Today (May 2nd) marks one year since my granny’s passing and the memories are flooding in. Granddad passed away back in 2010 on May 5th. As a result, early May for me has become a time that inevitably brings me sadness, but somehow floods my mind with loving memories and fills my heart with blessings at the same time too.
Last summer, having inherited my grandparents’ house in Moraitika, it was hard opening the door and finding an empty house inside for the first time. What’s more, I was burdened with the gruesome task of having to go through my grandparents’ belongings, deciding what was to keep, what to throw, and what to give to charity. The task took days, and it was a surreal experience. Being interspersed with short bursts of summer holiday fun, it felt odd to do this too but, somehow, my mission was accomplished. At the end of my holiday I had given loads of clothes and medical equipment no longer needed to a couple locals who were grateful to have them, my husband and I had scrubbed dirty and moulded walls and ceilings clean, the house was tidy and aired after having being left uninhabited for a long time, and our minds were enriched with beautiful new holiday memories.
I share with you today a couple photos I took while sorting through my grandparents’ personal belongings. I found these in their aged bedside cabinets.
I quickly recognized all the items in the above photograph from old memories and was deeply moved to see Gran Antigoni had kept a couple of the handkerchiefs I used when I was little. The moment I saw them I remembered them as mine. Those among you who have holidayed in Corfu in the 70s and 80s may recognize the item in the middle as a pill box. They were all the rage in the 80s, being sold in many shapes and with various depictions on them in the souvenir shops at the time.
As for granddad’s things, the only item I didn’t recognize was the binoculars. They are dented, as you can see, and you couldn’t see much through the lenses, but he must have been fond of them as he kept them all the same. I can only imagine how many years he must have had them! As for the torch, granddad had a few, and this one is the oldest I remember and probably his favourite! It’s the one he used during our annual ‘pizza nights’ at the beach when the August moon was out – a memory that made its way into The Ebb, the novel I wrote to share my love for my grandparents with the world. Speaking of The Ebb, Sofia’s dented fork is also real… and I have proof. Scroll down below to see a photo of it 🙂
Granddad Spyros, born in Moraitika in 1913, was one of the children of Stefanos Vassilakis, the priest and teacher of Moraitika in the early 1900s. Granddad never had an education beyond elementary school but his impeccable manners towards family and friends as well as his loving, giving heart were prominent parts of his character. During the forty odd years that I was blessed to have him in my life he’d always been upbeat, sweet and loving and I never witnessed him lose his temper or fight with anyone, not even when he had every right to. And believe me, in my typically dysfunctional Greek family he had many opportunities to act that way.
Being the son of a preacher, Granddad spent Sunday mornings sitting with a radio and chanting along to the priest and the hymn singers. He also chanted in the church with gladness whenever asked. As I share in The Ebb, he had an odd affinity for the TV remote control, driving Gran to a frenzy. Actually, all his eccentricities that I share in the book are true, and he was a man who loved to laugh and entertain others too. Near the end of his life, he kept asking us to be merry when he dies, saying he wanted people to laugh, not cry, at his funeral. I last spoke to him (on the phone from Athens) three days before his passing at the age of 97. His mind was crystal clear, his voice jovial, like a young boy’s. His answer to my question ‘How are you?’ was a hearty laugh and the typical answer, “Got to be here another day!”
Granddad loved a good joke. Once, when he was well into his 90s, we were sitting around the table and he was laughing his head off with his own morbid joke. He had recently paid the council for a family grave and had had it decorated with the marble top and cross, and even his own picture, ready for the big day! Apparently, a local had passed by and seen the grave and told another: ‘Crikey! When did Spyros Vassilakis die? I never heard!” Someone had told Granddad and he relayed it around the table, laughing heartily at the ridiculous notion someone had thought him dead, even though he had set the scene perfectly for anyone to be fooled! And that was Granddad. He had this wicked sense of humour that often annoyed Gran and led to those ‘fights’ at the table that always caused me and my sister to exchange glances and chuckle no end.
