Updated: Apr 21, 2021
My paternal grandmother’s name was Efthymia Pavlou. She came from Agia Efthymia, a village in Greece close to Delphi, site of the oracle of Apollo. Agia Efthymia means Saint Efthymia, but paradoxically there is no female saint with this name. Instead, there is a male saint named Saint Efthymios. Many people with this name tend to come from this particular part of Greece.
Efthymia means happiness or merriment in Greek, and while Yiayia Efthymia had a heart of gold, she did not appear to be a particularly cheerful or affectionate woman. The tough life she led explained her serious demeanor. In her mind, physical survival took the highest priority, and this left no room for giving hugs or playing games, although you could spot a twinkle in her blue eyes when she’d tap on her glass to get everyone’s attention at the dinner table. Actually, she took great pride in her ability to survive under the worst circumstances.
Yiayia Efthymia raised six children as a widow. To complicate matters, World War II was ravaging the country, and desperate neighbors broke into each other's homes to steal potatoes or any food they could find. Women did not have any modern amenities and could only rely on themselves and their daughters to get their housework done. Her intricately crocheted blankets, thick homemade yogurt, and spotless floors all bore her unique handprint. Whenever Yiayia Efthymia saw stains on a bathtub or white socks that still looked dingy after being washed, she used to say, “I could have cleaned that better with my bare hands.” When her adult children offered to buy her a washing machine, she respectfully declined, stating that “a real woman of the house” would not rely on such gadgets.
Even her favorite leisure activity required work and focus – she enjoyed relaxing on an old cane chair in her veranda with her knitting needles or crochet hook. Yiayia Efthymia was not one for bright colors, but she created amazing geometric patterns with dazzling white or cream-colored yarns, leaving tangible reminders of herself for posterity. For example, this tablecloth was made by her. She started to crochet it for my dowry when I was 12, and I remember watching her work on it when I visited her in Greece that summer. She also made a very warm and heavy blanket, which we still use on cold winter nights. I would consider this blanket as her ideal way of giving a hug – an eternal hug. All these precious heirlooms remind me of Yiayia Efthymia and make me feel like a part of her still lives in my home too. As serious as she was, it was clear that she did not want us to misunderstand her, or ever forget her and her lessons.
Yiayia Efthymia found comfort and support in religion. She was Greek Orthodox and both spiritual beliefs and church life played important roles in her life. Her old room still smelled like incense, decades after she was gone. This icon of the Panagia that is behind me not only used to belong to her at one point, but also mysteriously fell off the wall minutes before we received a phone call informing us of her passing when she was 88.
She came to visit us in the U.S. only once, when I was only seven years old. However, I used to write her letters while I was growing up, and she always wrote back, even though women of her generation in Greece had limited education and many could not write. Her spinach pie recipe is still one of my staple holiday dishes. When people rave about it, I cannot help but think of Yiayia Efthymia in her kitchen so far away and long ago. It amazes me how her cooking still lives here in New Jersey, in a completely different time and space, long after she left this world.
I was named after Yiayia Efthymia. Before I got married, my name was exactly the same as hers. I was her first granddaughter from a son, and old custom dictates that the first female grandchild be named after her paternal grandmother. Two of my younger cousins were also named Efthymia, but just like me, they also go by nicknames -- Amy and Berry.