maternal uncles, all eager to preserve the family inheritance and bar ‘strangers’ from accessing it. She was sent to her widower uncle’s house at the age of four, where she was expected to look after him and his children until such time as she was married.
At the time of her birth until the age of seven, γιαγιά Πανάγιω was an Ottoman subject, resident in the vilayet of Janina. She vaguely remembers a time where everyone wore fezzes and vividly remembers the dull pounding of the Ottoman and Greek guns at the fortress of Bizani in 1913. Then, as the news slowly filtered through the villages that Ioannina had fallen to the Greeks, a wave of jubilation swept her village. Villagers snatched the fezzes from their heads, dashed them to the ground and trampled on them with joy. However, she also recalls a darker side to the liberation of Epirus: the few Turkish families resident in the village crying openly in street, knowing that they would have to leave their homes, never to return. Within years, the traditional Ottoman konaks that characterized the architecture of the village would be torn down and replaced with artless, faceless, “Hellenic” structures, symbols of the areas’ newfound identity.
Intermingled within a narrative about the coarse, and often brutal mores of the village life my great-grandmother experienced, are fascinating tangents about lakes that freeze over, Ottoman pashas that ride across them unawares and build churches to Panagia in gratitude for preserving their lives, miraculous icons that refusing to remain in the new churches built for them, miraculously transport themselves every night to their old churches. There are stories of curses, of St Kosmas cursing the village, this accounting for the unnatural number of deaths by accident that take place there and of corrupt priests attempting to steal thousand-year old icons and sell them to foreigners, having their children and grandchildren suffer health, marital and other problems as a result. Then, there are stories that are verifiably true, like that of the terrified inhabitants of the village, who in their desperation to find shelter in the face of German air raids during the Second World War, quixotically dug into the hill at the village center only to discover an Aladdin’s cave of stalatites, stalagmites and fossils extending for kilometers underground and which today, though it is the mainstay of the village’s economy, much like γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s life, has still not been completely explored. These I was able to glean on the bus from Athens to Ioannina, when at the age of 93, she traveled with me to Greece for her grand-daughter’s wedding. Throughout the duration of the six-hour journey, she entertained and enthralled the entire complement of travelers with canonically acceptable stories from the village.
From what I have been able to gather, the reason why my great-grandmother was able to marry at eighteen without a dowry, was because she was beautiful, hardworking and of good reputation and because she caught the eye of my great-grandfather, Παύλος Παύλου, scion of the wealthiest family in the village, which actually doesn’t mean much in real terms. This period of her life is definitely apocryphal. My great-grandmother glosses over it with oblique references to her husband as «ο προκομμένος μου». There are hidden stories here that will never been spoken and those that know them, like my mother, will never give up their secrets. Suffice to say that it is from this period of her life that both my great-grandmother and each and every female of her line, right down to my sister, her great-granddaughter, have inherited their indomitability of spirit and fierce independence. In the γιαγιά Πανάγιω cosmos, one prays for menfolk who are committed to the household, honest, upright and without bad habits. Anything more is a bonus and it is up to the women to persevere and advance the fortunes of the family, which they generally do, in spite of their menfolk’s failings. Her father, who returned to the village when she was twenty to seek her forgiveness for abandoning her, however, is exempt. In the meantime, γιαγιά Πανάγιω also learned from her father that she had siblings from his second marriage. Her yearning for “her own people” during her love-starved early tears has seen her establish relationships and cherish those siblings, though she has felt the anguish of seeing all but one die during her lifetime.
Just before the close of the Second World War, after living through famine and a brutal German occupation, my great-grandfather was “killed by a stray bullet.” This death, was the harbinger of other tragedies. When she was told of her husband’s death, my great-grandmother was breastfeeding her sixth child. She describes, some sixty years on, tears streaming down her face, how her daughter Paraskevi developed a slight blue discolouration on her stomach almost immediately. By nightfall, it had spread all over and the poor child, my great-aunt, expired in her arms. A baby boy, Paul, also was to perish in the coming months. “I lay awake at night and remember little Chovoula and Pavlaki and I cry and cry,” she confides. She has never been able to overcome her loss and it is this that possibly explains her remarkable tenderness towards children.
