Learning About Me

Ejo #147 – Memories

My Mum died three years ago.  Saying it out loud anchors that awful event in time, crystallising exactly how long ago it happened.  About a year afterwards, a certain pesky virus barge-assed its way onto the world stage, rudely grabbing time by the balls, warping and skewing it, and rendering us all collectively stranded in temporal limbo.  Multiple lockdowns, bans on travel, social restrictions and endless zoom meetings all served to smudge the days together, leaving us few memory milestones with which to mark time.  My Mum’s death is a pretty major milestone.  And yet, because of the pandemic, I find it difficult to reconcile the time that has passed since she died with everything that has occurred since. 

I have written enough about my Mum for you to know how immeasurable an impact her death has had on me.  Every single day.  You know some of her recipes for traditional Greek foods like tzatziki, stuffed tomatoes, my favourite meatballs with white sauce and chicken in red sauce.  You know about the book she wrote, filled with herbal remedies for all sorts of common ailments and my promise to translate and publish it in English.  You know all about her difficult childhood, her deep love for her husband, and her attachment to our family home.  You know a little bit about what I went through when my mother died, and the grief I have experienced since. 

But there are so many stories about my Mum that you don’t know.  Stories of little nothings, stories of things that left a mark.  Funny stories, sad stories, weird stories.  When someone you love dies, your relationship stops being dynamic.  No new memories are created with them, and what you’re left with is just a series of static snapshots from the past.  And it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of remembering the same curated catalogue of memories, which can then actually become your entire memory of them.  I don’t want that to happen with my Mum.  I want to remember as much real detail about her as I can.  And so I’m reaching into the past, beyond the inadequate narrative that has already started forming.  I’m reaching back into the history I shared with my family, into the day to day stories that may have felt inconsequential at the time, but which have become precious pearls to be salvaged from the past.  Stories that would otherwise be in danger of fading from memory.  And I would like to share a few of them here, for posterity.  So that a fuller, and more colourful and textured version of my Mum can live on in the world.  Even after I’m gone.  These aren’t necessarily true versions of events that happened, but rather just my personal, fallible memories.  And like I said, they’re only snapshots, marred by time.  But these memories are my truth.  And they are all that I have left. 

So, this is some of what remains.

The time I dropped my bag in the middle of a busy K-mart, frozen as I watched what somehow seemed like a million tampons slowly spill out and dramatically roll across the department store floor in every direction.  Wishing for the ground to open up and swallow me.  Hoping, beyond hope, that no-one had seen it.  Which is exactly the point at which my Mum started bellowing with laughter, bringing everyone’s attention to the errant tampons, pointing at each one as I awkwardly ran around trying to collect them all.  Why Mum, why??

Or the time I fucked around with a faulty bedside lamp when I was six years old and copped a mild electric shock which threw me to the floor.  Mum ran in, naked from the shower, yelling at me, while also lovingly sweeping me up in her arms to give me a comforting cuddle.  And the time I was seven years old and decided to visit the lovely old lady over the fence, kind of forgetting to tell anyone, precipitating a missing persons call to the police and a neighbourhood search party.  While Mum was frantic with worry, I was learning how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the piano, leafing through old encyclopaedias and chatting with “Granny” over tea and biscuits.  When a policeman eventually reunited me with Mum she enveloped me in a tight embrace, tears cascading down her face.  She squeezed me so hard, and then flipped me around and smacked me just as hard on my bewildered, embarrassed butt.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on.  But I felt the love. 

Granny’s house was just over this fence.

Burning up with a fever of 41º when I was eight years old, I remember my Mum on the phone to the doctor, carefully writing down his instructions to fill the bathtub with cold water and ice-cubes, and to plunge me into the tub every 20 minutes until my temperature dropped.  We both cried as she talked me through it, her hand gently on my chest to keep me calm in my delirium. 

Mum rebelliously sneaking a McDonald’s cheeseburger into the hospital when I was recovering from ear surgery when I was fifteen.  I greedily scarfed the burger, basking in the glow of our conspiratorial secret.  And then I threw up, everywhere.  The nurses were not impressed with me, or Mum. 

One night when I was a baby and Mum was heavily pregnant with my sister Mary, she heard a noise in the backyard and called the police.  Dad was on the road, trucking interstate and she was always so anxious and scared when he was gone.  When the cops arrived, they took one look at the bear trap she’d set up outside the back door (oh yes, I did say bear trap), turned to her incredulously and said, “Uhhh no, lady!  Nooooo!!” adding that she’d be the one in trouble if a burglar was injured by the trap.  She didn’t quite understand what the problem was, but she promised she wouldn’t use it again.

I’ll never forget the feeling of drama and excitement the day Mum won $1000 on a scratchie ticket.  She made a grand entrance through the front door of our Elwood flat with an enormous smile on her face and four brand new, big, puffy doonas stuffed under her arms.  Being relatively poor at the time, a feather duvet was the epitome of posh luxury.  As a ten year old, I remember thinking, wow, so this is what it feels like to be rich!

Celebrations!

When I was transferred to the country town of Albury/Wodonga for work a few months after my Dad died, Mum decided to come with me for the first couple of weeks to keep me company and help me settle in.  We developed a routine, including daily walks along the Murray river where she taught me which wild grasses were edible, and which ones to avoid.  We’d cut them out of the ground with my crappy Swiss army knife, and carry them home in a plastic shopping bag to cook and eat them together, savouring the quiet comfort of each other’s company.  We didn’t have to say the words but we were both desperately missing my father.    

