My grandmas are both gone. The one died in September, the other just a few days ago. This post is about them. It is a little tribute to my relationship with them and all the memories. A very personal one, as you can imagine, but one that might bring comfort to others who have lost that very special person in their lives.
Both my parents are only children. This means that me and my brother had the privilege of undivided attention from all three grandparents when growing up. Our paternal grandfather died while my mom was still pregnant with me, so we never got to meet him. But the other three were all over us.
It was unspoken but quite clear that Oma Mitsi (her real, German name being Gertraude, too hard for the Greek family to pronounce) was mad about my brother. It could be the fact that he has her husband’s name, it could be the fact that she raised a boy and my brother was also one or it could be that she admired his strong character, similar to her own. They shared their birthday too.
On the other hand, I can’t complain as yiayia Martha had a slight preference for me. We do know though that it was just when it came to babysitting us, just because I was easy-going and my brother quite a handful. I also happen to have her name as well as my grandpa’s (Alexia is the female form of Alexios/ Alexis/ Alex). Plus, she has raised a girl and I was a girl too, so that might have something to do with it too.
Don’t let me be misunderstood though. Neither me nor my brother ever felt that love wasn’t equally shared. Our grandparents never played favorites and they spoiled us equally. It was only later, as adults, that could see those slight preferences that are only human.
Now let me introduce you to my grandmas.
Oma Mitsi had a very complex personality, mainly, I guess, due to her complicated childhood years and early adulthood. She was one of the more than ten children of a poor Sudeten German family, that her family decided to send away to Greece to a couple without children when she was 16. She then married my grandfather through matchmaking at the age of 19. Imagine being the one out of all those kids chosen to be sent away. My mom used to always remind me of that fact when I would get upset with her. Due to this lack of control over her own life, she became a very controlling person, trying to keep people close to her through guilt and by trying to make them distrust everyone else but her. I am sure Alice Miller would have something to say about her protestant German upbringing as well.
She was a woman hard to please, who loved structure and routine and things to be done properly (aka the way she thought was right). I have always been quite a sensitive child and through my teenage years and up until I started my own family I felt rejected by her quite a lot. The fact that she loved to compare us to whichever other niece or nephew did this or that better didn’t help. While I felt hurt and offended a lot of the time, my brother, who had to deal with the exact same comments, had found a completely different way to deal with her: through humor and actually just trolling her. It worked great and they always had a much healthier relationship.
Oma Mitsi was in her early 80s when she died. She had heart problems for years, had a pacemaker and was almost blind the last couple of years. However, her mind was sharp as ever and we didn’t expect her to die. Luckily she had a very quick and painless death, as her heart just betrayed her one day. An hour before she died, she was casually talking with her sister in Germany on the phone about all the family news, while waiting for the ambulance, cause she was dizzy.
Having such a dominant personality disappear from your life suddenly can leave you numb. For days I was unable to process the fact. I was pretty sure she would call to check on us or complain why we haven’t called to let her know where we are and what we are doing. Then, as bad or harsh as it sounds, I felt a sense of freedom. And then, surprise!, one night all the childhood memories came back and I finally made peace with her and was able to cry and forgive and mourn.
Because, you see, Oma Mitsi is a very big part of my childhood. And she gave me and my brother many really happy memories. We used to stay over at her place quite often in the weekends and she would also take us to trips to Germany in the summer to see her family there.
She was very very smart and creative and there was never a dull moment when we spent time at her place. She would do crafts with us, she would bake, she would make sure to create cards for Mother’s Day and family birthdays. She would give me her eye shadow to use as beauty mask for my barbies (who all looked a bit blue and quite dead because of my beauty treatments). She would dress us up with all sorts of scarves and feathers. Fine, she forced us to nap as well and she was ridiculously competitive when playing board games, never letting us win. But she also made the best french fries I have ever eaten (and will ever eat, I am sure of it!). And she would do puzzles with us and read to us and tell us fairy tales. The scary Grimm’s ones, but fairy tales non the less. She always remembered our favorite foods and would always ask what we wanted for lunch and prepare it for us. I am sure if my brother visits her grave on their birthday, there will be a whipped cream-peach birthday cake on the gravestone for him.
She also loved my daughters very very much and put on a huge show on skype every time, to capture their attention. Even the last years that she could barely see, she would still bring all sorts of dolls, knick knacks, toys and music boxes on camera and sing German songs for them. When Loulou Maya heard that Oma Mitsi had died she started wailing and said “We won’t have Hoppe, hoppe Reiter anymore!!!” (one of the songs she always sang together with Oma Mitsi).
