Yaya

We used call my great grandmother on my father’s side “Yaya” which means grandmother in Greek. My mother and I used to visit her house in San Antonio whenever we were in town, which wasn’t often. I was supposed to be on extremely good behavior during our visits. We always sat at her small kitchen table where we were served a snack and something to drink. I don’t recall ever being invited into her living room or other parts of the house, but during every trip I’d be sure to visit the bathroom, which was the size of a small bedroom and felt grand. There was a fancy chair and mirror, small, dainty objects to look at but not touch, tall ceilings and interesting art on the wall. I’d return to the table where my mother sat patiently listening to Yaya who always wore bright, cherry colored lipstick and spoke with a heavy Greek accent. My Great Aunt Leah who was married but still lived at home would sometimes join us. She was always kind and endearing toward me. When she was dying of breast cancer we were invited into her bedroom and I witnessed her husband lovingly cleaning the gaping flesh wound where her breast used to be and replacing her bandage. I remember feeling confused about how someone like her could be afflicted by such a cruel disease.

When Yaya was young, her father repeatedly told her that they were royalty. She bought into his story and took on all the airs associated with people of class. Her marriage was arranged to man twice her age, George Papanagopulos, who arrived from the United States to take her back to this new land where they would marry and begin a new life together. I never met George. He died before I was born.

Yaya was a very large woman who had trouble moving around without the help of an assistant. The day she died became a troubled memory for my grandfather, a drunk, who ignored her cries for help after she had fallen and lay suffering, alone, in her fancy bathroom. She died the next day, at the age of 94, while my grandfather sobered up in his basement apartment. My Grandpa Daniel, the black sheep of the family, once held a shootout in front of Yaya’s “royal” palace. He was known for befriending prostitutes, “wet-backs” from Mexico, and anyone else who was either a drunk or on the margin of society. He was generous, but had a sense of humor that could be cutting and cruel. Just before he died, he claimed to have “found Jesus” and was living with a young woman who was helping him to find peace and forgiveness in God.