In Memory of Berta Cutayar

Early this morning, while the sun was awkwardly making its way over Holargos, Greece, our Auntie Berta went home to be with the Lord.

My Mother and Aunt Gillian, along with my cousins Gabrielle, Therese, and Catherine, were by her side. I am thankful the Cutayars were there with my Mother.

I will remember my Auntie Berta’s unwaivering faithfulness to family and God, her remarkable business sense, and her abundant love. She was head-strong, passionate, well-respected, and generous beyond belief.

Her funeral will take place this Friday afternoon where she will be buried next to her beloved Father and Mother – Erikos and Zoe Cutayar, my Yaya and Papous.

I will miss my Auntie Berta. I am thankful for all the years she loved me and loved our family.

If I Close My Eyes Right Now

My flight arrived very late on Friday night. My brother made the journey to get me and deliver me to home. My head finally hit the pillow at 3:00am on Saturday. When the phone rang later that day, I woke up and didn’t remember where I was or whether it was night or day.

For some reason, my internal clock is malfunctioning. It’s Tuesday and I still haven’t slept through the night. I force myself to stay awake until bedtime. I was thumbing through Bobby Flay’s latest cookbook when my alarm went off this morning. I got up and turned it off, then crawled back in to bed to get warm and promptly fell asleep.

I called the office and told Laura I finally got three hours sleep and that I’d be in a little late. Needless to say, I’m sitting at my desk, my eyes are fighting the urge to slam shut, and if I close them ever so slightly I’m sure sleep will come. Okay…time to go put on an a fresh pot of coffee and power through.

Is She Hungry Or In Pain?

As a child, I remember being awakened in the early hours of the morning by the sound of the phone ringing, followed by my Mom talking loudly in Greek. I’d lay awake in my bed and try to figure out what she was saying. I could usually tell “who” she was talking about because I could recognize our names, and now and then she’d throw in an English word that couldn’t be translated into Greek like “supermarket” or “Kennedy.”

My Mom speaks fluent English – though some say she has a bit of an accent. I once corrected something she said and she told me, “when you can speak Greek as well as I speak English you can correct me.” Nuff said. She didn’t have anyone to speak Greek to on a regular basis, so we only heard the occasional one-sided conversation. Then there were vacations when we’d visit family or they’d come to us.

I have a pretty good understanding of Greek. Somehow my vocabulary has increased over the years and I can figure out most of what the people around me are saying. The taxi driver that yelled at me to today was not understandable, but I got the drift of it because I was in the middle of the road and he was trying to get by. He yelled something and I told him to come back and say that to my face in English. He kept driving. Chicken.

And now I realize I can read Greek, too. Understanding the vocabulary makes it a bit easier, although I get confused with upper and lower case letters. Subtitles appear on TV when English programs are on, so even though I understand what the actors are saying, I find myself reading the Greek out loud.

My Mom gets grief from everyone because I don’t speak Greek. So, for her sake, I respond in Greek to strangers whenever possible. Not teaching her kids to speak the Mother Tongue is an offense punishable by two hours of Greek music.

My greatest challenge is speaking Greek. I have the pronunciation down, so that’s not a factor. It’s the fear factor that has me by the vocal chords. For some reason, I can’t make my mouth say what my brain knows. Or, I respond in another language. Two years of Spanish, two years of French, three years of Afrikaans, 3 months of Italian, 40 years of Pig Latin, a lifetime of Greek, and English, are all filed away under languages in my brain.

Instead of “ney,” which is yes, I’ve answered “Si,” which is Spanish and Italian. Instead of “Yassas,” which is hello and goodbye in Greek, I’ve said “Ciao” and “Tot Siens.” And yesterday, when Mary (incredibly kind neighbor in charge of my Aunt’s medication) came by to visit, I thought she asked me if my aunt had been in any pain and I said, “ney.” What she actually asked me was if my Aunt had been hungry. Pinouw is pain- Poneye is hunger. There’s medication for pain and also some to increase hunger. Thankfully, my Mom intercepted my error before the medication was given. They all had a good laugh. Yeah…that’s the way to encourage me to speak Greek more often.

