family

Ejo #92 – My Name Is Chrysoula Stathopoulos

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. Since 1933, I’ve lived in Lechaion, a small seaside town in Greece. But I was born in a tiny village in the Peloponnese mountains in 1916. I am 101 years old.

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. I’ve lived in Dubai since 2008. But I was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1971 and raised in Melbourne. I am 46 years old.

As the firstborn, I was named after my Dad’s mother, which is how the Greeks do. I hated my name growing up because nobody could ever pronounce it, and a lot of kids gave me shit for it. On the first day of Grade 2, my teacher actually accused me of making it up. I casually dropped the “oula” part of my name when I was 12, and made it official when I was 14. Over the years I’ve grown to love my full name again. It’s unique, and it’s who I am. It’s also something that connects me to my grandmother, my yiayia, whom I love dearly.

My twin sister Fotoula and I were the apples of our father’s eye. We had two older brothers, but we were the favourites and everyone knew it, including Mum. She scolded us once for making too much noise while we were playing and Dad looked at her very seriously and said, “Whatever you do, don’t ever talk to my girls like that again”. And she never did. Times were tough growing up because of the war, and we didn’t have a lot, but our house was filled with love and I always tried my best to make my Dad proud of me when he was home. He was gone for most of my childhood, working in America so that he could send money home for us. Every time he came home was a big deal and my favourite memory was of being bounced on his knees – me on one leg, and Fotoula on the other, the three of us laughing and laughing.

Even though Greek families usually covet a son, my parents had three daughters and I think that, secretly, my father loved being surrounded by women. My Dad drove trucks for a living in the early seventies, and he was gone for long stretches at a time. My earliest memory is of our flat in Elwood. I was wearing a nappy and crawling to the front door because Mum had told me that Dad was coming home. I remember bursting with joy when he appeared at the flyscreen door.

In 1924 my family moved down from the mountains so that we could attend school near Korinth. Some of the teachers were very strict, which I didn’t like very much. I certainly wasn’t used to being smacked, but the teachers had no problem hitting us if they got mad. I always studied hard, and tried to be the best student so that they would never have any reason to hit me. On 22nd April 1928 a big earthquake shook Korinth. Twenty people died, and nearly 15,000 people were left homeless. Even though our home was damaged, we were lucky that it wasn’t one of the 3000 that were destroyed, and that we still had somewhere to live. Our school had turned to rubble and, while it was being rebuilt, classes were held outside, on the football field.

Fotoula hated school. She would say, “Chrysoula, I’ve been to school for a week, now it’s your turn”. School wasn’t compulsory back then, so she could get away with it but it’s a shame that she never learned to read or write. I wanted to be a teacher or a mid-wife when I grew up because they earned 500 drachmas (about €2) a month, which was a lot of money for a woman back then. But I was forced to drop out of school in 1929, at age 13.

When we were young,my parents forced me and my sisters to go to Greek school on Saturday mornings. I hated it and faced each weekend with sickening dread. But my parents wanted us to learn how to speak Greek, and to appreciate Greek history and customs. Fair enough, but the teachers at the school we attended were sadistic fucks and what I remember most about those classes was the constant fear. It ended when a teacher pinched my cheek so hard he left a large purple bruise across my face. My crime? Not completing my homework. My parents, horrified that the tales of assault and battery were actually true, allowed me to drop out of Greek school at age 12.

In 1930 my beloved father got sick with double pneumonia. The closest doctor was in Didima, a village 100km away, and every time he came to the house it cost us 500 drachmas. When Dad died, we owed the doctor a small fortune and since we didn’t have the money, it was negotiated that I would go with him back to Didima and work as his housekeeper until the bill was paid. I didn’t want to go, but my older brother got very angry and slapped me across the face and told me I was going and that was the end of it. After that I was happy to leave, just to get away from him. My Dad would never have allowed anyone to strike me like that. But now he was gone, and I had no choice but to enter into servitude for nearly three years in a village where I didn’t know anyone and where they didn’t even speak Greek. During my time in Didima, I slowly learned some Albanian so that I could communicate with people, but I was happy when the debt was finally paid off, and I could return to my family, who had moved to Lechaion.

