April 24th, 2009
11:45 PM ET

My Big Fat Greek Grandfather

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/24/art.triple.split.jack.onassis.dukakis.jpg caption="From left to right, Jack's grandfather (X.L. Papaioanou), Aristotle Onassis and Michael Dukakis."]

Jack Gray
AC360° Producer/Writer

Well, actually, he’s not fat. But he does have Michael Dukakis’s eyebrows and Aristotle Onassis’s liver spots.

If you’ve been watching AC360° this week then you’ve probably seen our series of reports on the supposed health and longevity enjoyed by residents on the tiny Greek island of Ikaria. They’ve reminded me of my grandfather: a first generation Greek-American who has long insisted that the secret to a healthy life is a proper balance of Baklava and flat ginger ale.

Words cannot describe the strength and inspiration my grandfather, “Papou,” has given me over the years. Mind you, that was before he turned into a hermit who sits in his basement eating Sam’s Club-brand peanut butter cups and making paper mache busts of Yanni.

Nevertheless, Papou is a man to admire. A brilliant physician, he instilled in me the importance of hard work, honesty and – when he wasn’t looking – complimentary painkillers.

A man who by day saved lives and by night brought home items like a remote-controlled flatulence simulator called Le Farteur. “But it’s French!” he said, as my grandmother pushed him out the door.

He is, as his children and grandchildren will attest, a great listener – always available to dispense advice. Except when he’s asking strangers at Outback Steakhouse if they think he made a mistake by never becoming a chorus boy for Liza Minnelli.

Equal parts savvy consumer and hearty outdoorsman, my grandfather is as comfortable shopping for a used Cadillac as he is euthanizing a turtle that’s had the misfortune of encountering his grandson’s fishing tackle.

He is a man for whom – although he loves his family – there is always a 50/50 chance he will skip his own birthday party in favor of watching a Ron Popeil infomercial while wearing my grandmother’s nightgown.

A modern man who passed on to me his love of photography and electronic gadgets, he retained his parents old-world sensibilities and disregard for U.S. law. “What do you mean,” he asked me when I was 11, “you don’t know to drive?”

He is also a brave man, one who – in all seriousness – has never once complained about being afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis. Nor about the time I shot him in the face with a BB gun during Thanksgiving dinner. (Hey, I warned him to hurry up with the mashed potatoes.)

But, time passes on. And no matter what is happening on that Greek island – and let’s face it, it’s probably some scam run by John Stamos – my grandfather is getting older.

Nowadays I see him only a few times a year. Not because I don’t make the effort. But because he’s usually curled up with a bottle of Ouzo and a ukulele.

He knows, however, how much I love him. Provided, of course, that when he someday goes to that Greek island in the sky, he leaves me Le Farteur.

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soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. S.C.

    I grew up in an extended Greek family, with various caretakers from the family. They were not upper class and educated as yours is. My grandfather had 8 children and all five of the daughters were dysfunctional and most were mean to children. My grandfather was abusive to his wife and even to his dogs. But my grandmother was already pretty abusive so perhaps it was her fault as well. My mother was abusive and a screamer as 3 of her sisters were. (Even in a movie, I have never seen the scariness of a screaming Greek woman depicted as I experienced it.) My father was over 20 years older than my mother–a tradition held over from the Old Country–and was in his mid 50's when he fathered me. My younger brother was treated very differently from me. I was denigrated and screamed at by my father, lectured to constantly, and prevented from having friends in my childhood, kept from normal American child activities. When I would point out to him that he allowed my brother to have friends, he would say "He has to have friends, he's a boy". My brother was allowed to disrespect me, even attack me, and I was castigated even more for complaining. In the Greek family I grew up sons were put on a pedestal, given all the respect a child deserves, and girls were treated as though worthless. And God help you if you ended up being more talented or intelligent than the men in the family because they will pound it out of you until you are nothing. It has been explained to me by others who went through this that it is part of the old Greek culture. I even tried to get the priest to help the family when I was a teenager and you should have heard the things my father said about my telling the priest!

