What My Grandmother Taught Me About the Power of Family

A high-stress moment in the doctor's office urged me to reflect on the lessons my yia-yia passed down to me.

Roman Kosolapov/ Shutterstock
Roman Kosolapov/ Shutterstock

All I can think about is my grandmother. In typical Greek fashion, my yia-yia lived with us. She wore muumuus, always, no matter how fancy the occasion. She invited every delivery man in “to eat something.” She took grape leaves out of the can and spanakopita out of the freezer and said she had made them from scratch. In an attempt to win McDonald’s Monopoly, we went to McDonald’s every day after school, until my mom told her to stop. She complied. Except when my mom was out of town. Then we went to McDonald’s. When one day a stranger admired a necklace she was wearing, my yia-yia took it off and gave it to her, and when the woman asked what she could give her in return, she replied, “It’s not a trade, darling, it’s an offering.” Giving was her way of being.

The night my yia-yia died, she knew she was dying, but she didn’t tell anyone except our housekeeper Deborah. She wanted to die at home with her family, not in a hospital. She spent the evening shelling shrimp in the kitchen and listening to Greek music on her purple boombox. She was wearing a sunflower muumuu, her grey hair was in pigtails with blue scrunchies, and her hands smelled like the sea. I sat next to her, staring at my goldfish Sandy, Shell, and Seaweed, willing them to do something interesting. They didn’t, and I decided they were the three most boring animals on the entire planet. The windows in every room were thrown open. It was a humid Los Angeles summer night, and my yia-yia never liked AC.

And then she fell. She sat on the beige carpeted floor of her bedroom with my mom and my aunt huddled on either side of her. My sister was ten and I was eight, and we were oblivious as we razor-scootered around them — and that’s how she wanted it. She didn’t want to die in a hospital. She wanted to die surrounded by the people she loved and the people who loved her.

My yia-yia asked my mom to open a bottle of red wine, and she poured a glass for everyone. We had a picnic on her bedroom floor. She was dying, and yet she was busy taking care of her family. I remember going to bed early that night. I was asleep when my yia-yia lost consciousness. I was asleep when the ambulance arrived. I was asleep when the doctors told my mom she wouldn’t make it. And my yia-yia was unconscious when I was taken to the hospital the next morning to say goodbye before they pulled the plug.

The day my yia-yia died, I had a raisin scone with raspberry jam for breakfast, my hair was braided, and I was wearing my favorite insect entomology t-shirt. The ice at the hospital was soft and easy to chew. I chewed cup after cup of it until my dad made me stop. I remember thinking that hospitals had the best ice and wondering if I could get hospital ice outside of a hospital.

My yia-yia always smelled like gardenias. She always loved wearing gardenias in her hair, gardenias pinned to her dress, and gardenias in her pockets. But she didn’t smell like gardenias that day. She smelled funny, like a stranger. I willed her to wake up. But she never did.

After she was cremated, we took a tiny boat out to sea in Marina Del Rey to scatter her ashes mixed with pink and white rose petals. I threw them overboard, but the day was windy so they flew back in my face. I still remember the sound of my sister crying. When my yia-yia died, she left no will and had no prized possessions, which wasn’t surprising since she was always giving everything away.

“Isabella, are you okay?” the doctor asks, bringing me back to the present moment. I’m still in the office, but the word “infertility” has essentially ended the appointment, because after I heard it, I could no longer hear anything else.

I’m not looking at the doctor. Instead I’m staring at the framed photo of her with her two daughters on her desk. And all I can think is, I want that. I want so badly to be a mother. I want it more than I want anything else, and in this moment, I’m not thinking about how many other routes there are to motherhood, like adoption or foster care. I’m just fixating on the biological option. I want the chance to be the kind of mother my mother is to me and her mother was to her.

Excerpted from Map to the Unknown: A Journey Inward by Isabella Huffington. ©2020 Audible Originals.

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