Irene

I first met Irene 20+ years ago. It goes like this…

Sis is Bestie's younger. Sis is married. Her husband is my friend, too. The girls and the guys, we're all close pals. We work and play together. 

At a family gathering I met Irene, Sis’s mother-in-law. And that's when I learned firsthand about Greek moms.

Bestie and I have compared our Greek and Italian mothers. They share some characteristics. Passion for family. Exacting standards where issues of homemaking are involved. Fretting. Secondary to exacting standards. Being and looking appropriate for all occasions.

And in the case of Bestie and me, our moms were CHOs, a term I recently read and liked. Chief Household Officers. They handled kids, school, transportation needs, volunteering, budget, nutrition, religious education, entertaining, and social calendars. They cared for, and were devoted to, their husbands. All of these areas and their associated rituals are within the purview of Greek and Italian moms.

The vastness of this array of tasks and responsibilities, executed with dedication, produced a great deal of drama. No more need be said. Well, maybe. A great deal of drama. That they also have in common.

The Italian women who raised and surrounded me were clannish. Cordial to outsiders. But outsiders remained outside. No telling how many times I heard blood is thicker than water. Was admonished to avoid allowing outsiders inside. Told to keep firm boundaries with those who don't share my DNA, no matter the hurdles jumped to give evidence of their trustworthiness. In the case of my now 83-year old mother, she believes this completely.


Greek moms, however, give an arms wide-open invitation to join the family. Join the fun. Eat food. Hear and tell stories. And most of all, share the love. This is done with the feeling that any division, cloak or badge borne by virtue of outsider status is invisible. A Greek mom is inclusive.

This took getting used to.                                 

While I held back, not wanting to intrude or impose, assume or presume, Greek arms opened wider to make way.

Irene was my picture of Greek mom. I say was because Irene died last week, on Bestie’s birthday.

This is my favorite Irene story.

On New Years Day of 1998, a day when Greeks and Italians cook a big meal to set the stage for an abundant year to come, Irene invited me to a New Years feast. As the meal concluded, Irene carried the traditional vasilopita to the table.

Vasilopita is a Greek New Years cake, named for St. Basil (Vasili, in Greek). Baked into the cake is a coin or charm. The person who receives the coin is blessed with good luck for the year. In Irene’s cake, a quarter would be wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it hygienic.

You do remember my telling you about the exacting standards component of the Greek mom, right?

I was included at dinner because I was alone that day. Alone doesn't bode well if one believes New Years day activities predict the year. Alone didn't set with Irene.

“Come, come. We have plenty. You can’t stay home alone. Everyone will be here.”

I spent the evening at her large dining table with three generations of family, and noise and food and laughter, a liberal sprinkling of complaining about the work at hand and worry about overdone lamb (fulfilling the fretting compulsory), followed by a bit of there she goes again eye-rolling, and ending with the vasilopita.

“Now, Pam, this is important. Whoever is lucky enough to get the quarter will have good fortune all year long. Look at my son. He’s had the coin many times and he’s the luckiest person I know. Successful in business, with a beautiful wife and good children. That’s what the coin can do.”

Irene sliced her cake and passed the plates. As she neared the end of her duties, requiring just two more pieces, clink. The knife met metal resistance. She maneuvered the knife to scoot, then wedge, the coin into a portion and slide it onto a plate.

“Oh my goodness, Pam, look, you have the coin, dear.”  Not engineered. Fated. 

By Christmas of that year I was engaged to be married. No surprise to Irene. For she rarely missed an opportunity to tell me I was a gift to be treasured, and never treated me otherwise. She took pride in having assured my future by way of cake.

She loved me because I came with Bestie, who came with Sis, who married her son. She loved my boy because he came with me. She loved my new husband because he made our lives richer when he came to us. A long chain linked to one big heart in which there was perennially sufficient room.

Tomorrow we say our official good-bye to Irene. We will go to the Greek Orthodox church to express our affection and appreciation. Our loss and our sorrow. To send her off with a celebration of who she was during her time with us.

But how do I say an adequate thank you to the lady, the Greek mom, who gave me a Greek designation to show my place in the family? I am the fili. FEE-lee. The friend. For whom she manipulated a coin into a piece of cake so I could have a husband.

Thank you, Irene. For taking such good care of us. For inviting me in. And then again. Until I walked through your door to learn there was a place for me.

And to your sons, and daughters, and grandchildren, thank you for sharing her unselfishly.

May she rest in peace with her beloved husband, Gus. And may we all live up to everything she believed us to be.

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