My Mum was the most accommodating person I’ve ever known.  But she developed a dramatic flair for stubbornness in her later years.  On our way home from that trip to Wodonga, tension started running a little high.  After nearly three hours on the road, we’d just reached outer Melbourne in peak hour traffic and it was pissing down with rain.  We got into a “disagreement” about the cause of my father’s lung cancer.  Red flag territory.  We were waiting for a traffic light to turn green, and I demanded that she admit that Dad’s history of smoking had to have contributed to his illness.  She obstinately refused, citing his work with asbestos and other toxic chemicals as the main cause.  Tempers flared and I insisted, declaring that I wasn’t going to continue driving until she admitted she was wrong.  Obnoxiously, I pulled on the handbrake and turned the engine off for emphasis.  We were parked, baby.  At a busy highway intersection.  In rush hour.  In the rain.  I knew she would be uncomfortable with this, but, unexpectedly, my mother wouldn’t budge.  The light turned green and the cars behind me started going crazy, honking and beeping.  My windshield wipers were no competition for the rain bucketing down in sheets, and the windows were fogging up from all the hot air in the car.  I desperately wanted to prove my point but I was also starting to freak out.  This wasn’t the way I had expected my little stunt to go.  Cars started driving around us as we continued shouting at each other.  Me shouting at her to please, please, please just admit it so that we could go.  Beseeching her.  And her shouting at me that she would do no such thing.  Stoic.  Defiant.  She parked herself in the passenger seat with her arms crossed and a stony look in her eye that I’d never seen before.  In the end I caved, releasing the handbrake and turning the car back on in defeat, inching forward towards the traffic lights that had cycled back to red.  We sat in heavy silence for a minute, and then looked at each other and burst into laughter, falling into each other’s arms.  Discovering this stubborn streak in my mother shocked, and (I’m not gonna lie) impressed, the hell out of me. 

As you might be able to tell, I didn’t always have an easy relationship with my mother, and that was especially true during my adolescence.  Between the ages of 15 to 23, I was an insufferable asshole to every single person in my family.  When I was 18, Mum spent three months in Greece after her father died.  I remember the day she came back.  Mary and Pieta were jumping up and down with joy when Mum walked in the door, while I hung back, wearing “trendy” new clothes, heavy eyeliner and a big, fat attitude on my face.  Too cool for fucking school.  I know that my icy reception must have hurt her, but at the time I didn’t give a shit.  Memories like this bring me a great deal of pain, but they still deserve to be remembered, just as much as the good memories do, because they are part of the deep and complex relationship I had with my mother. 

I remember Mum’s beautiful singing voice.  When she was young, she harboured a secret desire to be a professional singer, and she worshipped the popular Greek musician Marinella, closely following her career for decades.  Whenever my Mum broke out in song, she would get a faraway look in her eyes. I don’t know where she went, but she owned the world when she sang.  To my untrained ear, my Mum sounded just like her idol and now, whenever I listen to her favourite Marinella tracks, I get shivers.  All I can hear is my mother’s voice. 

A stunning head shot.
This magical song from the late seventies was one of my Mum’s favourite Marinella tunes, and we grew up listening to it. I know every single word, and hearing it now fills me with such joy and such heartbreak at the same time. Watching the video, I am struck by how similar my Mum’s fashion style was to Marinella’s. Also, that they both had asspiles of sass!!
And they say never meet your heroes. What a load of bullshit. Look at the joy on my Mum’s face when she met her idol Marinella.

Spending time in the garden with Mum during our more recent visits back home, I was pleasantly surprised to see how popular she was in the neighbourhood.  All day long, people would drop by, or stop to have a chat.  I had been concerned (from afar) that she was becoming too reclusive, so it helped me to worry less about her, knowing that she had a strong network of friends to keep her from getting too lonely.  When Mary, Pieta and I were living at the house after Mum died, we had to tell the postman that Mum had passed away. The man handed us our packages and cried on the doorstep.

There are many memories of Mum intently leafing through the pages of a book of dreams when I was 9, 13, 17, 31 explaining to me that the snake I’d dreamt about represented something to be wary of, perhaps a person who didn’t have my best intentions in mind.  Or telling Pieta that her dream of losing a tooth meant that she needed to be careful about losing something important in her life.  I never really believed in these things, but I did enjoy being entertained by the mystical spirituality of it all.  And I respected my Mum’s belief and conviction in the symbolism.  She was also passionately interested in fortune telling, numerology and astrology.  Perhaps because she wanted to believe that life could be influenced by things greater than us.  That there was a chance that things could always get better, despite the odds.

The infamous and shocking morning that Judy, a family friend staying at our holiday house, brushed her teeth and notoriously spat it out in the kitchen sink, casual as you’d like.  Mum nearly fell on the floor, absolutely apoplectic in disgust and horror.  The incident became folklore in our family and we talked about Judy’s unforgiveable crime for years, long after we lost touch with her. 

I have so many memories of my Mum’s vivacious smile from every time David and I arrived at her house in a taxi from the airport, suitcases in tow.  The excitement and joy in her heart so easily expressed in her big, beautiful smile is forever etched in my memory and in my heart.  Twelve times in eleven years I saw that look on her face.  The flip side was how sad and deflated she would become on the day we had to leave Melbourne to return to Dubai.  We’d be watching TV, waiting for our ride to the airport and I’d glance over and see Mum looking at me, quietly soaking me in, with her doleful brown eyes.  Clutching onto her unspoken wishes that we could just stay, forever.  I’d go and sit next to her, holding her in my arms, squeezing her hand tightly, my heart burdened with sadness and guilt.  It never got any easier. 

