Two Christmases ago, my mother informed me that she had been afforded the honour, by Women’s Food For Thought Network Founder and community activist Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou, of contributing her biography to the now recently published volume: “Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends,” a compilation of the accounts of lives of particularly special Greek-Australian and Australian women, narrated by themselves and transcribed by Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou.
In her introduction to the book, Professor Joy Damousi suggests that it “should be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between women from all backgrounds, that can be passed on and down the generations. Some of the accounts belong to women who are well known within the community. Yet the stories they tell provide insight into their own struggles against a traditional patriarchal culture, unsupportive parents, social groups or spouses, almost universally viewing education as a form of emancipation and for the most part viewing professional advancement as a yardstick for success. Some of the women whose life stories have been included in the valuable collection, endured harrowing domestic abuse, others mental illness, racism and sexism. Some are more forthcoming that others in outlining the obstacles they had to overcome in their quest for “success,” “self-realisation,” and “self-fulfilment.” All of them are extremely brave and we are grateful for the trust they place in us, in confiding in us, events that would have been immensely difficult to deal with. The inspired juxtaposition of the life accounts of Australian-born women, provides the reader with an unparalleled opportunity to gauge and compare just at how large a disadvantage many Greek-Australian women were in trying to navigate a course through Australian society, through a time of social, cultural and demographic upheaval.
A close reading of the accounts will also focus on another aspect. Because the whole aim of the book is to permit the contributors to speak in their own voice, rather than have their unique perspectives mediated by others, there is much that can be gleaned not only by what is narrated, but also by the silences that permeate the text. Many of these silences, relating as they do to emotion and psychological pain, often feel overwhelming. Apart from granting the narrator immense dignity and embodying a source of empowerment whereby each contributor has complete control of the narrative, such silences, elisions or lacunae that exist compel us to reflect upon the experiences of women that are left unsaid, that are implied, hinted at or glossed over, encouraging us to examine tactfully, the reasons why.
It was engaging in this creative process, that my mother’s account, became more than just part of an ongoing dialogue with women, but rather, an intense dialogue with her son about family history, her own intense struggle, the meaning of life and to what extent others could be granted access to it.
“I’m not quite sure what to say” my mother confided, handing me a page of notes covered in her characteristic, almost indecipherable script. Immediately I was transported twenty years into the past. There at the table where I was holding her manuscript, my great grandmother was making pita, all the while relating family lore in her allusive, cryptic, idiomatic diction, whereby ordinary words had symbolic functions and one had to be initiated into the events that had transpired themselves in order to comprehend and unravel the implications of her narration, which never, ever took linear form and which focused on completely different aspects upon each telling. My mother’s handwriting mimics her grandmother’s speech. Letters double up, fold in and upon themselves, conjoining in uncanny ligatures, standing for different phonemes depending on the context, always alluding, insinuating but nevertheless confidently asserting a multiplicity of meanings and possibilities. When my mother speaks, my ears receive the sounds in the form of her handwriting. When she gesticulates, I see my great grandmother’s hands rolling out the thin sheets of fyllo. As I do so, I realise that my mother’s handwriting most resembles the folds of my great-grandmother’s pita, folding over, encapsulating, enclosing and encoding layers and layers of meaning. To view this pita is to appreciate the aesthetics of its form, but if one is to come to know it, to commune with it, then one must consume it in order to completely experience how its constituent elements transubstantiate into their fundamental essence. Immediately, I internalise my mother’s dilemma. Her handwriting is inedible.
I venture to suggest she structure her narrative as a set of obstacles that she has been able to overcome. Each one that she has surmounted has led her on a path that made her who she is today. She looks at me through her grandmother’s fingers, white from pressing hard on the oklava that is flattening the fyllo into paper-thin sheets and I instantly acknowledge the paucity of my argument. My mother was begotten, not made, having sprung fully formed from my own forehead. To ascribe a linear progression to her corporeal manifestation is to miss the point of her entirely. She sighs and spreads each sheet of fyllo on the backs of the kitchen chairs to prove. Soon, I have nowhere to sit and am compelled to stand in the presence of the creator.
My mother speaks to me about Thomas Cranmer’s wife and Charlotte Corday in the same familiar manner in which my great-grandmother spoke of her kinswoman, Tzavelaina of Souli as I traverse the labyrinth of her account. She pokes through the greens, picking out pieces of άνηθο, adding more μπαλάσες, subtracting βλίτα. I reflect upon the fact that I have accepted that these heavily edited greens have no existence outside the Greek language and thus have no significance for me in English. My mother hasn’t written in Greek for a while. Sometimes when I am rummaging through her bookshelves, I chance across forgotten folded sheets of paper with half-verses scrawled upon them. I place them side by side and then on top of each other and press them down. They are in Greek and they ooze essence.
