When I graduated high school I found out my grandmother’s real name. My grandfather, and anyone who knew with my grandparents back then, called her Janet, which was, it turns out, entirely made up. I understood nothing of names or what it meant to come from a specific country and to have a title that reflects your heritage, but grandpa was English, and that meant something back then. He should have married a Barbara or a Nancy. Zoe was too exotic, too hard to spell and to pronounce and to understand. Zoe was a foreigner. So in the end, he married Janet.
The thing about Janet was, and is, that she doesn’t speak English. Not entirely, anyway. She speaks a few words and phrases that make it possible for her immediate family to understand when she wants or needs something. She speaks enough to tell us when she’s upset, or when the car ride is taking too long, or when her wine doesn’t have enough sugar mixed in. But other than that, she’s silent.
Janet has impeccable skin that she rubs with white cold cream every night before bed. She has a few silk nightgowns, in pastels of blue, green, and pink that rotate based upon the season and the temperature. Right now her hair is short and yellowy-white, but depending on the last time my Aunt Sonia, a hairdresser from Florida, has come to visit, the pallet ranges from brown to pink. The brass clock next to grandma’s bed is heavy, purchased in England, as is most of her decor. There are porcelain figurines on every available counter space. Pastoral scenes of a girl with a lamb and a staff, swans with pink ribbons tied around their necks, baskets.
Janet loathes any part of Europe that is not the UK, especially Italy. When I told her I was going to Italy the summer before college she made a face like she had walked into a room with a bad smell. “Italians,” she said with a huff and a shake of the head. Once I arrived in Florence, and my best friend and I couldn’t keep the packs of Italian roving boys away, I could see what she meant. Italian men were desperate and hot-blooded, forward and eager—they were completely un-English.
This fascination with England did not, of course, just emerge from nowhere. Janet, (a.k.a. Zoe) is Greek, from a town called Larus near Athens. In 1943, when the Germans invaded Greece, my grandma, along with all the other healthy, able Greek youths, was taken away from her family to work in an internment camp. She was sixteen. The one time I heard my grandma talking about her experience was because my dad needed her to fill out papers for a property back in Greece that was being passed down to her from members of her family. She sat at our kitchen table and held her head in her hands. “I cannot talk!” she yelled. There are just some things people can’t stand to remember. I never dared to ask.
When we studied World War II and the Holocaust in elementary school I became confused. My family has never been Jewish, but Christian. My grandmother was Greek Orthodox. I couldn’t understand why the Germans had taken her away at gunpoint and transferred her to Yugoslavia. For years I didn’t even know Yugoslavian camps existed, but instead assumed all camps were located in Germany. I also didn’t know the difference between death camps and concentration camps. I mentioned this once in class. I raised my hand and said simply, “My grandma was in a concentration camp.” No one knew what to say, and my friends just stared. My teacher said something like, “Oh, that’s awful,” and the class resumed. What else was she to say?
Years later, I finally broach the subject with my grandfather. He moves slowly through the chronology of events, his voice sounding tired and dry on the other line. I tell him I need this information for a school project, which is only partly true. For some reason old people tend to trust me a lot more when I mention that “school” is involved.
“Janet, I mean grandma,” he corrects himself, “Was taken away to Yugoslavia to a camp where they assembled military parts for the Germans. She was there without her family.”
“You’re serious? She was alone?” I always assumed grandma was with her mother and her sisters, a fact that’s been passed down and distorted over the years.
“She didn’t even have a bed,” he says, a surprised tone in his voice. “She slept on the ground, on straw, you know, like hay. And there wasn’t much food either.”
I stay quiet, sitting on a stone wall hedging the park by my apartment in Brooklyn, my legs dangling over the side. People sprint by, their feet slapping the pavement.
When the war finally ended my grandmother moved back home. But the moving and the running didn’t end. From 1946 to 1949, a Civil War erupted in Greece between the Greek governmental army, backed by the United Kingdom and the United States, and the Democratic Army of Greece, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party, backed by Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania. My grandmother’s parents thought it wise to send Zoe away. She was the youngest child, and still unmarried, so she packed her things and moved to her aunt and uncle’s house in Italy.
“Her uncle was mean,” my grandpa says. “Mean with the hand.”
I sit in silence on the other end of the phone line, realizing for the first time that it wasn’t that my grandma didn’t like Italian men. She didn’t like that Italian man.
In 1948, Zoe left Italy to vacation in England, in a town called Norwich, two and half hours northeast of London. Her friend from back home in Greece, Sonia, (which would later become my aunt’s name), had married an Englishman named Bill. Sonia invited Zoe to stay with them in their small cottage home, and for a few weeks Zoe escaped Italy and her uncle. She escaped the “roving boys” and the heat and the dirty city streets. She discovered what it looked like to have your own proper home in a more “respectable” country—an island just a plane ride away.
