On a sun-filled Melbourne spring afternoon in 2009, I sat with my ninety-year-old mother Giannoula in her garden, listening to her reminiscence about village life. I had always taken an interest in knowing my family’s history, in learning about their early years in Greece and my parents’ decision to migrate to Australia in 1955 before I was born; but that afternoon as my mother recalled an especially heart-warming memory of cooking with my great-grandmother, I felt compelled to put pen to paper.
Beneath the Fig Leaves: A memoir of food, family and Greece is the result of the cultural and culinary adventures upon which my mother and I embarked. Against a backdrop of mornings in the garden and afternoons in the kitchen preparing generations-old recipes, my mother regaled me with stories of her childhood, of times of uncertainty and of struggle, and overwhelmingly, stories of love. I was overcome by a desire to document and preserve these anecdotes, these pieces of history; to honour my family’s story and perhaps inspire others to share their own.
I documented our exchanges eagerly, delighting in playful tales of village beauty secrets and young romance, while coming to terms with those that reveal the immense hardship and sacrifices my mother endured. Her stories are interspersed with my own reflections on my early childhood in Melbourne, navigating life between two cultures as a Greek-Australian, and my yearning to visit my parents’ homeland – a dream finally realised for the first time in 1981.
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Like the garden through the seasons, everything has its time and place, and in 2009 under the shade of the fig tree an old wooden bench beckoned; it was a time for story and reconnection. My mother’s garden was at its finest: fruit trees towered over a meadow of vegetables and herbs below, chickens roamed among the green splendour and the birds visited frequently to feast on fresh produce. In this suburban backyard that Giannoula had transformed into a sanctuary reminiscent of the fields of the Greek village where she was born, I was reminded of the beauty and importance of taking the time – busy though we may all be – to enjoy and appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the comforting sizzle of onion and garlic in hot oil, the fresh, clean scent of a newly picked lemon, the strong earthiness of thyme. And most importantly of all, a mother’s love.
Beneath the Fig Leaves: A memoir of food, family and Greece (Affirm Press) is available from all good bookstores from 31 March. For online purchases head to https://bit.ly/2UzjFcr