Saturday, December 19, 2020


One month before my sixteenth Christmas, my uncle in Athens telephoned my maternal grandmother to tell her that he would be over for lunch, as soon as he finished work. Complaining of a headache, he asked her to prepare for him an omelette. Not half an hour later, his car was found pulled over at the side of Mesogeion Avenue. Suffering a brain aneurism, he was dead at the age of thirty-five.

We found out in Melbourne at four o’clock in the morning. The incessant ringing of the telephone woke me from my slumber, and jarring screams jolted me out of bed. I ran to the kitchen to see my mother keeled over, tearing at her hair, howling her brother’s name and keening in the harsh guttural cadences of village grief. Soon after, my great aunt arrived, her wails intertwining themselves with those of my mother, lifting them higher, only to drag them down to Hades, sobbing: «Μαύρα Χριστούγεννα θα κάνουμε εφέτος.» There would be no Christmas decorations that year, no carols. It was determined that I would be sent to Athens, to spend that most holy time of the year with my grandmother, because the family consensus held that she should not be alone.

My grandmother in Athens did not sob or cry, as she brusquely informed me that there was to be no Christmas lunch the next day and that I was free to seek same in the homes of any other relative of my choosing, should I wish to do so. In her small, dark home, redolent with the dank smell of rising damp, a kandili lit before a silver-framed photograph of my late uncle, holding a cigarette, while looking over his shoulder, directly at the viewer, as if in an afterthought at the fleeting nature of life, provided the only source of light.

She sat mutely before it, her miniscule, coal black eyes like flecks of obsidian fixed upon her embroidery, as her lips turned upwards in a scowl. Her thick fingers moved incessantly, making faint clacking sounds, as she squinted to appraise her handiwork.

On cue, I rose from my chair to switch on the light.

“Turn it off!” she barked. “Turn it off right now!”

Startled, I flicked the switch and watched her recede into the darkness. The shadows were gathering now and the rays of the light emanating from the kandili were reflecting off the glass before my uncle’s photograph like a halo. Instinctively, I rose to give the glass a wipe.

“Get away from the photo!” my grandmother snapped, not even glancing up from the intricate choreography of her threads.

Submissively, I once more took my seat. In the gloom, I could faintly discern the profile of her immense double chin heaving in anger. I could not blame her. Just two hours before, we were at the cemetery, where, as the lofty cypresses loomed over us ghoulishly, mute and angry, she watched me slide open the glass partition of my uncle’s grave and remove the censer.

“You do it,” she scowled. Slowly, I placed the coal upon it and struck a match. A breath of wind gusting from the trees immediately blew it out.

“Hmmmph!” my grandmother snorted in derision. I tried again, and then a third time but at each attempt, as if bid by powers unseen, the match would blow out. Frustrated I stood up and began to proceed further down the grave, in search of a more sheltered position. In doing so, I inadvertently walked through the half-open glass partition, shattering it and spreading its shards over the cold white marble.

“You idiot! You bumbling fool! You complete ignoramus!” my grandmother began to roar, her hands landing on my back with the force of windmill arms. “You imbecile. Why couldn’t…” I looked up, ashamed and horrified in equal measure and she fell still with a despairing curtness.  Kneeling down, this time, I managed to light the match. Holding it against the coal, I blew gently, watch the coal glow red. Then, as my grandmother collected the shards of glass, I placed two pieces of incense on the coal, watching them bubble as they sent their sweet-smelling fragrance into the heavens. Muttering, as I had watched my paternal grandmother in Essendon do every day of my life, Pslam 141: «Κατευθυνθήτω η προσευχή μου ως θυμίαμα ενώπιον σου,» I then placed a dried olive leaf I had collected earlier, on top of the coal, observing its acrid smoke pierce the sweetness of the incense. My grandmother’s eyebrow rose in mute query. Her hands grasped the shards of glass and I could see drops of blood dripping from her fists, down on to the ground.

“Give me the glass, I’ll throw it out,” I offered.

