My YaYa, brother and I bringing bread to the oven.
We crawled up the mountain on gravel roads for hours, slowly snaking up in the midst of dirt and brush and the odd dilapidated auto meeting us on the downhill. The passage was narrow and guardrails would have been pointless anyway. I remember the crunch of the tires on rock, the air drying out and heating up, the wooziness of the constant turning, turning, turning. But we got there.
My YaYa and PaPou lived in a small village in the Peloponnese in Greece. To outsiders, they were poor, barely sustaining in a two room home without the magic of outlets and faucets. To me, it was a wonder, it was honest, and it felt good within the folds of my YaYa’s strong arms as she exclaimed how tall and how beautiful I’d become. I didn’t understand half the words but I knew the meaning. Even my PaPou’s quiet presence enriched me, his eyes nodding approval from the small table he seemed to live at when he wasn’t sleeping.
The next morning I awoke with the hazy grey outside already pierced with warming sunlight. The air smelled like oregano. The village goats were cobbling up the path next to the house to pasture under the skilled direction of a young boy, their copper bells clanging in some sort of musical dissonance that still tinkered the air with charm. I climbed down from the bed, pushing aside the heavy and scratchy wool blanket that my YaYa had woven on the shared village loom, and snuck into the kitchen, hoping my grandmother was up. I wasn’t disappointed.
Our languages did not meld but her love to me did. She grasped me by the hand and sat me next to her by the small open hearth in the room. She pointed to my PaPou still sleeping in the corner bed and gave the donuts a flip. Yum! I was excited to be leaving the Fruit Loops at home. She powdered them with sugar and then my younger brother quietly padded in as well. The donuts melted in my mouth and I could have stayed there forever, bought for the promise of fresh morning goat’s milk warmed with shaved chocolate.
In later years, frying up donuts with my brother and I
Later that day my cousins showed and we spent our fleeting hours playing, riding the neighbor’s donkey and walking the narrow paths into the village with containers to fill up with fresh water from the shared well. As dusk arrived the goats were returned, the bread pulled from the fiery cavern with a long paddle, and supper included fresh feta cheese and brined olives and I can’t remember what else but hunger was staved. Dozens of visiting cousins and adults all slept in one room that night, beds pressed wall to wall. The quietness was palpable over the village, the stars glowing night lights of pause and peace.
If an heirloom is an item that represents another person of value, then I have the scratchy wool blanket my YaYa wove for me (she made one for each of my twenty-seven cousins, too). But the heritage she left for me was far more valuable. She bore twelve children and her living was hard work, but it was separated from the chaos of city, it was simple, and it was sustainable. She died in her mid-eighties, not long after being brought into Athens for health care. I’m not sure that taking her from her home didn’t hasten her death.
The path to the village
The little house still stands in the village, but I hear it’s been remodeled. A new working kitchen with faucets. An enclosed porch to keep the flies away. Electricity. Even the roads are paved. I will never go back, except in my heart and mind.
My YaYa was the richest woman I ever met, and I desire to reflect the loving heirloom of her life.