Thia-Ghia, A Morning Visit

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Her name was Georgia. I called her Thia-Ghia—Aunt-Ghia—short for Georgia, pronounced in that cat scratching sound at the back of your throat very present in the Greek language—the definition of the accurate and utterly impossible is a sound between y as in yes and g as in go.Chiara-Sophia Coyle

Clicks & Relativity

By Chiara-Sophia Coyle

Thia-Ghia and the author, in the early 1960s, on Mykonos.
The author, with spring lambs, in Thia-Ghias neighborhood. Early 1960s, Mykonos, Greece.

Author’s Note: This little essay was written in 2010, while Thia-Ghia and I were still visiting one another on Mykonos. She died a few years ago, but my memories will always be as sweet and pungent as . . . βανίλια υποβρύχιο.

Sophia Coyle, Weekly Hubris

OAKLAND California—(Weekly Hubris)—April 2019—Greece in the 1960s. I recognize now that it was a privilege on the island to have had a nanny. I certainly don’t recall anyone I knew growing up having this experience. In contrast, my memories are of overworked and utterly exhausted farmer families . . . somehow managing . . . the children always tagging along in the fields, contributing  before and after school, feeding the animals, watering, yanking the ripe vegetables from the ground for sale, delivering fresh milk to the “American neighbors.”

Her name was Georgia. I called her Thia-Ghia—Aunt-Ghia—short for Georgia, pronounced in that cat scratching sound at the back of your throat very present in the Greek language—the definition of the accurate and utterly impossible is a sound between y as in yes and g as in go.

I digress and get lost momentarily in my obsession with language, etymology, and Greek word pronunciation, a result of growing up with a parent-teacher and, later on, becoming a teacher of the language, myself.  We had a code. Our code, our secret. Ghia was my ally in covering up the sugar binges I was not allowed. Sweet memories of Greek vanilla. Known as βανίλια υποβρύχιο, which literally translates as “vanilla submarine,” this was basically just a vanilla fondant served as a spoon sweet in a glass of water. You dip your spoon in the fondant, scoop a little, dunk it in a glass of cold water, and lick.

Thia-Ghia. To this day, 45-plus years on, this is how I still address her.

Multiple times, short visits every year I’m in my motherland. It’s a bit of a hike to get to her house and I always just show up shouting, “Thia-Ghia, Thia-Ghia,” as I approach, panting for breath, after losing count of how many steps I have already climbed, and I’m still not there. The whitewashed steps, the whitewashed houses with Greek blue-, green-, or red-painted doors and windows, balconies overflowing with bright red geraniums, the sun and the blue sky all get perfectly mingled in some uncanny universal coordination and I just want to be there, already. I’m sure the count is over 100. I make a mental note to count them on the descent.

My visits are unannounced: no phone calls; Wi-Fi is nonexistent. Consumed with excitement and anticipation, despite knowing how every minute will play out, every time is like a first. I eagerly await a response. And there it is: “Sophaki mou”—my little Sophia. The ritual has begun. 

Thia-Ghia and Sophia . . . .
Thia-Ghia and Sophia . . . .

We exchange a couple of long, tear-filled, emotional, and warm hugs, she examines me from head to toe, spits on me three times—to keep the evil eye off— (well, she doesn’t really “spit,” just makes the motions), tells me I haven’t changed at all and, in no uncertain terms, orders me to sit down. Always in the same chair. Nothing has changed. A thick, clear plastic sheet covers the floral designed tablecloth. Framed pictures of generations past randomly adorn the walls. A 50s-era ashtray with some spinning mechanism that swallows all evidence strategically positioned next to the pack of cigarettes, and the modern TV remote create a visual contrast.

We spend five minutes arguing about coffee (I simply cannot have another coffee, that’s all you do when you visit people on the island, and she is the fourth this morning). I can feel the caffeine on the tips of the nerves in my fingers. Decaf? Nonexistent, a foreign concept that defeats all purposes. In perfect hospitality form, she pays no attention to my virtually begging for just a glass of water, and moves to the kitchen to make the ultimate Greek coffee.

It’s not “a cup of coffee”—it’s simply “coffee.”  Caffeine times two in a mini-cup. “Drink it and I will tell you your future, are you still single?”