Don’t Worry…I Won’t Get Lost

On Monday, the local street market appears at the end of my Aunt’s street. There’s nothing more exciting to a cook than a street full of fresh, locally grown, produce. My Mom came with me and helped with the purchases. The tomatoes are beautiful looking and have that “just out of the dirt” taste. I didn’t recognize most of the green stuff so I had to taste it. The arugula, known here as “rock” or rocket is so fresh it melts in your mouth. I was looking forward to fresh basil but it’s not in season. I’ll be making cilantro pesto stuffed chicken breasts instead. My favorite find was blood oranges. Ruby red inside with a tart-sweet dance over your tongue. I kept saying to my Mom, “I feel like it’s my birthday.”

After we filled our little, rolling basket with produce, we took it back home and headed out to the local supermarket. My list was carefully laid out so as not to leave anything behind. Couldn’t find chicken stock so I’ll be doing the bouillon cube thing. Couldn’t find sour cream so I’ll be doing a yogurt-cream cheese thing. Couldn’t find zip lock bags so I’ll have to use little plastic containers. Other than a few missing items…the adventure was a blast.

Got back home and still had a bug to walk and greet the natives. There’s a bigger grocery store in town so I decided to head out on my own to find it. My Mom was worried I’d get lost. She and my Aunt debated where the store was and whether or not I should go alone. I threw on my backpack, stuck my earbuds in, and told them I was leaving. I promised to call them from the market.

This proved to be a more interesting market. Still no sour cream or chicken broth, but I found frozen basil in cute little containers, Sauvingnon from France, salmon in a tube, and Happy Hippos. I also found shredded filo dough and pre-made ravioli dough ready for stuffing. How clever is that? Darn. Forgot the ziplock bags. Oh yeah. They had tortillas, salsa, and mexican spices, too.

I found my way home. It wasn’t necessary to leave bread crumbs. I’ve got a good sense of direction and I can read the street signs. It’s absolutely beautiful weather here and walking was a pleasure. Needless to say, I’m wearing capri pants and my flip flops. Folks here are wearing puffy coats and thick sweaters. Hellllloooo! If the tomatoes are in season you don’t need a winter coat on.

I plan on walking every day while I’m here – with Mary J. Blige on my iPod shuffle. She’s a great walking companion and encourages me to get my runway stride on and keep it going…AND…be myself. Tomorrow morning I’m in search of a bakery.

The Ties That Bind

We arrived in Athens at 3:00 am on Saturday morning – 5:00pm PST Friday night. By this time, we were exhausted and preparing ourselves for a cold taxi ride with a strange man. We’d called from London to let my Auntie Berta know of our delay and made arrangements with Mary, her neighbor, to let us in to the flat. To our great joy, my cousin Aeneas met us at the airport. The last time I saw Aeneas he was 13 years old. He’s all grown up now and quite an interesting young man. He is the oldest child of my cousin Isabella, she being the middle child of my Aunt Charlotte, she being the oldest sister of my Mom.

My Auntie Berta’s house is filled with memories. The photos of the people in my Aunt’s life cover every flat surface. I see myself at every age. She has filled her life with us…loving us all in ways we can’t really appreciate. She’s been the matriarch (the alpha female) in our family for more years than I can remember. Strong, bossy, and always in charge. She hasn’t always made the best decisions, and she’s alienated more than one person along the way, but she’s confident and knows what she wants. And tries to make everyone else do what she wants, too.

Now, in the last part of her life journey, she’s too tired to be strong. Still too darn stubborn for her own good, but the fight has gone out of her. She’s on a plethora of medication which causes her to lose track of time and people. I’ve had to introduce myself several times. She has lung cancer, which has moved so quickly they’ve stopped treating her and now they just manage the pain. The doctor says it’s moved in to her brain. Despite the medication, she has a wicked sense of humor and a willingness to laugh.

And like a MasterCard commercial, the tickets cost a fortune, the flight was a female dog, making my Aunt laugh…priceless. God is good. He knows just what we need when we need it. He adds and subtracts from our lives in wonderful and confusing ways. Just knowing I’m in His hand makes the journey more interesting. And being tied together with my Greek Auntie Berta, by hearts strings, is making me a better woman.

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