submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My name is Doreen Kepreotis and I was born in Werris Creek to Greek-born parents on the 5th of august 1924. I am 4th in line of eight children. My mother had eight children in eight years, which was something quite normal back in those days. I was born in the family home in the room above the shop. There was no hospital in Werris Creek, or anything nearby, so everything was conducted around our place.
My parents were Peter and Efstratia Kepreotes and they landed in Australia in 1921 from Greece. My father had a restaurant with his brother, Spiro, in Werris Creek. Ironically, my maiden name was remarkably similar to my husband’s surname as both our families came from the same village in Kythera, Kypriotianika. It was a common tradition for most Kytherians to take the surname from your village. This was of course the way of things many generations ago. In Australia my parents built a new restaurant as a family business in Werris Creek and had our residence upstairs. My father opened it up with his brother. My parents would speak Greek and we would speak English. They adapted well because my father came out young and then of course was made to go back where he got caught up in the First World War. When my mother came out she never knew one word of English. She taught herself how to talk and read, very industrious. My father was as well. He had no education or anything but had the foresight to develop a life for his family. An example of this was the fact that he created a well behind our house, as at that time the country was low on water supplies. It was this type of thinking that helped us a lot. He was a kind man but also hard when he needed to be. I remember being chased around the well a couple of times. And I also remember dad getting us exotic foods whenever he could to keep us happy.
I don’t really remember them having any nicknames but I do remember that my grandfather, on my mums side was often called Makarounis and I believe that was because he was especially fond of makaronia. Both my parents were born in Kythera, with my father’s family originating from Kypriotianika and my mother’s from Alozianikia. They were both of medium height and had really strong personalities. In her later years, after my father passed, my mother was referred to as ‘The General’ by her extended family, based on her ability to look after so many kids as a widow.
I came from a family of eight kids. My mother remarkably had eight kids in eight years and I was the middle child. She first had Irene (Rene) in 1921 and followed that with Mary, Zac, myself, Kosta (who died at six months of age), Nick, Charlie and then Jackie.
My childhood was quite difficult living out in rural Australia. We worked hard and our parents were strict on us. Around the house and shop we would do the washing by boiling the copper in the back and then rinsing the clothes out and hanging them on the line. We didn’t have washing machines back then, things were done a lot harder, and things we take for granted today. Our family did not have any cousins or relatives out here in Australia, as they were all back in Greece so as a family, we were quite isolated and were also forced to assimilate into the Australian way of life. Our family home was not massive by any stretch of the imagination and therefore I would have to share a room with the girls; and the boys also shared one another. We lived on top of dad’s business.
I can only really remember working and then going to bed. I can’t say that I remember too much of that time. It was largely centred round waking up, work, school, work, eating and then off to bed. My father would take us out and try keep us happy as much as he could. But there was no mixing with other people. And we just assumed it was the norm. My siblings all remained here in Australia so it was relatively easy to stay in touch. None chose to go back to Greece and return to the place our parents were born. All of them were born here and all of them married here, and had children here. Currently, there are four that remain alive (Zac, Irene and Nick had passed) myself included. Charlie, Mary and Jackie are the other three and we are all very much in close contact. Some of us lived close by and still do and so we stayed close. The boys went into business together. We were a close family.
I grew up in Werris Creek. The country town was a junction for the trains coming in where people would have to wait sometimes two or three days to get their connecting trains. My father capitalised on this by building the restaurant and buying billiard tables to entertain them. We then moved down to Sydney after the Second World War, when business was starting to dry up and the large city was seen as a more prosperous place for us. Life during the War was quite difficult. My brother Zac enlisted in the war in the Air Force in New Guinea. So we had to do a lot for ourselves because my father had bad Tuberculosis, convalesced at Katoomba and relocated to Stockinbingal with his brother. He was basically in quarantine and he died in Cootamundra hospital during the Second World War after which my mother then had to work extremely hard maintaining the shop and 8 kids (Zac was still in the Air Force). Being only a teenager you never thought about the consequences of the war. Business was still good during the war, we didn’t suffer much. However, business did go bad when they shut down some of the train lines. Werris Creek had a supply depot for the soldiers in which they would come in for meals and we would serve them. We were the only Greek family in the town. At school you were called Dago. I learnt first-aid and also took a course in Morse Code on the railway station and the papers all went through, however I believe I was turned down because of my name. That was the first time I encountered any form of racism.
I was lucky enough to go to school in the country. However, I finished up half way through first year high school. I went to Tamworth High which was not close by. We would travel an hour there and an hour back. I can’t really remember having too many close friends as we weren’t allowed to meet new people and mingle outside of the family home while we were growing up. I had very strict parents. I have always said that they were more strict here than over in Greece and I put it down to the fact that I believe they felt it very necessary to maintain the values and morals they grew up with, to hold on to a part of Greece and their Greek heritage that they did not want to lose to a new country.
