I had been water-coloring when my mom poked her head through the classroom door. She made eye contact with my teacher Diane, who nodded and told me to get my things even though it wasn’t even lunchtime yet and I’d never been able to eat my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, which was a shame because I liked peanut butter a lot. I was leaving school early.
“Why, Mommy?” “Because you are going to receive a very special phone call.”
Special. The word echoed. I didn’t know what receive meant, but whatever it had to do with a phone call it was going to be special.
“Is the phone call for me?”
My mom looked at me sideways through the rearview mirror. “Yes, of course it’s for you; you are the one receiving it.”
A special phone call, for me!
“Who’s calling, Mommy? Who’s calling! Who am I to receive from?” I said the word carefully.
My mom smiled a little. “Her name is Kiria Eleni” (KEEREE e-LAY-nee—the “r” is rolled).
“Kiria Eleni . . .” I liked the way her name rolled around in my mouth; it was quickness, light, a feather. I liked it. Delicious!—I was getting picked up early so that I could receive a special phone call that was all for me from Kiria Eleni. “Who is she?”
“She was Daddy’s old nurse; When your grandmother, Yiayia (YI-ya) Theresa, got sick, she and your grandfather, Papou (pa-P00), wrote a letter to her village in Greece. The letter asked for a woman to come and take care of your daddy, who was only a baby then. And Kiria Eleni came.”
“Why does she want to talk to me.”
“Because you are the second Teresa.”
I beamed. The Second Teresa. Many people I know now hate being second in things because it makes them feel subordinate, but for me, being The Second Teresa was a heavenly privilege. She had died, and then years later when I was born they put a pinch of her memory into me. It was an honor.
My dad had come home early and was waiting for me. As soon as I walked in the door, he pulled a chair out from under my little table, seated it in the middle of the room, and then seated me on top of that. “Now Teresa,” he said, squatting down in order to look me in the face. “I want to tell you some things about Kiria Eleni. She doesn’t live in this country and doesn’t speak English; she will be talking to you from Greece, and she’ll be speaking Greek to you. She is also very old.”
I frowned. “How can I talk with her if I don’t know any Greek?” It was going to be a problem. The only words of Greek I knew were pisino and pisinake, which both roughly translated to butt. It was the slang that I had picked up from my dad, and I was a bit embarrassed about using it with people outside of my family.
“Your papou will be on the line, too. He will translate for you.” He turned to my mom and took a deep breath. “All right,” he said, “let’s call.” He picked up the phone and dialed, then started talking in words that I couldn’t understand. Then he talked in English a little, and then in gibberish again. I sat very still in my chair; the hard wood of the chair was beginning to hurt my pisino, but I was very good and sat still anyway. I watched my dad talk and talk as he was transferred from one place to the next, switching languages every so often as my mom paced back and forth. Then, my dad turned toward me and took the one, two, three long steps to where I had been waiting patiently. “Here you are,” he said, handing me the phone.
I took it gingerly and held it away from my ear a little, afraid of getting bombarded with a torrent of Greek that would make me feel stupid. “Er . . . hello?”
It was only Papou. “Hi, dahlin’,” he said. His loud Chicago voice was dampened by the stuffy connection. “How’s my favorite granddaughter?” I was his only granddaughter, at the time.
“Good. I did some water-coloring today.”
“That’s great. And what grade are you in again? First?”
I giggled. “Second, Papou, second!”
“Second grade! Wow, dahlin’! You’re becoming a young lady! So do you want to talk to Kiria Eleni now?”
“Yeah. You in Greece?”
“Yeah. It’s beautiful, dahlin’—I’ll take you when you’re thirteen, I promise. I’ll take you to Greek school so that you can learn Greek and then I’ll take you here. Boy, it’s beautiful . . . all right, dahlin’, I’m putting her on.” He said something in what I assumed was Greek, and then someone else got on.
The voice was cracked and shriveled in an eerie way. I had seen plenty of wrinkled faces, but I’d never heard a wrinkled voice before because most of the old people I knew then were in surprisingly good shape. It was a stomach-jerking first. “0 ya, mumble jumble-o . . .” the words were like quick fingers on a piano key. She sprinted to the finish line of her sentence. A rustling, and the phone was transferred to Papou.
“She said hello.”
“Well. I say hello back.”
Greek. She got the phone again. “Bla bla bla . . .” I listened intently, but she didn’t say anything about pisinos so I didn’t catch a word.
“She asked if your father has been teaching you any Greek.”
“No. The only words I know are pisino and pisinake.”
Papou gave out his laugh, a wry-dry guffaw that rumbles down from deep inside. He told this to Kiria Eleni, and she in turn cackled hysterically. “Yada yada yada . . .” This had to be the most surreal experience of my life.
“She said that’s just like your father, and also wants to know if you’re doing well with your studies.”
I thought about the water-coloring I had left in order to talk to this woman. I was glad I had abandoned it. “School’s good. I’m doing well.” (It was a lie—I was one of the best writers in the class, but slept through math because I didn’t get any of it. By the end of the year, I had been forced to tears over those ferocious numbers many, many times, and was ultimately forced to get a tutor.)
Greek, then English. “Good. If you go to school, then the world is open. You are smart, just like Theresa.” There was a pause, and then, with a short chuckle, she said something else, and Papou translated.
“She said, ‘I hope that I live long enough to meet you.”
In the second before I responded, I remember my brain scrambling to think of something to answer with. My imagination sharpened; I saw myself diving into the mouthpiece of the phone and flying across ocean and sea to Greece, to a kind old lady who wanted to see me, and who I suddenly desperately wanted to see too. I wanted to tell her all about the watercolors I was doing in class, and about my friends and enemies, and about my little brother. I wanted to ask her about Greece and Greek and the yiayia that I never knew, but had still been given a piece of. It was a part of me that I knew nothing about. I wanted to sit there with Papou and with her and talk and talk and talk and then go off and play on the beaches of Greece with the happy children that were Greek, Greek like me (though I wondered whether or not they ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, or just ate all those olives instead. Maybe they ate peanut-butter-and-olive sandwiches. I would have to find out.) And at night when they thought I was sleeping, I would hear them talking about how wonderfully I was growing up, and then I would feel proud.
My dreams were coated with the knowledge that they were unreachable—she was old, and I was not thirteen, and she would go, and with her, all the things she could have told me. “Tell her,” I said, “that I hope she does, too.”