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.
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!
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.
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.
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.