My grandmother was born into a family of landowners in the South of Greece. They owned land in various areas of the Peloponnese. Olive, orange and lemon groves in the West and South, and vineyards in the central region of Arcadia.
At the beginning of the 20th century, World War One, as well as the Balkan Wars and the ill-fated expedition of Greece and the Entente Cordiale to the Ionian Coast of the Aegean, otherwise known as Asia Minor (not to be confused with the Ionian Sea and the Ionian islands in the West) demanded that men like my grandmother’s father were called to arms. He fought almost continuously for ten years. Shortly after he finally returned home, ill with tuberculosis, he passed away, at the ripe old age of 45. He left behind a wife, five daughters, and a son, the last one. Times were difficult anyway, even more so for a widower, but my grandmother’s mother was to become known as “glow lamp” or firefly, or, to the exact translation in both ancient and modern Greek, “fire in the butt”, a nickname commenting on her being a very capable woman.
The Second World War, the civil war between loyalists and communists, and the inflation, ruined the family’s fortune. Money was worthless and burned in piles, and land was not of much use if one had daughters.
My great grandmother did what she had to do: She married off her daughters. One was sent on a blind wedding to America, settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later moved to New York. One became a seamstress, another an elementary school teacher. My great grandmother insisted on all her daughters finishing elementary school, almost unheard of at the time in rural Greece.
My grandmother who wanted both to learn to read and write and was very much attracted to the womanly arts of sewing and making oneself beautiful, was sent to manage the fields on behalf of the family. She was the strongest and reliable like a coastal wardrobe. Her rebellious nature and her desire to claim on top of her responsibilities what she saw her sisters get, a husband, an education, a trade, made of her the envy of the family: unlike them, she got to be free, getting on her bicycle, and ordering men.
One hot summer day, someone saw her chatting with one of their land tenants, to whom they rented the land in exchange for part of the crops. She was sitting on the branch of an olive tree, they said, and he was standing below, and they were both giggling. Carefree laughter was not something a young girl was allowed to enjoy. Eyes were everywhere. She was an orphan, and he was her socially inferior. Worse, they were in love. My great grandmother did again what had to be done to shut people’s mouths. She disciplined her, locked her in to take care of her sisters’ children, cut her off from fresh air and cycling in the fields and all that filled her days and put air under her wings. Tellingly, in Greek traditional lore, a man is alike a high-flying eagle, while the woman is a perdix, a bird that does not take lofty flights, nor builds its nest in the trees.
An even worse punishment was to follow. She would be married to my grandfather, or rather into my grandfather’s family. To her refined eye, they were a vulgar lot that literally killed all that was beautiful and tender in her. She put her energy into pushing her husband go to school and educate himself, what she was not allowed to do, helping him study all while looking after the fields; her fields that he got as a dowry. She didn’t mind being tired, as long as she could be free to be out in the air, the sun and the land.
She was five months pregnant when her husband sent her to manage the vine harvest. She was strong, but fragile. She tried to lift a basket, and the baby was gone. Shame, accusations and guilt followed. She was deemed useless. Useless for managing the fields and useless for carrying babies. Her husband’s parents, brothers and sister treated her accordingly. It was their chance to belittle her. She was flawed. One night, her husband beat her so badly that she lost her second baby. She left and went knocking on her mother’s door. “What are you doing here?” her mother asked. “Mother, take me back, I’ll do all of your chores and of my sisters’, just let me get away from them”, she said. Her mother looked at her, eyes burning like ice. “Go back to your husband immediately. You are shaming us. You are a disgrace to the family”. She closed the door.” It might as well be the lid of my coffin”, she said later to my mother, her only surviving child, out of totally five, one died at infancy, the last one, a boy, lost.
My grandmother was not the only woman who had to suffer in silence in a loveless marriage, maltreated by her husband , her in-laws and society. Women of her spirit were crushed if they would not bend.
Then as now, there aren’t any structures that support women, unlike men who find camaraderie in solid milieux such as the army and the clergy, political parties and men’s clubs. Women have one choice and one choice only: be independent in their own right. It is a lonely road, I hear you say. Is it? What feels lonelier of the two: being lonely in your own living room or lonely amongst people?
My grandmother died aged 54. In the final months of her life she suffered. Her husband approached her death bed, and began silently crying. “Don’t go”, he whispered. She opened her eyes, looked at him in a long pause and said in her favourite way of verse-making: “Crying for my death, you are not doing me a favour. You should have cried when you denied me all that I wished and hoped for”.
To all the maltreated, mistreated, put down in any possible way women out there, you are on your own in a society whose structures are decaying, and becomes, thus, even more cruel than it used to be. Men and women are not identical, as some extremist groups would want you to believe, thus discrediting our argument, but we are equal. Let us stand up and support each other. Violence is not only physical. If you are threatened, diminished, made fun of, you are being abused. Let’s put an end to violence against women, let’s put an end to silence. For our daughters, for our grandmothers, for us.