comes to stay with us eight days before Christmas. She arrives, her head hardly visible behind the stacks of
baking pans she carries with her.
Her cooking notebook, frayed at the edges, juts out of her
Without saying hello, she begins her orders.
“Let's start with the kourambiethes,
tomorrow we will make the melomakarona,
Wednesday, the desserts for Christmas dinner, Thursday, the
appetizers, Friday, stuff the turkey, Saturday, Christmas:
church in the morning and lunch after that. Who will be coming? Are
you sure you have enough food?
Why don't we try that soufflé we had at Mary's last
My grandmother and mother begin the week-long preparations.
I usually sit at the kitchen table, waiting
to be summoned to taste the dough or to refill the olive oil jug.
If someone hears the doorbell over the noise of the mixer, I am the
one who opens the front door to groups of caroling children, stand
politely while they sing, and drop a coin into their box.
On these days,
my father escapes the bustle of the house by climbing into his white
truck and going to the olive fields to help with the harvest. This past Christmas, on the day the turkey was to be stuffed,
I told him I would be joining him. My
father suggested I wear clothes I did not mind ruining, so I
put on my brother's old pair of jeans, my grandfather's
frumpy sweater, and my father's shoes, size 46, and climbed
into the truck.
island of Lesvos is known as one of the greener islands of Greece,
as its mountains are covered with thousands of olive trees.
From a distance, the trees look a deep black, contrasting the
Aegean blue. If you
hold a leaf of an olive tree in your hand, it's actually not green
at all, but a dull gray on one side, silver on the other. We passed
acres and acres of olive trees growing out of rocky mountain slopes.
I could feel the wind pulling us in one direction as we edged
up the coiling roads, and saw my father's hands gripping the
When we reached the field, high in the mountains, we could hear the
sighing of the distant sea framing the bells of a nearby sheep-herd.
I was presented with a number of options: I could squat at the base of each tree and search through the
weeds to find the olives that had fallen there; I could push the piercing cycle machine; or, I could climb
the tree and swing the rod to make the olives fall to the ground.
I opted for the squat option and began to weed through the
grass for the little black and green olives.
I picked, surrounded by the old, knotted trunks of trees that
were much older than my father.
|As I squatted and
sorted through the weeds, my mind entered a meditative state.
I became that little girl again who used to climb up my
mind entered a meditative state."
stand on his shoulder,
and reach into his mind for a story.
The stories he had told me were about his past, and I had now
stored them in that little box labeled “youth.”
Yet, here I was twenty years later:
the stories returned, and, in them, different faces appeared.
My hands became those of my grandmother's, and I saw her,
younger than I had known her, rocking back and forth, her golden
hair visible between her forehead and her head scarf.
She whispered to me that she was scared, scared that her
husband might not return, that the war would never end.
“The cow, its milk, that is
all I have to give my children.
What will I give them when that cow starves?”
heard the scream of pain when three fingers were cut off from
hands twisted into each other as she told me how she had
begged her husband not to make the trip - the boat was too
small to sail to Thessaloniki, the Germans were everywhere.
She was not heard,
she had seen him leaving, carrying the only thing they had of value,
two cans of oil, to exchange for food to bring back to feed the
grandmother waited, and her children did not starve. When she saw him returning to the village, the cans of oil
having been traded for flour and edible goods, she crossed herself
three times with those worn hands that milked the cow each morning,
and said nothing.
I saw a different pair of hands now; these were dark, wrinkled, and
closed tightly around a wooden rod.
I saw the kioupia,
not in their new fashion as pots for plants, but as storage vessels
for oil. The hands belonged to Myrta, who chose betrayal rather than
starvation--there she was, following the German officers into every
village home, banging her rod against the kioupia,
and knowing which sound meant oil for the Germans to confiscate.
The spit and whispers of “traitor” by her fellow
villagers followed her like a shadow through the streets, following
her and the Germans. And,
I saw Myrta's hands waving good-bye to the Germans when the war
ended, and her hands laid on a wooden block, and I heard the scream
of pain when three fingers were cut off from those hands.
I stroked the moist skin of a slug, and I returned to the present in
the fields. I looked down to see my hands bleeding, my nails black
and broken. My thighs
stung from squatting, my knees ached, but as my basket was only
half-full of olives, I continued to sort through the weeds,
surrounded by absolute silence and the trees that would live through
the women of the stories returned.
This time they traveled in groups, carrying their
baskets and anxiously looking over their shoulders
anyone who might be watching. They skirted the fields, picking all the left-over olives.
We want oil, we don't
have fields of our own. Their
movements were focused, steady, and every stray olive, whether a
late-bloomer or one that had been overlooked, found its way into
their baskets. Bashak, bashak. The word
meant nothing to me but it danced through the leaves until the women
disappeared behind the tree trunks, 200 years old. When I turned to look inside my own basket, I found it full.
At the factory, I watched my olives being dumped into the
funnel-like hole in the ground, arranged on a conveyor belt, run
through a quick wash, and taken up another conveyor belt.
It was the last time I saw the olives--during the next stage,
they had become an orange pulp.
This pulp passed through more machines that made a deafening
noise. At the end, a
golden stream of olive oil arched from a tube, neat as a finger.
Someone handed me a piece of warm bread and motioned for me
to hold it under the oil. I
did; I brought the oil-drenched bread to my lips.
And, although there were no marks in that extra virgin olive
oil streaming from the slender tube, I tasted the milk from the cow
and the blood from the dismembered hand.