My Yiayia's Table. This one was for my high school graduation.
This Thanksgiving is bittersweet in our family. We have so much to be thankful for–truly too many things to count. However, our Thanksgiving table is one person short this year, having recently lost the matriarch of my father’s family, our beloved Yiayia.
Yiayia was an incredible person in many ways. She lived an interesting and challenging life defined primarily by her upbringing as the child of Greek immigrant parents. Her parents instilled in their four daughters respect for tradition, high standards of hospitality and an expectation of class, elegance and great aspirations. They also taught their daughters a bit of toughness.
Yiayia lived these values. She had so many talents including cooking, playing the piano, creating artful flower arrangements, knitting, sewing, and gardening. Yiayia learned to drive by “borrowing” the family car and teaching herself. She traveled the world in her retirement and had a determined (but lovable) stubbornness to do things her way.
Her skills as a hostess are legendary. She insisted on lavish dinners on every major holiday, birthday, engagement, baby shower, graduation and sometimes just because. She did almost all of the cooking herself and decorated the tables with flower arrangements and her best china. The menu was always an elaborate array of Greek dishes mixed with some standard fare.
Each gathering typically started with tarama appetizers in her pristinely clean living room with wine for the adults and ginger ale for the kids. Dinner was usually served family style at her long dining room table (or buffet style as the family grew larger) with pastitsi, spanikopita, dolmathes, ham, potatoes, turkey and gravy and her elaborate vegetable tray which was always served on a silver platter with each vegetable, cheese or olives in a lettuce leaf cup. Dessert was a must. Yiayia didn’t make cakes but ordered the best bakery delights (usually chocolate rum cake with pineapple filling) and made Greek pastries (baklava, kourambiedes and melomakarona) to go with the coffee. You never left Yiayia’s house hungry.
Anne helping dip the melomakarona in honey.
At the end of each meal, assorted members of the extended family would pop in to say a quick hello. In warm weather we would retreat to the backyard to watch the youngest members of the family run around on her gigantic lawn and in cold we would sit around the fire opening presents, playing puzzles and games or listening to the latest grandchild’s performance on her grand piano.
Ruly Ruth and Ruly Anne in concert at Yiayias.
Now that I have done some entertaining of my own, I have no idea how she kept up with such an aggressive entertaining schedule! I vividly remember Yiayia bustling around the kitchen and serving all the dishes. Her children and daughters in law often had to say, “Sit down, Yiayia. We have everything we need. Come eat with us.” I think she truly enjoyed hostessing. It did not seem to be a stress or a chore for her. She had a harder time being the guest and coming up with small talk.
Yiayia was the root that grounded our ever-branching family tree. There was a special spot in her heart for very young children and babies and she lamented to me late in her life that she felt sad that my children would probably not remember her.
Four of Yiayia's jewels, her grandchildren. Behind us is the yellow stove that generated so many delicious meals.
I am sad that Yiayia is not with us any more and I miss her terribly. I am thankful for her long life, her tremendous energy and the legacy she left. My last vivid memory of her is her sitting in the backyard of my parent’s home celebrating the second and third birthdays of her great-granddaughters. She was beautifully dressed and had on a wonderful sunhat and smiled as she took in the festivities. That is how I like to remember her.
Yiayia simply can’t be replaced. She was the product of a special time and place that will never exist again. I still can’t quite understand how someone so vibrant can be gone so quickly and I know for certain that if there is any way possible she is keeping tabs on all of us.
Ruly Ruth shares her memories of Yiayia below:
I will always remember Yiayia with open arms, a smile on her face, and being so happy and joyful to see us grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. We were her pride and joy. My 9.5-year-old son adored her! Which seems a little odd since sometimes young children are afraid or fearful of older people. He adored her from the first moment she held him! We have a famous photo of her and TJ both wearing Crocs!! As my husband said—what a product when you reach the young kids to the 90+ year old set! Wow! One winter, after going sledding on a local hill in Utah, we were going to return to my parents’ house to warm up when my son insisted we visit Yiayia for hot cocoa! And as always she happily obliged! I will miss her, and I know my son will too. Her care packages of carefully made and individually-wrapped Greek cookies—the koulourakia, my favorites the melomokarama. So delicious!! A lot of work—and we loved eating the fruits of the labor made by those amazing, amazing hands! And the handiwork! The knitted sweaters we have for each kiddo and myself—one I chose back in college that’s an Irish intricate long sweater which will look amazing over leggings this year.
If you have someone you are missing this holiday season and are having a hard time feeling thankful or joyous, know that you aren’t alone and that it is ok to feel a tinge of sadness in your celebrations. While Yiayia’s loss is a tough one, we know there are families with much more difficult losses to bear this year and our hearts go out to them.
Ruly Ruth shares:
Along with Veterans Day, we celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday Ball on the Marine Corps Birthday November 10th. It is quite the event with a ceremony that will bring anyone heart-felt pride and tears simultaneously. It’s a sight to behold! At this year’s Ball, the gift (sometimes a personalized wine glass or beer stein with the unit’s logo to which you are attached), this year was a commemorative coin with the name of a fallen warrior. One coin we received has the name of Corporal Kyle W. Wilks. With this name, you go to the website http://militarytimes.com/valor/search.php and enter the name and read about him and others.
If you need some suggestions for coping with the holidays after death of a loved one, the Office for Victims of Crime has a wonderful list of suggestions from survivors who have been there:
If you are trying to know what to say to a friend who has been through a loss, I don’t know if there are any “right” answers. Reaching out to people in grief, inviting them to your celebration and otherwise treating them “normally” rather than avoiding them is recommended. Here are some other great suggestions from blogger Lori Pederson.
Please feel free to share your Thanksgiving remembrances in the comments and wishing you and yours a Thanksgiving filled with peace.
(P.S. Yiayia didn’t want her picture posted so you will just have to imagine her through her grandchildren. She probably would have wanted it that way.)
Swinging from the pear tree in Yiayia's backyard. Yiayia took a lot of photos with heads cut off and fingers over the lens but this one she marked on the back was me.