“What did you say?” I bellowed as we noisily careened through the darkened house just after 2am. “I can’t see anything!”
Yiayia, who was deaf, slept peacefully in the next room, oblivious to our hilarity and collisions with the furniture.
Bang. Crash. Yiayia shuffled around the kitchen at daylight, slamming cupboard doors.
“She doing that deliberately!” I said, burying my head under the pillow.
“No, she just can’t hear how loud she slams doors,” said my cousin. “We’ve tried telling her, but she doesn’t believe us.”
We emerged bleary-eyed, unable to sleep in because of yiayia’s relentless clattering around the house.
“We’re going to the beach,” my cousin indicated to the old woman. “We’ll be back for lunch.”
At least we’d get some extra sleep by the water’s edge.
“Are you K-K-E?” she asked.
“Err, what’s that?” I responded, shrugging my shoulders.
Yiayia peered at me suspiciously. “You’re not a Royalist are you?”
“I’m not anything, actually.”
She prodded me with her walking stick, emphasizing her point. “I’ve been KKE since before the war.”
There was a distinct demarcation line in our family tree: you were either on the Left or on the Right.
And yiayia was a devout Communist.
My Greek relatives were passionate about their politics: Sunday lunches often deteriorated into heated political debates and occasionally into fist fights.
Yiayia quizzed me about my political affiliations, horrified by my lack of conviction. She was equally appalled that I wasn’t a Communist.
I didn’t have enough grasp of the Greek language back then to explain the Australian political system to her; or my lack of political persuasion.
All I was interested in was spending a sun-drenched year travelling around Greece.
Yiayia lost her hearing during the Second World War when a bomb exploded nearby, also damaging one of her eyes (hence the no lights rule when coming home late from the disco).
She was, however, an accomplished lip reader.
When she refused to ‘listen’ or engage in any discussion not to her favour, she’d look away so we couldn’t talk with her. She was stubborn like that.
Yiayia lived on her own in a village about 30 minutes out of town. She grew her own veggies, and an old pappou (grandpa) brought her fresh milk in a bucket.
No one was really sure how old she was; if yiayia had a birth certificate, it was either lost or destroyed during the war.
Guestimates put her as 100-something during that summer of 1988. She lived on to about 120 before she passed on a few years back. She already had about a dozen great-grandchildren.
Family members often joked that God had forgotten about her. I think she held on to life to spite everyone.
She was my dad’s sister’s mother-in-law, but we all called her yiayia.
Yiayia hated spending winter in town, especially as my aunt’s house had belonged to my paternal grandmother.
Apparently they didn’t get on.
Affronted, she actively resisted it, spitting out defamatory comments, no doubt sullying my grandmother’s good name.
Yiayia sat by the front door every day during those long winter months, imploring her grandson to take her back to her village, despite the bitter cold.
But my aunt refused; concerned the old woman might accidently burn down the house, forgetting to turn off the gas burner.
My aunt (dad’s sister and yiayia’s daughter-in-law) was equally stubborn; it’s a predominant trait on our side of the family.
Yiayia continued banging and clanging doors, despite the presence of young children in the house. She wasn’t the type to protest silently. And you didn’t want to get on her wrong side.
The evil eye
My Greek relatives are highly superstitious; they spit three times to ward off the evil eye.
They wear little blue ‘eye’ talismans as protection, or hang them around the house and in their cars.
But these talismans were no protection against the formidable yiayia, who had God on her side.
My aunt often walked in on yiayia as she prayed to God asking Him to smite those who wronged her, or stole an inch of her land (property disputes were common due to a lack of paperwork prior to the war years).
It was well documented, however, that yiayia’s curses led to fatal results.
And as the granddaughter of her much disliked in-law, I endeavoured to stay in her good books during my year-long stay in Greece. I may have not believed in the evil eye, but I wasn’t going to risk it with yiayia.
She wasn’t particularly a bitter or twisted old woman: she didn’t hate life nor was she miserable.
Yiayia was just old school Greek: stubborn, opinionated, strong-willed, fiercely independent, easily offended and vengeful; paradoxically a Communist and a Christian.
These were genetic traits which ran through both sides of our expansive family tree, where feuds abounded, insults remembered, and grudges passed on to the next generation.
Thank goodness I lived on the other side of the world!
A long, healthy life
Okay, I admit I’m not as loud, stubborn, emotional or passionate as my Greek relatives; but I don’t carry their grudges or vendettas, either.
I refuse to be drawn into their complicated web of family feuds or politics, as I get on with most of my aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s not my place to meddle or play peacemaker.
In contrast, my life in Australia is infinitely more peaceful – and much healthier.
Mum’s side of the family, for example, is riddled with illness and disease. All those family feuds are literally eating away at their wellbeing.
I may live a long way from family here on the Sunshine Coast, but it’ll guarantee me a long, stress-free life.