Granddad also loved to joke with his friend Andriana, a local woman, and mother of Leftis from Romantica. Granddad and Mrs Andriana had approximately the same age and often joked with each other, betting who would pass away first! As he lay in his bed towards the end, Granddad heard the church bell toll intermittently in the typical single strike that signalled a death in the village. He turned to Gran and said, ‘Andriana’s gone’, which was indeed the toll of the bell for her passing, but we will never know if it was just a guess or if he knew somehow. The next day he died too.
Above all Granddad’s delightful eccentricities, one stands out for me as the most endearing: he always carried a little plastic comb in his shirt pocket and loved for me and my sister to comb his hair when we were little. Ever since I remember myself this ritual kept going strong. When I stayed or visited his house in Athens as a little girl he’d sit on his armchair, pat his shirt pocket and give me a cunning grin. I’d then rush to him, take the comb from his pocket and begin to comb his hair for a long time, the longer the better for him, but it was something I enjoyed too so much that time just flew. Often, before I knew it, he’d be fast asleep while I did this, sometimes even snoring loudly! He’d often wake up a little later to find he had all sorts of plaits braided on his head with colourful plastic hair clips at the end of them. He had the softest, snow-white thin strands and to this day I remember how they felt in my hands.
When Granddad passed away in 2010, I asked Gran if she had one of his combs to give me. She gave one to me and one to my sister and we both treasure them. Often, when the going gets tough in my life, I take it in my hands and tell Granddad my troubles. It always helps me to soothe any kind of heartache or mental strain – the comb having been established as the ultimate symbol of his love in my heart and mind.
I was deeply moved and very fortunate to find these old documents in an envelope in my granny’s bedside cabinet last summer. Time had rendered them gossamer thin but the writing is still legible in most places and it’s been preserved quite well despite the dozens of humid winters. These documents were my granddad’s call to military duty twice: the first in 1935 and the other in 1945.
The document of 1935, when Granddad Spyros was 22, had him registered as a coffee shop seller who was assigned to serve as a telephonist in the Communications Corp (I translate all this to the best of my ability seeing I am not familiar with military jargon). The rules that were mentioned overleaf state that the person called to duty was obliged to appear on the date specified. It was also stated that a delay of one day in showing up would result in imprisonment, while a delay of two or more days would automatically declare the person a deserter, which was punishable by death, or a life sentence in prison if evidence was put forward for their defense. There was also a clear instruction in bold to treat the assigned post and the document itself as confidential.
The document of 1945 called my granddad to duty in Acharnes, Athens in September 30th, 1945. He was 32 at the time. The document listed the same kind of rules overleaf, although with less severity compared to the other document. It was also stamped in Patra in October 1945 and there’s writing beside it but sadly it’s impossible to make out what it says.
What I do know about granddad’s service during the war was that he fought in Albania and when released from duty he returned to Corfu on foot. I also know that in Corfu he was stationed in two places: the (Venetian) Old Fortress in Corfu Town and in the Palace of Mon Repos in Kanoni. In the latter, he served as a cook and rubbed shoulders with Greek and English officers.
Gran Antigoni was born in Lefkas (Lefkada) in 1924. Her father, Nikolaos Kopsidas from the village of Karya, Lefkas, owned two inns in the island capital but a devastating earthquake that destroyed many buildings in town, including his two businesses, forced him to leave the island and seek a new life for himself and his family in Corfu. Granny was about four when she moved to Corfu. Brought up in the ancient quarter of Campielo of Corfu town, she spoke melodically, her vocabulary rich with unfathomable Italian-sounding words dating from the island’s occupation by the Venetians. When she was nineteen, one of her brothers made friends with my granddad who was thirty years old at the time. Granddad would often say that when he first led eyes on my demure grandmother she was wearing a long pleated skirt and the sight made him loose his mind (‘tin itha ke vourlistika’, were the exact words!). The rest is history, as they say.
