A Sifnos Table

Apollo's Gifts on arrivalI found Lindaki mou’s family when I was in Sifnos in June, and I must tell you that was a thrill. “I’m from Canada,” I said when I was sure I had the right person. “I know a woman who came to Sifnos in the 1970s and lived with your family. Her name is Linda.”

The woman looked at me and, even though we were relying on her daughter to translate, her answer was instant. “Well, why hasn’t she been back?” 

“I was eight years old when Linda was here,” she went on to say. “I remember her.” Then, “How is she? Does she have children? What does she do?” This Canadian teenager who loved nothing more than to hang out with their donkey had caused quite a stir at the time, I could see, and became a part of their family lore.

Over the next weeks, as I got to know them bit-by-bit, eating at their café on occasion, I could see in the newer members of this family the qualities Linda described. Hard work. Ambition. Determination. Open-heartedness. Kindness above all. When my time on Sifnos was up and I went to say good-bye, “Will you be seeing Linda?” they asked. They had two gifts, one for her, one for me and for her a note. “Apó ti Sifno me agápi,” it said. From Sifnos, with love.

Sadly, Margarita the grandmother, the matriarch of the family when Linda was there, passed away some time ago.” “I’m so sorry,” I said when I heard that. “I wish I could have met her. Linda tells me she was very kind.”

“Yes,” her granddaughter replied, a tear not far away. “She was like that her whole life.”

Linda talks about Margarita often. About her very long table and the huge midday meal she’d prepare every day. Pots of chick pea soup on Sundays. Giant beans in tomato sauce. Fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers drowned in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. An “amazing” lentil soup Linda says she’s tried to copy herself, without much success. Her mouth waters at the thought of it still. Bread from the bakery. Baby goat or lamb on occasion, stewed in oil, tomatoes and other vegetables and herbs. Goat and sheep cheeses. Bowls of black olives from the family’s ancient trees and wine they made from local grapes. Almond sweets. Margarita, Linda has said often, was a wonderful cook.  

Her table, as Linda remembers it, held near to twenty people depending on how closely they’d snuggle together, and on many days it was full. There’d be Margarita’s husband and children, of course. Lindaki mou, too. Whatever workmen they’d hired that day. Whoever else happened along. And always two widows, the same ones every day. The family owned a store and in late morning every day, this pair of women would arrive. They’d cluck and pore over the goods for a long while, critiquing their quality, redoing the displays and, Linda says, never buying a single thing. Then, “Would you stay to eat?” Margarita would ask.

“No, no, no, no,” they’d reply. They’d prepared something already. They had to get home.

“Oh, you might as well stay,” would come Margarita’s reply. “Dinner is ready. There is plenty of food.”

“No, no. We must go.” 

So the back-and-forth would carry on, every single day. No one would give ground, voices would rise, and with every volley the whole thing would grow more heated. Linda, fascinated, would watch this. Why didn’t Margarita give in, she wondered, why was she so insistent when these women clearly wanted to go home? Why did it get even physical some days with Margarita taking them by the arm, leading them to a chair and practically pushing them into it? And why did she always insist that they take home with them whatever bread was left over at the end of the meal? That she had too much today and would otherwise have to feed it to the chickens instead?

Then one day, Linda had an Aha! It was one of those epiphanies of life. This was all an act, she saw now. A dance. These women were poor. There’d be nothing for them to eat if they went home. Margarita knew that, yet let them pretend, thus maintaining their pride, their dignity. She’d let them “help” in the store.

When Linda told me this tale, I had my own Aha! moment. I’ve seen many times how willingly Sifnians take care of those of their own who need help. How gently, how supportively, how discreetly. How they define their own as almost anyone, even someone from afar. How kindness and respect for others is so deep in their bones.

So much has changed since Linda was there. So much has not.

(More Lindaki mou stories start here.)

 

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