A taste of Asparagus

©rebekah torges cotton

Dean Torges’ eldest daughter, Rebekah, holding her eldest daughter, Josie.

Maria Dimitrakis came to America because she was sent for. George Terezakis, a man ten years her senior, had settled into his new home, started a successful restaurant, and now needed a strong Greek woman to begin a family and take care of the house. My grandmother, only sixteen at the time, wanted nothing to do with the stranger across the ocean. Her plans were to stay on Crete and marry a certain boy from her village. But her father decided she would be better off with wooden floors and glass windows and an American husband than with a stone hut and a boy from Crete. So carrying a few clothes, a warm blanket, and some garden seeds, my Yia Yia boarded a ship for Ellis Island.

I have seen a picture of Yia Yia when she was sixteen, with big dark eyes, cropped black hair, and not a trace of a smile. She must have known that her chances of seeing her family and the boy again were slim. But in the photo, I see no hint of sadness or fear in her face. My father says she was shocked when she saw all the trees in Ohio, and not one of them bore olives or figs. She must have felt alone, even abandoned in the wooden house, married to a stranger, unable to communicate with anyone but him. Yet when I look at the photo, all I see is a proud, almost defiant woman, looking squarely at the camera.

The Yia Yia I know is plump, sturdy and old in a blue floral dress, poking her head in the oven to check on the chicken, or stirring a large pot of ovgolemona on her gas stove, or offering us more kalutsunia or dolmathes at her red-checked tablecloth. She wants to feed us until all the pots are empty and our belts squeeze our middles. “You no lika my food?” she asks, if we refuse seconds, holding the spoon above the pot, looking hurt.

The food she cooks comes mostly from her garden. I don’t remember her ever sowing seeds or weeding—the vegetables just appear one bright spring day: asparagus, onions, beets, peas, lettuce, spinach, and later on cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, potatoes. I see her chasing groundhogs with a broom, turning red with anger, and calling my father to come get the damned things. Later she sits in her favorite chair in the living room, slippered feet on a red throw rug, crocheted afghan over her knees, laughing quietly at a joke my father tells in Greek. I cannot understand the joke, but I smile anyway, and so do my sisters and mother. She smiles back and nods her head, as if we understood perfectly.

When I was little, Yia Yia would be standing at her front door every time we pulled into her driveway, looking just as we had left her on our last visit. She’d stand there impatiently, waiting for us to stretch our legs from the long car ride and collect our packages. We would bring her favorite things: frozen venison or rabbit from one of my father’s hunting trips, chicken from our farm, fresh eggs, seed potatoes or something for her garden, and perhaps a bean salad or peach pie my mother had made. Yia Yia would hold open the front door until we all entered. Then she would look us over, smile approvingly and hug us all. “Come, come,” she would say urgently, and we would follow her into the kitchen, where we would breathe in the soothing smells of lemon, mint and olive oil.

After eating more than we had wanted, she would beckon to me. “Rebekah,” she would say rolling the R, “you finda my purse. I hava little something.” I would head for the closet and return with her shiny black purse. She’d push her lips together businesslike and take out four crisp dollar bills, one for each of us girls. Then we’d all hug her shyly and say thank you.

As I sit now in the passenger seat of our Honda on the way to visit her, I cannot imagine life without her. She told us last summer that she had begun “climbing the stairs to heaven,” and, despite our reassuring words, it turns out she was right. Now, in January, when she is usually planning her garden and counting the jars of tomatoes left in her cellar, she lies in a hospital bed in her living room. When the cancer was detected, she said she wanted to live long enough to taste asparagus one more time. I’m not sure if she wanted asparagus for its own sake or because, as the season’s first vegetable, it would be her best chance to eat once more from her garden. Either way, she no longer cares about food.

Two of her daughters have come to comfort her, to change her sheets, give her morphine, offer water. She has seen my own daughter only once, and I had hoped she would be here to greet my other children, not yet born. I have never visited a dying person and wonder what to say. My husband squeezes my hand to reassure me and the baby cries softly in her car seat.

I am told it took several years before Yia Yia felt any love for her husband. It must have been a slow, creeping kind of love that took years to develop. Yia Yia and my grandfather had six children together, three girls and three boys, all with thick black hair and generous noses. My father, born next to last, says he remembers his mother crying in bed every night for months after his father died. Only four years old at the time, he and his baby brother were fussed over and spoiled by their big sisters. These little boys would grow up fatherless, so their sisters were determined to soften the hardship.