My mother won’t divulge her great-grandmother’s recipe for pita. Not to me, not to my sister, nor to my wife. I sit and watch her at work, her grandmother’s knuckles white against the oklava, her gait slowing to a shuffle as she crumbles and measures the cheese in her hand as if attempting to weigh the deeds of her life against some undisclosed scale. A hole has developed in this particular sheet of fyllo and as I reach out my hand to take hold of the oklava, she gently pushes it away. This is her pita and in it, even the lacunae have their purpose.
“How can I help?” I enquire.
“Hmph!” she exclaims, taking the piece of paper out of my hand. “If I have to tell you that, then you will be of no help at all. Just sit, watch and learn.”
Sometimes, I dream of making pita even though I have never made it on my own. In that dream, the ingredients are exactly the same and the fyllo, which in my great-grandmother’s tongue is called πέτρα, is identical for I instinctively am a repository of the sum of my mother’s totality. Yet the end result is never the same. Sometimes, the pita is exaggeratedly convoluted beyond all decipherment and other times, it is anaemic, insecure and collapses upon its own internal contradictions.
I reach out to add more cheese and this time my mother slaps away my hand emphatically. “You should make mention of your overcoming of your health problems,” I point out. Instantaneously, I am eight again, and my mother, an aspiring principal at a local primary school, worn out from attending curriculum meeting after meeting, applying for grant after grant in order to foster a supportive culture within a school teeming with refugees and the underprivileged, running our household and struggling with debilitating Meniere’s disease, has experienced yet another attack of vertigo that has caused her to fall to the floor. As she crawls in leaden agony towards the toilet, my great-grandmother, who is in the kitchen making pita, rushes to her aid. Propping her up, she whispers in her ear: «Τι θα κάνεις. Θα κυλιστείς, θα συρθείς, αλλά θα κάνεις αυτά που πρέπει να κάνεις».
“Too much cheese,” my mother comments. “You have no sense of proportion.”
I offer anecdotes as pivotal moments in the construction of my mother’s past and she sweeps them away like the residual specks of flour remaining on the table. Some of those flecks have congealed with water and hardened into callus-like structures, refusing to be removed. My mother scratches at them relentlessly with her fingernails until they change shape, before finally giving way to her cleansing fury. There are perspectives to these fixed points in time I have never before considered. She has said nothing, but I realise now why they must be effaced from the page. Her fingernail has split down the middle but it is I who feel the pain.
When “Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends” arrives in the post, I devour it excitedly. I am filled with immense admiration for the remarkable women who frame our lives, sometimes under the most onerous of circumstances, too often, in silence. Their passion, their indomitability, their uncompromising humanity fill me with reverence and awe. Then I turn to the page where my mother’s story begins. I am fifteen again and instead of the words on the page, I hear my mother’s voice reading: «Και όχι να πείτε »from Ritsos’ «Kαπνισμένο Τσουκάλι» to me: «Βιαστικά λόγια, μια μικρή περίληψη της ζωής, τα κύρια σημεία μονάχα…».
I arrive at her house. The recitation continues. From the kitchen I smell the aroma of freshly baked pita newly emerged from the oven. She is still reciting, but the words are no longer addressed to me: «Κι όχι να πείτε που ‘κανα/ και τίποτα σπουδαίο,/ μόνο που πέρασα κι ακούμπησα/ στον ίδιο τοίχο π’ ακουμπήσατε».
I give her the book and she holds it for a while without opening it. Then she begins to flick through it, losing herself in its pages. And for the first time ever, as I reach out to grab hold of a piece of pita, she holds my hand and forbids it: “This is for your children,” she informs quietly. Seated at the kitchen table, I watch her in silence as she reads, rolling great-grandmother’s fingers over the pages as if they were sheets of fyllo, her recitation arriving at its ultimate conclusion:
«Α, βέβαια όλα τούτα θα πουν, δεν είναι τίποτα.
Όμως εσύ αδερφέ μου ξέρεις πως από τούτα τα απλά λόγια,
από τούτες τις απλές πράξεις, από τούτα τα απλά τραγούδια
μεγαλώνει το μπόι της ζωής, μεγαλώνει ο κόσμος, μεγαλώνουμε…».