Goodbye, Thea Stavroula

By Lisa Suhair Majaj

She died at 94. There are worse ages at which to leave this earth, but that doesn’t dispel the sadness. How many changes did she see in her life? How many wars? When she was a girl, the quickest way from Limassol to Paphos was by boat. People stayed in their villages, grew their own food. Now there are highways, and cars, and smart phones, and all sorts of other things she probably never dreamed of—though some things, like wars and their after-effects, don’t seem to change much.

She lived in Episkopi, a mixed village, populated by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots until the invasion that split the country. She raised three sons, losing a daughter at the age of four. My husband tells me she always wore the Hand of Fatima, at the time considered a distinctively Muslim symbol, next to the cross around her neck. That doesn’t surprise me. From the first time I met her, as I struggled to find enough Greek to thank her for her coffee, her smiling hospitality, it was clear that she had a large, embracing spirit. Whenever we visited there were always stray cats she was feeding, children in the garden, a bowl of sweets for passers by.

And everyone passed by. Her house was at the heart of the village, right across from the church, down the street from the archeological museum. Neighbors, relatives, outsiders—all were welcome. She taught the young archeologists staying at the museum how to embroider, unperturbed by the lack of a common language. There was no better place for coffee than perched on one of the chunks of ancient Roman columns scattered outside her gate, breathing in the stunning vista of the coastline spread out below, the sense of timelessness.

But time never stops.

The day Thea Stavroula died, a massive sandstorm struck, blanketing the island for days in a cloud of dust so thick it was impossible to take a deep breath. Temperatures soared as the sky pressed down, gritty and clotted. Even the sweat rivulets rolling down my skin felt muddy.

On the day of the funeral, we braved the brownish haze to drive from Nicosia to Episkopi. We parked outside of her small, familiar house, the usual coastal vista shrouded in dust, and crossed the street to the church. Family and neighbors were already gathering in the oppressively hot stone-paved yard, their black clothing a reminder of why we were there.

Inside, the church was dim and slightly cooler. I slipped some coins into the donation box and lit three candles: one for Stavroula, one for my parents, who died decades ago, and one for those still engaged in this battle called life. Then the chanting of the Orthodox service began, the musicality of the priest’s voice carrying me out of my thoughts as the candles flickered.

Soon enough the service was over—how quickly we mark passage from this earth!—and mourners gathered again in the churchyard, waiting for the coffin to be carried out. At the gate of the yard I noticed two tiny, ancient women clutching each other’s hands for support. One, I saw with a thrum of sadness, wore mismatched slippers on her feet. Later my sister-in-law told me that after the 1974 Turkish invasion, when refugees took shelter in Episkopi, Thea Stravroula had been the first to help these two women, giving them olives, that staple of village sustenance. Decades later, they had come to say goodbye.

We proceeded to the cemetery, where the open coffin required confrontation. I hardly recognized Stavroula in the body that lay face up to the sky. Age and illness had replaced her calm, robust demeanor with a startlingly gaunt profile; her eyes were no longer smiling, but closed.

This was my son’s first funeral. He watched carefully as they lowered the open coffin into the grave with ropes, poured oil on the body, scattered earth, and rinsed the shovel off with water over the coffin, mixing earth’s elements with her human remains. Then the coffin was closed and buckets of soil were tipped on top, attendants shoveling in more to finish the job. Dust clouds rose to join the dust that hung in the heat-struck, lowering sky. Her body went into the earth, earth was shoveled on top of her, and the sky rained earth on all of us: a dusty kind of tears.

At bedtime that night, my son asked me, “What is it like when someone passes away? What do they feel? What do they see? Where do they go? What do they become?” I had no clear answers to offer. Instead I kissed him and stroked his hair till his breathing settled.

But Stravroula didn’t settle. She lingered in the air around me, rich and full, her life too real to close a coffin lid on. I thought of an afternoon decades earlier, as we sat in the cool of her garden after hours at the beach—her laughter filling the air, the coffee she had brewed with careful hands waiting to be drunk, the future full in the unturned cup.

In my kitchen grows a plant started from a cutting taken from a tree in her yard, nestled in a simple clay pot. Like her, it is rooted in earth, arching toward the sun.