I went to visit my mother in the nursing home where she now resides. Once again, I was the only visitor on a rather warm Sunday afternoon. My mother has dementia and thankfully remains blissfully unaware of where she is. She still looks regal and majestic to me, and despite her short stature, stands above all the women I have met in my life. They don’t make women (or mothers) like Panayiota Neofytou anymore. After my visit, I went home and looked up a short story I wrote about my mother and her generation some 15 years ago. Back then I used to write one short story a week and I called them Tales of Conscience. Here it is…
We hardly notice they’re there. Their mammoth deeds go largely unrecognised most of the time. And how often do we take them for granted? I have decided to write this Tale of Conscience as a tribute to all the Greek mothers who have propped up their families for generations purely by instinct, unconditional love and customary duty. I wish to celebrate and salute these champions of maternal grace and servitude. With their headscarves and floral aprons, they are the tireless and true ambassadors of goodwill.
I was sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon watching my mother going through her daily drill in the kitchen. It seemed for a moment that her ‘whole purpose for being’ was to serve and help others. She is a legend. She never expects support, recognition or admiration. She quietly goes about her job cooking, washing and cleaning for her family – without a fuss, hardly ever complaining. How could I have missed so much all these years, I thought to myself.
I remember when I was still living at home. I was young, single and carefree. I never thought for a minute how much time and effort went into raising a family and what an incredible sacrifice my mother made to keep me fed and warm. How many times would I come home after work, shower, get changed and dash past my mother in a mad rush to get back to my friend’s house. I was completely oblivious of my mother and the dinner she had prepared and had laid out for me on the kitchen table.
How many times would I phone home from work to tell her I was eating out with friends, completely unaware that she had spent half the day cooking my favourite meals and the other half washing up saucepans and dishes? I wasn’t really a twat. I just didn’t think much about it.
Like millions of other Greek boys, we took our mothers for granted. They were always there for us. Pampering their sons, partly out of love and partly out of duty or cultural conditioning. These unsuspecting servants were simply conforming to ancient traditions that had compelled, bewitched and forced them to assume the role of housekeeper, cook, nanny, dishwasher, cleaner and even nurse.
My mother has led a simple life. Most days are consumed by chores. I used to joke with my dad that “she doesn’t just wash the dishes – she gives them a bath” because it takes her so long and she uses so much soap. My mother has never really travelled or dined in a restaurant. I can’t remember if she ever received a gift from my father other than a box of biscuits or a new apron. I think the last time she danced was in 1954. She would be embarrassed at the sentiment now. It’s funny what you get used to.
My mother spends most of her waking hours in the kitchen. Her only outing during the last twenty years has been to church. But yet, she seems happy. This is her life. This is all she knows. She is a very good woman. My father, God bless him, is also a good man. These days I spend many hours with both of them, sharing my tales of conscience. To be honest, most of it goes over their heads. I’m sure they’re thinking, “when is this boy going to grow up?”
I remember how frantic my mother would become if we were expecting guests for lunch or dinner. She would be up at 4.00 am, cooking and peeling, boiling and roasting while the rest of the household slept. Then about two hours before the guests were due to arrive she would set the table with the finest china and silver. The only part I couldn’t understand was why she insisted on placing all the food on the table. I used to debate this issue with her all the time.
“Mum, what are you doing? I mean, HELLO! They won’t be here for two more hours. Like, don’t you think the food will get cold by then?”
“Shhh! Get out of the way,” she would say as she scuttled past me with a bowl of olives. “I haven’t got time to chat with you now.” It’s a thing of beauty, really.
She’s a funny little woman sometimes. She loves her religion. She loves her housework and she loves her family. I often think how some people really do settle for a lot less out of life. My mother is no different to countless other migrant women. Their whole purpose of life seems to evolve around serving the men they married. Imagine that. These women work seven days a week, 365 days a year without sick leave, compo or holidays or any formal recognition of skills. I mean, this job sucks.
So tonight before you go to bed, phone your mother and tell her you love her. And when she says, “sorry – who speaking please?” Tell her it’s you. That should relieve the shock a bit. Mind you, if you still live at home with your mum, then don’t bother to phone. The number will be engaged. See her in person.
But isn’t it amazing. I used to almost dread Christmas and birthdays because of all the kissing you had to do. I wasn’t used to kissing family and relatives. I’m not sure if it’s a Greek thing. I could kiss a thousand strangers quicker than give my sisters a peck on the cheek. Strange, isn’t it?
I used to get minor anxiety attacks before a dear old auntie from abroad was about to visit. Here’s the thing. You’re at the airport waiting. Your palms are getting sweaty. You have rehearsed this scene a thousand times in your head. You remind yourself to look her straight in the eyes, shake her hand, tilt your head, move forward and quickly kiss her right cheek. But is it two kisses or three. What is the protocol for visiting relatives? You start to panic.
And then suddenly she appears out of Gate 1. She’s approaching fast. Remember, keep your mouth closed, move forward and aim for the right cheek. She’s smiling now, her arms outstretched. Shake her hand, right cheek. But wait, she tricks you. She turns to face the other way. You lunge forward. Careless. Awkward. Clumsy. You either get a mouthful of her peroxide hair, or your mouth swallows the wart at the end of her chin. So on behalf of all the Greek men, the fathers and the sons who have stuffed their faces at the dinner table without as much as a word or even a small gesture of gratitude – I would like to say “THANK YOU” to the Greek women for their unrelenting service and self-sacrifice. Thanks mum.