When my grandmother Virginia passed quietly in her daughter’s arms on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of the chaotic Coronavirus pandemic, she was utterly prepared for death. She had sewn a dress for her children to bury her in – azure blue like the sea and sky that surrounded her life-long island home, a distinct but not radical departure from the black and grey she had worn since my grandfather passed twenty two years earlier. She had sewn a pillow case, too, embroidered with varied-colored roses, for my grandfather’s bones. She would be buried not in the plot next to him but in the same plot, with his bones, gathered by his daughter and daughter-in-law, placed gently at her side in the sack she had embroidered. Two other satchels are there, too – the remaining dust of my great grandfather and great grandmother who died before the war and had occupied the plot for their time.
She was almost 98 to the day when she died. She closed her eyes at the time of the Greek siesta and that was that. It nevertheless feels like she went too soon.
In the distraction of a pandemic, a deep and long global economic crisis, massive social upheaval, and daily life, I did not recognize immediately why her loss mattered so profoundly, beyond my own emotions as her grandson. Now, as I sit quietly under the same grapevine trellis in front of our family home in Kefalonia where my grandmother reflected and rejuvenated every afternoon, I’m looking at the vast mountain Ainos in front of me and the gorge leading to the Mediterranean below and the impossible weight of her legacy is clear.
The gorge is dramatic, cut by the force of moving water and ice, leaving no mistake that in some bygone age the spot we now call home was not dry land. My grandmother would sit under the trellis and appreciate the Creation before her for hours, preferring few words or silence to noise, even when she had company.
She was fully present in those moments on the front patio and welcomed any passersby that wished to share the moment. In more recent years, even summer tourists moving from the island’s northern beaches to beaches in the south would often stop and wonder at the idyllic scene as if it were a not-quite-real Greek village at Epcot. She always had a biscuit or sweet and something to drink at hand but there was little fuss. No bright lights. No loud music. No lounge chairs. No games, dances or worry beads. Just the powerful presence of being there.
Alone or with others, after a while she would inevitably rise, the sun having begun to disappear behind the mountains and the cool evening sea breeze replacing the day’s heat, and say simply “Pao na potíso ta fiori mou.” I’m going to water my fiori.
She used the Italian word for flowers as it were a perfectly natural Greek word. The more flowery Greek word for flowers, louloudia (λουλούδια), might have felt like too much for her tongue. She preferred plain and direct speech and was in any case, like many of the islanders, entirely comfortable with the influences shared by the Venetians and Italians over the centuries, and particularly after the war.
Indeed, she remembered the Italian occupation of Kefalonia favorably. She always referred to one family in the adjacent village that had helped the Italians maintain order as “oi Carabinieri,” after Italy’s national gendarmerie. It was in no way pejorative; it was a reminder that everyone had gotten through together.
When the Wehrmacht arrived in 1943, things turned decidedly bad for the islanders – and their Italian friends. Massacres, conspiracies, hunger. My grandmother spoke of local victims, by name, still able to see their young faces in her mind’s eye, with remorse but never anger, acceptance: that was then and this is here and now.
The hard times continued after the war when a series of earthquakes struck the Ionian islands and one caused Kefalonia to convulse on August 12, 1953. It happened just before the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, one of the most important dates in the Greek Orthodox Church calendar and a day of festivals and celebration in Kefalonia, with the island’s distinctive kreatopita (meat pie) plentiful to break a fourteen-day fast, which my grandmother always participated in faithfully in furtherance of her spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Most of the homes and structures on the island were destroyed that day and years of hardship ensued.
My grandmother would point from the patio to the now lush hillside just below her house where the family lived in tents while they rebuilt. She would reminisce about neighbors and cousins who helped nurse each other’s children when milk was low in those grueling years. She would talk about my uncle’s unfortunate but necessary αεροβάπτισμα (air baptism) – the village church had been destroyed and the situation was urgent, the priest was preoccupied, and the baby needed to be baptized, particularly in light of death stalking everywhere. She described a cheese that was bright yellow – the idea of it always made her giggle – which the American aid agency dropped into the villages in large blocks with other basic provisions from low-flying SA-16 amphibious search and rescue planes. My grandmother somewhat ruefully admitted that the American cheese didn’t taste like much next to the island’s locally-produced sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses but remained deeply grateful for the support of the United States and other governments in the earthquake’s aftermath.
Last summer, I discovered a white, cloth bag that my grandmother used to cover a small end table and realized it was one of the satchels that accompanied the low-flying, yellow cheese blocks. The faded green, capital letters across the bag are still readable, reminding the villagers that the goods were “Donated by the People of the United States of America” and “Not to Be Sold or Exchanged.” I asked if I could keep the bag and my grandmother found that even more hilarious than the yellow American cheese itself but obliged my historical curiosity.
That bag now stands as a memorial for me about everything that mattered so much about my grandmother’s life. I thought I had inherited a simple legacy, no money or property to worry about, just a bag filled with priceless, peaceful memories and life lessons. Sitting now in my grandmother’s chair beneath the grapevine trellis, I suddenly recognize the weight of three millennia of western civilization that culminated in her.
She left us exactly as she lived, free of material burdens, with a firm grasp of what is good, bad and indifferent in life, joyful from deep within, virtuous, courageous, self-sufficient, deeply connected to nature, embodying her faith not preaching it. These are the philosophical foundations passed down through nearly three millennia of Greek history – from Zeno to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through to Epictetus and ultimately to the Orthodox Church through Jesus, the Apostles and the Saints. And then to my grandmother, their worthy heir, whose entire life – and death – proclaim from her peaceful place on the mountain that, “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
To hear me say this, she would surely have scoffed in her gentle way and responded with her customary word of blessing: Don’t worry about me, I’ve lived my life, take care of your kids, may you all have good health always and be happy, whatever you might desire.
I ought here to let the philosophizing rest and go water her fiori, as I know she would have preferred. May her memory be eternal.