In the dark, my grandfather, “Papou,” makes like he’s tooting an army bugle to wake me, while my parents and big brother sleep. Outside our house, on the outskirts of Athens, the surf rumbles.
Cutting bread under a plume of cigarette smoke, Papou quotes one of his faves, an oldie from Alexander the Great: “When it’s over, all that matters is what you’ve done.”
While I eat a warm slice of bread with tomato, feta, olive oil, and oregano, he braids my hair.
Later, at the pool, I dive until the janitor kicks me out due to lockdown.
Before, when I was obsessing over the Olympic qualifiers, it was all I wanted—just one more thing, but now that I’ve qualified, my dream has shifted, slithering away like mercury upon my touch. My ultimate goal—and this one is it—is an Olympic medal. I’ll never need anything more.
Back home, Papou says, “We’re in this together.”
“You don’t understand. My body will forget what to do.”
As consolation, he spreads the newspaper on the table and lights a fire, his routine providing comfort amidst all the falling structures. After a coughing fit, he peruses the paper.
“The Olympics are being postponed,” he says.
I squeeze into his cloud of stale smoke to read for myself. A year’s delay could mean injury, new competitors, or burnout. I can’t sustain my training for that long.
Papou draws a deep breath into his huge nose—and another. Then, eyes troubled, a sniff of the basil plant. He tosses his cigarettes in the fire, watching with glazed eyes as the fire peaks and ebbs.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing. Show me your Olympic dive.” He points out the window to the beach, where my boulder looms over the water.
“The rock isn’t regulation height,” I say. He, of all people, knows the precision of my sport.
“I want to see your Inward 3½ somersault in tuck,” he insists, handing me tape to wrap my fingers.
Outside, the rising sun warms the terrain with an orange glow, the brush grass turning gold. Papou steps into the water with a net to catch sea urchins while I scoop seawater to dampen my skin. I climb my boulder, its jagged edges poking the tender skin on the bottom of my feet.
From the peak, I peer down at the clear Aegean, stones magnified underneath. A breeze of thyme tickles my nose while birds sing out of rhythm with the waves.
On tippy toes, I spring off the marble, tuck in to accelerate my rotation, then extend my legs. My clasped hands rip through the frigid water’s surface, creating a hole for my body before my underwater flip.
Holding my breath, I imagine the Olympics: the chlorine smell, the water’s bite, the medal’s weight, and the cheering—then scanning the stands for Papou, the only family member who knows good from great. He comes to all my meets, armed with Ancient Greek philosophy books which he puts down for my dives, although not always during the medals that he says only corrupt my intention. Will he even be around in a year to wave the Greek flag during the national anthem? Underwater, I open my eyes to seaweed and reach toward the light.
I rush out, hair dripping onto the sand where Papou sits carving a sea urchin.
“Was Alexander the Great right?” I ask. “About what matters?”
After forty years teaching high school philosophy, Papou should know.
He looks at me. “Why do you dive?”
“For an Olympic medal.” I rub my wet arms to warm up.
“Nah, before all that,” he says, cutting meat from the urchin to pop into his mouth.
I wipe seaweed off my legs, stumped, wondering if I misunderstood the quote.
“To get a medal at the World Championships?” I ask. That was all I wanted back then—just that one thing.
“Was that fun?” he asks. He’d witnessed that over-engineered dive, my muscles stiff, as commands flooded my brain.
“It was a stepping stone to Tokyo.”
He looks out at the sea, which brightens to aqua with the sun.
“Before that,” he says, tossing the remains of the urchin back into the water.
He was the one who’d taken me to my first lessons. I learned to stride the platform, then stop with a skip to convert the forward momentum into vertical motion, hurling me into the air with a twirl or a flip.
“Remember your first dive?” he asks. “You stood on your rock, looking down at Alexi, who was floating on his back, making fun of your frizzy hair.”
“He asked which superpower I’d pick, and I said I’d fly. He laughed and called me a scaredy cat.”
“I sat on the beach watching you perched on your rock, and I smelled your fear,” Papou says. “And I told you, when it’s over, all that matters is what you’ve done.”
That afternoon, under the lead-heavy sun, my eyes clouded by dust from a breeze, I finally sprung off the boulder, arms pointed like a missile, eyes pinched shut, euphoric from defying gravity, astonished at my whooshing weightlessness through the air, hair splayed, soaring high enough to smack the heavens. Papou jumped up to cheer with abandon, as if he were flying beside me. Frictionless through the breeze, I stretched free—untouchable—then shattered the water’s surface, plunging downward, my exposed skin licked by the sea. When I emerged, elated from my triumph, I stuck out my salty tongue at Alexi and ran up the rock to dive again, wet hair hanging flat down my back like a mermaid superhero.
“I’ll never forget that feeling,” I say, helping Papou to his feet.
We lock arms as if we’re about to go do something, but instead we stand, sand between our toes, watching each wave grow on its approach, subside, and then retreat underneath the next one rolling in, and the next and next.
A perfect flash!B
corrupt my intentions….about to go do something….great use of words….. a grandfather that is a “rock” to keep things in perspective. Wish I had one back then. great story!!!…..
Always the Grandfather who puts things into perspective whether they are quoting Alexander the Great or a long-gone Mariner ancestor. Had me tearing up. Thank you for this Beautiful Story.
Ephra, It means so much to me that my words touched you. Best, Marina
Wonderful story to remind us of what matters. Love Papou’s character – you bring him to life so well.
Hi Lois, I’m happy to hear you say that. Although the story is entirely fictional, his character was very real.
Quite an emotional memory!
Thank you for reading! It is a fictional story, but indeed the memory of my Papou is very real.
Although this is a fictional story, I hope you did have a relationship with your Papou…….I missed out on all my grandparents, and I would have loved to have known them…..Sometimes I gaze at their photos, and wonder what they were like…..Love the extensive use of vocabulary, and the capture of timeless Greek wisdom , that is begging to be shared….
Hi Alec, Thanks for reading! My Papou was a very special man. Indeed, I was lucky to have known him well, into my early 20’s.
This is beautiful story I’ll surely revisit. (And from one Greek to another, I loved being transported to Greece for a few minutes. Ευχαριστώ.)
Always great to connect with a fellow Greek!
What an powerful moment. The fire, the smells and tastes, but mostly the special moment while everyone else is still asleep; shared with the only man who knows good from great and who as all papoudes asks for nothing in return for his generosity and love, will stay with me. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.
John, It just fills my heart when a reader totally gets what I’m going for! Thank you for your note.