From the night she was born in a tiny Greek village, dancing has been an important part of Yia-Yia's

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The night she was born, everyone danced.

My Yia-Yia, my beautiful grandmother—she dances like a ribbon, like a smooth, sun-glinting, wind-tossed ribbon.

Yia-Yia was born in a tiny village in Greece. Her four brothers, her grandparents, and all the aunts, uncles, and cousins danced around a bonfire long into the night when she was born. Her mother and father had waited many years for a girl child. Their love for her was as deep as the sea. Her father took her outside to the happy relatives when she was only one hour old. She opened her eyes. She watched the firelight and smoke curl up to the stars that hung above their village.

Just as she was learning how to walk, the family packed up everything they owned and crossed the ocean in a ship. The sailors taught her how to dance to the music of a pipe, while sea gulls sang overhead.

When she got bigger, she twirled and whirled on her way to school in the morning. She snapped her fingers and clicked her heels on the way home in the afternoon. There was always work to be done at her house—floors to scrub and pots to wash and clothes to iron and schoolwork to finish late into the night at the kitchen table. She held a tune in her heart and tapped out a beat with her toes, so the time passed quickly by.

Back then my Papou stood tall and strong. He fell in love with the way Yia-Yia’s black hair glowed in the candlelight of their church. He talked to each one of her four brothers and her father and then her mother to get permission to sit next to her on the stoop and drink lemonade. They ate sweet cakes she made with her slender hands. When he asked her to marry him he had a spot of honey on his chin.

At their wedding, her feet barely touched the ground. The voices of the singers and the perfume of the incense coiled around her heart and made her eyes wet. Wearing their wedding crowns, she and her beloved walked three times around the altar and became partners for life.

Later came babies—my mom, my Aunt Helena, and my Uncle Costas. Yia-Yia danced with them all so they wouldn’t fuss. She played old records and whispered stories of a faraway village. With a baby in her arms, she hummed the tunes of far away. She high-stepped her way from the kitchen to the laundry room, from the grocery to the church. She tied back her long hair with scarves of blue and green.

When the children grew older she taught them the right steps: chin up, back straight, eyes clear and steady. She kissed Papou on the chin when he came home in the evening, tired from the mill. She pulled him to the soft chair and served him thick coffee and figs while dinner cooked.

Uncle Costas married Aunt Tessa, and Aunt Helena married Uncle Roy, and my mom married my dad. Then came the grandchildren—roly-poly grandchildren who loved pastries and cookies and a spinning grandmother who hummed.

Yia-Yia's DanceThese days the best place to see my Yia-Yia dance is at the church festival. The guitar music rings in my ears, and the salty-sweet tastes of Greece fill my mouth. Yia-Yia and Papou sit at the end of a long table. They watch the young people dance in graceful lines that snake in and out of the room. They smile at their friends and wave to their children and grandchildren, but Yia-Yia does not dance . . . until the band plays the sailor’s song. She takes the snow-white handkerchief from Papou’s jacket pocket and slides the scarf from her hair. Everyone in the room stops to watch her.

She dances. Her arms glide like the wings of a swan. Her feet stomp and her legs leap, harder and higher than the youngest girl. Her proud face is strong, like the faces in the paintings in the church. The music grows louder, and her children and grandchildren cheer. She throws back her head. Her dark, silver-streaked hair comes alive like a moonless night lit by shimmering silver stars. And it curls in the air like the smoke rising from a village bonfire.