Growing Up With Yiayia in an Ethnic Family

Whether it’s Yiayia, Baba, Grandmother, Teta, Nana, Nonna, or Babushka, living near your immigrant family has its challenges and rewards


Shortly, it will have been 25 years since our Yiayia, Theodora, passed away. Theodora (or Dorothy as the restaurant staff and customers knew her) was married to Elias (known as Louie by the aforementioned people) and had three children that produced a total nine grandchildren. They had five granddaughters before the four grandsons (or I should say “suns”) came along. I think God was testing my ethnic grandparents (and me) by giving them the five granddaughters before the first grandson came along. In case you don’t know, but with ethnic families like mine, having a male heir is paramount to keeping the name alive — letting alone village rules of keeping the property intact.

But I digress.

So in honor of this upcoming significant memorial date, I decided to write down 25 of my recollections of “life with Yiayia.” Small and quiet, she knew, and practiced very well, the art of “how to get what you want without asking.” I really should have paid more attention to the technique…..but here we go.

A look into the life of an immigrant and her first generation grandchild……

  1. Entering the house of any family member was never done with a knock or an invite. You just opened the door, yelled something, and walked in. This was especially true when you lived next door…..

  2. And speaking of living next door — all of your life would be dedicated to buying one huge parcel of land for all of your children, their spouses and your grandchildren to be able to live together. Doesn’t matter what part of town it is located. My father is still reminding me that there is one acre left for we when I decide to “get smart” and build our house there.

  3. Always buy a brick house — whatever invading guerrilla fighters or bandits will not be able to break in easily. And side note — always make sure you have more than one bathroom. Bathrooms are important because Papou (also known by Grandpa in English) takes A LOT OF TIME in there…

  4. You can have animals but they have to have a specific purpose — and outside only. A dog is for the above mentioned invaders to provide warning. A cat takes care of unwanted mice and other critter invaders.

  5. Entering the house saying “what are you doing” was never a literal request for a specific answer. Yes — I learned that one the hard way when Yiayia came in, hollered “what are you doing” and I replied “playing cards and drinking” when I was actually washing dishes. She wasn’t happy with me and I had to listen to an entire lecture on respect……

  6. At 18, I was given one year to be married and it would be best if he was Greek, but if not, he needs to convert and “become Greek.” (I didn’t comply on the year, btw)

  7. And in regards to #6, we were helped in the category of choosing the potential spouse. You would unknowingly be given errands (another Yiayia’s house, the grocery store, the bank, etc) where their grandson(s) would unknowingly be there to meet you — because their Yiayia had also asked for “help.”

  8. Then when you do meet a boy, and he asks you out, Yiayia would find an excuse to be at your house or sneak looks from her house (next door) from any window she could find to check out this boy when he came by to pick you up. As if we didn’t notice this short little grey haired head pulling back the curtains. Then, as soon as she could, we’d be asked, “Oh, you meet this boy, where?” As if she didn’t know….see #7)

  9. You needed to know how to cook and don’t make the mistake of waiting until you’re 12 (like she did) to do it. Yes — at 12, she was considered to old to learn and had to shame her mother into teaching her how to cook and make pita. Her mother had told her she was already “set in her ways” since she was supposed to learn at 6 years old. Yiayia told her mother that she would have to go ask someone else and how would that make her mother look? (Smart woman, our Yiayia was…). Another moral to that story? Guilt trips work at any age.

  10. And speaking of food, there was no standard measuring system in the household. God forbid, if I ever lose the special coffee cup, because I’ll never know how to make a prassopita (the family favorite leek & feta cheese pie) without it.

  11. Always, always have a minimum of two meats, two vegetables, two potatoes, etc., at Sunday dinners. You always cook double. Yiayia’s biggest nightmare came from not having enough food and that is a trait definitely passed on to me. Better to have leftovers and food to give away than not enough. (see #16 for further explanations)

  12. And in regards to #11; always have mass quantities of olive oil, lemons and oregano stored because those are three essentials for any Greek dish. Buy them in mass quantities when they are on sale. While we’re at it, though, this also applies to other essentials and staples too, such as Q-tips, toilet paper, laundry soap, etc.

