On the 25th October 2012, David and I were crouched down, in the dark, in my sister Mari’s bedroom at our parents’ house. We were hiding. It was her 40th birthday and we’d flown to Melbourne to surprise her. And when she walked in and turned on the light and saw us, the ecstatic expression on her face as she jumped up and down, shouting “OH NO, YOU DIDN’T!!!!!” was absolutely fucking priceless. I relive that joyful moment often.
Another moment that has stood the test of time harks back even further, to around 1985 or perhaps 1986. I was in the exact same room, lying in wait for my youngest sister, Pieta. It was the middle of the day and I’d been sitting in her closet for about 45 minutes, patiently waiting for her to come in, close the door and make herself comfortable before jumping out of the closet and scaring the living shit out of her. She tore through the house, screaming like someone whose pants were on fire, and when I finally caught up to her and showed her it was just me and not the bogeyman, my ten year old sister collapsed in shock and relief. It took an hour of comforting her in my arms before the tears finally abated and she stopped shaking with fear. Good times.
Recently, I’ve been reliving many memories from my past. Memories inextricably linked to the house I grew up in. As you know, I recently spent several weeks in Melbourne, preparing our home for sale after my Mum died. And on a rainy day, in the first week of September, it was sold to the highest bidder at auction. Just six weeks later, on Wednesday, 16th October 2019 the keys to our family home were ceremoniously handed over to the new owners, and the front door to a massive part of my life was irrevocably slammed shut.
Before I go on, let me tell you a little bit about my parents. Both of them came from very poor families in Greece. But, while Dad grew up in a joyful, loving home, lavished with kindness and affection and praise, my Mum was raised in a hard, sterile environment bereft of love. Despite this, my mother’s ability to give love remained unscathed, and when she met my Dad her heart finally found its real home. When my sisters and I came along, the five of us created the sense of family and home that Mum had never experienced as a child. We all lived happily in a two bedroom flat in Elwood until I was twelve years old. And in 1983, after years of struggling, scrimping and saving, my parents achieved the great Australian dream of finally owning their own home – the house at 1 Anthony Drive, Mount Waverley. I remember the pride on their faces as my sisters and I ran around the “fixer upper” four bedroom house, on the day that we moved in.
Over the years, as my father put his talents to work transforming it, the house became not just somewhere for us to live, but a place that defined our family. Over a 20 year period, my Dad plastered and whitewashed the house, he knocked down walls, tore up the carpet, constructed staircases and decks, installed floor to ceiling windows and built a small scale working version of the fountain he’d been commissioned to create for Government House. He remodeled the bathroom and the kitchen, installed a sauna room for my Mum, paved the driveway and front courtyard, re-tiled the roof, insulated the whole building, re-stumped the foundations and, to my great consternation at the time, built a magnificent arched wall that ran the entire length of the front of the property (a massive nod to our wog heritage). The house we moved into was pretty great, but the house my father died in, in 2003, was something else. He had not built it from the ground up, but he might as well have, and everywhere you looked he was there. In every corner, in every room, he had left his mark on the Stathopoulos family home.
My sisters and I all moved out of home around the same time but our house was a place we could always return to, whenever we needed somewhere to stay, and I actually moved back home several times over the years – after every major breakup, after my year living in the United States, in between share households and for a few months after Dad died, sleeping on a foam mattress on the living room floor. It was a place I knew I could always come home to, and David and I always used it as our base whenever we visited Melbourne. Mari felt the same way:
It was a place that, no matter what I did or where I went, was always there. That welcomed me back into its folds after break ups and break downs, like a revolving door of love, sending me back out into the world stronger and with a fresh reminder that I was welcome back any time.
When our Dad died, everything changed. Mum was robbed of her partner, her lover, her companion, her rock. She desperately held on to all she had left – her three daughters and the house. For my Mum, those four walls had come to represent more than just a place to live. The house was how she defined herself, as a wife and as a mother. The house was our family history. It was security, and comfort and love – tangible things to a person who had grown up without them. It was her safe space, the only safe space she had ever known.