Granny lived and breathed for her daughters, Ioanna (my mother) and Stephania, who were also brought up in Campielo.
When I came to be, it was a story of love both ways. Granny and I soon developed a very strong bond. When I was little I’d often stay in her rented house (in Athens back then) and I was so attached to her I called her ‘mama’ (mum) and refused to fall asleep unless she held my hand. Gran would often laugh and say I gave her a hard time back then, seeing that as soon as she moved her hand away from my grasp I’d snap my eyes open, which meant she had to give me her hand and wait for me to fall asleep all over again.
Although my grandparents lived in Athens when I was little, we often visited Corfu in the summer to stay with my aunt Stephanie’s family in Garitsa (coastal quarter of the town next to Anemomylos). My grandparents had inherited a small quarter of my great-grandfather’s house in Moraitika but they needed to build upon it to make it a proper home with the necessary commodities first. They managed this in the early 1980s so I began to spend my summer holidays for three months at a time in the village as of then.
In The Ebb I share many of the terms of endearment Granny used to address me. There is an entertaining one I didn’t share, which tickled my husband’s funny bone so much he uses it for me now. The term is ‘kontessa’ (countess), my granny’s way of teasing me whenever, as all kids occasionally do, I acted lazy or self-indulgent. Every time Andy calls me that now if, say, I snooze a little longer in bed, there is a tug in my heart, but the feeling is wonderful, knowing the term of endearment survived, somehow.
In the recent years, I’ve been blessed to have had Gran stay in my house in Athens for a month or so at a time during the winter. Back in 2011 when the above pictures were taken I had a dog, Nerina, a sweet and benevolent soul. I guess she must have found in Gran a kindred spirit, as she’d follow her around the house, especially when Gran cleaned fish at the sink as you see in the above photo. To stretch her legs, I often took Gran to the seafront for a stroll and as Gran loved eating fish, she often proposed we buy some for lunch straight from the fishing boats. On sunny days, more often than not, she would suggest a walk in the fields around the house to pick wild greens. You’d think a 90-year-old would cringe at the thought but Granny was tireless. She didn’t mind at all bending over for an hour to pick greens and often did a little gardening too, picking sprouts of spearmint from one place to put them in a new spot, or just watering my plants. She loved to be around plants and did the same in her tiny yard in Moraitika till the day she left it behind the last time.
When Gran and Granddad started their life together in the 40s, times were hard. If they needed to visit Moraitika from Corfu town, they often walked the whole way. That’s a 45 minute ride in the bus today! As a young married couple they lived in Campielo as I said before where, to make ends meet, Granddad used to do deliveries for a refreshment company. He made the deliveries all over town riding a horse carriage. During the summer, he worked a lot more hours to meet the higher demand, often on all days of the week. He’d leave home at first light and return after dark when the kids were in bed. As a result, his little daughter, Stephania, called him ‘o babas o chimoniatikos’ (winter dad) as this was the only part of the year where she got to see him.
Later in life, to seek a more secure future, my granddad took his family to live in Athens where he worked at the Skaramangha shipyard. In my debut novel, The Necklace of Goddess Athena, I mention the scrap fabric pieces that the workers used to clean their hands from the dirty work. Granddad would often take the odd scrap home and Granny made clothes for their children from them.
Back in Moraitika is where sheer bliss began to pour into my life. Roughly from the age of 12, I began to stay with my grandparents nearly every summer from early June to early September. I played and swam daily with a multitude of cousins and village children and as neighbours I had a host of great-uncles and great-aunts who’d each inherited a part of my great-grandfather’s big house. Every morning would find me and the other children playing with a ball or cards under the mulberry tree or on the cemented step that can still be found today outside the house.
