My friend Wolf (amazingly) summed up what she saw during her lifetime: “World War 1 in full swing at her birth, the Golden Twenties around the corner, the Great Recession worldwide and subsequent Dark Brown Ages in Europe while she was a young adult, China’s long march, the entire length of the Cold War, the Western World becoming affluent and complacent throughout the fifties and sixties, McDonald’s broiling its first burger in IL, Sputnik while she was around our age today, “one small step…, on big step…” when she was 42, the peaceful intentions of Flower Power, “I have a Dream”, women like her starting to become officially liberated, etc. etc. It sure must have been an incredible, fulfilling, scary, yet stimulating life experience that we all can only dream of replicating and mastering for ourselves. May she rest now, and may your sadness be lightened by having had the opportunity to participate through her in the extraordinary details of life and humanity.”
My Yia-yia (grandmother)
My grandmother was born in Thessaloniki – one of the biggest metropolises in Greece – in 1917. She joined two older sisters: Eva and Ida.
My grandmother told her story to me long ago: “As a young girl, my father disappeared – my mother explaining he must have died in the war. As a result, we, especially my sister Eva, were un-marriable, as there was no male figure to present a dowery when the time came. After seven years of my father missing, it was long enough to declare him dead and my mother moved us to the United States (Nashua, NH), where we worked as seamstresses. One day, my father came back – he had been living with a mistress and my mother, who had known all along, turned him away….”
Many details of her teenage years are fuzzy to me but what I do remember is the story of when her and my grandfather met, “I was living in Arkansas, going to school there, and I was at a barn dance. I met this handsome man named Milton and he had asked me to dance. I had told him no. He said to me, “Out of all the women here, I want to dance with you.” We dated, got engaged and got married.”
My Papou (grandfather)
My grandfather, Milton Devolites, was born in 1916 in a small village in Greece. This village had no running water, electricity or any other amenities most of us have today (and still didn’t have even 15 years ago). Escaping the war, his family moved to Nashua, NH and opened a sandwich shop. He was 14 at the time and did not read, write or speak any English. By the time he was 18, he was accepted into Harvard and coincidentally, was first round lottery pick for the draft (mind you, this is before the Army and the Marines split). Fast forwarding through the details of his life, he got his doctorate and was working with the US Army Medical Service when he met my grandmother.
Col. and Mrs. Devolites
My grandparents created homes with their children (3 boys and a girl) at various military postings in the United States, Caribbean, Europe, and the Mediterranean, from the early 1940s into the late 1980s. After 22 different cities and 31 years of service, they retired to Arlington, VA. My grandfather was a Colonel in the Army when he retired, became a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE), and Professor Emeritus in Health Care Administration at The George Washington University in Washington, DC before he died in 1986.
I remember those years in the 1980s – my parents would drop my sister and I off on weekends. My grandmother would teach us to sew, make us matching outfits, and for our Barbies as well. She taught us to garden (I loved planting the onions and picking the cherry tomatoes); she let us eat whatever we wanted and we stayed up late watching TV (MTV wasn’t permitted at home). We loved to camp out in the living room so she made us a table cloth tent to sleep under. We’d paint our nails, drink milk and sugar coffee out of dainty tea cups. My grandfather would teach us how to draw shapes and he loved riddles – one of his favorite being, “What runs around a yard and never stops?” (A fence). He taught me how to stuff whole fig newtons in my mouth, much to my grandmother’s scolding. She’d sneak us money when we left the next morning. It was so much fun going to their house. I can still remember the smells, especially of spring there: mulch, azaleas, mothballs, coffee, toast and her Greek meatballs.
I was devastated when my Papou passed on.
Just Vicky Devolites
Shortly after my grandfather’s passing, she moved into a condo complex called the Encore, right by Tysons. It was the first of its kind in that area and she bought one as construction was happening. My sister and I would come to visit her but it would be different. She’d sit in her reading room, rocking in her chair, laughing at the Golden Girls (I actually became obsessed with watching that show for a bit). But, just a few more years later, when I was around 13 years of age, she announced she was moving to La Jolla, CA and eventually Cardiff by the Sea. She spent a little over a decade living in a retirement community in a bungalow-style house, over-looking the ocean. It was there I’d go to visit her and hear some of her best stories:
“At my age… you get whatever men are available. I’d invite the nearby ladies over to my house for poker, tell them it was casual, put on a traditional Greek wedding dress that I’ve altered to be a summer dress and secretly invite their husbands over.”
” Your Yia-yia has up to three boyfriends at a time. One of them was in a World Series once… all he ever wanted to do was watch baseball. At that age, it’s all they want to do.”
“Your grandfather used to tell me, “Vicky, there are a lot of pretty nurses where I work. When you get ready in the morning and come downstairs, I realize I have the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Seven years ago, she decided to give up her freedom when she started to forget things. She got in a minor accident on Camp Pendleton and agreed it was time to live with assistance near family so she moved to Minnesota. All of her possessions – the furniture she had had since she moved to Arlington was now sold or given away. She would eventually forget she owned it.
About four years ago in August of 2006, we had a family reunion. Although she was diagnosed with dementia, she at least knew who the grandkids were. She thought she was always on vacation but would often repeat what she just said over and over again. It never bothered her – she was happy to be surrounded by family.
That was the last time I saw her. Four years later, it was her time to pass. Instead of mourning her loss, I am happy. I am happy that when it was her time, she passed on peacefully. I am happy that she has been reunited with my grandfather in an eternal place. I’m thankful for the stories and joy she and my grandfather brought to my childhood.
We love you, miss you and will never forget you.
(Writer’s note: I might be a little “off” in some of my historical facts and therefore, look to my family to provide any corrections. My grandfather wrote the whole family history in a book before he died. It sits and my dad’s and I’ve yet to read the whole thing. All memories come from stories told by my family and by my grandmother and grandfather, and I’ve tried to relay as much as I can to the best of my ability.)