My Greek parents’ house is like a foreign country: they do things differently there*.
The hot water sticker is on the cold tap and the cold water sticker is on the hot tap. The Greek coffee is in the canister labelled “sugar” and the sugar is in the canister marked “coffee”.
Food is always covered because a mosquito, ant, “μύγα”, “σφήκα” fly or wasp could land on it, even in winter.
Everyone has to repeat everything three times, once for every new pair of hearing aids still in their original packaging and hiding in the draw.
My father wears a Greek fisherman’s cap and a surgical mask and gloves to take out the garbage bins as a precaution against COVID-19.
And everything stops for the news.
When the radio news theme sounds on the hour, my father checks the kitchen wall clock and smiles.
The Citron brand rhythm quartz clock, purchased 40 years ago, he says, is still as highly accurate as the standard quartz clocks at the Royal Observatory Greenwich .
“Πολύ καλό ρολόϊ. Ώρα Γκρίνουιτς,” he says.
I came to look after my parents in Oakleigh for four weeks on September 3 last year while my sister holidayed overseas. I’m still here. We all are. My sister and I living with our parents and my brother and his family living next door. It’s like the past. The time before my brother and sister got married and I moved out.
A unique pair, they are my parents.
My mother swears at her medication.
“Αυτό το καθίκι” she says as she takes her tablet for the night. That’ll teach that rascal pill for sticking to the roof of her mouth.
My father lets his hands do the swearing when showing his exasperation at his health problems.
His gesture of an inward-facing palm with fingers extended thrust in the direction of his pelvis tells me exactly what he thinks of his incontinence.
My father turned 90 on 3 March and my mother on April 3.
With almost a century of living today’s bad news don’t phase them.
“Δεν πεθάναμε το ’41, τώρα θα πεθάνουμε;” (We didn’t die in 1941, now we will die?) he asks.
He’s right. If a Greek didn’t die during the Nazi invasion in 1941, then a Greek could survive droughts, floods, coronavirus and eight per cent inflation.
But reminders of their own mortality are everywhere.
My father has a recurring dream. He is up to his neck in water and then his head disappears. What does it mean, he wants to know.
My mother knows what it means.
“Ώρα σου καλή, καλό ταξίδι,” and “Rest in peace”, she says as she stands over each friend’s coffin, resting in the Greek Orthodox churches.
“Κράτα το χέρι μου” she insists as I hold her hand and lay on the bed next to her listening to Sunday mass at St Panteleimon, in Melbourne’s south east, on 3XY Radio Ellas.
Memories are my parents closest friends these days and time and loneliness their worst enemy.
Και θα σε περιμένουμε σαν την Ανάσταση” (We will wait for you like the Resurrection) my father says as he equates waiting my return from work every day with the same hope and anticipation as he waits for Easter.
“Α, πώς πέρασαν τα χρόνια” my father laments about how quickly the years have passed.
He recites a poem he learnt in grade 4 in Greece about a boy who wanted to become a pilot.
“Αεροπόρος θα γίνω
στη γη να μην αγγίζω
να βρίσκομαι στον ουρανό
τα σύννεφα να σκίζω”
My father too dreamt of being a pilot, but he became a builder instead.
He remembers the dreams of another boy named Spiro, his childhood friend and namesake.
From the ashes of the adjoining villages Upper and Lower Krousouves destroyed by the Nazis on 17 October 1941, the two boys named Spiro forged a friendship.
Living in the new amalgamated village named Nea Kerdillia, the two friends went to school together, danced rebetiko and hasapiko together and serenaded the women they loved together. They were going to migrate together, too.
“Θα πάω στην Αυστραλία ή στη Γερμανία” my father’s friend Spiro told him, as he tossed up between migrating to Germany or Australia.
But, my father’s friend Spiro only made it as far as 100km away to Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, married, had children and died early.
“Αιωνία η μνήμη, φίλε Γκόλφη”.
“Memory eternal, my friend Spiros Glofis,” my father grieves.
My parents have almost a century of memories and stories like these. Maybe we can add some more my brother, sister and I as we stay with them. As we look after them just as they always wanted, just as it was meant to be.
*Adapted from the opening sentence, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley, (1953).