Memory, Truth — and Olives

22 Sep
 My grandmother kept a red bowl filled with plump olives  on the counter in our old house in Athens.  The counter was narrow and not very long, but kitchen gadgets never cluttered my Yiayia’s kitchen.  No coffee maker (she used a briki and the stove), no food processor (sharp knives and a food mill), no toaster (fresh bread with butter and marmalade in the mornings) – just a wooden dish drainer on the left side of the sink, and that glorious red bowlof olives to the right.  The bowl always seemed to magically replenish itself, so I was rarely disappointed whenever I lifted the edge of the towel that often covered it and reached my hand in.
Yiayia has the gift of storytelling, transforming every-day happenings into tales that she loves to re-tell and that we (mostly!) love to hear again. One such story is about that bowl of olives.  Sometimes, I am the protagonist of the tale; sometimes, it is my aunt.  The story goes like this:

One day, Yiayia was busy with her housework when she suddenly noticed that the house had grown quiet.  She looked around for me (or my aunt?). She looked on the back balcony behind the potted jasmine plant, she looked out on the front balcony that overlooked our narrow street, she looked on the small landing just outside our front door.

Then something, a small sound perhaps, prompted her to return to the kitchen, lift the edge of the checkered table-cloth, and peer under our small wooden table.

There I (or my aunt?) was sitting, the red bowl of olives on my (or my aunt’s?) lap, happily munching on one olive after the other, pits and all.  Later that night, my (or my aunt’s?) belly didn’t feel so good, and we wound up visiting the neighborhood clinic.

For most of my life, I have heard this story with me as the main character. Then, last year, I heard Yiayia telling the story again, but this time, my aunt starred in the protagonist role.  At first, I was confused, betrayed, miffed.  This was MY story, after all.  I was supposed to be the main character.  And it was supposed to be about MY life. What else had my grandmother gotten wrong?

Yiayia with my aunt.

But then I calmed down. My aunt and I are a lot alike.  People tell me I look more like her the older I get.  She took great care of me when I was little, and she even made a courageous Atlantic crossing from Greece to the United States by herself, with me in tow, when she was barely more than a teen-ager and I just a toddler.

Yiayia with me.

So, the more I thought about all this, the less miffed I became.  In fact, I started to LIKE the fact that my grandmother interchanged me and my aunt in our family tale. It could have been my aunt under that table; it could have been me.  Either version, in the telling, feels right because it reveals something fundamentally true and important about both of us. We both love olives, we both are dearly loved by my grandmother, and we both would have been quietly ambitious and mischievous enough to get what we wanted in an unobtrusive way:  an entire bowl of olives, eaten in peace, under the shelter of my grandmother’s kitchen table.

My aunt with me.


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