I remember my yiayia sitting at the kitchen table with cucumber peels stuck on her forehead. My brother, sister, and I had them on our faces too. We would just sit laughing at each other seeing who could stick the most on at once. We looked ridiculous, but it was our way of cooling down when the apartment got too hot.
The cucumbers were from my grandparents' garden. We never played in that backyard because it was covered in hundreds of various vegetable plants — from tomatoes to eggplants to those famous cucumbers. Neighbors would stop by unannounced and spend hours talking with my yiayia and papou, leaving with an overflowing bag of vegetables from out back. I knew I could always find my yiayia out there, toiling in the greenery.
My two siblings and I are each 18 months apart from one another. From our days as newborns, my grandmother raised all three of us while my parents worked. We lived in a two-family house with my family upstairs, and my grandparents living downstairs. As I got older, my family moved out of the apartment and into a brand-new house, just a half hour ride from yiayia and papou. We visited often, but it wasn't the same as living upstairs.
We always laughed at the smallest moments, like we shared the same mind, but generations apart.
I called my grandparents every day. When I got home from school, it became a game of fumbling the phone around to everyone in the house to say hello, but my yiayia and I were always on the call the longest. I can't remember all that we talked about, but I remember how much we laughed. We always laughed at the smallest moments, like we shared the same mind, but generations apart. Mostly, though, our phone calls revolved around Greek school homework.
She was a Greek immigrant who came to America without speaking a word of English. I remember when one of my assignments was to learn the Greek national anthem, she took it upon herself to teach my siblings and me every word. As she sang, her voice would tremble with so much pride. She didn't Americanize herself to fit in, but brought her roots and planted them firmly. She always stood up for herself, for us, and what she believed in.
When I was 17, my sister learned she was expecting a beautiful baby. Our extended family felt the need to constantly remind us that 19-year-olds don't have babies out of wedlock. One day my yiayia caught wind of this and turned to my mom and me and said, "If people want to talk, let them talk; we're going to have a beautiful baby!" I've never been so proud to be her grandson. She always had our back and loved us no matter what. And she was right — we had a beautiful baby boy who she called Alexander the Great, and who she got to love and adore, before she got sick.
Now, I visit my yiayia once a week in her nursing home. She has Stage 7 Alzheimer's; she can no longer walk, eat solid food, or carry a conversation. She sits in a reclining chair, like a bed but mobile. She can say a few words at a time on a good day, but the aides don't understand her, as she's reverted to Greek.
One afternoon, I was feeding my yiayia and a nurse walked up to us and said, "Are you her grandson? Because she knows you — I can tell. She doesn't look at anyone else like that." I looked over and my yiayia was fixated on me, with that familiar smirk I've known all my life. I leaned in, and she kissed me more than a dozen times on the cheek. Of course, she hasn't forgotten.