Timeless.

I’ll never forget the messages that Mum and I exchanged the day before she died.  I was burning the candle at both ends in Tbilisi and WhatsApped her to conceitedly complain that I was suffering from a migraine headache.  She was worried about me.  Even though she was in a great deal of pain, her primary concern was the wellbeing of her daughter.  I remember that so clearly.  And I also remember her telling me about the change in Melbourne weather.  She told me that she was cold.  And a few hours later she was dead. 

In the months after my Mum’s death, crushed by the weight of my grief, I struggled to remember our last day together, or the final time we said goodbye.  Can you even imagine?  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my mother alive.  All the farewells we’d shared over the years melded into a blurry melancholic montage, and I couldn’t pinpoint that one single very important moment.  Over the last three years I believe I’ve accurately recreated it with the help of David and my sisters, and the messages that were sent on the family WhatsApp group that day.  But I’m still not really sure.  That’s the problem with death, and it’s the problem with goodbyes.  Every single time you say goodbye, could be the last time.  You never know which moment is going to turn from just another everyday interaction into one of the most important moments of your life. 

Goodbye, my Mum. 💔

Ejo #144 – “A Family Guide: Herbal Remedies” by Maria Stathopoulos

So it’s the last day of the year.  Time to pay the piper.  As you may recall, earlier this year I laid down a strongly worded promise to my Mum, in addition to a few other shitkicker goals that I’d hoped to have completed by the end of this year.  In other words, today. 

To recap, the first goal was to learn all the words to the eight minute rap song, The New Rap Language.  It brings me no joy to report to you that while I did learn the first few stanzas, there were another 45 verses that I didn’t quite get around to.  Bummer.  I also wanted to learn how to pick locks.  Sadly, no-one will be calling me to take part in any craftily planned heists any time soon.  Zero progress.  Bummer.  As for my goal to put together a fabulous death party (also known, by more basic bitches, as a funeral), I have managed to put together a list of some pretty kick-ass ideas, so I am happy about that.  But these promises were all secondary to the one that I made to my Mum that I would translate her book of herbal remedies into English. 

So, how’d I go?  Well, technically the promise has been satisfied.  I have, with some help from google translate, made a rudimentary translation of every single chapter from Greek into English.  And the reason I say “technically” is that google translate isn’t great at translating nuance, so I need to go through the entire text word by word with a dictionary to ensure the veracity of the translation.  And I’m not that great at translating Greek, so it’s a slog.  And I am nowhere near a final draft.  So technically, yes, it is something I can tick off, but it almost feels like a hollow victory.  In my mind, when I said that I’d translate Mum’s book this year, I’d idealistically imagined that I’d be holding a printed copy, hot off the presses, in my hand right now.  And that definitely isn’t the case.  And I am disappointed. 

My Mum isn’t alive so I don’t know how she would feel about it, but I do like to think that she would be forgiving, sympathetic and understanding.  Because that’s who she was.  And instead of beating myself up about it, I think I should also be forgiving, sympathetic and understanding towards myself.  I have resolved to get my Mum’s work out there in one form or another.  And I will.  Whether it’s an actual physical book, an e-book or even perhaps a website.  Her wisdom must be shared, and it has to be me that makes that happen.  Because I said I would do it. 

When I started doing the painstaking, word by word translation I learned things about my mother that I had never known before.  Can you believe that I had never even read the introduction to her book?  Why would I?  It was in Greek!  Ugh, I’m definitely not proud of that.  Regrets, I have a few.  But in translating the introduction, I found that I was bringing my Mum, through her words and through her experiences, back to life.  The urge to call her, to talk to her, was overwhelming.  It felt like she was right there. And I have so many questions that I wish I could ask her.  I would have loved nothing more than to work on a translation together with my Mum, as a team, and I know that she would have loved it too.  That’s no longer possible but I am going to stick to my promise.  I will find a way to print my Mum’s work in a way that pays tribute to all her knowledge and all the hard work she put into her learning, into her garden and into this book.

Below, I am publishing my English translation of the introduction to “A Family Guide: Herbal Remedies” by Maria Stathopoulos.  Our writing styles are very different so I have made a great effort to remain faithful to Mum’s voice, and to not imbue it my own tone.  It has given me unparalleled joy to open my mother’s book, take out the words she wrote and be able to publish them here. It feels like I’ve unearthed some long-buried treasure for you all. Please enjoy, and I wish you all a healthy, happy and wonderful new year ahead.  🎉

____________________________________________________________________________

The author. ♥

My name is Maria Stathopoulos née Roumelioti.  I was born in 1947 in Ancient Korinthos, a beautiful village at the foot of the mountain castle Akrokorinthos.  I lived there until I emigrated to Australia in 1965.

When I was a young girl, my village didn’t have its own doctor, but a doctor did visit once a week and we would go and see him if we weren’t well.  When that doctor wasn’t available, we would have to travel to New Korinthos, which was a one hour donkey ride away.  The long distance was always a problem and many times it prevented us from travelling at all, which is why we only made the journey in cases of serious illness. 

