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Reflections on Mother's Day past in Greek Australia

Mother's Day is a concept fraught with difficulties for many Greek Australians of the first generation. Dean Kalimniou explores why

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Photo: Kainaz Amaria/NPR

19 May 2017

"What are you going to get me for Mother's Day?" the yoga-panted, sun-glassed woman asked, as she hoisted two 5 litre tins of olive oil onto the counter at the Greek deli. "Huh?" her bald, blue Kappa-tracksuited partner sporting a luxurious beard responded. "You're not my mother." "Finally you get it," the woman responded. "No, I'm not your mother."

"Next please," the cashier smiled, turning to me.

Mother's Day is a concept fraught with difficulties for many Greek-Australians of the first generation. I attribute this to the lack of a similar counterpart back home, prior to our metastasis en masse upon these welcoming shores. It is not that Greeks do not revere their mothers, as one friend pointed out recently over coffee in one of the few remaining 'Greek' cake shops in the centre of Melbourne. Rather, the confusion lies in the method of reverence and its institutionalised form. According to my friend, Greeks have internalised their mothers to the extent that they invoke them randomly, even when they are not present, as if they are household deities, in the course of their daily activities; to wit: «Αχ μανούλα μου, ω ρε μάνα μου,» or if you happen to come from where I am from: «όι οί μάνα'μ». As such, Greek mothers are, at least to their offspring, domestic hearth goddesses, or at least, humans in an advanced stage of deification. Anglo-Saxons on the other hand, as my friend put it, see their maturation as a process of emancipation from their mothers and as a result, need structured, socially imposed dedicated days in which they are reminded that they must relate to and pay homage to their maternal progenitors. Because they have psychologically cut off from them, they seek to bridge the sundered bond by the proffering of material goods.

It took a while for all of this to sink in and discerning in my face, tell-tale signs of dissent (after all, I knew many Anglo-Saxons who shared close and extremely fulfilling relationships with their parents, as well as many Greeks who did not), he asked: "Did you ever ask your mother what she wanted for Mother's Day?"

Not at first. There were Mother's Day stalls at our school from which we would all select a present. In those times, any gift purchased was indiscriminately made a fuss over, even though it was purchased with the intended recipients own funds. Cards and artwork, commissioned by teachers, on the other hand were a completely different matter altogether, simply because my mother was a teacher and thus subjected my offerings to orthographic and stylistic criticism. It was only in my teenage years, when artwork and stalls were gradually phased out, that I was compelled to ask the inevitable question:

"What do you want for Mother's Day?"

«Τι να θέλω; Να είσαι καλό παιδί και να μην αντιμιλάς.»

"But that's too hard! There has to be something that you want."

«Σου είπα. Να μην αντιμιλάς.»

«Μα..»

«Καλά ούτε αυτό δεν μπορείς να μού κάνεις;»

Eventually, I would settle for breakfast in bed, which was an uncomfortable experience for her, considering that my mother seldom, if ever, eats breakfast of a morning and I ascribe this to the time when, as a young boy, I made her a carrot breakfast, comprising a large quantity of shredded carrot, artfully garlanded upon a piece of charcoal toast. As we grow old together, my mother finds herself ideologically opposed to Mother's Day, citing as a reason: «Τι, μόνο μια φορά το χρόνο θα θυμάστε ότι έχετε μάνα;» thus providing the doctrinal props to buttress my friend's theory.

On the other hand, one of my non-Greek acquaintances, who is enamoured of Greek-Australians and who chooses to associate solely with Greeks, asked this, when I expounded my friend's theory to her: "If you people are so close to your mothers, then why is it that when Greek girls get together, all they seem to do it bitch about them?" This, for me, was a revelation.

Sadly, my friend never got the opportunity to complete said theory, and indeed expound upon why, if Mother's Day is alien to the traditional Greek reality, it has been embraced by our community so enthusiastically, because moments later, he received an angry phone call from his mother, who, in a colourful array of Greek dialectical idiomatisms, called his sanity, morphology and moral uprightness into question, for he had forgotten to collect her from the doctor.

Nonetheless, over the years, I have chanced upon various conversations relating to preparations for Greek-Australian Mother's Day, the first of which took place while I was on the tram late at night, listening in on the following phone conversation:

"Mum what do you want for Mother's day?"

