This past weekend we had a three-year memorial for the passing of my grandfather on my dad’s side, which to Greeks and Greek-Americans basically means getting the priest to mention their name during the Sunday service. Greek Orthodoxy, the faith I grew up in, is probably best-defined by the wild sliding between Old Testament fundamentalism and real-world lackadaisical enforcement of the tenants.
As a surly teenager visiting Greek churches outside of the big modern-looking US ones, I was pleasantly-surprised to discover I didn’t actually have to go inside, because so many of them are so small and cramped and old that only the hardcore followers and the priests tend to fit inside. Most people just gather outside to talk shit and smoke cigarettes before the “end,” when the clergymen come out to do the final blessings or whatever with the incense.
Look, our version of Sunday school was a long time ago, alright? There’s incense and that’s all I can tell you. Men wear robes and hats and everything smells like an old person’s home.
Anyway it was, to be perfectly honest, boring and sorta pointless, but we indulged my grandmother in wanting to do it. Of all the oddball Greek names, this parish’s priest never pronounces ours right, and I’m fairly certain at the viewing we had for the old man he forgot my grandfather’s name. It’s boring, it’s tedious, and honestly the only thing that kept me going was the promise of grilling some meat and eating some pecan pie afterwords.
That’s how I always prefer to think of and commemorate my grandfather, to be honest. He wasn’t a churchgoing guy, mostly using it as the social event it actually was for Greek men of a certain age and time. He played cards and watched movies and documentaries, he ate food and enjoyed it.
I joke that I’ve been hit in the head a lot to justify my shitty memory, but…it’s just shitty. And when it’s shitty, it makes me feel like maybe just the mannerisms and the habits are all that I’m going to have from him, because when I was a little kid my paternal grandfather terrified me. He was loud and bellowed, he seemed like he was always picking on me (I was just, in hindsight, being an obnoxious and sensitive child who was too smart for his own fucking good), and I was unsure about what he wanted. My grandma doted on me and my baby brother though, especially me. Being the first grandchild, the first boy, and named after the old man himself has its perks. But my grandfather? I didn’t want to play cards or watch old movies with him (the card-playing did happen later on though, but that’s another thing), so we didn’t really have much in common.
There are a few things that I always remember about him, though. My brother and I would get dumped at my grandparents’ on Friday night or Saturday morning by my parents and we’d watch movies on TV, camp out in a “tent” made with sheets and old sleeping bags from the 70’s and the ironing board. My dad’s brother lived with my grandparents then, and he’d let us (mostly me) read from his sacred stash of old 70’s and 80’s comic books, the horde we ended up inheriting years later. We’d eat a fuckton of candy and cookies, and in the morning my grandma would make us breakfast while we watched cartoons and ate in front of the TV.
Some mornings though, my grandfather would be roused out of bed and take his weird grandsons to the holiest of holies, an actual church, the International House of Pancakes, one that’s still there, one that I don’t think has been updated that much since it first opened. It’s big, it always smelled of steam and coffee and slightly stale bread. We’d sometimes go on Sunday mornings instead of Saturday morning and the post-Church crowd meant a long wait, but oh man, it was where I first got to try blackened bacon and big pancakes (not the silver dollars my dad made at home), where we could sip some of his coffee instead of have a glass of milk.
Those trips on weekends to IHOP when we were kids were, now that I think about it, my fist exposure to diners in some sort of weird roundabout way. If you think about it, everything about an IHOP is basically an elevated diner experience, including the fact that some branches are open 24/7 and even places in the US that have never had a real diner can have a Perkins, which is basically IHOP but for Midwesterners. It was fucking magical and I think about him and those weekend mornings any time I’m in an IHOP, eating butter-fluffed giant pancakes for dinner and generally just feeling bad about myself as I eat this most delicious of garbage food and just enjoy the coffee and bizarre and exotic syrups to their fullest.
Later on in life, I was a teenager and living with him instead of my parents, and my grandmother wasn’t really around. It was…weird, for reasons I may or may not get into later on (probably not), but a huge thing that I remember about this period of my life is that A) I had my first girlfriend and, like all teenage boys, was a complete and utter fucking dumb emotional horndog about it, but also B) we ate at diners a lot because my grandfather couldn’t cook.
One time he made boxed beef noodles stroganoff, and it was good, and he never shut the fuck up about it for the rest of his life. However, he took it as a sign to get inventive with cooking, so one time he tried to make some sort of oven-baked fish, which…whatever. He left too much water in the pan so the fish half-broiled and half-boiled in the oven and tasted both wet and entirely chalky. He, my uncle, and I tried to eat it before the old man just threw his fork down and said “this is disgusting, huh?” My uncle laughed and we all went out to a diner, one of the dozens in Queens where somehow, my grandfather knew the owners or managers.
This is before I was fully aware of just how true the cliche of Greeks owning diners actually is, so it was crazy to walk into a place and with a words, the weird language we spoke at home became a key to getting a dude from the back office to come out and shake my grandfather’s hands, smile, give us pie on the house, make sure we got a booth.
Then there was the time I turned 17 and he took me out for a steak dinner for my birthday, which was actually very cool. He rushed through his steak so he could go outside and smoke while my uncle and I laughed at this weird kabob grill his meal came in. I ate tongue for the first time that night, and I bragged about it for months.
That, more than any church visit, or any sacred memory of anything being done together, is how I remember him, I guess, and it’s just a manner of, three years on, getting OK with that.