Oma Mitsi taught me things that I really value, like being polite, being respectful, dressing properly for the occasion, setting a table, helping with putting dirty dishes away. I also feel that with her fairy tales, dress-ups, stories and travels to Germany she helped expand my imagination. By contemplating on our relationship, I managed to discover the way trauma can travel through generations, if it remains unrecognized and unresolved. This was for me a huge revelation and helped me process many trapped feelings.
Yiayia Martha was the kindest and nicest person I have ever met in my life. Plain and simple. My mother’s experience of her is quite different. She says that she was quite a strict mother and she wasn’t the grandmotherly figure I got to know. I must admit I find it hard to believe. Was yiayia Martha smart and creative like Oma Mitsi? Nope. But if you’d tell her that you got 4 out of 10 in a test, she would say “wow! You almost passed! Next time I am sure you will do great!”. She made me feel enough and accepted and loved and valued and all warm and fuzzy inside.
Yiayia Martha got breast cancer when my mom was pregnant with me. Back then the chances of survival were not that high, so my granddad asked my parents to give me her name, so he could still hear it while she would be gone. Well, she had a great doctor and she lived to be 89. unfortunately 8 years ago she got a stroke that left quite some serious marks on her. She couldn’t move one arm and leg properly and it set off dementia.
Last time we saw her in September. She could still recognize me and realized the girls were her great-granddaughters and she smiled and laughed but she got confused often. Her last months of life were filled with different sorts of infections, skin damage and her dementia progressing rapidly, to the point that she couldn’t swallow food anymore. During the whole time she has been sick she was at home, having the company of my grandpa and taken care of by my parents and a woman who was hired to help. These were very heavy months physically and emotionally for her care-takers and I will forever admire their courage and feel grateful that they made sure she had a peaceful and comfortable passing at her own home.
Because of her sickness the last years, my countless happy memories of her throughout childhood had started to fade, as she was not 100% her self anymore, due to all the medication. But just like with Oma Mitsi, once she died, it all came back flooding my brain, but mostly my heart.
Yiayia Martha would never let anyone badmouth other people. He and my grandpa lived in Athens but came from a small village, where they ‘ve always spent their summers. My granddad used to tease her by telling her the village gossips and she would always say “Alexi stop! I don’t believe that. I don’t want to hear about it!”. Whenever she said something silly and my granddad would tease her about it, me and my brother would laugh and she would say “Fell free to laugh, I don’t mind! That’s why I said it in the first place”. And then she would laugh with her whole heart herself. She would never let my grandpa scold us, no matter how much trouble we would get into, playing with the village children in the summer. She would bend and twist in order to fit under the table and play “family” or have tea parties with me, when I was little. She would even let me teach her my ballet moves. She and grandpa would stuff our face with chocolate and let us watch as many cartoons as we liked and they would also make us fried eggs and french fries (though never as good as Oma Mitsi’s, I am sorry to say) if we didn’t like dinner. Yes, I know, those things are not good for kids but as I grow older I have a feeling that, if done with the grandparents, just for a month per year, then they are awesome things.
Yiayia Martha had a complex relationship with her many siblings. I won’t go into that but by learning about this family history and her attitude towards it, I realized how forgiving yiayia Martha was, not holding any grudges. And that was probably what made her so peaceful.
Oma Mitsi And Yiayia Martha
Oma Mitsi used to joke that she was the bad grandma and yiayia Martha the good one. She knew kids don’t like rules and she had quite a few, but she was happy to take on the role of the bad grandma because she was sure what she did was for our own good. We never saw her as the bad one though. We just saw them as very different. Having those polar opposites in my life growing up helped have a more well-rounded view of the world and the types of people in it, even though I didn’t realize it as a child.
I inherited my dark sense of humor, love for irony and cynicism from Oma Mitsi (and grandpa Alexis, who is very similar to her in many aspects, surprisingly). I also owe my creativity and any wit I might have to her (as she passed those down to my dad). I am glad I have those characteristics and they make life fun at times. But I am also very grateful I got some of yiayia Martha’s kindness and empathy for others. And the older I grow, the more I value those last traits.
When I went to Greece a few days ago, to comfort my mom and grandpa before the funeral, Loulou Maya asked me where I had to go and why. I told her yiayia Martha -who she knew was very sick- had finally rested, she died and she would now find out what happens after death, getting inspiration from that wonderful book, I’ve written about before (all the pics in this post are from this book).
Though I was raised to believe that after death comes compost, this doesn’t tarnish the warm glow of the sweet childhood memories both those women have gifted to me and I will make sure this glow doesn’t fade by talking about them to my own children.
Thank you, my grandmas, for all the wisdom.