By Erika Erhart
"A tumor the size of a grapefruit," Nouna exclaims, pointing at the bowl of fruit in front of us.
"Tula was feeling fine until Thursday morning. She was on her way to church. Never made it though. Died instantly. Poor Tula."
"How did she die?" I ask.
"Oh, they found it right away. When they opened her up, it was right there. A tumor the size of a grapefruit. You get to be my age and these things happen all the time," she says, handing me a spoon.
I look down at the pink grapefruit on my plate and remember Tula.
"Oh, that's nothing though. I'll tell you about Maria. Oh, Maria left this world in a hurry." Nouna shakes her head in disbelief. "She was napping on her new couch--the one her second husband bought her when he was in Duluth for the weekend--and all of a sudden, she has a sharp pain in her side. Your cousin Elena looks over from watching Love Boat and says, 'You OK, Maria?' Maria points to her side. She says, 'This hurts over here. I never felt such a pain over here.' Next thing you know, boom! Maria's gone."
I roll my eyes. "This is horrible."
"Horrible? You think that's horrible? Listen, she had an aneurysm as big as a kalamata olive. The doctor found it during the autopsy. He said she didn't have a chance. He also found a tumor on her pancreas. Yep, a tumor the size of..."--I wince as Nouna searches for the word--"a blood orange."
My grandmother loves to tell stories, especially during breakfast. While snapping snow peas I hear about cousin Dimitri's pea-size prostate tumor. They operate. He lives. Visiting the farmer's market I hear about Theoni Korderis's gallstones. "It's amazing she lived. She had tons of them; the size of swollen kumquats."
For every meal I've shared with Nouna, for every friend and relative, there's a story.
Nouna's friend Merope is always stopping by to drop off her apple baklava. Before she'll surrender her buttery dessert, the kind that gave "poor Peter Aliopolis heart disease," she demands a tale. Nouna always complies, although I don't know why, since no one eats Merope's baklava anyway. Apparently it ruined the singing career of Nouna's friend, Helen Spiloptohos, who permanently lost her voice when a triangle slice dripping in sticky syrup became lodged in her throat. "Took an hour to get it out and by then there was scar tissue running down her esophagus like a strip of bacon." I have a feeling Nouna hasn't shared this anecdote with Merope.
Algerette, Merope's niece, has a daughter named Zoe, who was born with an enormous head because "Algerette ate too many onions during her pregnancy." According to Nouna, Zoe had a face that looked like an acorn squash until she was ten. During puberty she resembled "a cross between a sweet potato and a peanut." And at her wedding in Minneapolis last year she was "a ripe seedless watermelon in a too-tight dress."
Zoe had a hard time fitting in over the years. Despite her family's pleas, she refused to go to Greek school, where the kids called her "pumpkin head" and tormented her by stuffing their mouths with dry koulourakia cookies--the kind Nouna claims killed Fofi Fiotis at the Saint Nicholas picnic in '79--and blowing the gluey crumbs at the back of her spherical head for points.
Zoe and her new husband Willy are happy living a few hours from their parents. Willy works the night shift at the plant, makes decent money, and has good benefits. According to Nouna, it's a good thing because "where else could a guy with a lemon head like his find work?" Apparently Zoe and Willy are very content together, "two fruit-shaped heads in love."
After our entertaining breakfasts together, Nouna and I sometimes take a walk. We avoid bike paths so we don't end up "flattened like gyros" by some reckless Rollerblader. Apparently Aphrodite Rombakis crossed the bike path last summer to get a drink of water, and a man on skates ran into her. She died instantly. No one knows why for sure, but Nouna often laments the tragedy.
"No more Aphrodite. No more creamy pastitsio after vespers service. She was killed in an instant and flattened like phyllo for no good reason."
We avoid water because Dena Boosalis's poodle, Francis, choked on a dog biscuit and drowned back in '85. According to Nouna the sheet of ice he was standing on cracked open like a walnut, and he was sucked under by a mysterious drop-off "as fast as whipped butter melts on pancakes."
Even though Nouna can't confirm whether it was the biscuit or the drop-off that killed Francis, she's adamant about avoiding the water. Apparently no one ever found the poor pooch's remains and Nouna doesn't want to be the one to spot him when he finally resurfaces "as swollen as Uncle John's flaming saganaki."
On Saturdays in July, Nouna and I go to outdoor concerts. Nouna always buys me a box of salty popcorn, the kind DeDe Davolis choked to death on in '83, and we listen to the music from a ways back. There was a time when we sat closer to all the action--until Nouna's nephew Christo lost his hearing. Apparently Christo was trying to rush the stage to get a free bumper sticker. In his earnest attempt he accidentally knocked over a very large drunk, belligerent biker, who was in no mood to be bothered. In less than three minutes Christo had a black eye, a broken arm, and an extra-spicy hot wing lodged in his ear. "Never been the same since," Nouna claims. "He's deaf in one ear and abnormally terrified of chicken."
When I ask Nouna how this could have happened, she explains, "It's just one of those family things; God's way of telling us to slow down in life. Although I know this wouldn't have happened if Christo had better balance. Those darn radish-shaped eyes of his make him kind of wobbly."
Spend time with Nouna and you'll hear all about our family history. She'll tell you about her grocery business--the loyal customers and friends who shopped there over the years, the recipes they shared, and then, of course, you'll hear about the chest pains, food poisonings, flatulence, and freak accidents. You'll probably listen with wide eyes as Nouna describes a fruit bowl of medical phenomena.
Of course, over the years the fruit- and vegetable-size tumors have become a jumble to me. Was it Helen that choked on a gyros sandwich at the Greek festival? Did Eddie have the brain tumor the size of a ripe avocado, or was he flattened like a potato pancake after bungee jumping on his 50th birthday? Didn't Elaine get run over, or was she the one who choked to death on a Reuben? Did someone really have a bump the size of a garbanzo bean under his eye? Which cousin went to the Taste of Chicago, ate his first Polish sausage, blew up like a cherry tomato, and dropped dead from an allergic reaction to sauerkraut? I've forgotten all the names. But the stories haunt my memory. The produce department at any supermarket evokes a thousand tragic deaths.