At that time, the elderly women of most small villages in Greece used herbs as first-aid for many different ailments, helping those who were in need.  I watched what they were doing with fascination, curiosity and awe for their methods, and for the ease with which they would mix the herbs when making medicines.  I wanted to be like them when I grew up.  The fact that they were always willing to help anyone who needed it was also a reason I was interested in studying botany.  As a young girl I kept detailed notes about which herbs were used, and how they were applied.  I always dreamed that, one day, I too would specialise in the use of herbs.  

Anyway, the years passed, and I grew up and came to Australia, like so many others.  In Australia I worked hard and started a family.  Everything was going well until I suddenly became very sick with chronic internal infection and bleeding, blood in the urine and terrible pains in my abdomen.  I remembered the herbs of my childhood and decided to experiment with my own treatments.  But I discovered that everything I had seen, heard and learned in my village was useless to me, because I did not know the names of the herbs in English.  The knowledge I had was insufficient to help myself.  The horrible pains forced me to go to the doctor many times, and after undergoing the appropriate examinations without being able to find the cause of the problem, they referred me to another doctor, who also found nothing and referred me to a specialist.  The specialist, despite conducting many tedious examinations, could also not find the cause of the problem and sent me to another doctor who in turn sent me to another specialist.  One specialist sent me to another.  And then they would refer me to yet another.  I felt like a tennis ball, bouncing from doctor to doctor, from examination to examination, from cauterisation to cauterisation and from surgery to surgery, all to no avail.

At that time I was a mother of three small children and many times I remember having to crawl on my hands and knees to do the housework and to look after my kids.  This went on for 15 whole years.  The doctors prescribed, and I took, every antibiotic and every painkiller available on the market, all without any relief.

Desperate, I stared truth in the eye and decided that in order to get better I had no choice but to become my own doctor.  The treatments I had undergone with synthetic drugs had not helped me at all.  They just created new problems for me, and increased my suffering.  Fifteen years of necessarily excessive drug consumption had also resulted in chronic nephritis and a very dangerous penicillin allergy.  “Only a miracle can save you”, I thought to myself.  A miracle to rid me of all the pain and suffering.  I threw away the drugs and looked for treatment elsewhere.  In my despair, I once again remembered the herbal remedies of my childhood and decided to try again.  I started reading books about my problem, and how herbs could treat it.  Timidly at first, I started experimenting on myself, and very quickly I realised that I was doing something right, because the pain started to diminish so clearly.  I continued the treatment.  My pain and symptoms subsided continuously and I felt better every day.  Using herbs on a daily basis I regained my health and eventually became completely well.  The problems that had tormented me for 15 years just disappeared, and have never returned.  The miracle I had hoped for actually happened. 

I had solved my problem, but ultimately that was not enough for me.  I wanted to know why, when and which herbs act positively on which diseases.  So I decided to enroll in a botany class at the local college, which has a dedicated horticultural department.  That’s where I learned the names of herbs in English, their uses, their structures, their healing properties, what each plant contains within it, and how and when to use them.  Although I got the result I wanted for myself, I did not stop studying.  I continued reading, and learning more every day. What I remembered as a child and all that I learned at school, I write about in this book, to help as many people as I can.  To help those who wish to no longer suffer needlessly, as I did.  They will realise, as I and so many others have realised, that herbs bring balance to the body.  Their healing substances help to heal our shocked health and strengthen us because, like them, we also belong to nature.  A nature so powerful that she provides us with everything we need in the form of food and medicine.  All you have to do is reach out and take what nature offers to us so generously. 

It’s a shame that humans have created a world of our own making, in which our own synthetic substances sicken and kill us every day.  We refuse to abandon them because they’re convenient and comfortable.  But this convenience makes us unable to see that we are losing what is most valuable to us; our health.  Unfortunately we have become what we eat; foods full of poison, toxins, chemicals, preservatives and artificial colours that are harmful.  Will we ever understand that the foods containing these ingredients should never be eaten? The human body endures to a point, but then begins to react, giving us danger signals that we sometimes recognise, but not always.  We breathe polluted air, exhaust fumes, industrial waste and more.  We eat inappropriate food and drink dirty water.  And the danger lurks.  Our only shield is to add herbs to our diet and to make better choices about what we eat.  It is only then that we may be able to avoid the diseases that threaten us every step of the way.  Everything we eat, everything we drink and everything we breathe is reflected in our health, whether we like it or not.  The time has come to realise that without health we have nothing.  Who knows, if I had continued taking the pharmacological drugs that did me so much harm, I might still be sick and running from doctor to doctor.  Fortunately, I stopped in time.  I searched for a cure in nature, and I found it.

In herbs we discover beneficial and healing properties that give us confidence over time, because the more we use them the more we realise and understand that they protect us and help us.  I am not a doctor, nor do I try to present myself as a doctor.  But I was suffering and I speak from experience.  I tried the herbs and I know they work.  For my problem, which was internal infection, bloating and blood in the urine, I eliminated from my diet white bread, white flour, peanuts, mushrooms, yeast, tomatoes, dry figs and dairy of all kinds except plain yoghurt for six months.  I did herbal treatments every day, and after six months I reintroduced everything except sugar. 