    I have never recovered and have been on disability for most of my life
    for post-traumatic stress disorder.

    April 27, 2009 at 2:01 pm |
  2. Dimitrios Marantidis

    Yes, I am also born in the north east part of Greece from Greek Russian father who left 12 years old from Russia with his 16 year old brother and reach Greece for the search of the parents and end up in the mountains of Xanthi near Stavroupolis and did find them. My mother is 100% Ukranian that the Germans took her from the parents house for work in Germany because there was no man in the cities or in the factories that time. My father did join the Greek army as a communicator and later on went to Germany for work and there he did find my mother at the factories in Bremenhaven and Berlin wish that time was under the Russian regime later on. My mother still alive and well and she is in the mountains of Xanthi about 3 miles away from Stavroupolis. My sister is in Thessaloniki the second biggest city of Greece. My other brother end up in northwest of Germany and my other brother that I did invited him to USA in the late 70s. We are going back home in the summer of 2009 and visit all the areas and anybody that still around.

    April 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm |
  3. AnnMarie Z

    This blog made me laugh and cry. I am part Greek and remember my grandfather having a zest for life and a nice sense of humor as well.

    April 26, 2009 at 1:40 pm |
  4. Maren in Oregon

    You are truly privileged to still have Papou with you, and it's obvious you know that. Insouciant as always, your piece was also deeply respectful of the man, and a wonderfuly affectionate recounting of your relationship.

    We all had grandparents at one time or another and, unless modern science catches up a tad more quickly than seems likely now, each new generaltion will continue to have the opportunity to seek out the love and wisdom of their family elders. Even if all grandparents aren't as well equipped in the life lessons & guidance counseling department as your Papou, I'm certain even a lesson in how to graceflly ignore incontinence can build character.

    Good for you, Jack, and good for Papou.

    April 26, 2009 at 11:50 am |
  5. Jennifer

    Hey Jack,
    FYI... Those Sams' Peanut Butter Cups that your grandfather eats are really good! Sorry though, no Greek in this family. Just a touch of German.
    Have a Nice weekend! 😎

    April 25, 2009 at 10:13 pm |
  6. Nattada, Houston TX

    Lovely story you have here today.
    Thank you, Jack.

    April 25, 2009 at 12:17 am |
  7. Dilini - Colombo, Sri Lanka

    A wonderful post. This whole Greek saga (Ikaria, your grandparents, etc.) takes me back to Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals' and 'Birds, Beasts and Relatives'. Sunny through and through.

    April 25, 2009 at 12:00 am |
  8. Em, Utah

    Hi Jack,

    Loved the blog. My Grandmother was Greek/Azorean. She was born in America but her father came from Greece as a very young man. He lived to be 102 so I had the opportunity to know him. He worked as the head gardener for a beautiful college in California for over 60 years. He and my great-grandmother divorced when they were young...something we pretended not to know. They lived next door to each other until the day he died. He gave me my first taste of homemade wine and taught us all words he said we could not repeat in front of Avo'. He never remarried. Watching these reports on aging and Ikaria really brought back memories of him. Papou Gus was a small man but very fiesty. He said his secret to a long life was the wine he made from grape wines in his back yard ( and a series of much younger girlfriends!) He was a character I was fortunate enough to have my Grandma and Aunt teach me to make Dolmades, Diples, Greek Chicken w/rice and Baklava. I have been told, that I make a mighty good balkava...a combined recipe from 3 generations. There isn't much Greek blood heritage left in our family but even my son had baklava at his wedding...hand made by mom. I was so proud of my Papou and the gardens at the University haven't been the same since he retired...he was in his mid-80's!

    April 24, 2009 at 11:11 pm |
  9. hsaplis

    Make time for him...and let him know how much you love him,Na herese to papou sou!

    April 24, 2009 at 10:41 pm |
  10. Marie Anne Sam - Alabang in the Philippines

    This one has 'heart' and mellow tone! - Seems you're a guy full of surprises, Jack Gray! Fascinating!

