Published Date Written by Telly Halkias
With the issue of immigration back in the news because of the ongoing illegal crossings of children on our border with Mexico, I considered how one immigrant I knew left her mark on me - a quintessentially American story.
I should begin at the end - of her life. In the late 1980s, my maternal grandmother Stamatina — or Yiayia as she was known to me — lay dying in a New York hospital. My sister summoned me for a final visit, so I left Virginia and drove north to our native city.
Once there, the winter day was gray beyond all recognition: gray in the overcast, gray in the streets, and gray in the snow remnants layered with soot. More than anything, it was gray in the faces of urban passers-by, oblivious to anything outside their bundled-up spheres.
Heading to Queens, I decided to take the long way through our old Brooklyn neighborhood. As we approached Yiayia's hospital she inched toward death. The city seemed to hold its breath as another one of its immigrant children exhaled her last.
In the early 20th century, Yiayia had been dispatched from Greece at age 16 in an arranged marriage to my grandfather Christos. For 77 more years, she toiled in the New World with scant formal education.
Yiayia raised three children, ran a household, helped with a business, and did everything expected of a God-fearing Greek woman. She was widowed at age 47 and never remarried.
While an American citizen, Yiayia hadn't mastered our language. Rather, she spoke haltingly and with a heavy accent to Anglos. To Greek diaspora she used the hybrid Grenglish, mixing both tongues with a smattering of made-up words.
Years before I was born, my mother had a falling out with Yiayia over the family business. More Greek drama. It led to years of estrangement that ended during my adolescence. I was thrilled to finally know Yiayia, even if she wasn't very active, and always seemed stuffy.
Part of that was the era and the circumstance into which life dropped her. Imagine being a young teenage girl living in a primitive farming village, and then sent 8,000 miles to the world's largest concrete jungle to marry a stranger 15 years your senior.
Not that it was uncommon, but in that milieu one had to mature quickly and meet expectations — to include bearing children — or drown in a sea of scorn from one's own ethnic community. In many ways, the spirit of such anticipation has changed little in the U.S.'s many ethnic communities.
My favorite times with Yiayia were when I went off to college and could see her on my own terms. I'd pit stop at her apartment on weekends, looking for a hug and a snack, and sometimes a place to crash at night.
Yiayia would dote on me, and I loved it. We'd watch TV together and she'd share her unique world view. She seemed adept at somehow finding the likes of President Carter and Jackie Gleason in the same Grenglish sentence.
My buddies loved her, too. Invariably, they'd ask: "Can I come over to your Yiayia's place for a bite?" What followed were mountains of pasta and mouth-watering baklava. Yiayia would switch over to her polite yet strained English, and took off her moo-moo and apron. A woman of propriety, she donned a dress and heels whenever one of Telly's Anglo friends tagged along.
Less than a decade later, when we arrived at Yiayia's bedside, I barely recognized her. She was gaunt and phantom-pale. She trembled and had tubes running everywhere. She rambled on and on.
But Yiayia knew her grandson when she saw him: "Oh Teelee, you coma tonight and I makee you nice legalamb!"
I stroked what little hair Yiayia had left, kissed her forehead and replied: "OK, Yiayia, I'll be there. Don't forget the wine."
My grandmother Stamatina then fell into a coma, and died later that week.
I've visited her native village in Greece, and saw the stone hut with no power, heat, or running water in which she was born and raised. It's a far cry from Gotham, a place where, in some ways, Yiayia was trapped the rest of her life.
But her three children and seven grandchildren all went on to be college educated professionals. If that's not the American Dream, then what is?
Perhaps our government can finally find a way to satisfy all comers to the immigration debate, and unite the call for security with the dream of opportunity and hope. Knowing what Yiayia went through to be able to see her children flourish in this country, I believe she would concur.
Maybe by skipping a generation, there are more nuances of us in our grandparents than in anyone. To this day, I'd like to think that's why Yiayia recognized me on that last visit.
As she crossed the river, maybe what she saw through the haze of time was a long-abandoned dream realized: A life Yiayia never had, but knew she had in her.