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The Grandmother Joke




I recently came across this piece among my papers. I have not updated it. 


My great uncle Costa died last year. He had been sick for a while, and every year, my father would return from visiting him in his native Greece and say, "This is probably the last time I'll see him." But then, Costa would go on, charming people with whatever energy he could muster, telling the grandmother joke to whoever would listen.

The grandmother joke was legend, even 26 or 27 years ago when I visited Athens for the first time. Costa would tell it to anyone from the States, usually beginning with, "You are from America? You, of course, have heard about the grandmother who died?" When they would say no, he would go into an elaborate recital of what seemed a simple gag: a grandmother in California dies, a telegram is sent to her grandson in Greece, and he immediately takes a plane to America. When he arrives for the funeral, however, he finds that his grandmother is still alive, because of the time difference between Greece and the United States.

Costa, with his formal, accented-English, would go into meticulous detail as he told the joke, and he invariably got a laugh. Although he charmed most newcomers with the story, his friends and relatives quickly became tired of it: all made mock attempts to jump out the window or run from the room when they heard the joke coming. In fact, the joke about Costa's joke soon became the biggest gag of all.

His full name was Constantine Damascus, and he was a successful lawyer in Greece, and also something of a rogue. I first met my great-uncle when he came to America in the early 1960s, when I was about 4 or 5. He was here for a serious operation and stayed with my family until his hospital room was ready. To me, he was the man who never got dressed: when my brother and I left for school in the morning, he would be having breakfast in his pajamas. After we left, he must have gone out, but he also followed Greek custom and took a siesta at lunchtime. When we returned from school, he would just be rising again -- and still be in his pajamas. After a few days of this, my brother and I took my mother aside and said, "We really like Costa. Don't you think you could buy him some clothes?"

I always liked Costa, because he always had a dry joke and a smile. I remember the first time I went to Greece on my own, in 1974. It was probably the worst choice for a date: I arrived in Athens the day the dictatorship fell. Chaos was everywhere as Greece prepared for war with the Turkey following the Turks' invasion of Cyprus. Since I spoke no Greek and was incommunicado on a plane when it happened, I didn't know any of that -- all I knew was that my mother had given me two things to deliver: a chocolate cake for my father’s cousin, Elias, and a cherry pie for Costa, who had always joked, "When·you come from America, bring me an apple pie” (a reference to the saying, “As American as apple pie.”)

No one greeted me because no one knew I had arrived (they were told all flights had been canceled). No cabs were to be found and the airport seemed even more chaotic than usual. Nonetheless, I managed to get standing room on a bus into Athens, carrying two bags and two cakes (which my mother had told me, as mothers do in such situations, to "keep them upright" so they wouldn't drip, impractical as that was).

The bus left me in Constitution Square, from which I knew the way to Costa's. He lived on a hill, a 20-minute walk, but with my bags and the cake, it took me at least two hours, a strenuous, sweaty journey, not made easier with the two cakes. When I arrived, Costa wasn't there. The doorman phoned him for me, and Costa seemed surprised:

"Tom! What are you doing here?"

"I just arrived. No one was at the airport."

"I am at Elias's home," he said, referring to my father’s cousin, his nephew. "He has just been invited to the army."

"That's nice," I said, thinking that Elias, a doctor, was giving a lecture, and not realizing that he had been drafted.

Costa explained that "The Turks have invaded Cyprus," and then added with what might or might not have been mock pride: "It is war. We will eat the Turks!"

A few days later, I saw Elias and asked him how he had liked the chocolate cake, which I had carried thousands of miles and up a hill to deposit at Costa's home, with instructions to give it to Elias. "Cake? What cake?" he said. I asked Costa about it. He couldn't have been more serious as he explained. "Tom," he said with the gravity of a seasoned diplomat, "the cake was so badly damaged, I am afraid that I was forced to eat it myself."

I will miss Costa. It is hard to believe he's gone, that I can't just get on a fast plane somehow and arrive somewhere to find him, in an earlier time zone, still alive and still threatening his friends with another telling of the grandmother joke.

Adio, Costa.