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My mother fastened the golden butterfly pendant behind my neck.
In her eyes, I saw pride for the first woman of our family to achieve a university education, her own thwarted plans of becoming a teacher and my grandmother’s dashed dreams of finishing school now fulfilled. I realized I was standing on the shoulders of my mother and grandmother. It was all their hard work, the endless house chores, the unpaid labour, their resilience that had brought me to this moment.
My heart overflowed with gratitude; I took my mother’s hands in mine and kissed them. “Thank you … for everything!”
My grandmother Aspasia loved to tell us stories of her first years at elementary school on the small island of Chios, Greece: the patriotic songs she sang at school pageants, her calligraphic handwriting, much praised by her teachers and her good marks. All this changed in Grade 4 when one day my grandmother’s nose started to bleed as she was doing her homework. The blood stained the notebooks, the white tablecloth and her light blue dress. It scared my great grandmother, Marigo, also born and raised in Chios, because in those years, many were wasting away and dying from tuberculosis. Spending hours indoors studying was associated with growing weak and pale, a sign and symptom of that terrible disease. The family forbade grandma Aspasia from finishing elementary school and sent her to a local embroideress to learn the trade. It was a much more suitable way for a young working-class girl to occupy her time while providing a decent source of income, too.
My grandmother turned her quick mind to needlework and by 16, she was so good that she started training four embroidery apprentices. And by 22, my grandma had a reputation as a masterful embroideress. Even the local prefect’s wife regularly ordered work with appliqué angels, stars and flowers.
However, in those days a Greek girl had to marry. So at 23, she became engaged to my grandfather, a man 12 years her senior whom she met for the first time on the day of their engagement. Nicholas was a bookseller, a kind man who treated her nicely. Nevertheless, from the moment she married, my grandmother abandoned her needlepoint and her young apprentices, and devoted the rest of her life to her family, raising four children, two girls and two boys.
My mother Poppy was able to finish high school on Chios. She was raised with books from her father’s bookstore and became an avid reader. She loved turning her bedroom into a classroom with her younger siblings as her pupils. She was an excellent student and her parents encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, the Second World War and the Greek civil war that followed it clipped her wings. She ended up marrying and looking after her household and family while helping out (without being paid) at her father’s and then at her husband’s businesses.
As I grew up on Chios, one of my fondest earlier memories was sitting on Poppy’s lap as she read to me. My mother always urged me to get the university education that she was deprived of. When I started going to school, all I ever had to say to escape house chores was that I needed to study. Sometimes I remember wanting to help her out with cooking or baking.
“No,” my mother would say. “Go back to your homework! That is your main job, that takes priority!”
My father, echoing the Greek tradition, would tell her: “Teach Sophia to cook! What is she going to feed her family? Homer’s verses or historic treaties?”
I was an only child after all and Greek society, especially on a small island, was still very patriarchal. I recall the Master of Ceremonies during the Greek National Day parades announcing the students of our all-girls school as “the future mothers.” I remember how annoyed I was that they were never announcing us girls as the future scientists, the future prizewinning writers or even the future prime ministers.
I also remember relatives telling my parents to hurry and arrange a marriage for me as soon as I finished high school or even before. “There is time for all that! Later on. First, she will get a degree!” my mother always hastened to reply.
On my university graduation my mother, beaming with joy, presented me with my grandma’s special pendant as she was back in Chios island and could not attend in person. The pendant was a beautiful golden butterfly, with blue sapphires in its delicate wings and small diamonds along its dainty legs. “But this is the pendant Grandma used to say she would only give me on my engagement day!” I reminded my mother.
“A degree is better than an engagement ring, that’s what I told grandma and she agreed,” my mother replied.
A year later after my university graduation, I got a scholarship to pursue graduate studies in Ancient Classics in England. I was 23 years old, the age my grandma Aspasia was engaged and here I was, leaving Greece for the first time.
Nine days after my grandmother’s death, she appeared in my dreams standing tall at the doorway of my student room in England. She must have been wandering for nine days, as our Greek Orthodox tradition goes, visiting all her loved ones one last time.
She had found me in Englefield Green, miles away from Chios Island. To this day I am convinced that Aspasia appeared to tell me how proud she was that I was following my dream of education, one that was denied to the previous generations of our family’s women. “You have come a long way!” she said.
Sophia Karasouli-Milobar lives in Vancouver.