Soon after, as the Civil War raged, the local ELAS guerillas requisitioned my great-grandmother’s house, being the only double-storeyed house in the village at the time, as their local headquarters. They repaid her forced hospitality, which included confiscating what meager stores she had laid up to feed her four surviving and by now starving children, by kidnapping my grandmother and attempting to spirit her away to Albania. It was only my grandmother’s presence of mind to simulate fainting, causing the guerillas to contemptuously toss her onto the side of the road, that spared her the heinous fate of experiencing socialist paradise, Enver Hoxha style. There are tens of apocryphal stories that have attached themselves to this event.
The trials of this modern day Job were not over. It appears that at some stage my great-grandfather, unbeknownst to the family, had put up the family home as security for a friend’s loan. That friend was unable to pay his loan and my great-grandmother lost her home. Through sheer determination, which took the form of gathering firewood, edible greens and anything else she could think of to sell at the Ioannina market, she was able to pay the amount secured and return to her home, only to discover that her late-husband’s brothers had laid claim to it and wanted to turf her out. She dealt with this situation with her usual self-confidence and implacable will, this manifestation of boorish heartlessness now being long-forgotten.
Known for her sense of humour, proud bearing and friendly countenance, γιαγιά Πανάγιω was popular among the womenfolk of the village. Though pitied in the condescending and hypocritical fashion that village forms of sentimentality usually take, she, along with her children and grandchildren remember simple acts of kindness and concern, the gesture of the granting of a single egg, a bunch of garlic or a fish, that made the trials of such a deprived life bearable. Moreover, as a people’s person, an attribute she has never lost, her home was always full of people, coming to ask θειά-Πανάγιω’s advice, or merely pass the time of day. My mother recalls a γιαγιά Πανάγιω different to the laid-back, quiet woman of her latter days. Ever vigilant, nerves strained to breaking point while engaged in a million necessary tasks to keep the family together and making ends impossibly meet, she could be strict, harsh in her discipline and seemingly distant. However, the love she bore for her family was and could never be doubted.
The book of Job concludes with the following verse: “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning,”and this is true also of my great-grandmother. She decided to migrate to Australia at what in those days was considered her twilight years, the age of 58, simply because she could not conceive of a future for my mother back in the village. In doing so, she made the heart-breaking decision of leaving two of her four children back in Greece. In Flemington, where she settled, she soon assumed the role that all know her for: that of the archetypal grandmother. There are hundreds of children, of diverse ethnicities, who were looked after by my grandmother as their parents worked in factories in the sixties and seventies all of who still view her as “grandmother,” and who she smilingly refers to as her “children.”
In my limited infant understanding, γιαγιά Πανάγιω was the great-grandmother who would not talk down to you, employ baby language and exaggerated expressions of love when seeing you and did not attempt to buy your love with presents and money like conventional grandparents did. She always spoke to you as an adult and an equal, expecting that you would understand everything she told you. She was inquisitive without being intimidating and all the while as she spoke to you, her piercing eyes would flicker up and down your face as if to read not only your innermost thoughts, but your future itself. I found myself actively seeking her company, and as we grew closer she would plunge me into her world, relating stories and dismissing my childhood and adolescent anxieties with a swipe of her hand. For her, there were no difficulties that could not be overcome. Hers was a world devoid of expectation where you were thankful for everything you had and accepted vicissitudes as a necessary by-product of existence. What her past had taught her, from what I understood in snippets of stories related while she flattened out sheets of hand-rolled pastry to make her famous spanakopita and often interrupted by my interjecting mother, eager to interpolate her own child and male-suitable version of the narrative, was that at the end of the day, a person has absolutely no existence or identity separate from people that they can claim as their own. The family unit, cohesive or dysfunctional and fellow-sufferers and sympathizers define us. I also learned a value which in these days of “get it off your chest” neo-hellenism is decidedly rare: that silence truly is golden and that often, it speaks to you in a language all of its own and that language is the language of healing. I have learned of events that befell my great-grandmother that are so tragic, so terrible that I cannot write or utter them. None of us ever will, regardless of how much we live in their shadow and I marvel that events and attitudes that took place a century ago, harbour consequences that manifest themselves in the core of our collective being this very day.
