by Panos Ioannides
As published in Volume 8, NO 4, Dec. 2011
My maternal grandmother, or small sweet Rhodou -Rodothea was the official name which I saw written in undulating italics on the pages of her books- was a refugee from Asia Minor. I don’t know from which part of Turkey she had come to the island, nor how many relatives and fellow countrymen had arrived with her. Whenever I, as a small child, asked “where is your paternal home grandma?” or “where are your father and mother buried?” she would point, with her deformed by arthritis finger, to the north, to the Karamania Mountains which were faintly outlined as reflections in the sea of Kyrenia. And she never said a word.
I don’t even know when, how, or who arranged her marriage to my grandfather Costas Minas from Bellapais. I never had the opportunity to ask grandpa Costas either, because he was in Cyprus only occasionally, for a month or so, when on leave from his job in Africa, where he worked as a foreman on the construction of the railway which would connect the Dark Continent from the Mediterranean north to the farthest south. Grandfather Costas visited once every two or three years, according to what his two sons -my uncles Christakis and George- had told me when I became a teenager and I counted somewhat. He would visit, impregnate grandmother Rhodou, and leave again. They brought five children into the world this way: the two uncles that I just mentioned, and three daughters. Their firstborn was my mother Eleni, and my two aunts, Pantelitsa and Antigone. According to my uncles again, grandfather regularly sent enough money for the family to live modestly but with dignity, for the children’s schooling, and for their daughters’s dowries later on.
In the two or three years between grandfather’s visits, Rhodou would carry, deliver, and begin the slow and laborious task of raising the new child, which she would present to her husband whenever he arrived to sow a new one, and to see how much the others had grown and progressed. Grandmother Rhodou did all the housework herself, even though her belly was practically at her chin for extended periods of time. Her daughters helped, of course; they were goodnatured and hard working, role models to the Fragoklisia neighborhood, even to Lower Kyrenia where they lived in their rather large private home.
In her spare time, grandmother would embroider for a few hours a day, with her nose almost stuck to the needlework — this in the afternoons after she had finished her chores, or while supervising the children’s homework. In the evenings, when the rest of the house retired, grandmother would take out from a warbrobe in her bedroom whatever book she was reading at the time. That modest wardrobe stored forty or fifty, perhaps more, volumes of classic literature — a collection that would have been coveted even by the library of an eclectic bibliophile.
At ten, when I began expressing my love for reading and made my first attempts at writing lyrics or short theatrical dialogues, and especially when I proved to her during our discussions that I understood and absorbed to an extent what I was reading, grandmother showed me her books -her treasures as she called them- entrusting me to begin reading them one by one. So, through the vault of my grandmother Rhodothea K. Minas from Asia Minor, I first met Jules Vernes, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goethe, Cervantes, Papadiamantis, Roidis, and many other authors. In the summertime, when my younger sister, Agnes, and I stayed at the Fragoklisia home in Kyrenia, I would sleep with grandmother. For a few hours every night, while everyone else slept, talked, laughed or had pillow fights in their rooms -high up on grandmother’s metal-frame bridal bed surrounded by mosquito nets- she and I would sink into the wondrous world of classic literature. I with Don Quixote, and she in Notre Dame in Paris; I with Tom Sawyer or the Ghost of Christmas, and she with the Brothers Karamazov; I, face-down with my nose a few centimeters from the page, and she half-sitting with her myopia glasses resting on the low bridge of her small slighlty flat nose – both lost in imaginary worlds that to us, during those magical hours, were more real than the three-dimensional one around us.
Although she was fluent in Turkish, as my mother once told me, I never heard grandmother Rhodou speak the language of the country where she was born, and where she grew up to an eighteen year-old girl. Whenever there was talk of the Turks of Upper Kyrenia or of Karamania, faintly outlined as the mountain range was against the pier and the waterfront of Kyrenia, we never heard her speak with animosity or resentment. We sensed only a bitter nostalgia and a betrayed love in her words or in the tone of her always hoarse but sweet voice. Many years later, when grandmother passed away in her sleep one afternoon, having been made a refugee for a second time at Aunt Antigone’s home in Nicosia, when all family members -sons, daughters, brides, grooms and grandchildren- lined up to kiss her stiff cold hand, we saw a thick rusted key hanging on the wall, next to her pillow. Aunt Antigone explained that that was the key to her paternal home in the village where she was born in the area of Izmir and that, throughout her life, grandmother had kept it in the box that stored her wedding wreaths. “Just in the last few days,” she said, “she asked me to take it out of the box, and hang it there, where she could see it.”
Every summer, a few days after schools closed -once we had secured the permission of our strict and moody father, who always gave it unwillingly after many entreaties, tears, and the intercession of our taciturn but good-natured mother- my younger sister, by a year, Agnes and I went to Kyrenia to spend our two and a half month vacation “with the Minas family,” as father would say half-ironically and half-jokingly.
Aunt Antigone, who was still unmarried and living with grandmother at the time, initiated Agnes into the secrets of the cooking and confectionery arts that had been passed down to her, and to the two other daughters, by their master cook mother from Asia Minor. And she learned well, also with the help of our mother, of course. In fact, Aunt Antigone and mother turned Agnes into an exemplary housewife and a great cook, a true master in the kitchen.
