Grace Georgitsis – “From When I Was” (A Collection of Poems)

Ta Dákrya Tis Afrodítis (The Tears of Aphrodite)

My great grandmother was fourteen

When the delicate string of pearls piled into her palm,

Palms washed of residue built up from a long day in the kitchen,

Washed the steam accumulated from the boiling pot atop a barely kindled fire,

Cool like ice from the water of the island’s only stream,

Both of her slender hands were needed to contain the necklace’s length,

Both eyes squinted to comprehend its beauty,

Elegantly it glistened,

Stark white against her deep olive skin,

‘Ta dákrya tis afrodítis,’ her mother’s aging throat croaked,

Withered thumb stroking her daughter’s youthful cheek.

That night she donned the necklace,

It hung cool against her sweat glistened chest,

And snaked against her rosy cheek,

As she laid her head to rest,

It absorbed the oppressive heat,

A burden she had endured her entire life,

She baked like a brick of clay in the Mediterranean sun,

Saved by pearls molded of sea foam,

Or so the story went,

A product of the only escape shed ever known,

From the dry air scratching against her lungs,

From the warm breeze hitting her in the face,

And so it granted her a restful sleep otherwise unheard of,

In the warm Kefalonian night.

Her neck glowed in the light of the moon,

The pearls were a sponge collecting its silver drip,

They had seen her age too soon,

Watching her stare emptily across the medics tent,

Oblivious to the blood which caked her fragile hands,

There were no streams on the battlefield in which to wash them,

Pain screamed at her from surrounding cots,

She had long forgotten to scrub her uniform,

Now indifferent to the smudges of dirt and streaks of rusty brown,

It’s innocent white has been saturated with tragedy,

And yet her pearls continued to glisten,

As each night with an aching precision,

Akin to that which she used in surgery,

One by one she scrubbed them,

Determined that the Tears of Aphrodite be kept pure.

Grandma’s China

I was seven,

Trying with all my young strength,

Reaching with all my young might,

Traversing the dining room table,

As I set the places for dinner that night,

My grandmother smiled behind me,

Her kind eyes studied my precision,

As they watched me place the ornately engraved forks in the wrong order,

And out of the eight wine glasses we needed,

I entirely forgot a quarter,

We weren’t having any meal of extravagance,

There was no need for such formalities,

But in watching my jumping excitement at the notion of helping,

She let me ignore these dull realities,

Giving me full access to the dining set,

And once each piece was nicely laid,

I reached for that looming corner cabinet,

It’s thick oak walls and fragile glass doors intimidated my tiny frame,

My trembling hands struggled to turn the key,

Fearful of the cabinet’s fame,

For locked away was grandma’s china,

The china I had enjoyed so many important meals upon,

The china which had at one point housed all of her famous dishes,

It’s blue and white rims treasured in my family,

Though certainly not for long.

Clumsy legs lifted me up high,

Clumsy fingers grasped the china,

And clumsy ears missed grandma’s sigh,

So as I turned and tripped,

I wasn’t sure why.

With a crash my heart shattered across the floor,

And looking down to it I saw instead the fragments of the china,

I had missed what grandma had seen,

And when I discovered it I wasn’t too keen,

I glared down at the burdensome dog,

That malevolent lump that had tangled my feet,

Sending me askew with such precious items in my hand,

And across the floor I jumped like a frog,

Scooping shards of glass from beneath the seats,

My head stayed low,

My anxieties high,

If only I’d registered grandmother’s sigh,

Shards of white and blue adorned the scratched wood floor,

And drops of red were present my scratched denim thigh,

In her heart she felt my defeat,

Trembling as I tried not to cry.

Fragile arms enclose my fragile sadness,

And I was shocked to hear,

A gentle voice mending my fragmented sorrow,

“Don’t fret over flea market china, my dear.”

Cigarettes and Coffee

I was eight,

Tangled in unfamiliar sheets,

And the smell of cheap french perfume,

I was roused by the piercing scent of cigarettes and coffee,

As it clung relentlessly to my father’s threadbare sweater,

Long had my mother begged him to abandon that old blue sweater,

Her senses offended by its pungent scent,

Haunting her with the ghosts of many cigarettes past,

The same sweater whose sleeve I gripped tight in my small hand as we wandered foreign streets,

She too urged him to shave his scruff,

The same scruff which scratched my cheek when he carried me to the subway station late at night,

And she rolled her eyes when he stopped at a dingy cafe,

Where he enjoyed another cigarette,

Another cup of coffee,

And I hoped to all hope that he’d never rid himself of that old sweater,

Never rid me of its scent,

Because to this day I can help but think of rundown cafes and long walks at night,

At the scent of cigarettes and coffee.

Role Model

I was nine,

Watching you apply makeup on our hotel room floor,

Following close behind as you bat away leagues of adoring men,

Entranced by the elegance of your apathy,

By the blank stare that met their enchanted eyes,

And later by your unfiltered exasperation,

By the scrunch of your nose and the waving of your hands,

By the unladylike actions made by the best example I had of a lady.