After going to hell and back, I was finally able to solve the problem that had tormented me for 15 years by using humble but powerful herbs.  That’s why I’m proud of, and want to share, what I know with those who are interested to learn.  With herbs I did something that the doctors I’d visited hundreds of times could not do, because they believed only in chemical treatments.  Before readers conclude that I am against orthodox medicine and its doctors, let me assure you that I firmly believe in them, and in science. We need doctors for diagnoses, surgeries, etc. but we do not need to ingest chemicals for minor conditions, and I do not believe in the way, or the ease with which, drugs are prescribed to us. 

Nature has provided our planet with all the herbs to treat every disease, and a natural bounty with which to live comfortably, free of health problems.  We were not given chemicals or fast food.  These were created by us, and as a result we all suffer issues with our health.  So it is time to take the steering wheel of health in our hands and turn it towards mother nature. She has provided us with the medicine for all our ailments.  These are found in various types of food, containing ingredients suitable for the proper functioning of the body and with no side effects.

In order to be worthy descendants of the ancient Greek philosophers and herbalists Socrates, Dioscorides, Aristotle and Galen, we must believe, as they believed and taught, that in order to cure a disease we must cure the whole body and not only the symptoms.  These great sages, writers and doctors of antiquity posited that food be our medicine and medicine be our food.  In other words, what we eat should not only satisfy our hunger, but also heal us.  If we can truly understand the depth and the meaning of these words, we will forever hold onto these useful, tried-and-true herbal remedies.  Everything I have learned through personal study and diligence, everything that I have put into practise, I have recorded for you in this informative book which was written with patience and love.  It is my hope, my wish and my belief that one day the doctor’s office and hospitals will all be emptied of patients.  

Ejo #143 – It’s My Body, And I’ll Cry If I Want To (Part 2)

Trigger warning: Rape and Sexual Assault, Child abuse/paedophilia

Just over four years ago Alyssa Milano tweeted a hashtag that had first been used by activist Tarana Burke more than a decade earlier, and in doing so, kickstarted a movement many more years than that in the making.  Hashtag #metoo blew up and I remember seeing it on Facebook where it was used 12 million times during the first 24 hours.  That’s a lot of me too’s.  I debated whether or not to join the wave of people announcing that they too had experienced sexual abuse or sexual harrassment.  I mean, yeah I had actually experienced it too.  But was I obliged to go public with that information?  In the end I did join in, posting #metoo on my Facebook timeline.  No details, just the hashtag.  I was swept up in the sense of connection, supported by strangers whom I suddenly shared a grievous bond with.  It was quite empowering to be a part of that.  But I didn’t feel comfortable sharing details.  Not then.  But things are different now.  

The first time a man indecently exposed himself to me, I was around eight years old.  Our young family of five were living in a two bedroom flat in Elwood, which wasn’t ideal, but it was all we could afford.  The gentrified version of Elwood that exists now was not the Elwood that I grew up in.  Back then, the streets of the bayside suburb were seedy, dodgy and inhabited by homeless people, thugs and junkies.  It was a pretty rough place to grow up.  So much so that my parents slaved for years to move out of there, transplanting us all to the peaceful, leafy suburb of Mt. Waverley just in time for me to start high school.  Which was a huge relief because I’d been dreading graduating to Elwood High, where it was rumoured that all the new kids were welcomed by having their heads flushed down the toilets on the first day of school.  I don’t know if that was actually true, or not.  But I do know that it might have been true, and the idea absolutely terrified me.  

So, despite being a ghetto neighbourhood, it was still the copacetic 70s, so our childhood was pretty idyllic.  We were wild children, spending hours outside playing with the neighbourhood gang of feral kids, only heading back home when the chorus of parents calling their children in for dinner started echoing around the back lanes.  We had some pretty interesting neighbours in that block of flats.  There was the surly teen who spent hours pounding a tennis ball against the brick wall of the flats.  We felt each reverberation like a booming metronome in our living room.  His mum, who we all speculated was a sex worker because of the way she dressed and the hours she kept, melodiously yodelled his name every evening at dusk, “Ashley, Ashley, Ashley” until he finally picked up his ball and went home.  Before long we would hear the clicking of her heels marking her departure into the darkening night.  There was the old guy with one arm and a wooden leg who lived upstairs from us.  He’d get home from work every evening and empty his colostomy bag against the wall in front of his yellow Holden.  And of course there was Mrs. Goldberg, the landlord of most of the flats, who used to yell at us to stop roller-skating on the driveway because we were making cracks in the concrete.  We’d just laugh and skate even harder.  

And then there was the bum I accidentally came across in the back lane that one time, shocked to discover that the reason he was so curiously hunched over in the corner was that he was masturbating furiously into our rubbish bin.  I stopped in my tracks, eyes widening, my fingers tightening around the bag of rubbish in my hand.  Mr. Wanky turned to look at me and continued to beat off without breaking his rhythm, completely unperturbed.  Our eyes locked, and I detected a hint of a smile.  And he just kept on slapping that salami, almost defiantly, a man on a mission.  Like I was the villain in this scenario.  Not truly understanding what was happening, but having a very strong sense that it wasn’t a good idea to stick around, I flung the rubbish bag in his direction and briskly walked the hell out of there, intent on erasing the image of what I’d just seen from my mind.  But I couldn’t.

The scene of the crime. The building has changed quite a bit from when we lived there but the yellow brick wall was where Ashley would take out his frustrations against our living room wall. Under the stairs is where our old neighbour would empty his bag full of stale piss. And the area in front of the garage is where there used to be a semi-enclosed rubbish bin area. That’s where Mr. Wanky decided that he simply had to scratch his overwhelmingly libidinous itch into our rubbish bin.