In the first year of our Kyrenia vacations, when I was seven and Anges six, Uncle Christakis started giving us intensive swimming lessons at a quiet cove near our house called Tsakileri. He, an excellent swimmer, and we would splash in the shallow waters of the cove. He would leave us behind and swim out to the sea, so far that we could not see him among the waves and foam crashing on rocks and reefs. Sometimes, fearful that he had drowned, we would anxiously call out “Uncle, Uncle Christakis…” At which point, he would suddenly emerge from the emerald of wavelets of Tsakileri between our legs, splashing water everywhere and laughing at our fears. Uncle Christakis boasted that he could hold his breath for ten minutes underwater and swim as much as a half a kilometer. He claimed that he had brought the arabesque decanters that dotted the windowsil beside his bed from Turkey, where he and some friends would swim to every summer. “In ten hours,” he would say with arrogance, “diving from the lighthouse at the port, we touch the sand and soil of Anatolia. In another eight -because the currents from there to here are helpful- we’re back, eating ice cream at Skannavi’s shop.” “Okay, but how do you manage with the decanters?” we would ask, always trying to trick him. “These are brought back by boat,” he would claim. “It follows us at a small distance, and the boatman and a couple of witnesses confirm that, during the swim, we never touch the boat. This is how we also bring, along with the decanters, trays of baklava, ekmek kateif, and many other goodies.”
To me, his favourite, Uncle Christakis promised that when I turned fifteen and completed the intensive swimming and diving lessons at Tsakileri and other Kyrenia beaches, he would secure permission from my grandmother and parents so that I could swim to Antalya with him.
Uncle George on the other hand, also a lover of the sea, took it upon himself to teach us how to fish. At dawn or in the afternoon, while the setting sun was draping the Kyrenia sky and fluffy clouds between the Gulf of Morphou and the Turkish coast painted the sky with the softest rose colors, Uncle George, Agnes, and I would sit on the rocks behind the medieval castle, or at the lighthouse and waterfront fishing by pole or line for hours. Uncle George, who at the time was in love with Galatea, the young woman from Nicosia he later married, would frequently set down his pole, put pencil to paper and write verses about his far-away beloved, with a lost and estatic gaze:
When you turn onto Praxandrou Street
Many pretty girls you see
Beauties tall and dark
Who set the world on fire
During all those endless hours, days and weeks when Agnes and I tried our luck and skill at angling, listening to our enamoured rhymester uncle extol the beauty of his Galatea like a young Pygmalion, only once did I manage to catch anything. I brought the mid-size mullet home with such pride, and asked grandmother to put it in the icebox until I could bring enough for a meal, promising a dozen now that I had learned the art. But that one and only fish, which grandmother absentmindedly forgot in the sink after scaling, was stolen by the home’s thieving cat.
An unforgettable moment from those days -I do not know whether Agnes recalls this, or not- was an event that disrupted the Minas household, the Fragoklisia neighborhood, and the town of Kyrenia. And certainly, even though we did not realize it at the time, it had touched the whole island and the world. It was afternoon, and we had just returned from our two-hour training at Tsakileri. Dying of thirst, Anges and I ran to the large russet water pitcher with the bushy savory wedged at its neck, for a drink of cool water. I, the older, insisted that I should drink first; but no, she the younger insisted on drink first instead — arguing in front of the pitcher, we tried to beat each other to lifting the pitcher off its wooden base “first”. At an unlucky moment, the big container -sweaty with condensation- slipped from my hands, fell to the marble floor, and burst loudly. Fragments and water scattered everywhere, and the only thing left in my hands was the dripping savory. The awful sound that the clay pitcher made, and the hysterical shriek that Agnes let out, announced the crime scene to the whole house. “Well, never mind, it was getting old anyway; we’ll buy a new one,” Uncle Christakis said. Aunt Antigone bit her lip, and a friend of hers who was visiting bit her pointer finger. “Who did this? Was it you, Panos?” asked Uncle George. I, mute, could do nothing but hold onto the herb, with tears streaming down my face. Then spoke grandmother, who was very fond of that pitcher with the cool water with its imperceptible pleasing scent of savory. “The one who did it, come here,” she demanded strictly. Cowering, I took a couple of steps toward her. “Was it you?” she asked. I nodded my head affirmatively and mumbled “Sorry, Grandma.” Grandmother reached out, wrapped her hand around my ear, squeezed, twisted, and said: “Tonight you’re not going to have any of the cake that your aunt made. You’ll go to bed without reading your book.” At the time I was reading Les Misérables, and had reached the part when Javert recognizes the Mayor as the former convict Jean Valjean.
That was the most severe punishment that grandmother could impose on me, coupled with the deprivation of aunt Antigone’s cake, which was tastier than any other in the whole of Kerynia! Oh, but nothing was worse than having to wait to find out what happened to the humanitarian mayor Jean Valjean after being recognized by the crafty Javert!
I went to bed early like everyone else that night, except for the two uncles who were chatting in their room and chuckling in the dark. Approximately an hour after everyone had slipped into a therapeutic sleep, the bells of the Church of the Archangel started ringing insistently, continuously, without respite. First the two uncles, then aunt Antigone, Agnes, and finally grandmother went outside to find out what was going on from the passersby. “You can get up, too, if you’d like, Panos,” grandmother said while climbing down from her high bed, and left the room. But I mulishly did not reply or leave bridal bed.
I stayed nestled in the top sheet, beneath the thick mosquito nets, straining to listen to what was being said in the hallway and at the front of the house. To no avail!
I found out what had happened when grandmother returned to bed: “The war in Japan is over. The agreement was signed. After the bombing in Hiroshima, with that new bomb, the poor Japanese surrendered. Everyone is saying that from today we will have peace. Godspeed!”
She was silent for a while, then stretched out her hardworking hand and stroked my head. Smiling secretly, she added softly: “Breaking the water jug was a good sign.”
It was August 15, 1945. And I was ten.
Translated by Irena Joannides