My Greek Grandmother’s Hunger
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My Greek Grandmother’s Hunger

When I was a child, Yiayia briskly guided me through the streets of central Athens, grasping my hand too tight.

  Sometimes she stopped to buy chestnuts for me from a vendor off Syntagma Square.

  There are churches so old their floors are a meter below street level.

Grandfather, grandmother, and namesake aunt were buried in the same plot in the Third Cemetery of Athens.

  I don’t know if now their bones are in the ossuary, stored in dull tin boxes.

     There’s an old woman who sits on the sidewalk near the ATM, wrapped in wool shawls and a paisley head scarf, selling bundles of herbs.

     She blesses me when I give her some coins and take the sweet- smelling mountain tea and savory thyme and bow my head, breathing in their redolence.

“Tea, olives, and bread!” Yiayia chanted, pounding her fist into her palm.

      “I lived on tea, olives, and bread to get back our property after the war.” I tried to understand but can’t recall all the details. [End Page 590]

        German officers threw olives and some crusts from the balconies of the Grande Bretagne, their sport to watch     starving Greek children fight for crumbs or to suck flavor from a pit.

The economy collapsed and recovered. Crises came again to the generations.

My grandmother ate when she could to stave off famine, because to remember hunger is to be hungry.   Chestnuts never tasted as good—oh, so good—as when Yiayia fed me toasty morsels from a waxed-paper sack. [End Page 591]

Aliki Barnstone

aliki barnstone is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak, Bright Body, and the chapbook, Winter, with Child. She translated The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy.

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