I was dreading going to Dorio, a tiny village in Messinia Greece where my grandparents live and my mom was born. I’ve been roughly 10 times in 30 years and every single time I swear it’s haunted and I become an anxiety-driven monster.
Dorio sits in a valley (of the shadow of death) surrounded by mountains on all sides, with a storied history involving the intermingling of Romanians, Albanians and of course, Greeks! Two roads lead in and a tired banner welcomes visitors. Every house is within walking distance from the main street, which has two of everything.
Half the houses are abandoned and dilapidated with tattered shutters either because the former inhabitants have passed on or because anyone with promise gets the hell out of town. The other half are in good shape, a mix of old stone work and plaster, either in original white or vibrant yellow.
My grandparents’ house is modest with two bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen and a family room with several sleeping options in the form of couches and a bed (with a 100 year old, back breaking mattress). The furniture is a mix of old country hand me downs and whatever they took back from Canada.It has a large garden that my 84-year-old grandfather is almost too old to tend to and a couple porches. The shiny white floors gets dirty every 30 seconds and flies are always getting in through the half open doors. Zap!
Papou and Yiayia left Greece for Canada when they were 40 and 50 years old respectively, a bit old to “live the dream” with their three teenaged kids. They did typical cheap labour jobs like dishwashing, office cleaning and factory working and they were eventually able to buy a main floor condo in a sketchy part of Scarborough. They were both pretty much retired and super old in my earliest memories. Papou’s daily highlight was walking to Coffee Time or taking the bus and going somewhere. Yia yia was a homebody and watched me for that crucial period after mom’s extended mat leave ended but before daycare. I was a devil child who wouldn’t eat and yia yia was a pushover, so I really liked spending time with her. I would con her into giving me lollipops and junk food rather than real food and beg to be taken to the park every day. But I’d also tear her couches apart to create forts or slides and emptied her drawer of handkerchiefs to keep amused with my baby cousin Joanna. Yia yia never got mad and was always full of love tinged with extreme worry and warm, cushiony hugs.
For a long while, they took care of Papou’s mom who only had one eye due to an unfortunate run-in with a donkey (true story). She was very strict bordering on unkind when my mom was a rebellious teenager, which I could sense as a toddler so we were archenemies. As a pre-teen, however, I was just plain terrified and grossed out by her and she eventually died at the age of 91.
I never imagined Yia Yia growing that old but here she is at the ripe age of 94 and counting. Well sort of, her and Papou moved back to Greece on a semi-permanent basis 15 years ago but decided to live there full-time two years ago to die on their own terms, in their own home. We made the trek to Dorio this summer because we don’t know how much time she has left. Yiayia is the last hold out of her siblings and she’s watched many of her friends and neighbors pass on. Her appetite is full force and her mind is sharp but these are both blessings and curses.
She’s gained 10 lbs every year and her weak legs struggle to support her weight. She walks around like a hunchback with two canes and complains constantly of arthritis pain in her shoulder, arm and hands. She’s pretty hard of hearing now and takes a special tea to go the bathroom. She doesn’t always make it in time if she wakes up in the middle of the night but otherwise her vitals are good.
Mentally she is super aware of her pain and preoccupied to the point where she hardly enjoyed our visit this summer. She feels completely useless that she can’t help around the house and everyone yells at her whenever she tries to get up because she’s fallen so many times. Yia yia is convinced every birthday she reaches will be her last and I don’t think she wants to hit 95 on Feb 13. She told us she prays for her mom to take her to heaven and she dreams of her every night. I think all of us get our mental illnesses from her.
And then there’s Papou, 10 years her junior and a doting, if not short-fused caregiver. He does whatever she asks, makes sure she takes all her pills on time, covers her with a blanket because she’s always cold, brings her to the bathroom in the middle of the night and everything in between. She resents his relative freedom and so he stays by her side 24/7, partially out of guilt. Personally, I think she is the wind beneath his wings and the reason he lives though he’s in rough shape himself. Papou walks with a limp, has really low iron and a mouth full of rotting teeth. He’s stubborn like her and refuses to brush them or get dentures.
They celebrated 62 years of marriage on August 29 despite Yia Yia being a whopping 31 years old on her special day. Their love was a practical arrangement with zero courtship – they saw each other on the street one day and decided to marry. Having faced the “old maid” paradigm herself, Yia Yia asks when I’ll marry every five minutes.
Yet the decision to commit a life to someone keeps me up at night. I’m terrified of making a mistake and getting a divorce or staying in an unhappy marriage. I’m always looking for signs and that gut feeling that HE is the one. And suddenly I realize with a sinking feeling that Yia Yia most certainly won’t be at my wedding unless I get married in the village STAT. And she probably won’t even meet or speak to or be aware of the ONE while she’s still with us. I wish I’d been ready sooner.
I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to watch someone who took care of you revert back to an infant-like state, requiring the same assistance she used to give. We had a couple heart to hearts on the couch before I left, regaling stories from her past and wishing me well for the future. She was tender and warm and focused on hugging and kissing my hands, cheeks, forehead and I started to cry. It felt like a permanent goodbye, unlike other years and I’ve been a mess ever since on this “Dream Greek vacation.” #yolo #instaenvy
I want to make a salient point around mortality, aging, love, commitment and genealogy but a tidy bow ending feels elusive. Yia yia made me realize how draining and sad it is to be around someone who is negative, gripped with fear and self-consumed (I take after her sometimes). But also how the biggest pains in the asses can grip the heart most.
I hope I never have to set foot in the village again and yet that would mean…losing a shining star.
Let’s see how things go.