I remember that my sewing teacher wanted me to come down to Sydney because she saw talent in me, however my parents were strict and needed me to help out around the shop and house. Back in those days, girls didn’t learn a trade it was just assumed they would stay home and work. The boys, on the other hand, did. We just thought it was the norm and so I don’t really recall being bitter about that decision because back then you really didn’t know any better. I loved playing sport, especially tennis. A sister of the school, which was primarily a church (St Josephs) on the weekend and school during the week, believed I had a career. That’s how my siblings and I kept ourselves entertained. We never learnt to Greek dance or anything as there was no Greek community there in the country. The closest was in Kuringai and Tamworth, and so it was not a big part of our daily routine. My brother Zac and I were both Christened in the same tub as there was a shortage of Greek priests in the country. When we came down to Sydney we got involved again. We would go to the Kytherian dances and picnics. I was however shy and so didn’t meet many people initially.
We had a lot of animals growing up but in particular the one animal that stands out for me is the chickens we owned. I remember distinctly how my father would cut off their heads in the backyard. That is certainly something that is not easily forgotten. I would often help out in the yard, and specifically loved chopping wood.
I don’t really remember paying too much attention to special events in the calendar year whilst living in the country, because as a family we were alone; we had no real extended relatives anywhere nearby. However, when we moved to the city we would spend Christmas and Easter all together with other cousins. The only special Christmas tradition I knew of back in those early days included our father walking into the room we were all in and throwing lollies up in the air. We had no real time and money, to celebrate these things. I mean, take for example the fact that there was no Greek church in Werris Creek, how were we to really celebrate the birth and death of Jesus Christ and also maintain a semblance of Greek heritage? It was very hard. I went one day to the Catholic Church to experience what it was like, because of course we did not know much back then. And I came back and my father was waiting behind the gate to reprimand me because I hadn’t told them and that it was a Catholic church, not part of Orthodoxy. They were both religious and devout Orthodox followers. We never knew any of this in the country and learnt it all when we came to Sydney. Our parents were too busy in the shop to teach us.
At school my nickname was “tiny”, as I was very small. When I was a baby they used to have me in a dolls pram because I was that small. I sprung up a bit at 14 or 15 years of age to about 5 foot and pretty much stayed there. At Tamworth High my most enjoyable subjects, and the ones I was best at, were both sewing and sports. Tennis usually took up my weekends as well. However, I also loved watching movies. It was one of my favourite things to do but not easily accomplished.
We would have to sneak out because we were not allowed. At about the age of sixteen I saw that the movie The Great Walls was coming and would be at the cinema for roughly two months and I wanted to see it. My father left for the day as there was a death in the family. I said to my eldest brother Zac that we should go while dad was away. It was an open air theatre but I didn’t enjoy it because I was too worried. When we went home Zac went round the back so dad wouldn’t see him but I went through the front because I thought he wouldn’t hit me in front of the customers. I was wrong. And then I had to serve the customers on top of that. You see, you always waited on breakfast, lunch and dinner for your life savings. We survived on those periods of the day when it was busy.
Movies like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca were childhood favourites that I can still remember.
My first job was helping out my father in the shops, we all worked hard. The first job I ever knew was to collect everybody’s shoes of a Saturday and polish them. I can also remember cleaning the shop out on numerous occasions. And serving the customers, which was sometime in between school.
In Werris Creek we had a shop, Kurindai we had a shop, Randwick we had a shop. Then when I got married, for the first eight years my husband and his partner (koumbaro, Charlie Aroney) had a café/reception business (called “Chicken Grill”/ “Coronet” in George Street), shops near Wynyard and then St. James railway stations and then a fish shop in Maroubra. That’s all I ever really new as an adult was working the small business shops that Greeks became synonymous with back then. There was however, a time when I did fancy a career as a seamstress. It didn’t happen because it was too hard to leave my parents. And then when I got married I had four boys so it was really out of the question, but it was something I would have liked to have pursued in life. I still make things from time to time to keep myself busy, for example one Christmas I made all my boys, daughter-in-laws and my grandchildren beanies for the winter, that they all wore. We had a good laugh.
I moved out of home for the first time when I got married and came to the house that I am still living in today in Maroubra. I’ve been here since 1949. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to travel much at all because we were constantly working. We only went to the Kytherian picnics and Balls which we did enjoy.
