submitted by Kiriaki Orfanos on 16.12.2011
Mary Sofios' Story
by Kiriaki Orfanos
Mary Simos-Sofios, nee Patrikiou was born on the 14/12/37, in Kythera. Her only sister, Dimitra, was born in 1946. Mary married Leo Simos in 1956 and they immigrated to Australia in 1957 living first in Wollongong and then in Sydney. They had two children, Andrew and Irene. Leo died in 1966 and Mary married Nick Sofios in 1971. They have one daughter, Christine.
This is the story of Mary’s childhood.
The Gypsy knew exactly what to say to get my attention - a rhyme, a comment and a promise. The rhyme was to engage my interest; the comment was to show me that she knew what was in my heart and the promise was about my future. And as I stood on that dusty road in the hot sun, on an island so small you were never out of sight of the sea, I learned that I would spend my life on a different island, lapped by another ocean, under the opposite side of the sun.
Mary Patrikiou with her cousin Maria Comino in 1948 wearing traditional Kytherian dress called the Spaleta.
You know me as your mother and your grandmother – your Yiayia. You know me as the woman who looks after you when Mum goes to work and as the provider of kourambiedes and pastitisio and a rich, warm comforting love. You know me as Mary Sofios. But there was at time when I was Mary Simos, and the time before that when I went by my childhood name, when I was Maria Patrikios. I want to tell you about her and about the people, long dead, who were to me then, what I am to you now. People like my grandparents, my parents and my friends. I want you to know my strong and handsome father and my beautiful mother, who sat in the sun in the garden she had created, smiling a smile that gave the lie to a Gypsy.
Mary’s mother in her garden.
I want to tell you about a time long ago and a life very different from the one I have now but which still exists in the warmer corners of my heart.
You know me as Yiayia, but I want you to meet the child I once was and to do that, I have to take you to a Kythera that exists only in memory and in the remnants of the dry walls that criss-cross the landscape, in embroidered tablecloths for a young girl’s glory box, in browning photographs and in old chimneys that still draw smoke.
Kythera has many shapes depending on where you are. If you look at it as you approach it from the north - provided you apply a bit of imagination - it resembles a woman sleeping on her side, with her arms crossed lightly over her belly and her hair teased into rolling tendrils by the waves - a bit like the way your mother might sleep on the couch if she took an afternoon nap. Ancient travelers had that imagination and the time to ponder it, because you can see Kythera a full six hours before you reach the closest shore, which is probably why they thought of the island shimmering bluely in the distance, as a slumbering Aphrodite.
But if you look at it on a map, you would see an entirely different configuration; on paper it’s drawn to look like a ragged teardrop held in perpetual suspension between the first finger of the Peloponnesus (if you count from the East) and Crete.
Most of Kythera sits high above its beaches on an undulating plateau complete with mountains, valleys and plains. Sometimes the landscape is fertile and easy; sometimes it’s harsh, rugged and promises little in terms of a living. There are many, many villages like Katsoulianika where I was born. It’s in the Exo Dimo, part of a cluster of hamlets including Logothetianika, Koussounari, Perlegianika, Dourgianika, Chrisotforianika and Liananika and close to the most important town in the northern end of the island, Potamos. To get there you have to turn left off the main road, which travels the length of the island, providing its spine and linking Chora in the south to Potamos in the north. Katsoulianika is tucked safely away behind Logothetianika.
Mary’s father, Panagiotis Patrikios on the left, with his friend Yianni Pesa. This photo was taken in 1947 during the Civil War when he was probably on guard duty at an oil refinery.
I’d like to introduce you to someone but I want you to see him first. It’s that big boned, muscular man – the levendi – wiping the sweat off his face and looking over the trench he’s gouging out of unwilling soil to lay the foundations of his house. His clothes, stained with sweat and the accumulated detritus of his various jobs; stone mason, builder, plasterer, painter, are an old white shirt and thick grey cotton trousers held firmly at the waist by a leather belt, that like his tough workman’s boots, he made himself. He’s wearing a scarf for protection against the sun and a battered hat for the same reason.
