family

Ejo #118 – Our House

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.

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My Dad single-handedly built the fountain at Government House.  Go check it out on Australia Day – the only day of the year it’s open to the public.

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Mum and Dad.  ❤

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.

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My amazing Mum and her amazing garden.

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.

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Xmas, 1999.  The wall… in the background.

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.

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The End.

Ejo #101 – Nice Day For A White Wedding

This photo of me was taken on Sunday, 2nd August 1998, just one week shy of my 27th birthday. I was at Melbourne International Airport, surrounded by my family and closest friends, about to embark on an overseas adventure that would change my life. I was off to Connecticut, USA for a year to be an au pair for two little kids I’d never even laid eyes on. I was excited, nervous, and soon to find out that I had absolutely no fucking idea what I’d signed up for.

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Can you see the hope in my eyes? How about the terror? Can you see the terror?

I also had no idea that twenty years later all four members of that family would still be in my life. That they would all hold a very special place in my heart and that I would love them all as much as I do today. They are my second family. Twenty years ago they invited me into their home, but since then they have invited me to remain in their lives, and for that I am eternally grateful.

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The Connecticut house where I spent a year of my life. 

My year in Connecticut was amazing, but it wasn’t easy. Most of the other au pairs were young girls. Teenagers, just out of school. I barely made the upper age limit, just scraping in by three days. Unlike the others, I wasn’t a pliable adolescent. I was a fully formed, strong-willed, independent woman suddenly living under the roof of two very powerful personalities. Understandably, there were a few sparks, especially in the beginning. My second week on the job, following a run-in on the tennis court, I hid in the garage so no-one would see me sobbing in despair. Cursing the mistake I’d made, missing my family back home and wishing I was still in Melbourne. I could have pulled the plug at any time, but I chose not to. I chose to stay. One of the reasons was to test myself. To see what I was capable of withstanding. That moment in the garage was a milestone in my life. It was the moment that I made the choice to grow up. But mostly I stayed because of the children. Daniel and Holly had already became the loves of my life. I didn’t want to be assigned to another family. This was my family, and I was going to work shit out.

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These little poopies stole my heart the moment I met them.

One of the reasons I was hired to help with the kids was that Tim, the dad, was often away on business. So most of my time was spent with their mum, Kate. It is an understatement to say that she and I had a complicated relationship. We grew, during the span of that year, to really love and respect each other but we did it through a minefield of power struggles and emotions. Frankly it’s a miracle that our friendship survived, which makes it all the more precious to me.

My relationship with Tim, on the other hand, was a relatively breezy one. While Kate had to deal with the difficult au pair on the daily, he would just swoop in from his trips, larger than life, filling the house with his exuberant presence. He would cook and sing and bellow heartfully. Of course it must have been hard for him to be away from his family for so long, but one benefit of being absent is not having to deal with the day to day shit. You get to come home, and be king. And we all loved it when the king was home. Things were easier for me when Tim was around. I didn’t have to do as much around the house, and I was always invited to spend time with them off-duty, as a member of the family. They were never obligated to include me, but they always did.

I’ve always looked up to Tim. He has a commanding quality about him, and his personality always fills the room. He exudes a confidence and positive energy which is intoxicating, and fun to be around. I’ve never really thought of him as a full-on father figure, but there might be just a tiny grain of truth to that allegory. I have just one single memory of him acting in the role of patriarch, back in Connecticut. I’d had an argument with Kate one evening because I wanted to go out and she didn’t want me to take the car. I was in my room, fuming, when Tim knocked on my door and asked to come in. As he sat on the edge of my bed and explained why he and Kate weren’t letting me drive the car in the ice storm (oh, did I forget to mention the ice storm), I felt like a little girl being unfairly grounded by her father. But in that moment, he wasn’t just my boss. He was my Dad’s surrogate, acting on his behalf, looking out for me.

Like I said, that year was a life changer. It had ups and it had downs. It was an incredible year in my life, but I was definitely relieved when it was over. I was super sad to be leaving the kids, but I was so happy to be going back home to Melbourne, to my own family and friends. It felt like the shedding of a great load, and I’m sure they enjoyed having their lives back to themselves too.

After lustfully relishing my freedom for a while, I started looking back on my year abroad through a softer lens. With a lot more appreciation for the remarkable experience I’d had. And of course, I started to miss them all. I missed getting the kids up for school every morning. And waiting for them by the side of the road at the end of their day. I missed their hugs, their silly jokes and laughter. I missed the house, and my space in it. I missed the four distinct, and very beautiful, seasons of Connecticut (ice storms and all). And I missed my second family on the other side of the world. After a couple of years, I reached out to them and, happily, they reached back. We reconnected, in a new way. A better way. No longer bound by our employer/employee shackles, we were able to explore each other as real friends, and wonderfully we discovered that we all still liked each other. In fact we liked each other more. Over the years we’ve rendezvoused around the world, meeting up in California, London and a couple of times in the south of France, where Tim owns a cottage. Several years ago Kate and Tim divorced but I keep up with both of them, separately. They may no longer be together, but they are still my family and, amazingly, it seems that I am still theirs.

Over those same years I’ve watched the children grow from my beloved poopies, to self-assured teenagers and into the beautiful young adults they are today.

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Daniel and Holly as teens. 

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Daniel and I out on the tiles in LA.  

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Holly and I loving each other in Reno. 

As some of you know, in 2016, Daniel suffered a major heart attack and almost died. The whole family has been to hell and back over the last two years. Which is why when David and I got an invitation from Tim and Rachel, his partner of five years, to attend their wedding in France, I was ridiculously overjoyed. What wonderful, happy news. All I’ve ever wanted for my crazy au pair family is for them to be happy. If I can be a part of their happiness, that’s just icing on my cake.

And so David and I went to France. The wedding was, of course, absolutely beautiful. If you ever have the chance to go to a wedding at an 11th century château in the south of France, I’d highly recommend it. It was a glorious setting to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in Tim’s life. And here’s where things get emotional for me. Why? Because on this very special and intimate day, Tim wanted me to be there.

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Husband and wife.

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The château.  Not bad, eh?

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A new chapter. 

Years ago, in a black cab on the way home from a boozy art exhibition in London, I drunkenly whispered to Kate that I hoped to one day meet a man just like Tim. And I meant it. I’ve never met anyone like him before. He eats life up. He charismatically brandishes a wild streak, while remaining as steady as a rock. He is an all-round awesome human being. I’m pretty damn lucky that I did find my own awesome fellow, not long after that night in London. And Tim and Rachel are both lucky to have eventually found each other.

During dinner at the chateau, just before dessert and after many bottles of wine, I had a….. well, I had a moment. I looked around at the other guests, the room aglow with merriment, and I was just blindsided by how lucky I was to be there. It hit me that everyone at that table was either an old friend or a family member. Oh yeah, and me, the former au pair. I felt proud, and honoured, and just bloody grateful to be in that room on that very special night – my place at the table revealing the place I must hold in Tim’s heart.

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Places of honour.

Tim caught me looking at him all starry-eyed, and winked at me. We both smiled. He was happy, his new bride luminous by his side. I glanced over at Daniel and Holly, and my heart filled with love. We have been on a unique and incredible journey, the Brittons and I. I don’t know where we are going next, but I will move mountains to be at all of their weddings, all of their anniversaries, all of their celebrations in life. And as long as they keep inviting me, I promise you, I’ll keep turning up.

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❤ ❤ ❤

 

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.