“That’s OK, Thia-Ghia. I prefer surprises,” I say, though I am literally terrified of all the horribly negative and much expected possibilities regarding my future (or lack of) romantic life, and simultaneously silently praying to what and whom I would never admit. I don’t want any bad news while I am on vacation on what is still my island. She has been horribly accurate in the past. If you believe in such folk stories. I drink half the “coffee,” and hope to all gods and goddesses she does not notice. There is no way I will win this battle and I sure as hell don’t want the fortune telling. The coffee now tastes like mud, and you are not supposed to deliberate over this process: drink up, turn the cup upside down, and wait ten minutes . . . and then, of course, she delivers the future that does come to be true. If you believe in such folk stories..

She is aging and declining in health as she approaches 80, and complains about arthritis and headaches. She is a petite woman and, this year, seems a lot thinner. Has not left the house in over a year, she says. Her grandsons shop for her, so she does not need to go anywhere. Her friends visit her for coffee, the main interaction of passing time and being social. She is upset today because one of her grandsons has announced he is seriously involved with a young woman she does not approve of. “So, they will get married,” she says, “and he will wash the dishes for her. What a sad life for such a good man.” 

Thia-Ghia’s kremithopitta.
Thia-Ghia’s kremithopitta.

I am in luck: she has just made a local specialty, a Mykonian onion cheese pie, kremithopitta, local cheese and all.  She has not forgotten it is my favorite and tells me that some saint whose name I don’t remember (what a bad Greek Orthodox I am: yes I was quizzed and failed the test) told her I was coming and that’s why she made it.

She instructs me on what beach to go to these days and gives me descriptions of places that no longer exist, as if . . . as if I had forgotten my favorite spots, which she is well aware of . . . .  I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s all gone, our Mykonos, ruined forever, though I promise to visit them and report back when I come again in the next couple of days.

The ritual demands bringing out the photo albums. Stained by time’s passing. All are reviewed in perfect chronological order. We have the same conversation every year. She asks me if I remember certain things, which are obviously very clear in her mind.

Do I remember when my mother would leave me with her and she would give me vanilla submarine while teaching me a word that had nothing to do with sugar and instructing me to tell my mother that is what I ate if asked. Do I remember spinning wool with her? Do I remember playing with the baby lambs? Do I remember when she was trying to teach me how to wash clothes, scrubbing them on a washboard? Do I remember losing my favorite doll and finding out she had come back and was on one of the cruise ships? Do I remember how my brother almost died of pneumonia when he was two? After he almost drowned swimming the summer prior? And the questions always flow, and I don’t fully remember any of these details because I was under four, although some of these topics do stir some discomfort—maybe there are some buried memories there after all. So, she tells me each story, every time and I relive memories I don’t have on a conscious level. She is beaming . . . I know it makes her happy to reminisce . . . her joy makes me want to cry.

I tell her I will be back in a couple of days. “Let me know, and I will make another kremithopitta for you” she says, and we continue talking as I begin the descent of the hundred+ steps. I never remember to count them on the way down, either, because my heart is always so full. I constantly look back over my shoulder while trying to keep my balance and control the tears, as I wonder if this will be the last visit.

Born in the United States in the 1960s (then, transplanted to a very small, remote Greek island at the age of three months); brought up in a bilingual and frequently culturally conflicted environment; repatriated to Homeland No. 1 some 25 years ago; descended from four generations of photographers, Chiara-Sophia Coyle was acquainted with photography from an early age; always pursued by her mother, Rolleiflex at the ready, recording and sharing scenes of family life with absent grandparents and her children's working-at-sea father. Photography became Coyle's own escape as a young teenager. Kodak Instamatic in hand, the sound of the twist and the advancement of the film music to her ears, she began exploring all the elements of the Aegean: water, light, white, blue. While never an income generator, photography is what kept the artist sane as she navigated the challenges of single parenting, and endured the endless longing and aching for Homeland No. 2. Experimenting, early, with Emulsion Transfers, Coyle moved on to printing in her own dark room; then, to digital and iPhotography, constantly experimenting and exploring the new. Based in Sonoma, California, Coyle is an Expat Life Coach and Retreat Leader and continues to travel, photograph, and work with what feeds her soul, wherever she may be: the people, the water, the reflections, the abstract. Her current art may be found on Instagram (@chiarasophia1); contact her at (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)