Yiayia / Γιαγιά

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In my heart this week, I have held my grandmother, my “Yiayia” who came to America at age 25 with an older husband and two babies. One of them was my mother. December 16, 1916 it was when the ship Guiseppe Verdi reached Ellis Island. My Yiayia — line number 25 on the ship’s passenger manifest — had never envisioned coming to this land. She never considered she might leave the tiny Greek village on the island that was her home.

Her husband, wanted by Mussolini as a political detractor, had no choice but to flee in the dark of night in search of a place of safety and refuge for his little family. He had the courage to survive and to dream. But here’s the thing: my grandparents were welcomed into this country when they arrived to see the brightness of the Lady Liberty’s lighted torch. To be sure, their life in America was not all bright or easy. They worked hard to eek out a living and to become a part of a new community so very far from the home they loved. 

After I was born into the world, a toddler at Yiayia’s knee, I watched her struggling to learn English, to speak English well enough to be understood by her neighbors. One of my most vivid memories was sitting next to her at our kitchen table next to an enormous silver radiator that creaked and groaned, but warmed us famously. With The Birmingham News spread across the table in front of her, she drank her coffee, dipping her Zuieback toast and reading the newspaper, every morning.

She taught herself to read English, but The Birmingham News was not merely a reading primer for Yiayia. She learned from it. She understood the news events of her day. She knew that liberty was a gift worth protecting. So she studied the political climate and the political personalities asking for her vote. She would insist that you MUST vote, that you must know the candidates, that you must cherish the right to free and fair elections.

So Yiayia would dress in her finest clothing, simple but lovely dresses. She would put on her earrings and her brooch, her rings and her watch. Then she would dress me, and off we would go, across the street and down the block to the polling place. We would go together into the booth with the dark brown curtain. She would vote and I would stand in close to her with the view of only that brown curtain and her chunky shoes, heels of course.

Before we exited the booth — every time — she would look down at me and say, “We are Democrats! That’s how we vote, always!” And to this very day, I have followed her voting directive — always. The truth is that her definitive directive about voting had much more to do with the process than the political party she supported. It went deeper than any party loyalty, all the way back to reading The Birmingham News, seeing the beam of the Statue of Liberty, crossing the ominous ocean, remembering how it felt to have to flee from government oppression and grieving the loss of the island of her home.

Today, it’s not so simple for our neighbors who must flee their homes for so many reasons — safety, survival, fear, oppression. Our president says they are not welcome here. Many Americans say they are not welcome here. Just today, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s growing migrant paranoia resulted in the forced resignation of homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned on Sunday. She is part of Trump’s wider “housecleaning” designed to appoint persons who will make sure migrants can not get across our southwestern borders. Only department heads who will enthusiastically implement the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will keep their jobs. May we never forget the images of thousands of migrant children who were separated from their families.

The president, in a not so presidential tweet, took aim again Sunday night when he tweeted, “Our Country is FULL!” So yes, he says that our neighbors are not welcome here. Yet, millions of us, second generation citizens of the United States of America, will never forget where we came from. We will always remember that our roots spanned the ocean and survived in a new land.

In my friend’s blog last week, I found words that touched me in a profound way and caused me to grieve the land of welcome we once knew. Her words express a startling poignancy. 

“A country that unwelcomes the world,” she writes.

I want to share with you her entire blog post — Jericho Walk — because it is well worth your time to ponder it, but first I emphasize this portion:

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world . . .

Jericho Walk
by Maren

I return to the Jericho walk,
in Manchester,
having not been well enough
for a couple months,
and it feels like home —
this moving vigil, silent, but with signs
and grateful waving for drivers
who honk their support.

We travel around the large block
of the federal building
where people we love and
some people we have never met
come to discover
if this week they’ll be deported.

We walk around seven times
hoping the walls
will come tumbling down —

around this place
that sends into certain danger
kind, hard-working,
tax paying, family-loving people
who contribute so much
to our community

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world,

but today there is a flautist
playing “Siyahamba”
over and over again —
walking
in the light of God,

and I think of that less-military
Jericho story —
the one that defines neighbor as

anyone from anywhere
who stops to help vulnerable ones
fallen on the side of the road.

Thank you, Maren. 

Thank you, my dear Yiayia, for teaching me that God grants us the grace gifts of refuge, safe haven and freedom. And no human — not even a big, bad, bully president — can take those gifts from us and from the generations that come after us.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

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