In late 2002 my beloved father was diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents tried to be upbeat and hopeful about the prognosis but as you can imagine, it was a total shock for all of us. My father was the healthiest and most robust man I’d ever known. He was invincible to me, a rock. In denial, I didn’t even believe that he was actually sick until he started showing symptoms a couple of months later. And after that, the decline in his health was rapid. Lung cancer is a truly horrible disease and over a ten month period I watched my father deteriorate from a tower of strength into an emaciated skeleton coughing up tar-black mucus onto my birthday cake, a month before he died. Shit like that stays with you, man. When we told yiayia that her firstborn had passed away, she cried. But because of the Alzheimer’s she sometimes forgets. Sometimes she doesn’t even remember who he was.

In 1933 I started working in the fields with my sister, picking fruit to support our family. We earned just 25 drachmas a day, which wasn’t much, but our lack of education didn’t leave us many options. A lot of people were in the same boat and there was a great deal of competition for these field jobs, so we weren’t always gainfully employed. In 1936 I met a man at work called Panagiotis, who was a real go-getter. He would schmooze around the taverns at night, networking for jobs, and his circle of friends always had paid work, thanks to him. He seemed like a nice guy, and he must have taken a liking to me because he started getting regular work for me too. Working side by side we started developing feelings for each other, and after a year we were engaged. We couldn’t afford to get married right away but I did move in with him which was illegal back then, so we pretended that I was his housekeeper and everyone fell for it! Haha! Suckers! We lived in sin for two years before we got married on New Year’s Eve, 1939. Ten months later we had our first child, Konstantinos, and then after that I gave birth every two years, with Roula, Chris, Toula, Sofia and our baby Stavros.

 

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In the fields.  Kon, Chris, Toula, Sofia, Stavros, Roula, Panagiotis and Chrysoula.  And a small kid.

 

I met my husband David at work in 2005. It was love at first sight, for me anyway. We worked together for a year, exchanging flirty glances across the tower console before we actually started going out. Two days later I moved in, and four months after that we were married. Most people at work thought it wouldn’t last but, after eleven years together, we’re still nuts about each other. We decided not to have children, which we sometimes lament, but usually not.

Over the years all my children except Stavros emigrated to Australia. Roula went first because she hated working in the fields and wanted a chance to start a new life. Kon joined her a year later, and then the others followed. I wanted them to be happy and to have a better life than I did so I didn’t mind them leaving, but my god I missed them so much. My children are my life and they have always made me so happy and so proud, even now. In 1976 I went to Australia for a visit and I had such a wonderful time, mostly because I got to see all my children and grandchildren. Little Chrysoula was, of course, my favourite*. She was such a delightful child, and she taught me how to count to ten in English, and even though my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’ve never forgotten: onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten! See!! I do have trouble remembering some things, but those old days are crystal clear. I loved Australia so much I went back for another visit in 1988 and I wish I could go again, but, even though I’m as fit as a fiddle, let’s face it, at my age it’s probably not going to happen. There is always someone here, one of my kids, looking after me, and I appreciate that. But I wish my grandchildren would visit more often.

I met my yiayia for the first time when I was five years old. She came to visit us from Greece and stayed with us for a few months. It was nice having her around because she was always smiling and laughing and hugging us and telling stories and crocheting beautiful things. Her skin was wrinkly, but soft, like well-worn leather. And you could tell that my Dad just LOVED having her around. They glowed around each other, overflowing with mutual adoration and respect. My grandmother was such a loving person and she taught my Dad to be honest and hard-working and to be proud of his achievements. In turn, he taught me the same.

I’ve been thinking about my yiayia a lot lately. I am writing this ejo to celebrate her, while she’s still alive. I don’t know if I will ever see her again. But I want to. The last time was five years ago. She recognised me, which was wonderful, but she is very locked up in her mind most of the time. Locked in the past. And the people around her, even loved ones, are very much in the periphery of her consciousness. But every time we are together, even though my Greek is shit and she can’t speak English, there is always a deep and loving connection between us. A circle of life and love that cannot be broken by distance or years apart.

We are Chrysoula Stathopoulos.

 

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* Some creative license MAY have been used in the writing of this ejo.

 

Ejo #36 – Exploring My Greek Heritage (By Giving My Grandmother A Sponge Bath)

My Greek heritage has never sat very easily with me. I am, of course, 100% Greek having been born to two Greek parents. There is no denying my “Greekness”. Plus, with a name like Chrysoula Stathopoulos… well, good luck trying to deny it. I was, however, born and raised in Australia, and I feel Australian.

