Death from natural causes is an integral part of life in all cultures around the world. It is the wish of many people all over the world to go quietly without causing inconvenience to their close family. Death from natural causes can also be a tiresome journey whose end is certain but whose traveling time is unknown, especially now that medicine and technology can prolong life. A long life is a double-edged sword, and in my neighbour's case, although her small family enjoyed her company among them for many years, she seemed to have over-stayed her visit towards the end of her life.
Elvira* was born into a family of Greek refugees from Smyrna, the Koumantatzoglous. Her parents had been expelled from Turkey during the forced population exchange in 1922. These refugees did not have any choice about their new abode; they were sent wherever the authorities ordered them to go. Although Elvira's parents married in Crete, they were both from Smyrna; the marriage was arranged according to the traditions of the time. Her parents' families could be considered some of the luckier ones; their exile from Turkey eventually landed them on the shores of Crete:
"When the first wave of refugees arrived [in Greece], initially in the Aegean islands and later on the mainland, some were received well by individual benefactors who acknowledged them as ethnic kin and co-religionists in need of help. Refugees who landed in Crete, where the spirit of Greek pride was strong and the code of filotimo (honour) set much store by hospitality, had warm words about the locals who received them..." (Twice a Stranger, Bruce Clark, Granta Books, London, 2006)
Elvira's family was probably received in a similar way to the manner in which the other refugees who landed in Crete were treated. This was not the case throughout Greece; some places were more hospitable than others. Saroula Skyfti, a refugee from Smyrna recalls the chilly reception her family received when they initially landed on an Aegean island:
"It was drizzling, and all the doors were closed to us. Perhaps the people there were frightened of us... They looked down on us from upper windows, as we tried to shelter from the rain... We went into a grocer to buy a few things... but the grocer wouldn't take our banknotes. 'These notes are no good here, I don't want them,' he said." (ibid)
Saroula's family were eventually settled in Hania. She recalls a completely different reception at Souda Bay, the main port of Hania:
"As soon as they saw us, they cooked meat soup for us and handed it round. Anybody who... didn't have (their own tin can or saucepan) just drank the soup there and then. Then they put us in a bus and brought us to Chania, every single one of us who had arrived on the ship... All the people from my family and village were put in a cafe with a billiard table whose owner had gone to America... each family took one corner and used chairs to divide it off, and one family made the billiard table a bed. A woman from the neighbourhood brought us a mop and bucket so we could clean up, and she let us wash in her own house..." (ibid)
Elvira's family were given some land by the state in a hilly area of Hania, with a view to the sea, which was previously uninhabited. Other refugees were given land directly on the shore. These areas, also previously uninhabited, were seen as barren, infertile and useless because the earth was too sandy to be viable for growing anything on. This was the pervading opinion throughout most of the 20th century until the 60s; now, most of the present owners of such lands have built hotels on them, or have sold them for a mint, in line with the global idea that locations with a good view are worth the high price asked for...
Elvira was born in Crete, and she and her family have never felt anything but Greek. In one of the few conversations that I had with her, she told me that she had been raised just like any other Greek in her neighbourhood. She spoke Greek and never learnt the Turkish language that her parents sometimes used when they congregated with other refugees. She and her family were invited to all the feasts and weddings of the local Cretan people, and she always felt equal to all her neighbours, whether they were Cretans or descended from refugees from Asia Minor. She herself had few memories of her parents' past life in what is now Turkey; they preferred not to remember it themselves.
Elvira lived a very average Cretan life for a woman of her generation. She did the 'done thing': she grew up, married and had children, who in their turn gave her grandchildren, and, along with her siblings, looked after her aged parents until their death, a cycle repeated by her own children who all now live in the same area where she spent most of her life. Her husband died many years before her; when I met her, she was already wearing black, the typical dress code of the typical village Cretan widow.
When a person dies or there is a memorial service taking place for a loved one, notices like these three on the lamp post (commercially printed by funeral homes) are stuck up close to their house, around the neighbourhood, on the announcement board of the parish church, among other places.
Old age got the better of Elvira; she died of it. She was not ill, nor was she on any medication. She just got old. After growing up and marrying and having children and grandchildren and burying her parents (always more preferable to burying one's children) and her husband ('kallia mavro pokamiso para tzemberi**' men would joke with her), there was not much else for her to do but to die herself.
In her better days, I would often see her walking along the street carrying corn and clover to feed her chickens (her garden was not on the same property as her house), or a pail filled with eggs, which she would sometimes give to me. "What am I going to do with so many?" she'd say to me. She was extremely thin, even then when she was able to walk unaided, and I always wondered how she wasn't blown away by the breeze.
