by Helene Roumel
My grandma was named Eleni. Not unusual for a Greek woman. Think of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when all the uncles are named "Nick". She arrived alone at the age of 23 and moved in with her married sister, Mary.
Soon she herself married an older man named Thomas and together they raised a family and grew a profitable business - yes, a restaurant! They both worked constantly but once a year, in early August all of us would pack into grandpa's old Hudson and take off to Wildwood! Yes, Bobby Rydell's "Wildwood.” Wildwood in those days was magical. The beach was broad and deep and the sand bar made it a pleasure to swim out far and know that when we stood up, our feet were on terra firma.
Especially as Greeks, my family loved the sea. It was like home to my grandparents, who remembered the Aegean and likened Wildwood to a fine second place category.
I was the only girl cousin and the oldest, so after helping with morning chores, my mom would tell me to go help "Yaya" get to the beach. I frowned and did as I was told but gee whiz why did I have to spend my time with an old lady; just wasn't fair. All the boys were running around doing what they liked; but Greek girls understand this sexist behavior.
Full of resentment, Yaya and I sat on the beach and she would need help with everything; walking to the water, standing up in the water and even breathing. "Ahhh, the sea,” she would sigh out loud to my embarrassment.
"Shhh, Yaya!,” I said, "People will hear you shouting."
"Oh so what?” she would roar. "This is life-the sea, the sun and the sand. All one needs for the good life.”
"Oh yeah?” I smirked. “Don't be silly Yaya."
"What you mean silly? You sit and I tell you story of Greece."
"Yaya,” I yawned, "I'm twelve. I have heard all of your stories of Greece!"
I sat down by her side. She sounded serious.
"You should be proud of being by the sea. You are Greek and to a Greek the sea is like her mother. All life comes from the sea, mana mou."
"If Greece was so good, why did you and papou leave?” I could be a brat even at twelve.
My Yaya grew silent briefly, and sighed. "It was not easy to leave. Life was hard and after the war, the troubles began again and from day to day we didn't know if we would be arrested or shot by others angry about the outcome."
"Soon, my whole family was here and I finally came too."
I saw her for the first time. I saw the lines in her beautiful face and her curly brown hair flying in ringlets around her head. Yaya was lovely.
"Yaya,” I asked quietly, “Were you sad here at first?"
"Yes, I was. But now I tell you secret."
"In the beginning here in America, all I do is work with my sister in the shop. New York was big and grey and like a prison for me. I was farm girl and no farms in New York City.”
"Then I go to Ahepa Dance in NY and I meet your grandpa. He was nice, clean, in good suit. Very elegant."
I giggled at the thought of my big bellied papou looking elegant.
"But I not really interested in him. Is good to not look too much like you like man; makes them silly."
We both laughed at that one!
"But even after two months, we only talk work and NYC."
"What did you do, Grandma?"
"Well, one evening I cry and he say, ‘Eleni, why are you crying?’"
"Oh, I miss Greece so much,” he said.
"That weekend he pick me up in old car and my sister and her kids and her husband come too. We all come to the beach to Wildwood."
"Here, Grandma? Wow, what a bore.”
“No, is good memory. Here we sit like in Elatha and watch the sea the waves and we talk for first time like we are one person." He said to me, "Eleni, here we are our true heart. The sea is our home and we are together with Theos – God. He made me see here as if we were in Greece and time was as old as our country and that a life with him would be good."
"Yaya," I whispered, "Has life been good?"
Now, I am here in WIldwood and almost everyone there that day is gone. But as I hear the surf and smell the sea, I can hear my grandma smile all those years ago and say, “Yes, my dear girl, life is good.”