Every wall is hung with icons: some dark, golden and Byzantine, others the kitschy pastel re-framing of Bible stories, complete with a gently blonde Jesus and hippy apostles. Her bed is soft and sags in the middle; when I turn over to get comfortable, old metal springs creak. How old is this mattress? Is it the same one I bounced on as a little girl, the same one my grandmother lay frail and sick on, the one she rose from for the last time before she died?
I was born in 1973 in the flat across the corridor. My yiayia asked my mother, when she was pregnant, not to give me her own name but to call me after my aunt who had just died. Until I left home, she was always a few steps away, in this red-brick block of flats in inner-western Sydney.
Until I left home, she was always a few steps away, in this red-brick block of flats in inner-western Sydney.
She picked me up from school in her floral apron and headscarf, her two yellowish-white braids in a neat crown beneath. She kept Cadbury Dairy Milk Rolls in her apron pocket, ripping off the purple and foil wrapper to dole out the melting chocolate discs one by one on our walk home. After school, she cut thick slices of Vienna bread and drizzled them with honey. She told me not to eat too many olives on an empty stomach. She nagged at me to wear slippers indoors. On New Year’s Day; she wanted me to the be the first to greet her in the morning, kiss her wrinkled hand, so she could hand me a fat wad of cash for the coming year.
Now I lay on her bed, staring at the grey ceiling. I’m in Sydney, away from my home in Queensland, to attend a meeting for a literary award I help judge. Yet my grandmother, so intimate, so influential in my life, was illiterate. She never set foot in school. When she turned 12, she donned the headscarf she’d wear for the rest of her life and prepared for marriage and children.
In one generation, my life has far exceeded her expectations. I have a doctorate, I’ve taught at university, I’m well-travelled. I take my equality and agency for granted. I was told by my parents that I could do or be anything I put my mind to. Words, books and writing have become my profession. But I wonder sometimes if I’m better off, or was it my yiayia's perfect simplicity that kept her so full of life? Her tree-like strength. Her fierce single-mindedness.
In one generation, my life has far exceeded her expectations.
Instead, my head teems with the thousand different things I should do or be, as I turn over, squashing my face into the pillow. I can even imagine some faint trace of her smell, her skin and hair and cells, left behind on these ironed cotton sheets.
She died when she was 105, give or take a few years, we can’t be completely sure. Her birth records were burnt when the Nazis invaded Greece and torched villages along the way. My daughter, now nearly 15, met her, heard her voice, was dandled on her lap as a toddler. She had a prodigious memory for detail and oral history. In the right mood, her stories and songs and poems were inexhaustible. Her hands always busy, knitting, crocheting or, when she was very old, folding and re-folding a tiny handkerchief into ever-smaller squares.
Sleeping in her bed, I’m enfolded in her breath, her soft arms, her cheeks like creased silk.
I wrote a novel inspired by her in my early 20s. A few of my relatives were angry, feeling that I’d co-opted her memory for my personal gains. For me, the fictionalised account of my protagonist’s life was a tribute, a homage, a gift. There is no monopoly on how someone is perceived. Or how much they are loved.
In my new home in the Noosa hinterland, my life has come full circle to hers. On my five acres, I live much as she did before she left Greece. I harvest rainwater, I have a compost toilet. I’m learning how to weed and prune and mulch and cultivate food. I now have scratches and nicks on my arms and legs from branches and thorns and daily physical labour.
I think of her often when I bend and squat and dig, my tired body repeating the same ancient motions she did in her youth. Through her, I remember that I come from a long line of women who can survive – and hopefully thrive – in challenging environments. Her memory, like a slow-blossoming wisdom, grows in me as I age.
Sleeping in her bed, I’m enfolded in her breath, her soft arms, her cheeks like creased silk, which I would kiss, once on each side after I kissed her veined hand each morning. I rest my head, not on the pillow, but like a sleepy child again on her aproned lap.
Katerina Cosgrove is a writer. You can follow Katerina on Twitter @katcosgrove.