Sadly, like everything else, our house weathered the ravages of time, showing signs of decay in the years following my Dad’s death. The house got older, and so did Mum. Maintaining it, and the huge garden, became more and more difficult for her. I tried several times to convince her to sell it and move into something smaller and more manageable. I hated seeing her struggle, and wanted to make her life a bit easier. I never understood why she resisted, or exactly what I was asking her to sacrifice. Until my Mum died, I always thought that the house I grew up in was just a house. It was only afterwards, living there with my sisters as we cleared it out, that the enormity of selling it actually struck me. The magnitude of it punched me in the chest every night when I went to sleep in my old bedroom, and every morning when I woke up and looked out the window at my Mum’s beautiful garden. And every day, the memories came flooding back.
In that very bedroom, I got my first period (and incidentally, quite possibly my last). A few months later, after countless failed attempts leaning up against my bedroom door, I successfully hammered in my first tampon. And around the same time I discovered the joys of masturbation. It was in that room that my fifteen year old friend Tina and I would turn out the lights and talk about sex for hours on end. It was where my first love finally, drunkenly kissed me, at my 18th birthday party. And where, a year later, I lost my virginity to a younger man I snuck in through my bedroom window in the middle of the night.
The rest of the house holds equally strong memories. And not just for me. Mari remembers:
Any time I needed someone to talk to, whether it was about a boyfriend, my work, my studies, my hopes and dreams, just life, whether the conversations were whispered in bedrooms with one sister or the other, hatching plans and keeping each others’ secrets, it was in our house. If it was a long meandering conversation over cups of coffee in the dining room with my Mum, or life lessons in the sunroom with my Dad, it was in that house. And you can bet any time there was joyous, chaotic yelling or singing at the top of our lungs in the lounge room, it was in that house, with my family, the people I love the most in the world.
My memories include our next door neighbour ringing the doorbell to complain to my parents about my horrendous singing (while I was still actually in the shower murdering “Fiddler on The Roof”). Endless summers tirelessly practicing dance routines with Mari and Pieta. And birthdays (so many birthdays, so many sparklers). I clearly remember the Holden Gemini filled with lanky teenage boys careening out of control and crashing into the side of the house while our parents were out, the three of us terrified that they were all dead and too afraid to go outside to check (they were fine). Roasting a whole lamb on a spit every single Christmas, and the obligatory family pic in front of the fountain. Endless VHS video hours of our parents entertaining friends – tables laden with food, live music, Greek dancing and thunderous, thigh-slapping laughter. I remember Mari dramatically throwing a plateful of spaghetti Bolognese at me when I pushed her just a little bit too far one day at lunch. And I remember grudgingly helping my Dad build that damn fucking wall, hating every minute of it, but still, knowing that I was helping him to achieve something remarkable.
Our house is where our dogs Barnaby and Subby lay buried in the backyard (shhh, don’t tell the new owners!!). It’s where David asked Mum for my hand in marriage. Where my father took his last breath as we held onto him, crying for our loss. In July of this year, the three of us moved back into that house, together for the first time in 25 years. For the last time. It was where Mari, Pieta and I mixed our parents’ ashes together. It was where we spent two months scrubbing our home of all the markers that had made it that. Mari remembers:
In clearing it out for sale it I felt like we looked over and contemplated every part of the house in a way we had never done before. It would have been so easy to just pay someone to do it, but that time of working through every item together, the questions of will we keep this, who will keep that, why are you keeping those? was a process of grieving for the house.
Even after methodically emptying out 36 years’ worth of belongings and memories and cobwebs and junk, even after it no longer looked or felt like my home, it was hard to let it go. My last day in Australia, we drove to the house one more time. I tried so hard to say a proper goodbye to a place that actually feels woven into my DNA, but I don’t think I did a very good job. That night I had to get on a plane, and five days later the house was sold. It was goodbye, whether I liked it or not.
Our house being sold is only a symbol of something greater being destroyed. With our parents gone, the selling of our home represents the fragmentation of the cellular walls of our family. My sisters and I are now like three untethered electrons, spinning around each other in ever greater orbits. Our family tree ends with us. In a weird way, I’m OK with that. Knowing that when we die, our family dies with us, gives me comfort. Nothing will be carried forward into the unknown. Our family was something that existed only in this lifetime. We will have had a beginning, a beautiful middle, and an end. In a way, it will have been perfect.