That was the first time a man indecently exposed himself to me, but it certainly wasn’t the last.  The next two times were in Brunswick, on our cousin’s turf.  Elwood might have been a bit rough around the edges back then, but Brunswick was immigrant rough.  Populated mostly by down-at-heel, working class Greeks, Lebanese and Italians it was always a little bit scary and a little bit intoxicating to go and visit our cousins, which we did often.  Vicki and Peter, were a few years older than us and seemed so sophisticated and street wise compared to us coddled beach bunnies.  Spending time in Brunswick expanded our minds and broadened our horizons.  Unfortunately not always in a good way.  

My youngest sister Pieta was five years old and I was ten, when we were cajoled, as we frequently were, into walking to the corner store down the street from my auntie’s flat to buy cigarettes.  The good old days, am I right?  On the way back, a guy in a Datsun that was parked on the side of the road rolled his window down and beckoned us over.  Naively, we approached the car, and were treated to an eyeful of the dude’s extremely hirsute coat of strawberry blonde pubes.  I’m talking Wookiee level hairy. When he was certain that he had our attention he grabbed his dick and pointed it in our direction, begging us to look at it.  Nope.  Pieta and I ran as fast as we could back to my aunt’s flat and reported the situation to the grown-ups who put together a posse to sort the guy out, though by the time they got there he was long gone.  I wonder what Red’s doing now.  

Another time we were playing a game called rocks on our cousin’s massive driveway with some other kids from the ‘hood.  A guy walking by saw us, and thought that we might enjoy an anatomy lesson.  He jumped up onto the brick wall at the bottom of the driveway and very nonchalantly pulled his pants down to flash us all, swivelling his hips like some kind of pervert lighthouse.  We stopped what we were doing and stared, but this time we didn’t run away.  If I had to guess how many times a man flashed his genitals at me when I was a kid, I’d say about a dozen.  Maybe more.  Did I want to see any of those penises?  No, I did not.  

I remember the first time I was sexualised as a child.  My Dad’s best friend Manoli, someone he’d grown up with and known for years, used to be a regular visitor to our house.  He’d known me my whole life and I felt very comfortable around him.  One time, when I was 13 years old and my parents had left the room, he called me over to the couch and showed me a little picture of a woman’s face that he’d taken out of his wallet.  He handed me the photo and told me that he thought I looked just like her and that I should be flattered because she was so beautiful.  I couldn’t see the resemblance, but a surge of endorphins rushed through my body nonetheless.  He then told me that he’d cut the picture out of a Playboy magazine, punctuating the revelation with a knowing wink.  When my Dad found out, he absolutely lost it.  He completely cut ties with his friend and we never saw him again.  I felt kind of guilty about that, as victims often do, but I also felt gratitude to my parents for how they handled it.  Their zero tolerance for his inappropriate behaviour taught me to respect myself.

That was the first time I was sexually objectified as a minor, but it wasn’t the last.  Between the ages of 13 and 18 I played competitive tennis every weekend at Mayfield Park Tennis Club.  Sometimes I’d get a lift home, but more often than not I would walk the 2.5kms between the club and my house, carrying my racket and wearing my tennis gear.  Despite Mt. Waverley being a peaceful, leafy suburb, every single time I walked home I was honked, catcalled and whistled at by men driving past.  Mostly men who were old enough to be my father.  As a shy and self-conscious teen I dreaded the unwanted attention, but also felt a strange and unfamiliar sense of burgeoning sexual validation.  I was becoming inured to the reality that once a girl hits puberty she suddenly becomes visible to men and their rapacious appetites.  And she has no choice about that.  

When #metoo happened, I started processing all the times I had been subjected to a man’s unwanted attention, every time I’d been inappropriately touched, every time I’d felt frightened for my safety.  And I realised that I had actually amassed quite a few of my own “me too” stories.  Stories that I’d internalised, because I had no other choice.  As a woman, you just normalise these events, because they are in fact normal.  Because they happen all the time.  But that doesn’t mean that they should.  

I started thinking back, and remembered the guy at school, who had a crush on me. He would give me gifts that I didn’t want and follow me home from school, disquietingly hanging around our street long after I’d gone inside.  I remembered going for a walk with another guy at a party one night when I was seventeen.  He was really drunk and really big, and in the dark back streets of Mt. Waverley he suddenly turned really gropey.  In a diary entry written the next day, 1st July 1989, I wrote that he “could very easily have raped me”.  Realising that I was in a potentially dangerous situation, and scared for my safety, I managed to coax him back to the party, his arm uncomfortably slung over my shoulder. When we got back I said I needed to go to the toilet and sought refuge in the crowd.  It might not sound like a big deal, but that night I was actually concerned about the very real possibility of being raped.  By a friend from school.  I realised that I could no longer feel safe in public spaces.  An awareness that I think almost every woman eventually comes to understand.

I thought back and remembered the two times I’d trusted guy friends to sleep in the same bed with me.  I’ve shared a bed with dozens of friends over the years.  But that trust was betrayed twice, when I woke up in the middle of the night having to fight the guy off.  And you know what?  I refuse to blame myself for allowing a friend into the sanctity of my bed.  Because what I did was not wrong.  What they did was wrong.  Even today I’d be fine with sharing a bed with someone I know well.  Because it should be OK.  Because I refuse to allow the shitty actions of a couple of rogues to change my paradigm of how friends should behave towards each other.  And I refuse to react to the lowest common denominator.  

