Memoir

Like mother, like son

WE NEVER LIKE to think about the fact, but history repeats itself. Well, often it does: I am now exactly the age my father was when he farewelled me at Tullamarine Airport one morning in 1980. "Mind you come back," he said, while tears trickled down my mother's face.

"It's only for six months," I said. Uncomfortably.

But somehow my parents knew more than I did, for the planned stay of six months in my husband's village in the Peloponnese has now stretched to 24 years, during which time two Australian-born sons and one Greek-born one have become men. They are grown up and gone from me, my sons, but I have to hope, and like to think, that there is a corner of the Peloponnese that will be forever Australia.

Dimitrios was almost eight when we arrived, and Nikolaos nearly six. The summer of beach, animals and olive groves was an idyllic one for little boys, but come September things were very differ­ent. Niko went into his first year at the village school with the regular intake, but Dimitri had to cope with being in Grade Three. Adjust­ment to Greek school, to Greek life, took years and was not easy; he went through stages of strong and verbal resentment, always featur­ing the word "why". "Why did you two have to get married?" he asked me once. "If you hadn't, I wouldn't be suffering now." He was 11. "Why did you do it, Mum? Why did you say you'd stay?" Dimitri was 30, it was Mother's Day 2002 in Melbourne, and I was sniffling into my cappuccino, and mumbling about having thought it was the right thing to do at the time. Soon after, I returned to Greece, but he did not. He works as a hospital interpreter, lives in St Kilda and says he is happy. He also says he will never return to Greece. Thank God for phones and email: I have not seen him for more than two years.

 

AS I WRITE, Niko is home on holiday, and just yesterday we went to visit his father's ancestral village: the family can trace its links with this remote spot back to the end of the 17th century.
A place of rare beauty, it is now inhabited only in the summer, when a few shepherds take their flocks of sheep up to cooler areas. Little stone cottages huddle on a slope heavily planted with chestnut and walnut trees; the tucks and folds of misty mountains stretch away as far as the eye can see. "I really like it here," he said, more than once, while I pondered an attachment to landscape and place that I have never had.

Yet Niko lives in Germany. A sergeant major and marine com­mando in the Greek Special Forces, he has been an instructor at a NATO base for a year, and will be so for another two. The irony is that he is the most Australian of my children, and the one most like my father. He cultivates a broad Australian accent, and once embar­rassed Dimitri terribly by wearing a cork-trimmed hat when the two of them went strolling down Collins Street.

Niko is the one who seems to balance the tensions. Years ago, during a trip to Melbourne, we were at a Greek-Australian func­tion. "I didn't know you could speak Greek," remarked a Greek man. "Well, I'm Greek, aren't I?" he said. Five minutes later an Australian commented, "I didn't know you could speak English."
"Of course I can; I'm Australian," he announced briskly. And that, fortu­nately, is the way he sees himself.

 

PEOPLE SAY THAT Athens-born Alexander, currently studying in Kozani, Macedonia, is "the real Greek". And he is, but with an added layer. When he was 11 we had a day in St James's Park, London. He had never seen a squirrel before and so was caught between fear and excitement as a bold little creature ran up his trouser leg. But he rallied quickly: "Smaller than your average possum, Mum?" he asked. On Australia Day four years later, expats being in the habit of doing things they would never do at home, I was trying to take a photo of the flag, which was drooping sadly on its makeshift pole. Alexander came down the steps on his way to school. "Do you think I'm mad?" I asked. He neither broke stride nor drew breath. "As a cut snake," he remarked, in his usual laconic style.

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