My mother-in-law (she's 85), getting her daily exercise; her dress style is typical of widowed village women in the area. Most Greek people of her generation are cared for in their own homes by live-in nurses. Retirement homes are few and far between and nursing homes are expensive. It is much cheaper to hire a live-in nurse. At the time of writing, she looks after herself entirely (we only do the shopping for her and pick up her pension payments).
Towards the end of life, she needed to be cared for. A Bulgarian live-in carer (they came and went) looked after all her needs, as she lay helpless in a bed-ridden state. The last time I saw Kiria Elvira was in what was to be her last summer, on the eve of the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. She was carried by her two daughters, one on each side propping her up by the shoulders. They had spruced her up for the feast, combing the tuft of white hair that remained on her scalp, and had dressed her in a grey floral robe (common widow's clothing). She was brought before the icon of the Transfiguration, and the priest held it up for her to kiss. Everyone offered her their chair, but her daughters explained that she couldn't sit up straight, and would only slump in it if she sat down. So they took her back home to her bed. Elvira looked like a bag of bones. Her steps seemed to be forced by her daughters' forward movements rather than any muscular force in Elvira's body. She was a living, breathing corpse. Hades called on a very wet day in September. Her time had come to enter the underworld. When she finally breathed her last, it was a tremendous relief for both her and her family; finally, it was over.
*** *** ***
No one really knows how long the wait for death is. Most of us are usually not ready when it knocks on the door; in the case of Kiria Elvira, it was long overdue. As I watched her on that feast day in early August, I remembered the day my 90-plus-year-old grandmother Calliope died. My aunt had been travelling from her home in Athens to Crete and back every weekend when she realised that Hades was closing in on her mother. It was by chance that she was there the day he called. She had been sitting in a rickety armchair next to her mother's bed reading an old magazine that had probably been lying around the house for a few years. She recalled that she had seen it before, even though the text did not remind her of anything she had already read. She looked across to her mother, and was surprised she was opening and closing her mouth in rapid movements; she sometimes had to prise her mother's mouth open to feed her. Then she noticed that her mouth remained open at one point.
"Tharo pos apothane i mana mou," (I think my mother just died) she said, and called out to her brothers, who had been resting in their bedrooms as it was during the siesta period on a quiet Sunday afternoon in autumn.
"Yep," they confirmed after seeing her, "she's dead alright." And that was that. The priest was informed, and the church bells chimed in death toll mode that afternoon, just like they had done when my mother died (even though she had died in a faraway land), and all the neighbours knew it was Calliope who was dead, because they had also seen Hades hanging around her house for a while.
She could not be buried immediately - her youngest brother wanted to attend the funeral but he lived far away, and would need at least a day to come down to the island. The wake would be a long one. The coffin cover was placed by the door, the mirrors of the house were covered, and not a sound could be heard indoors. The women, dressed in black from top to toe, poured into the house solemnly. They carried plates of food to feed the closest family members who were sitting by the coffin all night, keeping the deceased company. The men, some dressed in black shirts and trousers, others wearing black armbands on one sleeve, carried chairs from their homes, because there would never be enough in a person's house to cater for all the mourners coming to say their last goodbye. Then they stepped out of the house and stood by the gate, talking in hushed voices about the same things they would have talked about at the kafeneion, had Calliope not died that night and altered their regular routine.
One of my grandmother's neighbours had made some coffee (tea is still seen as something sick people drink), and was serving it round to the mourners. Roxani, another elderly neighbour, picked up a cup from the tray and examined the crockery.
"Who do these cups belong to?"
The tea lady was slightly startled by Roxani's outburst, as it had broken the deathly silence that had prevailed up until that moment before she had spoken.
"I... they're mine... I thought maybe there wouldn't be enough..." the tea lady stuttered.
"They're really nice. Make sure you remember to bring them to mine."
Some people laughed. A few began talking. Everyone was now smiling. The silence had been broken and people began voicing their recollections of Calliope to each other in a low voice, their whispers hushed every now and then by the more solemn mourners, who were probably more concerned that the wake did not end up sounding like a joyful reveillon from the street level.
I wondered then what it would feel like to be able to sense death so close by. This notion always brings us back to the realisation that we are mere mortals, and no matter who we are, where we live and what we do on this earth, we can't escape death. I bumped into one of my cousins the other day as I was getting some chores done in town. His father is my deceased father's oldest sibling (while my father was the youngest), now in his mid-80s. His children live far away from their parents' village, but they check p on them as often as they can, whenever the modern demands of work and family allow them.
"How are your parents doing?" I asked him, feeling guilty that I did not visit them to see for myself how they were doing. After all, they are my Thio and Thia.
