Sometimes for no reason you miss someone you have lost. It doesn't have to be a birthday or anniversary. It can be just a day. Today I was watching my son's soccer game and I thought to myself that she would be so proud of him. He had just turned three when she died, that was 14 years ago. He doesn't remember it, but he brought so much happiness to her life. She wasn't well toward the end of her life, but I would bring him over and she would just light up!
She was the coolest woman and I learned a lot about being strong and taking care of myself from her. Her husband died suddenly when my mother was ten. She raised her three daughters on a cashier's salary - without public assistance. She even put my mom through college. I wish I had spent more time asking her about what her childhood was like. As children we never think of that. I know that she lived through the depression and she was responsible for her father and her four brothers after her mother died. I know that sometimes she went to school with holes in her shoes and they would search the city for scrap metal after school. I know that she loved to go Greek dancing and at least one of her brothers had to go with her in order for her father to let her go. She met my grandfather there and she fell in love with him because she could dance. I know that at one time in her life she had been a devote Greek Orthodox, but lost her faith in the church and God when her husband died.
I remember a couple of things from Yia-yia's house when I was little. She loved Frank Sinatra, Englenglebert Humperdinck, Elvis Presley and the Beatles. She had this awful French Poodle named Brigette. She was a hoarder!!! I would love to go into her back bedroom and play with the gowns, shoes and jewelry she would never get to use. The room was filled floor to ceiling with stuff and as a kid it was always an adventure! She loved the beach. Some days she would pick me up from school and I would change in the backseat and we would go to the beach until dark. Whenever we went to the beach she would cover me in baby oil so that I could get the darkest tan possible. If you were tanned you looked healthy ..... if she only knew. When I spent the day at her house I had her undivided attention and she played with me whatever I wanted. We would watch Elvis movies and cook. She really taught me my love of food and fresh ingredients. There is not a more comforting memory than walking into Yia-yia's kitchen on a rainy day, Greek music I could not understand coming out of the radio, the warm coziness, the sounds from the stove of simmering water and sauces, and wooden spoons stirring this and that, and the smells of cinnamon, oregano, cloves and all good things.
Below is the dish we made most often together. It is very yummy and really the measurements are a guesstament - she would just throw things in the pot. But since everyone's taste is different and it is always easier to add more I started small.
1 lb chicken thighs or breasts
(Yia-Yia used skin & bones but you don’t have to – if you do, remember to remove the skin and bones before you serve it)
2 Tbs olive oil
1 onion finely chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
2 Tbs ground cinnamon
1 Tbs Greek Seasoning (Cavander’s Greek Seasoning)
1 tsp ground cloves
Juice of 2 lemons
½ tsp sugar
14 oz can diced tomatoes
14 oz can tomato sauce
6 oz can tomato paste
6 oz can water
1 lb pkg fresh spinach or dandelion leaves
Spaghetti, linguini or orzo (cooked as directed)
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven. Add the chicken and brown on all sides, remove from the pan. Add the onion to the oil until slightly browned but not burned; add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes. Add the chicken and cook through – about 8 min. per side.
Sprinkle the chicken with cinnamon, cloves, Greek seasoning, salt & pepper, mix to coat the chicken with the oil and spices.
Add the lemon juice, bring to a boil and cook down, 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, sauce, paste and water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer 30 minutes – 1 hour (the longer you simmer, the more intense the flavor). The sauce will be watery. Taste and season as needed, adding more seasoning to taste.
Add the spinach and cook 2-5 minutes until wilted.
Serve the chicken and spinach over the pasta with the sauce. Make sure you have lots of bread to soak up the tomato sauce.
When I was little I thought no one else in the world knew this recipe. I discovered over the years I was wrong. I have found some version of it in several Greek recipe books. Yia-yia taught me about love, family, respect and responsibility. I miss her a lot. I wish she had gotten to know my oldest as a young man and that she got to meet my youngest (she would love him and he would make her laugh).
The night she died I had a dream - I felt the end of my bed sink down and there she was sitting at the end of my bed. She just looked at me and smiled. Then she walked away, took the hand of a tall thin man and they began to walk away. When they had gone some distance she turned, smiled and waved. I like to think this was her way of saying goodbye and letting me know she was ok. I tell my children about her all the time and I hope that someday they tell their children about their great-great grandmother.