Γιαγιά Πανάγιω never learned to read. However, her natural inquisitiveness makes her turn her mind to all manner of subjects. When my mother went to university, she would return home and discuss her lectures with her. She soon realized that γιαγιά Πανάγιω was soaking up that information like a sponge and that she had an almost photographic memory. She particular liked to hear of the religious reformer Martin Luther, who she called «ο Λούφας.» When I attended university, she would often take me aside and ask me: “Do you know anything about this λούφα?” Having a tendency to drink coffee rather than attend lectures, I could profess to be an expert. For the past ten years, she has been a devotee of Greek community radio. She records everything she hears and during my visits questions me on world events or asks me for a run down of the history of Afghanistan. Then she comments: “They said on the radio that there was a king who went there, Alexander. The old men in the village also talked about him. He existed before the Turks, I think.” Αιωνόβιοι by rights can dispense with chronology. The apogee perhaps of our talks was when she asked me: “Who is this Aristotelis everyone talks about? What did he teach?”
It is easy for an outsider to underestimate γιαγιά Πανάγιω as little more than a minute, cute old lady. Her intricate use of allusions, riddles and turn of the century Epirotic patois are as labyrinthine and confusing to the uninitiated as a Borges novel. I remember sitting next to heras she was being ritually greeted by an acquaintance who had recently lost her husband. My great-grandmother seized her hand and in intense tones explained to her that she too understands what it is to lose a husband at a young age and the frustration and loneliness she experienced. She gave her advice of such sophistication, practical good sense and compassion that I was astounded, though I have always known from my own experience that her advice, garnered from a life of suffering is so timeless as to appear surprisingly modern, relevant and easily applicable. When she concluded, the acquaintance stood up, patted her hand and remarked to one of my aunts in English: “What a cute old lady. She tried to tell me something but I didn’t understand what she was on about.” Back on the couch, γιαγιά Πανάγιω grimaced knowingly, sending me into peals of laughter.
One ignores γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s razor sharp wit and biting sarcasm at their own peril. She can reduce the most self-obsessed and inflated ego into a mass of quivering jelly with the delivery of just one cutting or seemingly innocent remark and no one, absolutely no one is immune to her devastating powers, a power that while skipping her largely insecure children, has been bestowed in generous quantities upon her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Yes, in our household, fat jokes are funny.
We sat, my sister and I, holding her hands last week as we celebrated her one hundredth birthday, surrounded by her descendants. She calculated proudly: “I have four children, ten grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren. These are my people, all my people, όλοι δικοί μου.” Then a pained expression came to her face and she cupped her face in her hands. For even in her old age, the trials of Job have not completely ended. Γιαγιά Πανάγιω has had the misfortune of having a grandchild, my mother’s brother and a great-grandchild die in her lifetime and she feels their loss keenly as an unnatural unraveling of the family and herself.
“What can one say?” she asks as I remind her that she has rendered the Greek wish «να τα εκατοστίσεις» redundant and ask her what we should replace it with. Then Job-like, she crosses herself, as she has done for the last one hundred years of her life, one hundred years of solitude and superhuman perseverance and running her fingers through my sister’s hair sighs: «Δόξα τω Θεώ χιλιάδες φορές.»
First published in NKEE on 6 November 2006