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Family Interpreter

A silver ring, custom made in the 1940s, rectangular, with the initials JR. It belonged to my grandmother, my mother’s mother, whom I never met. She died at 43, too young, before I, or any of my sisters, was born.

I never met either of my grandmothers. My father’s mother was too afraid to take a plane to see us, and by the time we were a little older and my dad took us to Stemnitsa, the small mountain village in the Peloponnese region of Greece where he grew up, she had already died. She had kept our family photo on the wall of their small cabin, the same one that still hangs on the wall in my parents’ living room, and used to kiss our pictures every night.

I have the JR ring now. My mother gave it to me years ago, and my sisters are jealous. I have a photo of my grandmother where you can see the ring on her finger. She is seated, movie-star beautiful, her hair perfectly curled, lipstick unsmudged, hands clasped in front of her. There are pagodas on the wallpaper behind her.

That photo is on a dresser in my bedroom and has been for years. It was also the inspiration for a mixed media piece I made (below) called Grandma Jane with Mom in Window. I tried to re-create her image, her intense gaze, her manicured nails, that ring. But in the background, I illustrated a building from Greece, and in the window is my mom in black and white, based on the only professional studio photo of her taken when she was young. She looks like Shirley Temple.

My grandmother never went to Greece. My mom only went once, and not as a child. This picture is a fiction. Yet all the pieces are true.

In Greece one summer in my early 20s, I met a guy around my age who lived there. He remembered my Yiayia. He’d known her when he was a boy. He had memories of her, and I had none. I was jealous—a strange, piercing jealousy—that this stranger had an intimate connection with my family blood that I’d never had and never would. I had only my father’s stories and a few pictures to try and imagine a woman who might have loved me, might have held me in her arms and called me agapi mou, koukla mou.

My Papou, I met on two occasions. He visited us when I was five. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Greek, other than the alphabet and some numbers. He would read to us from a children’s book he’d brought for us. It was big and bright yellow, and I liked sitting on his lap and looking at the pictures while he spoke words I couldn’t understand, like background music. I was shy, and a little afraid of him, too.

I remember the brown Kalamata olives he fed us. I hadn’t liked olives before then—I was a very fussy eater—but those olives I loved.

When I was nine, I saw him again. My dad took my whole family to Greece for a month. We stayed five days in his childhood home. It was beautiful, high in the mountains overlooking the village’s sienna sea of rooftops. We had warm cocoa and biscuits for breakfast outside every morning and pagoto, rich ice cream, every afternoon in the plateia.

But at night, my Papou coughed and coughed, spitting up thick gobs of phlegm that frightened my sister and me, sleeping in the same room. There was no running water or electricity and only an outhouse. Going to the bathroom in the dark of the night was terrifying; I tried to hold it in all night and wait for morning to pee.

My Papou died a couple months after we were back in the States. I learned Greek in college almost a decade later. Now, I would be able to speak with my Papou, have a real conversation, not just say yiasou or kalimera or kalinuxta. Now, I wouldn’t be afraid of an old man with a cough. I envy my cousins who grew up with him, lucky enough to have Yiayia and him in their lives.

My mother once said, “I’m sorry you kids don’t have grandparents,” and there was such sadness in her voice. It’s not your fault, Mom, I thought.

My parents are Yiayia and Papou now, to nine grandchildren ages 1 to almost 20. I see the joy on both sides of that equation. I realize now my mom didn’t just feel bad that we didn’t have grandparents around, but that she missed being able to share us with her own mother.

I’m the only one who hasn’t given them a grandchild.

Memory is strange and slippery. I double-checked dates and ages with one of my sisters. Those kinds of numbers can be verifiable, but the content and emotion of the other fragments have no real outside check. My grandparents were human beings with their own complicated histories and lives, and what I have is a box of loose, jangling bits I try to fit together to tell a story of who they were and how I am connected. The intensity with which I feel or remember something does not actually make it true, I know; yet it is my truth.

I didn’t know my grandmothers and barely knew my grandfather, but I miss them. I don’t have any children, but I miss them. And I still wear my Grandma Jane’s ring.

GEORGIA BELLAS is the Fiction Features Editor at Atticus Review. Her work appears in Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, Lockjaw Magazine, Synaesthesia, Sundog Lit, Cartridge Lit, Bird’s Thumb, WhiskeyPaper, The Collapsar, and [PANK], among other journals. She is one of the poetry winners for Sundress Publications’ 2014 Best of the Net anthology. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the award-winning Internet radio show “Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon,” on Twitter at @MrBearStumpy.

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