"Nearly dead," he answered, with a smile on his face. "One of these days, I'm going to find them lying on the ground, like logs of wood from uprooted trees." And with that, we both laughed, because if we didn't laugh, we'd both start crying.
*** *** ***Gone, but not forgotten. Elvira's forty-day memorial felt more like a celebration of long life than a memorial of a loved one who had passed away from life on earth into life in heaven. Elvira came from a small family and had a small family herself. But the church was full on that bright Sunday morning. The whole village was in attendance. The priest reminded the congregation that life is nothing but a long trip to God's kingdom and whatever we do on earth is unimportant; what is more significant is how your name is written in the skies above. Are those words written in the stars or the clouds, I wondered.
Koliva and a sweet, like this Greek-style macaroon, are the traditional offerings of a memorial service, supplemented by a piece of bread and cheese, or something grander, as was the case for Kiria Elvira.
Aionia i mnimi autis, he chanted (May she be forever remembered), as he jiggled the censer above the cake of koliva, the ritual food offering served at all Greek Orthodox memorial services. The word 'koliva' comes from Ancient Greek, but it is used throughout the Christian Orthodox world as the name for the sweet wheat dish that is made for memorial services. It looks like a cake, but it is actually just boiled wheat, sweetened and enhanced with sugar, nuts, parsley and pomegranates. The wheat is packed tightly under a blanket of icing sugar, which is decorated on the top with a simple cross and the name of the deceased. Silver sugar balls are often used to decorate the cross and other decorative parts of the 'cake'. At the end of the service, the cake is 'cut' by scooping small portions and bagging them, to be shared among the congregation, each person taking a little bag after paying their condolences to the family who are lined up at the door of the church to shake the hands of their 'guests' and hear them say the appropriate set phrases for the occasion: 'Zoi se sas' (May God grant you life), 'Na ehete hronia na tin thimaste' (May you have many years to remember her), 'Silipitiria' (My condolences).
As with all sacraments, food is also an integral part of a memorial service; there are no sacred mysteries in the Greek Orthodox Church that are not accompanied by a meal. The most important memorials for loved ones take place 40 days and 12 months after the date of death. At the end of the service, everyone was invited to the community centre adjacent to the church to join together in a traditional offering. In the past, a piece of bread and cheese was offered, accompanied by cognac and coffee, and some kind of sweet cake. Nowadays, the same basic food customs are maintained, but with much more food available according to one's pockets. The reasoning behind this is that people may have travelled far to come to someone's mnimosino; tired and weary travellers (who nowadays come in their SUVs) need to be refreshed.
My mother in law could not attend the memorial service, so we took a plate home to her, piled with all the offerings at the meal after the mnimosino. This mnimosino meal consisted of finger food which was all provided by a caterer; some people still cook on these occasions, but it isn't always easy to do this in the busy globalised world that Greece has developed into.
Kiria Elvira will not be remembered for much more than her contribution towards raising the population of Greece. She was a typical example of her generation. Kiria Elvira's mnimosino, however, honoured her memory, and revived in all of us our own memories of Kiria Elvira. Her children will remember her as a mother and grandmother. The village will remember her as a fellow neighbour. I will remember her as the woman who walked tirelessly up and down the steep road, carrying buckets of chicken feed and eggs, as so many of her predecessors did, but not one of her descendants will, because times have changed so fast, and the village women of today will simply take their car and drive to the supermarket to buy eggs, and they won't even remember Kiria Elvira's chicken coop, because the land it was on will be developed into modern state-of-the-art housing. That the whole village came together in her memory is an act of gratitude for those individual memories, one of the rare moments in our times that a neighbourhood, a private community, congregates to honour the insignificance of a mundane life. A sit-down meal is usually reserved in the modern world by invitation only or among close family.
The people here are not related; they have simply come together to have a meal in their neighbour's memory.
A memorial service (in Greek: mnimosino) is a chance to 'visit' the dead via a service of remembrance held in their honour, a way of keeping their memory alive in their absence. The most insignificant life is immortalised in a mnimosino. When the death is of natural causes, it is also a chance to celebrate a complete life.
* Names and relationships have been changed.
** "Better a black shirt than a black headscarf": what widowers and widows, respectively, wear upon the death of a spouse.
My mother's grave in Wellington, NZ, in the Greek Orthodox section of the cemetery:
Mαταιότης ματαιοτήτων τα πάντα ματαιότης
This post is dedicated to all my friends and family in New Zealand that remember my mother's grave whenever they visit Makara Cemetery in Wellington, cleaning it, lighting the kandili and perfuming it with incense; even though her immediate family is gone, she is never alone.
Thanks to Mariana for the gift of the book "Twice a Stranger".
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