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Growing up Greek-Australian wasn’t always easy though. My first language was, naturally, Greek. My parents did make an effort to teach me some English before I went to school, and (not to blow my own horn) I picked it up pretty quickly. So I wasn’t completely illiterate when I turned up on my first day. But I always felt a little like the odd person out. It all seemed slightly foreign to me, and perhaps that’s how I seemed to them too. My Grade Two teacher actually sent me to the Principal’s office on the first day of class because she assumed I was making fun of her when I told her my full name. How’s that for a slap to your sense of identity’s face? I stuck it out until I was 13 before abbreviating my first name to Chryss, and for many years I was embarrassed of how “weird” my name was. But I’ve grown to love it. My name is mine. It’s who I am. It identifies me as my parent’s daughter. As a young girl, I used to fantasise that when I grew up and got married I could finally change my name to that of my husband’s. I’d daydream of marrying some guy called Smith, or Evans, or Jones, and I even practised my (much shorter) signatures. Little did I know that when I would get married, at the ripe old age of 35, I’d lived with the moniker Chryss Stathopoulos for so long that the thought of being called something else no longer appealed to me.

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So, the tug o’ war between being Greek and being Australian began when I started school. It didn’t help that my parents enrolled me in “Greek School”. These classes, held on Saturday mornings, were designed to teach us the language, history and culture which were potentially being diluted by our assimilation into Australian society. My experience of it was not rosy. My teachers were sadistic and abusive. When I came home from these dreaded classes one Saturday afternoon with an angry purple welt on my cheek where Mr. Karafiliakis had pinched it – hard – on discovering that I hadn’t done my homework, my parents relented and withdrew me from the school. Victory! Or so it felt at the time.

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I have been to Greece a total of seven times. And each time, I’ve reflected that perhaps I should have stuck it out at Greek School after all. My grasp of the language is not awesome. I can have simple conversations, but I struggle to read a magazine. And writing? Forget about it. I have a third grader’s ability where that is concerned. Not to mention, my accent is abysmal.

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Language isn’t the only reason I’ve always been slightly disassociated from being Greek. I certainly don’t feel like I belong there when I visit. I’m just another tourist. Having lived my whole life in Australia, that is the country that has seeped into me. That is where I’m from, and where I belong (even after four years abroad, and no return date in sight). So even though I’ve been to Greece to visit my relatives a few times, and even though I do speak the language, albeit pretty badly, it always feels like a strange and foreign land. David feels more at home there than I do. He has more of an affinity for it than someone who is only one generation removed. Which strikes me as weird. So I tried to figure out why that should be, and what I came up with was the discord between my childhood (and the standard of living that I grew up with) compared with my parent’s experiences growing up. The divide is great.

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When I was a kid we weren’t really well off. Even so, I had privileges that my parents had worked hard for and which, I guess, I took for granted. I had clean clothes, shoes that fit, three meals a day and a roof over my head. My parents both grew up with a lot less. My father didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was in his mid-teens. My mother had to quit school at the age of 11, to tend the family’s herd of sheep. Hearing stories like this when I was young, it’s no wonder I had mixed feelings about my parent’s motherland. What kind of a hole was this ‘Greece” place? It sounded bloody awful!

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To change the topic briefly, I’ve inherited some pretty good DNA. Whilst both my grandfathers died in their mid-70s, both my grandmothers are alive and well at 97. Having met my grandmothers only a handful of times though, I haven’t really had the chance to get to know them very well. But I do know that they are two completely different people. My Dad’s mother, Yiayia Chrysoula (after whom I am named), is a large-bosomed, warm-hearted, gregarious woman who created a scandal by marrying for love, and she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about it. She had six children with my grandfather and, even though times were tough, she lavished them all with love and affection. I don’t think it’s any big secret that my father was her favourite though. And he adored her in return.

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In stark contrast, my Mum’s relationship with her own mother has always been strained. Yiayia Maria (after whom both my Mum, and my middle sister, are named) had a difficult life, in an arranged marriage, bereft of affection. My grandmother came from a world of never-ending hardship where, perhaps, showing love to your children was a luxury she couldn’t afford. Maybe she’d never experienced love herself? My mother grew up believing that she’d been born to fill the role of family shepherdess. She wasn’t born from love. She was born from necessity. To do a job. And she did that job, until she was 16 years old and her parents tried to marry her off to a man three times her age. And when she balked at that, they sent her to Australia, all by herself. How’s that for motherly love?