I remembered Patrick, the senior staffer from my work at the Department of Defence, offering to drive me to the Christmas party but pulling over about two blocks away from the venue to have a “chat”, before leaning over me and forcing his fat, turgid tongue into my mouth. I didn’t have the courage to push him away.  I was too shocked and polite and intimidated to say no.  So I just pretended everything was cool and convinced him that we should get to the party or we’d be late.  

I recollected all the times I’d been groped by faceless lotharios in busy nightclubs and bars.  From something as innocuous as a hand brushing up against my waist, to a squeeze on the bum, a pinched nipple or, as has happened more than once, a hand shoved up in between my legs in a quick and rough attempt to manhandle my private parts.  Turning around to protest this violation would, of course, reveal nothing.  Just a sea of artless faces, like nothing had happened at all, as though I’d just imagined the whole thing.  

And then I started tunneling deeper, unearthing real traumas.  I’ve been raped twice in my life.  The second time I was 21 years old.  For a long time I didn’t even call it rape.  Because that is such a big word, and I didn’t want it to be that.  But that’s exactly what it was.  Dictionary.com defines rape as “unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person, with or without force, by a sex organ, other body part, or foreign object, without the consent of the victim”.  So yeah, it was rape.  

I was going out with my first love, Allister.  Despite being madly in love, we probably weren’t a great influence on each other.  It was a time in my life when I was a little bit wild and a little bit out of control.  I attribute my current alcoholic tendencies to that time in my life.  Allister and I both drank in order to get drunk, enabling each other, and almost taking pride in how shitfaced we’d get.  I frequently polished off an entire bottle of Jim Beam in one night.  All by myself.  I can’t even touch the stuff now but back then I chugged it like water.  Like I was training for the alcoholic Olympics, and going for gold.  

Allister trying to rouse me from a drunken slumber.

When I got black out drunk, as I often did, I’d get up to all sorts of nonsense.  I developed a penchant for climbing trees, absolutely smashed off my head sometimes passing out, precariously nestled in the crook of a branch.  Sometimes I would fall out of the tree and really hurt myself.  Sometimes I’d sneak into strangers’ backyards and help myself to a midnight skinny dip in their pool.  Sometimes I’d have sex with Allister on some random front lawn (oh, the savage grass burns I’ve nursed).   Other times I’d run away from all my friends and hide in a park for a couple of hours, fucking around on the children’s playground, sliding down the slide, swinging on the swings.  Free as a motherfucking bird.  Sometimes I’d wake up lying face down in a flower bed.  Sometimes I’d wake up and have absolutely no recollection of what had happened the night before.  

Yep.  That was me.  

Allister and I used to hang out with one of his friends, also called Alister, (true story, though for the purposes of clarity, I’ll refer to him as Al from now on).  I was already a seasoned boozer, but whenever we hung out with Al, the drinking would ramp up, and we’d often end up guzzling liquor straight from the bottle (many bottles).  The intention was oblivion.  Mission achieved. 

Al was funny.  Not funny haha.  Funny weird.  He just did not like me from day one.  Or did he?  I honestly still don’t know.  Whenever we hung out in a group, or as a foursome with whatever chick he was banging that week, Al would openly bully me, belittle me, insult me, berate me or (if I was really lucky) completely ignore me and act as if I wasn’t even there.  I was so wet behind the ears, so confused and wounded by his animosity, that I would often completely fuck myself up by crying over it for hours.  He seemed to absolutely hate my guts.  For the first few hours anyway.  After he got past a certain point of inebriation, things would change and he would start being a little civil to me.  That was actually nice, and being the young people-pleaser I used to be, I’d forgive and forget his previously nasty ways.  But when Al got really, really drunk, was when he’d start staring at me lecherously from across the room.  I could actually feel the thickness and the darkness of his gaze, and my skin would start to crawl.  Because I knew that very soon, he would find a way to be alone with me.  And then he would start trying to take possession of me.  He would follow me to the bathroom and try to put his hands down my pants.  Or he’d corner me in a corridor and kiss me.  Or he’d grab me from behind and force me into some bushes.  He’d squeeze my breasts roughly, wetly hissing some booze-soaked, noxious bullshit into my ear.  He acted as if he was entitled to my body.  And even though a part of me found this crazy rollercoaster behaviour a little exhilarating, I never, ever encouraged it.  I didn’t want it.  I never consented to it.  And I always pushed him away.  He was an awful, toxic human being, and because of his behaviour Allister and I started spending less time with him.  

We did decide together that it would be OK to invite him to Allister’s 21st birthday party, which was held at his parent’s remote country property in Kinglake.  It was a great night and, of course, I got rip-roaring drunk.  Despite that, I remember exactly what happened in the small hours of that morning.  I remember it with crystal clarity.  Most people had retired to their tents for the night, but there were still a few stragglers keeping the party going in the large tent Allister and I had set up for ourselves.  I remember being in my pyjamas and going for a stumble, taking a time-out to commune with the wombats and to soak up moon.  It was a frosty night but, numb to the cold, I lay down on a grassy mound, less than 25 metres from the tent.  I gazed up at the bright, starry night, trying to keep it all from spinning so violently but didn’t have much luck.  

