submitted by Gaye Hegeman on 20.02.2009
Eager to talk about her childhood and youth, Betty’s memories tumble out with recollections of her teenager years when she nursed her bed ridden grandmother and the drudgery of collecting water from the well twice a day. “It was a hard life,” she repeated and “we were very poor.” Although her memory is fading Betty hasn’t lost her sense of humour, and is the first to admit in her friendly, down to earth manner, “I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast today, but can remember what happened years ago”.
There were six children in her family, four girls and two boys and Betty was the fifth child, born with the assistance of her aunt Maria Kalokerinos on the 11th January 1924 in their home at Fratsia. Although everyone knows her as Betty, and she doesn’t mind being called Panayiota, her baptismal name is Panayiotitsa. She is proud that her name has been carried forward another generation and among the treasured family photographs displayed on her bookshelf is a framed picture of the “three Panayiotitsas”, Betty with two of her granddaughters.
Her father left the Island shortly before she was born and they did not meet until she was eleven years old. “My mother,” she expresses with deep affection, “was a sweet, sweet lady,” and although life was hard during her childhood she considers that she had the “best parents under the sun.” Photographs were all that she had to remind her that she had a father, even though he was far away in Australia. This was not unusual at the time as many children on the Island had absent fathers.
Her parents were Constantine John Kalokerinos and Eleni Demetriou Masselos. Her father traveled to America twice and to Australia three times. At one time he had a banana farm at Gympie, an agricultural district 166 kilometers north of the Queensland state capital, Brisbane. Her brothers and sisters were Angela born in 1911, Yiannis (John) born 1914, Demetrios (James) born 1920, Georgia 1912, (Betty 1924), and the youngest child was Irena who was born in 1937. Both of her parents eventually settled in Brisbane, Queensland and remained there until they passed away. Her grandparents on her father’s side were John and Angela Kalokerinos. With the exception of her grandmother, Angela Kalokerinos who was from Pitsiniadis a hamlet near Aroniathika, her other three grandparents were from Fratsia.
Betty’s early life was centered in the home, helping her mother and attending school. There never seemed to be any time for holidays or play except on the odd occasion when she escaped next door to be with her friends. Twice a day, Betty and her siblings had to walk about half a mile to the well to fetch water in large tins which were either loaded on a donkey or carried by hand. It was hard work drawing water from the well and even harder getting the tins of water back to their home. They trudged along the frequently used path in all kinds of weather, their hands strained under the weight of the tins caused them to stop to rest several times along the way. The precious water was used for drinking, cooking, for their animals and for the vegetable garden. Betty had to do her fair share of the work when she was old enough and watered the garden, fed the animals and remembers picking figs during the school holidays.
The household animals were kept in a stable next to their home. They had two donkeys, one pig (usually fattened for Easter or Christmas), a dozen or more chickens which laid plenty of eggs, two goats, four sheep that provided milk for cheese and wool. Betty loved the baby animals and remembers the young goats and lambs that used to follow her around but recalls her distress and sadness when they had to be slaughtered. Her mother did everything, looked after the vegetable garden, the animals, picked olives, she even did the shearing, washed the wool and prepared it for spinning. They wove blankets from their own wool on a loom which was kept inside the house.
Easter and Christmas were the most important events of the year and the whole family observed a strict fast. Betty always looked forward to these occasions and remembers counting down the days during the fast. The main fast periods of the year were the 50 days which preceded Easter, 15 days in August and then the Christmas fast which began on St. Phillip’s day the 14th November and lasted for 40 days. As strict adherents of the fast they did not eat any meat, cheese, milk or fish (except at Christmas) – every Sunday her family attended Church at Fratsia and additionally on feast or Saints days. Saint Pandelemon’s day observed on the 27th July, was her family’s special Saint’s day. On St. Contantine’s day, her father’s name day, all of her relatives came to visit to wish him well.
Attendance at the Fratsia village school was a joy for Betty as she loved school. Her favourite subject was grammar but she also enjoyed reading and writing and came top in spelling. Their teacher Constantinos Pavlakis taught all the grades from one to six. Betty was considered to be a smart little girl, the smartest in her school according to her teacher. When she was in grade one a visitor came to see the teacher one day and filled in time talking to the class until the teacher was free. The visitor asked the pupils who was the smartest child in the class. One little boy put up his hand and proclaimed that he was the smartest. In response their teacher turned and pointed towards the back of the classroom and said, “Panayiotitsa, she is the smartest in the class.” The visitor gave Betty five drachmas as a present. Although her formal education ended when she completed grade six, Betty used to read anything she could find which included her brothers’ high school text books. Her parents could only afford to give their two sons a high school education.