The answer, emanating from the telephone speaker was as thunderous as if the mother was seated beside us:

«Όλα σου τα έδωσα. Όλα, Τι θα μπορούσες να μου έδινες; Τίποτα. Αν δεν ήταν για μένα, θα ήσουν ένα τίποτα. Τι θέλω; Να ακούς τη μάνα σου. Να σταματήσεις να είσαι γάιδαρος. Να γίνεις άνθρωπος επιτέλους. Να συμμαζευτείς. Αλλά σε ποιον τα λέω; Σε κάνα γηροκομείο θα καταλήξω…..αχαΐρευτε.»

"But mum…"

«Σκάσε. Είκοσι χρονών μουλάρι…»

"Mum, I'm nineteen, not twenty."

«Σε ποιον τα λες αυτά βρε ρεμάλι; Εγώ σε γέννησα. Έκλεισες τα δεκαεννιά και πας στα είκοσι…»

Eventually, his mother having unceremoniously hung up on him, the boy turned to me and shrugged: "Mothers." I had not the heart to tell him that I had understood every word.

Mother's Day in a controlled environment where one can be one's Greeκ-Australian self is one thing. Having to share such an event with a melisma of companions of diverse origins can be quite another, especially by those mothers in denial about their offspring's life choices. The following snippet comes from a conversation outside a local church, a few years ago:

"Mum, get a move on. We are taking you out to the Brickmaker's Arms for Mother's Day with Craig's mum."

«Τι δουλειά έχω εγώ με τους κωλοαυστραλούς, μού λες;»

"Come on mum, its for Mother's Day. We are all going to get together."

«Τι μάδες ντάι και μαδέρια, που μού μάδησες το κεφάλι από τη στεναχώρια; Αν αγαπούσες τη μάνα σου δεν θα έπαιρνες αυτόν τον προκομμένο. Άσε με εδώ να σαπίσω. Καλά να πάθω.»

Like in many other aspects of communal Greek-Australian life, Mother's Day can also be about one-upmanship, especially the stage-managed type, for it is not unknown for Greek-Australian mothers to boast to their peers about and magnify the excessive troubles taken by their offspring to honour them on their special day. Where it is felt that the aforementioned offspring's efforts will fall under par, then that provides cause for maternal intervention. Thus:
«Μαμά, θα πάμε στου Γιάννη για το Mother's Day.»

«Δεν πατάω εγώ εκεί με την νύφη τη φαντασμένη. Τόσα ντίνα σέτια έχει αλλά από μαγείρεμα τίποτα δεν ξέρει.»

«Mum, don't be like that. Γιος σου είναι.»

«Σκατά στα μούτρα μου είναι. Τη Σούλα θα την πάνε τα παιδιά της στο Langham. Δεν θα πάω εγώ να φάω κότες έτοιμες από το κοτάδικο. Ή στο Langham, ή πουθενά. Έκανα ένα μπούκιν. Θα πάρουμε γρουπ ντισκάουντ.»

Sadly, despite the intrinsic role our mothers play in our lives, within a community for whom internecine and interfamilial strife is not unknown, not a few mothers will have spent last Sunday's Mother's Day alone, forgotten, unforgiven or merely neglected. Others still will have spent Mother's Day in the cemetery, lamenting over things said and things left unsaid.

For me, Mother's Day, culinary disasters notwithstanding, will always have me yearning for past commemorations spent with my paternal grandmother Kalliopi, pointing at the icon of the Panayia whenever we came to wish her a happy Mother's Day, and telling us: "Wish it to her. She is the Mother of all of us," before sitting us down to a vast feast comprising of but not limited to Samian tiganites and pumpkin bourekia, (instead of us treating her), because as she would say, "That's what mothers do."

Time also pauses upon those Mother's Days when my great-grandmother, who died at the age of 105, would sit in the doorway, watching a long litany of children, grand-children and great-grandchildren enter, process before her, laden with flowers and other gifts, ready to pay homage. With a gleam of triumph in her eyes, she would remark: «Αυτοί είναι όλοι δικοί μου.» Because ultimately, that is what Mother's Day, like everything that has to do with Greek-Australia, is all about: belonging.

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