A huge influence in my life growing up as a daughter of Greek immigrant parents was my elementary school crossing guard. Her name was Rosie. She was a salt-n-pepper, thick-boned, swarthy-skinned, second generation Italian-American woman with the biggest heart. Every day of every season would start off with a friendly greeting and big hug before she sent me off to school. No matter how hard I squeezed, I could never quite get my fingers to touch when we hugged. She's one of the few "outsiders" that penetrated our Greek family and my greatest teacher from childhood. The graceful way in which she gained entry is the reason why she holds such a special place in my heart.
I remember her warm body and the smell of her powdery perfume when she wrapped her arms around my boney shoulders and walked with me, side by side, across the street. Those robust Rosie hugs, even on days when they were wrapped in a yellow plastic raincoat, fueled me with genuine unconditional love. Her gentleness and kindness got me through many days when I felt like an outsider. I can still hear her booming voice yelling at me when I felt independent and tried to cross in the middle of the street instead of at the corner. I liked it when she hollered at me. Her yells meant she saw me. And as the "surprise" twin and last one of four siblings, I often felt unnoticed as a child.
Growing up in a very traditional Greek home in suburban Long Island in the '70s was a unique experience. It was pre-My Big Fat Greek Wedding days so people weren't too familiar with our cultural nuances. Most non-Greeks, including my schoolteachers and neighbors, didn't know much about our family other than the homemade sweets my mother baked during holidays. Being a frizzy-haired, olive-skinned, scrawny little girl who spoke English as my second language generally threw people for a loop but, not Rosie. She was different than other people. She looked me in the eyes whenever she spoke to me. She appreciated my uniqueness and even took care of my favorite baby doll for me while I was at school.
Rosie was conveniently stationed at the corner of my large red brick childhood home that included a long blacktop driveway bordered by our seasonal garden. She witnessed all the goings-on of our family and surprisingly accepted us without judgment. Rosie saw everyone for who they were at their core. She practiced the universal belief of unconditional love with all people regardless of their looks, beliefs, abilities, status, or age.
Rosie shared a special relationship with my "yiayia" (grandmother in Greek) who, even when she passed at the age of 102, spoke no more than five words of English. They shared a mutual respect for each other. The appreciation of one another's willingness to listen and graciously communicate without fear of being misunderstood was courageous. The simple fact that they did not speak each other's language was no excuse for evasion. Quite the contrary, the love, engagement and true humanity I observed from both of them will be engrained in my soul forever.
They passionately discussed everything from the trials of life to aggravating insects that invaded the garden. Together, they spoke about the weather, family, current events, and their worry for children as cars sped by. An exchange that stands out in my mind is one I witnessed while walking home for lunch one day. As a young girl I thought it was simply about yiayia's tomatoes, but I now understand the deeper meaning of that conversation and why it resonates so deeply in my soul.
The year was 1978 and planting season had slowed down. It was the first week of school when yiayia, with her silvery hair pulled back in a bun wearing a housedress and her favorite slip-ons, ventured into our garden to pick the few remaining vegetables. She gathered a couple of cucumbers, peppers and the last of the homegrown tomatoes. They were big and red with hints of green stripes, just a few days away from being perfectly ripe.
She placed some vegetables along the edge of the garden and enveloped the remaining tomatoes in her apron as she walked down the driveway towards the corner. She handed the tomatoes to Rosie and wished her good health in the new school year. She then made the sign of the cross and sent her blessings. Clutching her arms over her heart yiayia wished Rosie much strength so that she could, once again, keep all the children in her care safe. There they stood chatting for a while before Rosie had to cross some children and place the tomatoes in her car for safekeeping. It was obvious that she was appreciative for the person who lovingly grew them and that yiayia was just as grateful to share them with her.
That loving exchange was powerful. It wasn't necessary for me to be near them to understand what they were talking about. The way in which they communicated was incredible. They both understood exactly what they were trying to convey yet, neither one of them used the same spoken language. Yiayia spoke but a few words of English, and Rosie spoke no Greek. However, they communicated better than most people. It was an uncomplicated yet stunning example of a genuine loving human interaction. I will be forever grateful for the extraordinary examples of humanity both of these women displayed throughout my life.
Over the years their relationship taught me some powerful life lessons.
1. There are more loving people in this world than not.
2. The boldest lessons of love can come from the simplest acts of kindness.
3. Even when the world feels rushed and conflicted, beautiful stories of love are ever-present.
4. There are abundant opportunities for individuals to notice the beauty in our diversity.
5. Accepting someone else's perspective helps people learn, grow, and love.
Excerpt from Anastasia's book, WING IT: 6 Simple Steps to Succeed as a Modern Day Parent. For more visit www.anastasiagavalas.com or follow her on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram