Columns / Discourse / October 8, 2008

A brief portrait of a foreign grandmother

My grandmother gave me a call at seven in the morning on Tuesday. Freshly awoken, I gargled out a few syllables of greeting and she asked me if I was drunk. That’s one of the things I like about my grandma. She doesn’t assume that I conform to convention.

It is perfectly plausible in my grandma’s mind that her favorite granddaughter could be chugging down whiskey before sunrise, perhaps because she sees herself as a rugged individualist too. Most of my birthday presents are the result of her exhaustive thievery of chain department stores, she plucks dandelions out of other people’s front yards to make soup, and she refuses to turn in her license, no matter how pitifully the lady at the DMV begs. My family postulates that it might be the only way she could get Americans to respect her, living her life as she pleases while pretending not to hear or otherwise understand the squares trying to keep her down. She was determined to raise a Greek family without anybody else’s input.

When my grandma came to America in 1956 she knew nobody. Her job as a seamstress got her some money and helped her learn English, but she longed for Hellenic company. She took to hanging out around Greek restaurants and eventually became quite popular, especially with the menfolk. These wannabe Zeuses, smelling of moussaka and dripping with olive oil, flirted with her constantly, until she finally married one of them. She would cite it as the worst decision of her life, often at the dinner table as my grandpa gulped down some chicken concoction in silence. Contrary to what certain movies might lead you to believe, my grandma always told me “Greek men are short, my little gold-soul [a term of endearment]. Marry a Swede.” The sentiment arose from bitterness, but was at least expressed lovingly.

The two daughters she raised were little more to her than necessary means to grandchildren. My family moved into her house when I was seven and she could barely contain her delight. Whenever I asked her for ice cream money, or to go to the zoo, she would pat me on the back and ask my mom why she didn’t get divorced sooner. I loved living with my grandma. Of course she would occasionally say she would put me in the dumpster and feed me to the gypsies if I didn’t eat my dinner, but as I was the only grandchild who could speak Greek to her, these threats were few and far between. Knowing Greek is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a secret language with anybody. It was a boost to my self-esteem every time my grandma would tell me that I was her favorite in her foreign tongue while the other ignorant grandchildren watched Teletubbies. It’s not that she didn’t love the rest of her family. She gave everybody baskets of cookies and hung up every picture ever drawn for her; she just likes to let me know she loves me the most.

Her warped sense of a suffocatingly-knit familial bond is the main reason she calls me at ungodly hours, trying to catch me off-guard so that she can tell me about her new heart medication and ask if I have written a book about her yet. She wants me to write about her life during World War II, which I admit is interesting, but how can I choose to write about soldiers and bombs when I live with a woman who grabs my breasts and yells at me when I take a shower? Every time I make a tactless faux pas, or wake up drunk on a Tuesday, I guess, I feel that much closer to her.

Rachel Perez


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