My dad died in August. He was Greek and growing up, we’d learn a bit of Greek here and there. To be sure, I can tell you that I love baklava and tiropita. I can say ‘hello, how are you’ and ‘I am fine’ – y’know, the basics. But I was definately raised to be Canadian. Dad was Greek Orthodox, although he wasn’t what you would call a religious man. My mum is Roman Catholic, and we were raised Catholic and went to Catholic school. But when Dad died, we wanted to give him a Greek Orthodox funeral, but also for his sisters, who are VERY religious. It seems like everytime I go to visit Thea Doxa (my aunt) , she’s fasting for something or other. Thea Freida (another aunt) who lives in Greece, used to go to Grandma’s grave everyday after she died – I think for years. And when in Greece, we had candles regularly slapped into our unknowing hands and we would light them and then place them in the little monument, or in the sand at a church – not really knowing what we were doing or why.
So when Dad died, we called the Greek Orthodox priest and asked him to reccomend a funeral home and we relied on him and Dad’s Greek friends until Doxa and Freida could fly in from Greece (where Doxa was visiting when Dad passed away). And now it seems like everytime I turn around, I’m learning more than I knew before. There has been many ‘funeral’ type memorial services for Dad. Obviously we had a funeral, then we had one forty days after he died and there is another one today, for the six month mark. Before the forty day service, Doxa invited us over for the evening. Jenge and I went, assuming we’d have Coke, sit and mix with the Greek ladies and then go home. But at 8 o’clock that night Doxa said, “As soon as the other ladies get here, we start.” Jenge and I looked at each other, eyebrows clearly saying “Start what?”
And then the Greek ladies arrived. Buckets of boiled wheat were brought out and dumped on a tablecloth on the table. A picture of my dad was brought out, a candle and some incense was lit. Tupperware containers with crushed almonds, slivered almonds, crushed peanuts, breadcrumbs, golden raisins, regular raisins, parsely, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and sesame were lined up. They were put in our hands and we were instructed (in half english half greek) to put it all on the wheat in the shape of a cross – three times each if possible). Jenge and I had no idea what we were doing! Then, when all the fixins were added, the Greek ladies picked up the table cloth and we mixed it by flipping the mixture over and over, ‘tossing’ it back and forth, using the tablecloth for leverage. It smelled wonderful and was tasted carefully by the ladies several times, with orders of “More cinnamon” “More almonds” “Get the rest of the anise” shouted out. There was lots of yelling and they argued, Greek style, about what was needed. Then it all got put into a white linen lined bucket, and another serving on a silver tray. It was carefully covered in granulated and powdered sugar, and then there was a flurry of discussion about how to decorate them. The bucket was painstakingly measured to find the exact center and then a cross was made with white covered almonds. Silver candies were placed all around, and then the edges were carefully wiped with brushes to dust off any stray powdered sugar.
I had just helped make my firstKollyva – or as Chant called it, Funeral Trail Mix. The Kollyva is set up at the front of the church during the memorial service and people can come up and place candles in the big bucket. Then, at the end of church, the candles are lit, and we each get our own candle as well while we stand in the pews. Afterward, the candles are all blown out and the men take the Kollyva to the gym (the community center is attached to the church) and mix it all up in a big bin. It gets dolled out in little paper pastry bags and everyone takes some, and a spoon and then sits around and has coffee, greek cookies and for the family, a shot of Metaxa.
Last night, we went back to Doxa’s and did it all over again, Ann and my newphews in tow. And although I knew what to expect this time, I’m still in a sort of weird wondered state about what it all means. There’s a very strong sense of community, of gathering. And everyone has to put their two cents in. There was a big meal afterward, with tiropita, spanikopita, salad, ribs, fish, bread, cheese and wine. I’m not sure, but I think we’ll do it again at the one year mark. It’s a good chance for me to practice my Greek and to make sure that I keep in touch with my dad’s side of the family, now that he’s gone. In a really weird way, now that he’s died, I feel like I’m learning more about what it meant for him to be Greek than I learned when he was alive. I guess I always thought I’d have more time. But then, don’t we all.