  13. And only clean the plate if you want more. My Better Half learned that lesson the hard way when we were dating. Coming from a family of “clean your plate,” this task for him of finding the right balance was challenging. You had to leave a little bit on the plate to signal you were full, but yet eat enough to show you liked it.

  14. And then in regards to #11 again, no matter what sibling you were mad at, you were expected at that Sunday dinner (which is why dining seating must always be for at least 12). Then, surprisingly, you would find that after three hours of conversation later, you could have a temporary truce while you ate. But whatever conversation you had, it was done loudly. VERY loudly. Not in anger, mind you, but a “passionate” loud.

  15. Desserts — there was always dessert at Yiayia’s — which was always wonderful unless she tried to do something “Amerikani,” like a cake mix from a box. Those where always disasters (see #10 — I’m sure it was because the Amerikani didn’t use the special coffee cup measurement.…)

  16. Then when you left, it would take forever to say goodbye. First you’d have to pack food and it didn’t matter if you lived 10 minutes down the road or 10 hours. Especially fruit. Must have been an idea left over from the war or invading bandits or something because I was always given fruit, no matter what else. Then, while she was still waving goodbye with a hankie, you had to back the car out of the driveway with EVERYONE watching for what seemed FOREVER.

  17. Family occasions included everyone. Second cousins, third cousins, Aunt Toula, Uncle George, everyone. And they all brought something to eat. But we also knew not to eat Aunt Stavroula’s tiropita (cheese pita). She thought it was the best and no one ever told her how horrible it was. Where it went after the event? No one knows but no one was going to hurt her feelings. Another side note on my grandparents; Yiayia insisted Papou bring over her sister and others still in the village — and he did. With their own money and never expecting or asking to get it back.

  18. Whatever the “Amerikani” did, was what THEY did. We did things our way. Girl Scouts? “Why you need Girl Scouts to learn how to be good? You have us! Friends? Why you need friends? You have your cousins!” Side note #353 — even though they gently protested, they did let us join the scouts and school social clubs. But stay overnight at a friends’ house? Never. Cousins, ok. A non-relative? No.

  19. If anyone appeared to have a bit of food stuck in their windpipe, the “raise your hands to Nouno (godfather)” was shouted. That would clear the food immediately. I guess it was assumed that your Godfather would be in heaven and he would always be your guardian angel? (Disclaimer — this did not and does not apply to a real choking emergency, FYI)

  20. When Yiayia or Papou or any member of the family calls you to wake up and work in the restaurant at 2am because the regular staff didn’t show up, you get up and get there. Doesn’t matter about anything else. There is always something you can do (running the dishwasher can actually be a fun thing, I learned) Being in the family meant taking responsibility and it didn’t matter if you were 4, 14, or 24.

  21. Health Insurance companies — take note; You CAN be too skinny or too fat and you don’t need a doctor to tell you. I thought I was at the perfect weight at 16 only to have Yiayia tell me that I needed to eat more. But then at 21, I was told I needed to lose weight. There was this magic look and there was no hesitation on making sure we looked our best. This also applied to opinions on clothing. Honesty was not hard to come by. You might think that was cold, but it wasn’t. I knew I could go out into the world and I KNEW I looked good because I had honesty. No medals for just showing up in our family.

  22. Saying Christos Anesti (Christ is Risen) after Easter was done often and before every meal for the entire 40 days after Easter. And there was always lamb. In fact, it was usually mass quantities of lamb that was roasted outside all night the day before. It was not hard to find volunteers to man the lamb grill. All you had to do was provide mass quantities of beer and wine.

  23. Remember #16 on saying goodbye? Another note — you had to call when you got home because, God forbid, your car could have fallen off the road and you ended up in a ditch. And they will wait for that call no matter what time! Again, doesn’t matter if its 10 minutes or 10 hours.

  24. Don’t forget to call Aunt Soula and your Godmother on their birthdays and other holidays. And talk very, very loudly. It’s hard to hear you from Detroit to Chicago.

  25. And always, always, always wear clean underwear. What will that nurse say when they find you in that ditch (see #23) and you are rushed to the emergency room wearing dirty or torn underwear???

Final note — no matter what was going on in the family, Yiayia knew it and was a great source of information. It’s been 25 years but I still miss that information and advice. So I guess there’s nothing left to do but keep up doing my best with harassing my own kids in the best form possible in her honor. :-)



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