“Κοίτα τη δουλειά σου,” she responded, but taking hold of her hand, she allowed me to remove the shards that had pierced her flesh, flinching at my touch, as I concluded the censing and guided her home. As we walked, the biting cold wind lashing at the furrows in her forehead, and stabbing at my earlobes, the neighbourhood church’s bells began to toll for vespers.

“What time is church tomorrow?” I asked, timidly.

“How should I know?” she retorted. “Why are you so eager to go and worship a God who takes children from their mothers?” We trudged on.

Now, in the murk, my uncle appeared like a Byzantine saint that had unwittingly stumbled into an icon and had remained trapped there ever since, each clicking of my grandmother’s needle assuming the sound of him tapping on the glass, begging to be released from his realm of sanctity. Even though it was just as cold inside, the wind outside battered upon the shutters, demanding to be let in, in symmetry to my uncle’s pleas to be let out.

“Why did you put an olive leaf on the coal?” my grandmother suddenly asked in a voice that startled me completely, as, for the first time since I had arrived in Athens, it bore neither overtone of pain, nor grace note of fury.

“My other grandmother always does this around Christmas,” I explained, unconsciously switching to my paternal grandmother’s Samian dialect. “The Samians say that on the night that Jesus was born, it was very cold. The cave was freezing and Panayia was severely discomforted. Joseph resolved to light a fire but he could not find any wood. Exiting the cave in search of even the smallest dry stick, he soon returned empty handed. In desperation, he took some hay from the manger and set it alight. As soon as Panayia saw it, tears fell from her eyes and she blessed it, saying that from that moment onwards it would always be golden.

After a short while however, the hay was burnt through and the cave grew cold again. Joseph ventured forth from the cave once more and this time he stumbled upon a dry stick. It was a rosemary branch. Joseph brought it back with him and set it alight. Panayia was moved. She blessed it, so that from that moment onward, it would smell sweetly and adorn the icons of the Saints. Again however, the fire lasted only a short time and soon, the cave grew cold again.

It was then that Joseph heard a faint voice emanating from inside his sack: “Go, Joseph, to our mother, the olive tree, who grows on top of this cave and tell her that baby Jesus is in peril. She will be mortified if she learns that we knew of her plight and did not inform her.” Rummaging through the empty sack, Joseph came across a few olives he had forgotten there earlier, along with a dry crust of bread.

Joseph climbed to the top of the cave and encountered an ancient, gnarled olive tree. At his approach, it began to shed it branches, dropping them continuously over the entrance of the cave. Joseph gathered the branches and set them alight. They burnt brightly all night, warming the baby Jesus and by the coming of the morning, there was nothing left of the compassionate olive tree except for some stump roots and a few dried leaves. When Panayia saw the stump roots, a tear fell from her eyes. She caressed them, kissed them and blessed them saying: “May you never wither. May your oil nourish and illumine all people. At night, may you fuel the kandili of Jesus and may you be a companion to all those who grieve or are alone in dark times.” At the place where Panayia’s tear fell, new shoots immediately began to sprout. By the next morning, the ancient olive tree had been restored to its former condition. It is for this reason, that even though the olive tree may wither, it never completely dies. New shoots always grow from its roots and the tree lives again.”

A deep, primeval shriek tore the ensuing silence asunder. My grandmother, clutching the photograph of my uncle to her bosom, had collapsed to the floor, her frame wracked in sobs as she lamented: “My boy, my beautiful boy, my root, my green shoot.” Gently, I embraced her as she wept for what seemed like an age, never letting go of the photograph for a moment. Just as abruptly as she had given way to her grief, she unexpectedly stopped.

“Help me up,” she commanded. “We have a lot to do. We need to prepare Christmas lunch. Call my boy’s children, my tender shoots , and invite them. Let’s get started now. Otherwise, there won’t be enough time after we return from church.”

“You’re coming with me to church tomorrow, yiayia?” I gasped dumfounded.

“Of course I am, you silly boy,” she snorted. “I’ve lost a son. Panayia is giving birth to a son that she will also lose. We have much to discuss.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 December 2020