After about ten minutes I decided that I should get up and go to bed, but I just couldn’t move, I was so drunk.  I plaintively called out for Allister, but music was playing in the tent and I guess he didn’t hear me.  I called out for him again, anyway, hoping he might sense that I needed him.  Which is when I became aware of movement to my left.  It was Al ominously crawling out of the darkness, towards me.  He didn’t say a word.  He just kneeled over me, obscuring the light from the moon, and started pulling down my pyjama bottoms.  They were white with little pale blue dots.  I shook my head and drunkenly pleaded, “don’t”.  I tried to pull them back on, but he lifted my legs up and yanked them off.  And then he lay on top of me and forcefully inserted his barely erect penis into my vagina.  I kept saying no, and I kept trying to squirm out from under him.  But I was crushed beneath his deadweight. I ineptly implored for him to stop, stop, stop, over and over.  He was paralytic, but also determined.  I realised that there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent what was happening.  So I stopped fighting and went limp, just hoping that it would be over quickly, resigned to the horrific degradation of what was happening to me.  This man who couldn’t decide if it was hate or lust that he felt towards me, had decided that he wanted to fuck me.  And so he did.  From my cloud of drunken despair, I heard a voice in the distance.  Someone was calling Al’s name.  They were beckoning him away from me.  It was our mutual friend Gavin, to whom I’ll always be grateful for announcing his presence.  It worked and Al recoiled from me, oozing back into the darkness from which he’d emerged.  I don’t know how long it took me to get back to the tent, pulling my pyjama top closed as I entered because the buttons had all been ripped off.  I chatted with the others for a few minutes, trying to act normal, like nothing had happened.  How do we do that? Why do we do that? I said goodnight, and gratefully slid into the cocooning comfort of my sleeping bag, turning away and trying to forget what had just happened.  But I couldn’t forget.  I still haven’t forgotten.    

That was the second time I was raped. The first time, I was about seven years old.  It happened in Brunswick.  I was out playing with the neighbourhood kids, at the back of the block of flats where my aunt and cousins lived.  We were all joking around with a guy that the other kids seemed familiar and friendly with.  Out of the blue he asked us, “Can I pick one of you up?”  The other children scattered like marbles leaving me there, confused and wondering if I’d heard him correctly.  His rheumy eyes settled on me and he asked again, “Is it OK if I pick you up?”  I was frozen.  I didn’t want to be picked up but I also didn’t want to be rude and say no.  I had never been in this situation before and I didn’t know what was expected of me.  I looked around at the other kids, but I couldn’t catch anybody’s eyes.  Alarm bells were ringing in my head, and I knew that the situation wasn’t right but I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it.  I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

So I said OK.  

And he picked me up, and it was fine.  All the kids gathered round again, and for a minute I thought everything was dandy, and that I’d been worried for nothing.  Which is when he slid his hand inside my skirt, moved my underpants to the side and penetrated me with his fingers.  I kicked against him and squirmed out of his evil embrace, demanding that he put me down.  And thank goodness he did let me go.  Thank goodness those other kids were around or who knows what else he might have done.  

In my last ejo, my friend Terry asked me at whose feet I lay the blame for abuse.  Sure, at the time, I did blame those kids for not warning me, and I blamed myself for not picking up on their vibe.  And of course I blamed myself for agreeing to be picked up.  I was even wracked with guilt because my parents had warned me to be careful when I went out to play that day, as they always did.  I feel pretty lucky that I was able to quickly process what had happened to me in a healthy way and to release the feeling that I had done anything wrong.  I worked very hard on that, because at the end of the day I knew that I was a child who had been preyed upon by an abhorrent human being.  And so, when I look back at it now, I no longer blame those kids, who might have experienced the same thing, or worse, at that man’s hands.  I don’t blame my parents for letting me play unsupervised in a sketchy neighbourhood.  And I certainly don’t blame myself for consenting to be picked up.  Because I didn’t know any better, and I certainly didn’t consent to what he did to me.  I didn’t consent to being digitally raped.  I blame only him.

Baby Chryss.

Despite never talking about it with anyone, I don’t feel like I was seriously scarred by it.  I just kept it to myself, armed with a new wariness of strangers.  The first time I shared my story was about two years ago when I just unexpectedly dumped it on my poor sisters, a few months after our Mum died.  I didn’t realise that it had needed to come out, but the timing makes sense.  I think it had stayed locked away while my parents were alive because I knew that they would have blamed themselves, and I didn’t want them to.  Telling my sisters was emotional and intense, but also quite cathartic and healing.  And I’ve decided that I don’t want to keep it a secret anymore, because I didn’t do anything wrong.  I’ve carried the weight of it for a long time, and it was never even my weight to carry.  Talking about it lifts that burden from me, and lightens my load.  My feeling of the memory is no longer a smoky grey.  What happened was very black and white.  I was innocent, and what that man did to me was very wrong. 

I don’t want to overplay anything that’s happened to me.  A lot of people have been through a lot worse.  But I don’t wish to minimise it either.  None of that stuff should have happened because I never gave my permission.  And even though I feel relatively unscathed, it’s impossible to know the extent, or the exact nature, of how I was damaged by each experience.  The insidious thing about someone violating your body is that they depend on your sense of shame to keep it quiet and protect them.  I did keep quiet about the things that were done to me against my will and without my consent.  Because I did feel ashamed.  I did feel dirty.  I did feel that I could have done more, should have done more, to prevent it from happening.  That it was somehow my fault.  But no, I no longer feel that way.  It wasn’t my fault.  I was not to blame.  I am no longer ashamed.  And I will no longer be quiet.