United by Our Name, my Bond with Grandma had a Touch of Magic

Originally published on SBS.

Besides having Yiayia’s name, I have also taken on some of her mannerisms. In many ways, we turned out to be similar. “I’m stuck in a bloody Caterina sandwich!” Mum would complain, laughing.

I was named after my maternal grandmother, a common practice in Greek culture. It’s considered a gesture of love, honour and respect. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t given a name that was unique to me and couldn’t grasp the significance of a shared name.

That didn’t happen until Yiayia, my grandma, passed away a few years ago. She was Katerina with a ‘K’.

Call it a coincidence or bias, but I often see Greek people who share a name with a grandparent having a strong bond. It’s as if the inherited name comes with a sense of loyalty and a feeling that someone would always be there to hold you accountable – like teammates.

Besides having Yiayia’s name, I have also taken on some of her mannerisms. In many ways, we turned out to be uncannily similar, sometimes to my mum’s frustration. When Yiayia, Mum and I used to get together, there were times when Yiayia and I would respond to Mum simultaneously, saying exactly the same thing. Yiayia in Greek and me in English.

“I’m stuck in a bloody Caterina sandwich!” Mum would complain, laughing.

Yiayia and I are considered “rebellious” women in the family, both having taken gap years away from home at a young age.

She travelled to Crete, Greece’s largest island, on her gap year and did a home economics course. Then she returned home, to the island of Kos, and applied her learning to benefit the people in her village. Yiayia taught people how to cook and vaccinated other villagers. She was an extremely independent and strong woman.

Despite the generational gap and the fact that she was quite religious, I could always count on speaking to Yiayia without feeling judged. She would find a way to make me feel comfortable in the most vulnerable of moments. I remember telling her once about meeting someone on a dating app (after explaining what dating apps were), worried about how she would react. “Ah, it’s the same as the matchmaking we did in the village, really. We’d vet anyone before we went out with them, too!” she reassured me.

When it came to our relationship, the love was completely unconditional. Yiayia was the ultimate hype girl, cheering me on and always in my corner.

The loyalty was unconditional, too. I used to joke if I killed someone, Yiayia would help me bury the body without hesitation.

Yiayia and I are both the kind of people who speak our minds. I’d say, however, that she was bolder than me in that respect.

During my time as a restaurant reviewer, Yiayia attended a few reviews with me. Her insight as an ex-cooking teacher was invaluable. But on one occasion, she totally let the restaurant owner have it, unleashing her raw, honest review of the menu and a few of the dishes. I nudged her under the table to stop, absolutely mortified. As we always conversed in Greek, I wasn’t aware of how good her English actually was until that point.

As harsh as she came across sometimes, Yiayia was a woman of great intentions. This was one of countless scenarios where she was trying to look out for someone, despite having just met them. Yiayia was worried that if the restaurant didn’t make some solid changes, it would be in trouble. As it turned out, it closed six months after our visit. In that way, I learnt that often yiayias know best.

I had a former boss who would ask about my plans for the weekend. “Hanging with Yiayia,” was a common response. One day he added, “Do you have friends other than your grandma?”

It was a hilarious (yet slightly embarrassing) moment. But it also made me realise I never felt obligated to see her. I really did want to hang out. She wasn’t just my Yiayia, but an incredible friend.

Yiayia migrated to Australia in her late 20s. Last year, I visited her beloved Kos. I met up with some of her cousins and old friends, and we mourned her all over again. People had countless, raving things to say about her, including how she helped them and the village as a whole. I am still learning about her, even after she’s gone.

There are a few things I do to stay connected with Yiayia, including cooking Greek dishes that she loved. This includes continuing the tradition of baking Kos-style cheese pies during Greek Easter with my family, at my house. They’ll never be the same without Yiayia’s guidance and touch, but we can try.

So here’s my two cents: if you’re going to name your kid after someone you know, make sure it’s someone you really admire. Someone they’ll look up to. Someone who, when they pass away, your child will be honoured to share a name with.

After Yiayia’s death, the penny has well and truly dropped. I now understand why I was named after her. My name is a daily reminder of someone I was inspired by, and who was such a massive part of my life. Her memory continues, quite literally, with me.

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