I met my husband Les, a while before we got married, as he was one of the soldiers up at Werris Creek in the supply depot. Most of the non-naturalized (Italians, Greeks) would come in the shop and have dinner or play cards and play dad’s piano all together and sing. I would see him often because they frequented Werris Creek. They would have concerts up there. Once my husband Les sang the Australian and Greek national anthems with my sister Rene. It was more or less a proxied marriage. We weren’t given a choice because we were never allowed to meet other people and it was the general practise at the time. It was all new to me. I used to say that we were in the dark as young kids and didn’t know much. I do believe that was the case which is a contrast to how things are conducted these days.
We decided to have kids pretty much straight away and became parents two years after marriage in 51’. However back then you didn’t really plan things like that, it just basically unfolded itself. When I lost my first born girl at 8months of age I wanted another girl and instead had two boys and then went again and had twin boys, so it was quite difficult for me raising them. In disciplining them however I never wanted to be as strict as what my parents were to me so that my children could experience more in life. I wanted them to play all kinds of sports and live a little. More than I ever did. My husband worked very hard, six days a week, and he was a great provider. And on his only day off he would be in the garden, his great hobby. My job was to look after the kids.
My parents migrated together after they were married. It was easier for them because my father had already been out previously and worked to establish something for himself here. We didn’t go back to Greece together. After my father died my mother went back to Kythera for two months. I finally went over five years after my husband died and travelled with my eldest son Victor in 1982. We went for two months which was our first time to Greece for both of us. Victor wanted to see all the archaeology things in Athens and I didn’t enjoy myself. It only got more enjoyable for me going to Kythera. I didn’t know much about it as a child. Couldn’t wait to go see the Myrtithiotisa Church on the 15th of August but I was actually glad to come home. “No place like home.” I missed my family and the comfort of home and what Australia has to offer. Having said that I did enjoy myself on the island with the relatives and yet I have never been back. It has not been a necessity for me like it would have been for my husband.
The most wonderful experiences of my life would have to be watching all my grandchildren getting through Uni. I love seeing them doing well and seeing my boys being born of course. I have had some very tough and challenging experiences in life but it has definitely been worth it. First time I ever won on the Melbourne Cup was something I can remember, because we simply did not have much money back then so this was a massive achievement for me to have my own money. I felt independent. A feeling I was not always used to.
I believe I have had a lot of bad luck in life which has contributed to my anxieties and my worries. My husband and daughter passing away before their time played massive roles in my life and I subsequently had two nervous breakdowns as a direct result. I lost Katerina at eight months old. She hadn’t even been christened yet because we waited for our koumbaro to generate money. I knew she wasn’t well and so I took her to the clinic. They sent us home. I never quite found out what happened although they suspected gastro enteritis. I rang everyday to the hospital, because you were only allowed only one day a week to visit. It all happened on the Friday and we were going to go on the Monday on Les’ day off, except that is the day we buried her. Everyday they said she was OK and then the Friday they told me things had turned. I ran down the lane and flagged down a stranger’s car, we didn’t have one. When I got to the hospital she was gone. That one experience had a very big effect on my life. My first nervous breakdown was around this time which coincided with an eight month phobia I developed, combined with my son Peter developing a severe case of Asthma.
The second breakdown was after my husband died. With all the trauma, I then had to deal with the legalities surrounding the fact he had no will and the probate came into play. We lost two buildings and nearly lost the house. And we had to pay probate on top of that. The night of his first collapse, the kids went to a Kytherian black and white ball and as soon as they left Les passed out in the living room. The ambulance revived him here at home. He was then later released to return home. At this time he failed to look after himself and was even caught, by the next door neighbour, smoking. I was unable to make sure he was looking after himself as I had to look after the shop in the mean time while he was recovering. The boys had to stop their studies after he died and go work the shop to ensure we had enough money to carry on. It was an extremely difficult time for us and followed a trend in my life.
Having said this I do believe all the negative experiences have made me stronger. I have lived and functioned by myself from 1977 in this house alone. And dealing with all the medical problems I have had, I am quite proud of my knowledge in that area and my self medication. I have had a lot of worries in my life, but I used to joke a lot and I think that is what got me through. One doctor Lafferty told me that was the best medicine. I generally can remember all my doctor’s names. I have had asthma most of my life which probably has given me the most stress, my breathing is very bad. However I will never forget what one respiratory doctor said to me one time in the hospital, “Breathe in as if you are smelling a flower and breathe out like you are cooling down hot soup.” It keeps me stable and calm.
I would sum up my life as one with a lot of ups and downs. Both laughter and cries I guess. And I would like to be remembered for looking after the kids. Getting four boys by myself to a point in their lives that they were safe and able to look after themselves and provide for their own respective families.
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This oral history was taken in 2011 by Joshua Kepreotis and final edit in 2014.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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