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Old photo of my grandmother Maria looking very stern - whilst holding a sheep!

Old photo of my grandmother Maria looking very stern – whilst holding a sheep!

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Hearing about my Mum’s difficult childhood when I was growing up, I couldn’t help but develop a grudge against my Yiayia Maria, far away as she was at the time. How could she treat my mother like that?? How could she be so cold and unloving? These resentful feelings were reinforced every time I visited Greece and spent time with her, and I never developed the same kind of bond that I did with Yiayia Chrysoula.

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This year marked my seventh pilgrimage to Greece. It was timely, as Yiayia Maria had recently suffered a serious health scare, and I wanted to go and see her while I had the chance. She is my family, and even though we aren’t close, she is still my grandmother. Yiayia Maria has lived in the same white-washed, mud-brick house for the last 60 years. It’s not actually even a house, just a one-room building that holds all her worldly possessions – a bed, a table, some religious icons and family photos. It is Spartan, to say the least, and not the kind of place grandchildren want to be. As a young girl I found it kind of uncomfortable and uninviting. Now, I just find it forlorn and kind of sad. It is the house my mother grew up in.

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My grandmother's house.

My grandmother’s house.

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Religious Icons.

Religious Icons.

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Bedroom window - with a photo of my grandfather on the wall.

Bedroom window – with a photo of my grandfather on the wall.

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The chair my Yiayia Maria sits in most days, whiling the time away under the old olive tree.

The chair my Yiayia Maria sits in most days, whiling the time away under the old olive tree.

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So, even though the house was the same, some things were different this time. Yiayia had been taken off the cornucopia of medication she’d been popping for years, and seemed healthier for it. She’d cut off her waist length braid into a more manageable bob. And she was no longer wearing the scratchy black clothes and headscarf – her uniform since my grandfather died more than twenty years ago. She seemed more… I don’t know, grandmotherly. Vulnerable. Tender. Even so, when my Mum asked me to help bathe Yiayia Maria one blistering, hot afternoon, I balked. Naked, old lady?? No thank you. Ew! But my Mum needed the help, so I agreed. I figured I could just squint my eyes and avoid seeing anything too gross. (Yes, I am an awful person.)

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Typical whitewashed walls and painted shutters.  Looks nice but the reality is that it hides a difficult life.

Typical whitewashed walls and painted shutters. Looks nice but the reality is that it hides a difficult life.

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Clothesline used to hang up a sheet to cover my Yiayia Maria's modesty from the ever present gaze of curious neighbours.

Clothesline used to hang up a sheet to cover my Yiayia Maria’s modesty from the ever present gaze of curious neighbours.

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My grandmother’s house doesn’t have a proper bathroom. There is a toilet in an outhouse, but bathing is done the old fashioned way – from a basin filled with water. We put a large bucket of water out in the sun an hour before, for it to warm up. And then we hung sheets up on the clothesline to create a makeshift, outdoor shower curtain. We helped her pull her simple cotton dress over her head and suddenly there she was. My grandmother standing naked before me. And you know what? She looked pretty damn good. Instead of being grossed out, I was impressed. Yes, she was wrinkly, and a little saggy. But she was ninety, freaking, seven years old. Her body was magnificent. Beautiful. This body had walked her through almost a century of hardship and adversity, and it was still going strong.

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That hot, summer afternoon I not only experienced the dawning awareness that my grandmother was just another person, made of flesh and blood (and the origin of my own flesh and blood, at that). I also encountered the wonderment of how miraculous the human body really is. As my Mum shampooed and conditioned, lathered and scrubbed, I gently poured the warm water over my tiny Yiayia Maria to rinse away the suds. The moment threatened to overwhelm me. My mother had never felt loved by this frail, naked woman. She had never been told that she was loved as a child. She’d never even been hugged. And not only did she manage to raise her own three children in an environment FILLED with love, she also had enough left over to keep on giving to Yiayia. Washing away the residue of the day from my grandmothers body with love, care and respect, she also cleansed the remnants of pain and hurt and despair. It was a beautiful moment for me, not least because it may be one of my final memories of Yiayia. And while I didn’t walk away from the experience feeling any more Greek than before, for the first time in my life I did feel a little closer to my roots.

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My Mum gently combing Yiayia Maria's hair after her bath.

My Mum gently combing Yiayia Maria’s hair after her bath.