An ode to those departed and departing

My aunty Fotoula died last week at 91. She had a good life. She left behind daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. As with every passing of that generation of migrants, black and white photos flood Facebook.

For me, her passing reminded me again, as it has often of late, and as it does for many of my peers, that a generation is either departing, or has already departed.

We’ve lost my uncle George her husband, both my uncle Harry and my father died young, my mother five years ago. My uncle Milton, who saw action in the Korean War, died a few years ago and soon after his brother Ari also died. The passing of our elders is not unique to my family, it is something the children of post-war migrants all face now.

Over three million mainly Southern Eastern Europeans, landed in Australia between 1949 and 1972. Greeks, Italians, ex-Yugoslavs, and Maltese. Add to that refugees, displaced persons and immigrants from Poland, Hungary, former Czechoslovakia, Germany and so on.

Greeks, Yugoslavs and Italians arrived as fodder for factories and farms. In the architecture whiteness, we were slightly less black to those who harboured eugenic fantasies about white supremacy. Among the mass of peasants from Greece and Italy also came shoemakers, dressmakers, tailors, craftsmen, food purveyors, wine makers, teachers, journalists and many skilled petit bourgeoisies.

Regardless of their class or whether they came from rural or urban regions; regardless of their skills and knowledge, racism was a great equalizer. They all became ‘wogs’ and ‘dagoes’.

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My mother Barbara and my aunty Fotoula in Greece, they were friends and soon to be sister-in-law both seamstresses

We were seen as what the newspaper The Truth once wrote in the 1930s as “the muddy flow from Greece and the Levant…” We were muddy.

Our parents, our families, and us, were spat on, humiliated, kicked off busses, beaten and laughed at. Of course, we also gave back a few beatings. Many of our elders may have thought, what is ignorance and fear compared to the beasts of fascism and communism. What pain or hurt does the word ‘wog’ uttered in stupidity carry in comparison to cities and villages levelled, mass graves, massacres, starvation and death camps. And as many of that generation said, ‘they’re not all like that,’ and believed till their last breath that Australia offered a better future for them and their children.

“You not bloody Australian mate, only Aboriginal real Australian” was a common retort from my father whenever someone said he wasn’t a real Australian.

And yet the wogs and dagoes, like Aunt Fotoula, like my mother and many others, dressed in style, were elegant, they played musical instruments, shared culinary culture, had new ideas and great skills. They created new celebrations, instituted community organisations, sports clubs and places of worship. Regardless of racism they knew that they were citizens and knew the weight citizenship carries.

They were resilient. They rarely whined or complained. And yet many suffered physical and mental health concerns. And regardless of all that, they instilled a love of the good life in us.

They had parties, dances, went to music events and local theatres. They raised children who attended university, created new businesses, became artists and doctors, engineers and economists and succeeded in ways their parents could ever dream for themselves. Often we heard, “We came here for you” and we knew the load that carried.

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This generation saw also a new third generation. And now they become dust, ambers burning out, ghosts of in digital landscapes.

Nation builders, family makers, and individuals all carried a piece of their homeland on their shoulders.

In this pandemic, I cannot enter the covenant of family and bid my aunty farewell when they bury her in Adelaide. Worse over 140 Greeks in Victoria of that generation have died from the COVID-19. They died alone, unable to hold their loved ones’ hands. My aunty Fotoula in Adelaide had her immediate family with her as the last whispers of life fled from her mouth.

One thing is clear, Hades is a pluralist democracy and all are welcome, wogs, dagoes, and all others.