    April 24, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  11. Lori from IL


    Never knew either of my grandfathers (both passed away before I was born), but your sounds like a character! Thanks for the laughs! And good luck getting the Le Farteur - I envision a family fued over this item some day!

    April 24, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  12. Annie Kate


    Great post. Reminded me of my grandfather a bit. Especially the flatulence part. My brothers and my grandfather have always thought it a grand competition to see who could do it the loudest and longest. It has provided for much embarrassment to my parents and my grandmother and much hilarity for my brothers. Last time we were all together they talked about a flatulence hall of fame – I'm sure they would all be charter members.

    As always much enjoyment at your post. Have a great weekend. a\

    April 24, 2009 at 9:28 pm |
  13. Don, WA

    Greek islands are great. But as far as Ouzo goes – I refuse to drink anything that can start a moped.

    April 24, 2009 at 9:08 pm |
  14. colleen

    As I sit here, tears streaming down my face, and my heart aching at the loss of my grandma (many years ago), I am so happy for your grandpa to be able to know how much you love and admire him. For those of us lucky enough to have had/have time with our Grandparents, there a indescribable bond. One born out of true, unadulterated love. No discipline, just a knowing look and acceptance. Today, I still find strength in the love she gave me.

    Not to say everything was perfect....when I was young, maybe 9 or 10, I wrote a story for school about "My Hero." Well, the obvious choice was her. My Mom had me send Grandma a copy of it. Being a retired school teacher, she marked it up with red ink and gave it back to me.....hhmmmm maybe I should have rethought the whole 'hero' thing. Another time, when I was 18, my boyfriend and i took my sister to visit her at the beach (oh, ya, she was the 'cool' grandma!) and we were in her den watching tv. Well, her den had one of those corner units that housed two twin beds (I told you she was cool) and my sister was in one of the beds and my boyfriend and I were in the other. Well, my Grandma walks in and takes a picture of Steve (boyfriend) and I in bed! She claimed she was going to use is as blackmail. Guess what.....she did! Over the years she hung that picture over my head threating to show my dad. Grandma's glass was never empty and she always had a bed to sleep in when she stayed with us, mine.

    She was cool too. Whenever my girlfriends and I would go to visit, she would encourage us to go to the Mexican restaurants and try to get a margarita, we were 19. Don't judge, it's not like we were 15! And meeting boys, that goes without saying...the more the merrier! Good times 🙂

    It's funny, my Grandma passed when I was pregnant with my, now 18 ,year old daughter. My daughter looks similar to her, sleeps in Grandma's bed (I was lucky enough to get it) and has her spirit for life. I'm not sure where I stand on reincarnation but this is sure a powerful case for it. My daughter says she feels like she knows her and used to have dreams about her all the time...maybe I should have put that bed in the guest room.

    I loved her like no one else in my life. She taught me what 'real' love and protection are. She taught me about the importance of Faith in church and in life. She taught me about fine arts and tried to get me to watch the English dramas on Nova. She taught me the importance of family, "You are always there for family, always." She taught me to appreciate a good beer and to pay homage to every beautiful sunset 🙂
    I work every day to be the person my Grandma saw in me..

    So, in conclusion of my dissertation...

    You, your Grandpa and all the rest of us who have been with a grandparent, are blessed!


    I'm new to Twitter. Your entries make me smile 🙂

    April 24, 2009 at 8:16 pm |
  15. Lori

    Dear Jack,
    Thank you for shareing an inspirational part of your family life. Half way through, i got teary eyed.... Memories are precious and you have a wonderful way of describeing them. Your Grandparent's sound very special. and im sure you are to them. You have to send them this, or you probably have already. Hey, and im gona follow you today on twitter because i like how you give a story . Have a good weekend.
    Lori in MN

    April 24, 2009 at 7:15 pm |
  16. Traci

    By Anderson pleading your case on Twitter, you now have my FULL attention! Your blogs are hysterical – just what I needed to bring a long work week to a close. I will certainly stay tuned. Being from Mass, I hope you'll be rooting on the Sox tonight. I will stay tuned for your tweets & blogs.


    April 24, 2009 at 7:06 pm |
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