I look out the car window and realize we are off the highway. We approach the small town, and I catch a glimpse of the St. Clairsville mall. I remember a teenager with a notepad and pencil knocking on Yia Yia’s door one summer day, asking if she planned to shop at the new mall. “Mall, terrible, terrible thing,” she said at the time. “I no go. Bad for stores, bad for restaurants,” she said, gesturing toward downtown.

We park on her street now and I look up at the empty door. My uncle John, Yia Yia’s little baby, is on the porch, smoking and pacing nervously. I take my daughter from her car seat and we approach the house. John waves his cigarette in the air, “Hi, Rebekah, hi Chris,” he says, looking down.

We enter the house, and the sterile smell catches me off guard. Yia Yia’s bed takes up most of the living room, and I see her, eyes closed, skin yellowed, moving on the bed as if trying to get comfortable. Aunts and cousins stand in the room, talking quietly. A distant relative sits next to her, rubbing her head gently and whispering in her ear. Chris and I greet family, and I hang our coats in the closet, where I catch sight of her shiny black purse.

My aunts are at the head of the bed talking softly about Yia Yia’s will. Yia Yia has prepared well for this day. She is leaving something behind for all her descendants. My sister Anna will take home her silverware, Cindy will get a cherished bracelet, and Beth, the roamer, will receive a gold charm of a mountain goat. Yia Yia is leaving me a bracelet too, heavy with gold coins, one she wore to weddings and family reunions. My aunts ask if I want to choose something from among her handmade linens; her cedar chest is full of crocheted tablecloths, doilies, embroidered pillow cases. No thank you, I say. My aunts are no-nonsense and practical, just like their mother, who probably delighted in the idea of giving away her favorite possessions to her family.

My parents arrive. They greet John, still pacing on the front porch, and then the rest of us. My mother’s eyes are pink and my father, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched forward, talks quietly with his sisters.

“It’s a good time to go see her,” Chris tells me. He’s right, but I don’t want to disturb her. “Go on,” he says, “let me hold the baby.” I kiss my daughter and put her in Chris’s arms. She starts to cry.

“Shhh,” I tell her. “I’ll be right back.”

My throat tightens and I go to sit in the chair beside Yia Yia. Her eyes are closed so I just sit, watching her twist and cry out softly. Chris walks over to me, the baby now in my mother’s arms. “Hold her hand,” he whispers to me. I sit there frozen until he takes my hand and places it on hers, then leaves.

Yia Yia opens her eyes to look at me, and I see the whites of her eyes have turned a dark yellow. She pats my hand softly. “I love you, Rebekah,” she says weakly, and for a second I can’t breathe. “I love you too,” I say. Yia Yia’s fingers are long and brown and still strong looking. I have always admired her large hands, so decisive and capable. They have served her well. Yia Yia closes her eyes and turns away from me, trying to get comfortable. I sit beside her until I hear my daughter cry, then I lean forward and kiss Yia Yia’s cheek.

On the way back home, I try to imagine what kind of mother Yia Yia must have been. She was tough, I know. She had to be with a son who put snakes in his teacher’s desk and tied his little brother to a tree and then forget him in the rain. She had a wooden spoon that she used on my father, and I can picture him darting away from her, while she waved the spoon in the air threateningly. Then there was my father’s pet rabbit. My father would take the rabbit out of its cage and feed it carrots. One day it was gone, and the suggestion was that he'd been careless and left the hutch door open. Weeks later, only because my father would not drop the subject, his mother admitted they had eaten the creature for dinner one evening.

It’s almost midnight when we reach home. Chris has driven both ways and his shoulders are tight with exhaustion. I take my sleeping daughter from her car seat and carry her upstairs. She doesn’t stir when I change her diaper and place her in the crib.

That night I dream I am visiting Yia Yia. Just the two of us are in her kitchen. But she is the one sitting at the table and I am standing, holding her wooden spoon. The table is covered with plates and bowls and pots, all filled with fresh, steamed asparagus. I add olive oil, lemon juice, and salt, just the way she does, and stir. I want to feed her until her blue dress is snug. I want her to lick her fingers, to smile contentedly, to say this is just what she wanted. Instead, she looks curiously at me and wags her long brown finger, “Don’t you worry, Rebekah,” she says, “I ate plenty food.” Then she walks to the living room, replaces her shoes with her slippers, and sits in her favorite chair. I spread the afghan over her knees and she tells me to go fetch her purse because she has a little something.