Towards midday, we’d all descend to the beach in large numbers for our daily swim. In the afternoons, after our siesta, my cousins and I would go for long walks accompanied by my grandparents or the odd great-uncle. One of them, Great-Uncle Lilis who was a retired teacher at the time accompanied us in our walks military-style, shouting out ‘ena-dyo, en-dyo’ to give the marching rhythm but of course we kids laughed it off. We did find it endearing though so from time to time indulged him by parading like little soldiers for him as he followed last on the side of the road, supervising us.
Most of the time, we’d walk along the Corfu-Lefkimmi highway and stopped at Messonghi past the tiny bridge near the turn off to Agios Mattheos where the petrol station is today. Beside it on the corner, there was a cafe owned by my uncle Thanassis Tsatsanis from Messonghi. This was our resting place for a refreshment or a sweet before our long walk back home on the hill in Moraitika.
All the things fun I just mentioned, interspersed with out-of-this-world good meals prepared by my granny only repeated themselves the next day and the next after that, for three months at a time. I am sure, therefore, you can imagine my joy every time June came when I was a youngster, and the absolute heart-wrenching sorrow that hit me when September arrived each year and it was time to go.
As I have said many times and also recorded in The Ebb, Gran Antigoni was an amazing cook and prepared her meals in a tiny kitchen barely big enough for two people to stand in it. These photos from the early 2000’s serve as proof!
Speaking of proof, here is a picture of the dented aluminum fork described in The Ebb. Every summer, on my first day in the house, Gran would take it out of her ancient cabinet drawer and set it in front of me at the table with a glint in her eye as Granddad chuckled. You can imagine what it means to me now they are gone. I took this photo last summer, and it was quite emotional when I set it down on the table to eat with my husband, without either of my grandparents present for the very first time. But of course, their love remains inside me, safe, where neither time nor death can ever take it away.
Below, I share a couple videos from happy days with my grandparents. These were taken in the summer of 2004.
The two first videos feature my conversations with my grandparents as I take the video and Andy and Granddad watch Gran BBQ fish for our lunch. During that time we elaborated a lot on the fact Granddad was difficult to cook for because there were many foods he didn’t like much (fish and meat included). I then tried to convince him to have some fish but he seemed intent on only having the boiled greens and skordalia (garlic dip) that were to be served with it. By the time Gran serves at the table, she and I have managed to annoy him somewhat to a hilarious effect right at the end of video 3.
“San polla de lete?” (Don’t you think you’re talking too much?) quips Granddad in his typical mock-stern tone. It made my grandmother and I laugh many times as we watched this video together after his passing. Grandma would laugh while her fingertips caressed his face on my tablet’s screen, the words ‘Spyro mou…’ issued wistfully and repeatedly from her lips.
I hope you’ll find the videos entertaining, even those among you who don’t understand much Greek, if only for the mannerisms and the real-life depiction of a typical ‘row’ between my grandparents at meal times as described in The Ebb.
I truly believe that Granny and Granddad were sister souls. They were married together for 67 years and remained in love till the last day when Granddad died peacefully in his bed in Granny’s arms. Granny often relayed how he opened his eyes and gave her one last, intense look, before he closed them again, this time, forever. Granny said it felt like he was aiming to take her image along with him.
Last year, my grandmother’s parting words to me were said over the phone and during a rare moment of lucid thinking as osteomyelitis had long begun to cloud her mind since her fatal fall. Even though she kept silent or mumbled to herself whenever I phoned the old people’s home in Limnos where she spent her very last days, during that call I was lucky to make out these words: ‘Na eisai kala kyra mou, na eisai panta kala’ (may you be well ‘my lady’, may you always be well). I knew that day this was goodbye. And I was right; she died just a couple days later. I do hope in her heart she knew I was there when that happened, if only in spirit.
Goodbye Grandma. Goodbye Granddad. Until we meet again.
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Wondering what Moraitika, Corfu is like? Visit my guide to Moraitika and marvel at the endless possibilities of summer holiday fun on offer.