My grandmother was stern with a strong sense of what was right or wrong. She also was loving and kind, wise and knowing, and she had an incredible sense of humor.
From as long as I can remember, I was aware that Yia Yia had emigrated to America from Greece in the early years of the twentieth century, first by donkey over steep mountains, then by boat in crowded conditions to a foreign land to seek a better life. She kept a figurine of the Statue of Liberty on her nightstand and often told stories of growing up in the Old Country .
For most of grade school I tried to locate the Old Country on maps and globes. I don’t remember when I finally realized that for Yia Yia it meant Greece. I think for many immigrants the Old Country was a long ago place that remained in their hearts.
Often, when Yia Yia was tired or aggravated, she would sigh under her breath and murmur an audible aside. “Ach, Columbus!” she would say, in her heavy accent.
I was probably in the first or second grade, around Columbus Day, when I brought home my Crayola drawing of those three famous ships that sailed the ocean blue that I asked Yia Yia about Mr. Columbus. Why did she call his name?
Yia Yia told me of the wondrous story of how she had sailed with Chris himself and how, together, they crossed the Atlantic. After all, I reasoned, he did have a boat and she crossed the ocean in one. I spent some time being so proud of my grandmother and the fact that she was the only Greek to travel with Columbus. Even after I finally realized the truth – that he sailed some four hundred years before – my wonder and pride never waned . To this day, I can still her those words, in a deep sigh.
This is a repost of several years ago. I always think of it on Columbus Day – and sometimes find myself uttering “Ach, Columbus”.