There are three. They mark the period leading up to Lent. Today is the last − forty days before Easter.
I wait for my mother and her sister outside church. They go to every ψυχοσαββατο. To commemorate our dead. The night before, Mum prepares κολυβα a mix of boiled wheat, bread crumbs, walnuts, sesame seeds and sultanas covered by a layer of icing sugar and decorated with slivered almonds, puts the προσφορο she has bought from the bakery next to her bag so as not to forget it and writes a list of the dead.
Yesterday, she added the name Γεωργια, her oldest sister. Γεωργια died on Wednesday. She had been bed-bound for the last two years, bound by her atrophied brain for many before that. Unable to speak, comprehend, eat, see from one eye, control bladder and bowels. We heard from people who returned to Βρονταµα that her bones had perforated, that she was given nourishment through a syringe, that she lay on her bed σαν κουβαρακι − like a little ball of string.
I do not go into the church, even though they are my dead too. I sit in the car. And wait. My mother and θεια must be weeping more than usual. They won’t be at their sister’s funeral. The last time they saw Γεωργια was four years ago. She and her husband had come to Melbourne to be cared for by their youngest son. It was their third time. They preferred Melbourne to Boston, where their daughter lives, as two of their three children are here.
But Γεωργια was restless this last time. Screamed in her sleep. Thought her husband was off with other women when he went for a walk around the block. Almost strangled him one night, her arthritic hands stronger than her mind. She wanted to go back, στο σπιτι µου – to my home – she told us.
After the service and communion, all the names are chanted by the priest. When this is over, the parishioners, mainly women, share their κολυβα and other συγχωρια (“forgivenesses”) in the church courtyard.
They say that when you eat κολυβα you are taking part in the forgiveness (of the sins) of the dead. I’ve never been able to eat κολυβα. Even when my father died and my mother begged me. It’s just about sacrilegious to refuse. Maybe because the dead person will remain “unforgiven” by someone. And then their soul won’t be able to rest. But the thought of eating κολυβα makes my stomach turn. As if I’d be eating flesh. Dead human flesh. The flesh of our dead.
Συγχωραω singhora’o, vt. To forgive. [Gk to embody + with]…. By eating κολυβα you merge your flesh with your loved one’s. You embrace them. Sins and all.
Among the συγχωρια are: παξιµαδακια (small pieces of aniseed shortbread topped with sesame seeds), little bread rolls, τυροπιτακια (small cheese pastries). Nothing sweet.
Today it’s hot, the church doors are open and my car window is right down. The psalm beckons me. And even though for the first time I am tempted to go into the church, I don’t.
Yesterday while I made dinner, Mum slivered almonds and sifted the icing sugar. In a few years, I will prepare the κολυβα. Buy the bread. Write the list.