One evening during Zoe’s visit in England, Sonia and Bill invited over a friend. John was tall and lanky with a big nose, long wide ears, and dark brown hair. Dressed in a button down shirt, a vest and slacks, and cleanly shaven, Zoe must have thought him to be rather strapping. After their dinner party meeting, and once Zoe returned to Italy, she and John corresponded by letter. John, of course, is my grandfather.
“We wrote for two years,” grandpa explains to me over the phone.
“And then what happened? When did she come to you?” I wait for my grandpa to collect his thoughts, and sort through the years.
“I guess it was about 1950,” he said. I can almost hear the numbers whirling in his head, the years, and the memories.
“Her last name was Sirmakez,” he adds.
“How do you spell that?” I juggle my notebook and pen in my hand, and hold the phone with my shoulder.
“I don’t actually know.”
I smile, once again reminded of my grandfather’s unfortunate trouble with spelling. He never made it past the sixth grade.
Once my grandparents were married and Zoe had moved to England, things began to change. England wasn’t quite the ideal place for a new couple without much money. Many of the buildings had been bombed during the war, meaning that finding a cheap flat was a competitive venture.
“We lived in a shared housing,” grandpa explains. “The couple next to us had a baby that never stopped crying.”
Not the romantic, cookie-cutter home Zoe longed for and John hoped to provide, this was only part of their newlywed problems. My grandfather’s family did not approve of his choice. Zoe, as mentioned, barely spoke English. She could not communicate with John’s sisters and friends. She was completely out of place. The new couple tried their luck for a couple years, during which my father, Philip (both a Greek and an acceptably English name) was born. My grandfather began searching for something else, beyond his island home.
“We started receiving all these offers for jobs abroad,” grandpa continues. “Canada, Australia, all these countries were trying to get people to move there and work—to start their families.”
My grandfather, who often describes himself as an adventurer with itchy feet, decided a stipend to move to Canada was just the thing he and his new family needed. He accepted the offer, packed his things, and moved across the Atlantic to Montreal, leaving my grandmother and dad behind to meet up with him six months later.
“I got a job as a butcher and an apartment close to work in just a few months,” my grandpa says. He sounds proud, and considering the situation, I don’t blame him. “Your grandmother brought your dad over on The Olympia, a cruise ship that came from England and through Ellis Island.”
“Ellis Island? You’re kidding!” I yell into the phone and laugh. I’m amazed that another piece of history has somehow passed through the cracks. Now living in New York, I realize I can go and find their names. But I wonder which name it will be—Zoe? Janet? I can only assume it’s the first one, the real one.
Recently at dinner I found myself staring across the dining room table at grandma, this small, fragile woman on the other side, what was she thinking? As she scooped up her spaghetti with a spoon, pushing the pasta onto the utensil with her fingers, for a moment, time seemed to stop. The conversation buzzed by my ears, but all I could think was, What’s going on up there? She doesn’t understand what the people around her are saying. She has lived in the United States for fifty years, and in England before that, and she still hasn’t figured out what the word “appetizer” means. She doesn’t know the word “creative”. She can’t even say, “Congratulations.”
I often find it hard to explain my family to the people around me—the outsiders. I’m certain most people have this problem; the quirks of family relationships are unique, to say the least. I, for one, never felt like I had a real “grandmother.” Where was that old, white-haired lady who could bake me cookies and read me Roald Dahl and send me to the grocery store to buy ice cream? My grandma died her hair and sat in bed for hours a day watching black and white movies and cooing at Cary Grant’s image on the screen, saying, “I know this man.”
Once when I was very young she warmed up a bath for me, and the water was so hot that I was apparently minimally scalded, and as the story goes, I never let her near the bathroom with me in it again.
“Your grandma doesn’t speak English?” my friends would ask. They’d stare at her skeptically from across the room, and when offered to eat her dinner of Spanikopita, make up some excuse about needing to be home before dark (which incidentally was a good choice because, as I have found, being Greek does not automatically equal “Good Cook”). But the truth was, me not having friends over was always a benefit in my grandmother’s eyes. She was afraid of children, specifically sick children, and was thoroughly convinced every time I had a friend over that they had a cold that she was destined to catch. There’s no doubt about it, grandma was a hypochondriac.
But finally, as I travel and begin to experience the world and it’s cultures, grasping the history and the awesome unique-ness of my grandma, I’m realizing I never needed an apple-pie-baking, Coca-Cola sipping wonder. I just needed what I had—a wise old woman who loved me, and occasionally, when not possessing any signs of immune system weakness, would allow me to crawl into her bed, snuggle up against her creamy skin, and watch black and white movies, where she’d continually assure me, “I know this man.”