Life on the Island during the Second World War still holds many unpleasant memories and Betty was not keen to talk about this part of her life. She would only say that it was a terrible time and as a teenager just emerging into the adult world, she became very aware of the misery and poverty that existed in her community. People died of starvation she said, and some were so poor they had no shoes. At about this time Betty became her grandmother’s nurse.
Her mother’s father had passed away before Betty was born leaving behind Yianoulla (formerly Pavlakis), her maternal grandmother. When her grandmother fell and broke her hip she had to be confined to bed. In those days before there was a hospital on the Island it was the responsibility of the family to care for their loved ones. Betty was 15 years old when she began looking after her grandmother attending to all the needs of a bedridden person, but stressed that she did this with a glad heart. There had to be someone in the house during the day while her mother was at work in the garden planting and harvesting vegetables, or attending to other outdoor chores. Betty was also supposed to do the housework and prepare the evening meal. When time permitted she did a little sewing or read books or whatever reading matter was available. Two years later in 1941 having reached the age of 90, her grandmother passed away “of old age.”
Her sister Angela, who was thirteen years older than Betty had migrated to Queensland years before and was married to Mick Londy of Ipswich. She encouraged Betty to join her and agreed to be her sponsor. So in 1948 when she was 24, Betty decided to leave Greece. It was arranged that Betty should have a male escort to accompany her on the voyage to Australia, even though she was much older than the young man, eighteen year old Harry Londy. They travelled to Port Said where they boarded the ship “Patrice” which brought them to Sydney. This was the adventure of a lifetime for Betty who hoped to eventually find a husband.
Angela and Mick Londy owned a café at Ipswich and for the first year after her arrival in Queensland, Betty helped her sister in the home and looked after their children. In the beginning she did not speak one word of English and had a lot of ground to make up. When Angela and Mick bought two picture theatres in 1950, one at Margate and the other at Redcliffe on the Redcliffe Peninsular, Betty commenced her first real job taking the patrons tickets as they came through the door. She continued in this employment for the next two years.
From their very first meeting Betty and Yianis (Jack) Comino liked one another. She smiled a lot as she recalled the occasion when friends came to visit and brought Jack with them to meet her. A boot maker by trade Jack had arrived in Australia before the Second World War and because there was not much work available in his trade, he began working in cafes. Jack Comino, who was from the village of Goudianika, was a self-taught violinist and because he was left-handed his violin had to be specially strung. In 1953 Betty and Jack Comino were married in Brisbane. “We were both very poor,” she said, but her sister Angela generously covered the cost of their wedding and went guarantor for them when they bought their first business.
Their first shop was a mixed business at Coorparoo in Brisbane with a residence at the back, which sold mainly fruit. To make a go of it they had to work seven days a week. Eventually their hard work and modest lifestyle paid off as they saved enough money to buy their first home in the same suburb as the shop. During this time three children were born, Nicholas (Dr. N. Comino) in 1955, Constantine in 1958 and a daughter Martina in 1960. Betty emphasized that she was determined to succeed and said she had to put up with many difficulties, discomfort and more than anything, fatigue. After about ten years, they sold up and took a trip back to Greece where they stayed for a year enjoying the company of family and friends. When they returned to Brisbane they bought a small fruit and grocery shop in Stanley Street, East Brisbane.
Betty and her husband Jack both owned a car. Betty explained how she used to budget very carefully and never wasted, “so much as a bean or even a quarter of a carrot” just so they could enjoy the luxury and independence of owning a motor vehicle. However it was not purely for self-indulgence she emphasized. Her car was a means of helping others, to pick up someone for church, or to assist with a fund raising venture. This was how she was brought up by her mother, to always be kind and to help those in need. She recalled that as children when they carried water home from the well they would always stop to give a drink to passersby if they asked. In her younger years, Betty used to cook to raise money for the church. She was well known in church circles as a good saleswoman, and her friends would say “give it to Betty, she’ll sell it”.
Her marriage, she believes was the most important event in her life but qualified this saying that married life also brought challenges. “You have to be understanding and patient to keep things running smoothly” she said. She is thankful that she has three good, smart children and is very proud of them. The war years brought the greatest hardship into her life especially seeing those around her starving and suffering. She is thankful to have had such a good mother who taught her to be compassionate. Her greatest sadness was the loss of her parents, a younger sister who had small children, a nephew and then her own husband.
Imparting a little of her wisdom, Betty added that it is important to be kind to everyone, to love everyone, to forgive those who do wrong to you and to never carry a grudge. She wishes to be remembered as a kind person who liked to help others.
The Kalokerinos nick name is “Pantolion”
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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