My innocent eyes studied your natural beauty,

Waiting for the day it would be me,

The gentle curve of your nose,

The fall of straight hair down your back,

My adoration ignoring your occasional immaturity,

“You’ve always resembled your cousin,”

Incites a moment of pride,

Grateful for your guiding presence,

Always a step ahead of me,

Teaching me to handle the irritations of our family,

Demonstrating to me an air of acceptance and grace,

With your tight lips and knowing glances at the dinner table,

I mimicked your gentle chuckles and slight eye rolls,

And together we quietly listened to the boisterous men ramble on and on,

And together we kept quiet the truth,

Holding within ourselves a reality they couldn’t see,

You’ve acted as an outlet for the resulting frustrations,

And I’d like to think I’ve acted as the same for you.

By the Ankles

I was ten,

Giving hugs like candy at the door on Christmas Eve,

Throwing my tiny frame thoughtlessly into my family’s warm embraces,

Excitement knit clearly into my innocent features,

Eyes wandered the room in a daze,

Taking in the holiday scene,

But as they fell upon the large figure in the corner,

They dropped to the floor,

Hoping silently and stupidly that he had not noticed me,

But knowing deep down what was about to happen,

My uncle smiled smugly at my fear.

I inched tentatively forward,

Arms held close at my side,

A weak attempt to guard my torso,

And though I took every precaution to protect myself,

Shuffling across the small living room,

I didn’t want to hug him,

But my good manners taught me better,

So with bony arms shaking,

I reached out to hug him,

Soon my offering of peace was betrayed,

And I was met with my worst fear,

Tickles.

I fell immediately to the floor,

My body was racked with fits of giggles,

My lungs gasping for breath,

And my stubborn young self was even brought to beg,

Pleading with him to stop this tickling madness.

What a fool I was,

I should’ve known the second he agreed to stop,

Eyebrows sitting maliciously atop his head,

Evil eyes gleaming at me,

That he had other plans,

And suddenly I was hanging upside down,

Tiny ankles gripped delicately by the baseball mitts he called hands,

The lights of the Christmas Tree swinging smoothly across my vision,

Whoosh,

My hair reached all the way to the floor,

And somehow my screams did not reach his ears,

For he stopped only when my mother ran in tugging on his giant ears,

I dropped to the floor,

Sprawled beneath the tree I turned around and stuck my tongue out at him,

I really showed him.

Tiropeta

I was twelve,

When I was taught the recipe that took my mother so long to secure,

Grandmother’s closest guarded secret,

Her Tiropeta (known to the kids as ‘cheese pie’),

Crafted and perfected time and time again,

Enjoyed at each family gathering,

It was the dish I grew up on,

And it is the dish I will always grow with.

It was Christmas Eve when she taught me,

I didn’t realize it’s importance at the time,

I just wanted cheese pie,

And I wanted to make mine just right,

I wanted grandma to be proud,

Never have I so carefully studied anything,

As I studied grandmother’s frail hands as they folded the fragile phyllo,

Pouring indefinite amounts of unsecured ingredients into the filling,

And however diligently I watched,

I could never pinpoint its recipe in exact.

Again and again I asked her,

Begging for the recipe,

Yearning for measurements,

Wanting to perfectly replicate her cheese pie,

And when greeted with that knowing smile I realized,

There’s no way I could,

Her cheese pie would always hers,

And mine would always be mine,

It was a generational recipe,

It changed as we did,

But it’s roots would always remain with us.

The Tears of Aphrodite

I was fourteen,

When the delicate string of pears piled into my palm,

Cradled in the pit of my hands,

Its beauty cradled in the adoration of my eyes,

Unable to understand its elegance,

It shined and shimmered in my hands,

‘The tears of Aphrodite,’ my great grandmother croaked,

Perched at the side of her creaky old bed,

With her shades drawn tight,

The only light cast by the black and white movies rolling silently in the corner,

Her withered thumb stroking my cheek,

Smiling at a memory I did not yet hold,

And she could never get back.

My mother would not let me wear it,

Saying it is worth too much,

So it was placed within a golden box,

Safe from grabbing hands and harmful touch,

And kept in a nook beneath my bed,

Where it would remain for years to come.

Suffering late one summer night,

A casualty of the war in my head,

With the moon’s slender arms reaching through the window,

I felt a pull beneath my bed,

A string tugging silently upon my breaking heart,

Dragged me to the floor with a start,

Hands stretched wide beneath the bead,

Knees red against the rough carpet,

My searching fingers found the box,

And the string on my heart cut its slack,

Greeted with the playful shimmer of its soft aging wood,

As though it was painted with moonlight,

The pearls called to me through the heart shaped hole in the box’s lid,

The Tears of Aphrodite had been shed,

And how was I to know that it was me who shed them?

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