When yiayia does the blessing

Matiasma, skortha and evil eye stories have now found their place in the kids' book Garlic, Hankies and Hugs, by Michelle Monaghan, as a reminder of the importance of our cultural heritage

How many times has your Greek yiayia put a garlic clove in your pocket to protect you from evil spirits? Or did her ftou sou secret weapon for the same reason? How many times did you try to explain to your non-Greek friends the meaning of matiasma, skortha and the evil eye?

Tradition holds that simply saying the word skortha will ward off evil spirits. Spitting three times is believed to chase away the devil. Some Greeks believe a person can catch the evil eye or matiasma from someone else’s jealousy.

All the mysterious scenarios, with only one aim – to protect her grandchildren – were played out in the kitchen of Lela Miconiatis around this belief.
In her new Australian kids’ book, released by JoJo Publishing last month, Lela’s granddaughter and author Michelle Monaghan encourages kids to celebrate and be proud of their culture. Told in rhyming verse, Michelle’s first book Garlic, Hankies and Hugs includes lovely quirky snippets about Greek cultural traditions.

The story for Michelle’s first book comes straight from her own family. Visiting her Greek nanna, Lela Miconiatis, meant squeezed cheeks and going through a very weird tradition – even being spat at.

But it was her ‘nun’ Lela that inspired Michelle to write a kids’ book about skortha – or more precisely, about diversity and multiculturalism and how to accept it.

“My mum’s side is the Greek side. We are a small family, so I really appreciate all the customs and traditions we’ve had, such as for Easter and Christmas.”

Egyptian Greek, Lela moved to Brazil with her family during the Suez Canal War in 1956. Three years later they moved to Melbourne, sailing into Port Melbourne on the Lloyd Triestino ship.

“I guess because I’m half Greek I wanted to hold on to as many of the traditions as possible, so when I raise my son and my family we remember those and keep practising those customs with our family,” Michelle tells Neos Kosmos.

In her book, Michelle reveals quirky and idiosyncratic family traditions and celebrates them rather than trying to hide them. The book is suitable for children 4-10 years old, and even upper primary school students, who are the launching point to promote universal diversity and acceptance, as Michelle says.

What inspired Michelle, as a primary teacher, to make her personal story a kids’ book, was that interesting element that often attracts kids’ attention.

“When you read stories to kids you try something that is a bit quirky or interesting, or they haven’t heard of, and a lot of my non-Greek family and friends haven’t heard of it before, of matiasma and skortho. So I thought it was a cute, fun tradition to highlight and celebrate. Nun still does it to this day.

“Nun is a very funny lady and beautiful person at the age of 85. I thought the book would be a nice tribute to her as she is such an important part of our family. I’ve written the book without telling her, the first time she read it was when it was published – she was the first one to read it.

“First she cried, of course, and then she did exactly what’s in the book – ftou ftou ftou. I laughed – I said that’s the whole reason for the book and you just did it,” Michelle says with a laugh.

“Unless you grew up in a family that does that – for other people that’s so weird. But for my nanna it’s like second nature. Anything good that happens – bang – here comes the spit.”

Proud of her “most beautiful, smartest and nicest” three grandchildren, Lela was also proud that she was featured in the book. There was one thing though she didn’t enjoy as much – illustrations of a grandma.

“She liked the illustrations in general but I think my nanna looks quite glamorous, and she was like ‘Oooh, that doesn’t look like me at all’,” Michelle giggles.
With 13 years experience as a primary school teacher, Michelle says she is happy to see more acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism as years go by.

“I taught in different schools – some that are very diverse, and other that are more Anglo-Saxon. My mum used to talk about how she felt awkward when she went to school with a mortadella or salami sandwich instead of cheese and Vegemite; and now all that different food you see – it’s beautiful, as 20-30 years ago that wouldn’t happen. I am very proud how multicultural we and our kids are.

“I am a big supporter of multiculturalism because I wouldn’t be here otherwise – that’s how my mum and dad met; my dad coming from England and my mum from Egypt via Brazil.”

Michelle, however, doesn’t deny the fact that it can sometimes be hard to teach children to be proud of their background and to cherish their diverse heritage.

“It depends on the school you are in, on the family, as I saw children being not too kind to other children when they’ve actually come from somewhere else as well. I think it’s just about making them aware that aside from Aboriginals, in Australia everybody came from somewhere else. Kids should understand where they come from rather than be embarrassed of it.”

Garlic, Hankies and Hugs by Michelle Monaghan is available from bookstores and online bookstores. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/GarlicHankiesandHugs