Can you see him; can you see my father building the house I was born in? Can you feel the ache down low in his back from digging? What of the hard roughness of his clothes against his skin? Can you taste the perspiration that he periodically wipes from his face and smell the dry and dusty dirt? He doesn’t care how hard he works because he’s thinking of the beautiful girl who always seems to have a book in her hand, and how he has at last succeeded in blocking her return to her birthplace with his loving demand that she remain on the island and marry him. As he digs, he dreams of the family he will create with her, growing safe and strong in this house. When he pauses to wipe his face with a ragged cloth smelling of tobacco, his eyes survey the area he has reserved for the garden and imagines it in its full summer growth and for a moment he can almost taste a fig plucked straight off the tree she would have raised from a cutting from her mother’s garden. And he can see that whitewashed house, smelling of lemon blossoms, fresh and clean and reflecting the laundered Mediterranean light.
The house Mary was born in.
Can you imagine his imaginings? Because one of them is me.
My parents married in Agios Minas in 1937 and I was born at the end of that year, at about the same time that their new garden had hunkered down for the winter. As I grew, the garden grew too and I learned to recognize the seasons from the stages of its growth, from bud to blossom to ripened fruit to falling leaf to bare-armed branches to bud to blossom to fruit. Anoixis, Kalokairi, Fthinoporos, Heimonas, Anoixis.
Panagiotis, Theodoros Patrikios
My father, Panagiotis, Theodoros Patrikios (I tell you his full name so that you know where you came from), was born in Katsoulianika in 1902, the third-youngest of seven children and the fifth boy. Although he worked in a variety of building jobs, his first training was that of a leather-worker, making saddle packs for donkeys and keeping us shod all year round. As I mentioned earlier, he earned his living in many ways, usually to do with the building trades, and he was well regarded for his high level of skill, a quality described in Greek as meraklis. There was nothing he could not do, from constructing dry walls, chimneys and complete buildings to making fine carvings out of wood and stone.
After work, he’d join the other men in the kafenion. Men like him who had spent the day working, with their animals or in their fields, tending to their vineyards, their olive groves, their gardens and who would meet in the evening for conversation, a coffee, a drink, a game of cards, to the percussive clickety-click of a kombaloy and the buzz of argument. But he wasn’t one for sitting idle. He’d always be doing something productive with his hands like whittling wooden spoons with his penknife and decorating them with animals he carved out of blue stone to hang around the necks of his beasts as protection against the mati - the bad luck of the evil eye.
The air would be thick with cigarette smoke and the rich, bitter smell of coffee. Someone would order a glass of tsiporo, a plate of olives, some spicy peppers and a shot of ouzo, and they’d discuss local politics and gossip and the iniquities of the government and who was a cheat and who could be trusted and which woman was willing and if there’d be war and who had come back from overseas sporting a three piece suit, a Homberg, pocket watch and chain, ready to pick the youngest and prettiest girls to take back to that other world with them. And envy not unmixed with admiration and a dry humorous cynicism characterized their talk.
My father poured all his skill into building our house, making it solid and safe, but my mother brought it alive with her energy and warmth. She filled it with the beautiful items she had prepared for her dowry; gleaming copper pots, embroideries, blankets and rugs, most of which she had made herself. Lavender and camomile kept it fresh and good food gave it a comforting sense of plenty. But most of all she filled it with love. This is how she made it our home.
Our home smelled delicious. The nourishing aromas of origano, lemon, garlic and baking bread, or lentil dishes like fava, faki and fasolatha, reached out to us wherever we were and beckoned us to the table. She always had paximathia, koulouria, amigdalota or melomakarona to serve with coffee (making it was my job) and there were thiples, xerotigana and lambrokouloures for special occasions. Rizogalo, a simple rice pudding, was a regular treat.
She had a sofra, a round, wooden board on tiny feet, which she used to knead and roll out pastry, or to turn the half-baked tyropita over in the pan before returning it to the fire.
Nothing tastes as good as the very first pressing of oil, it’s so rich and tangy, so spicy with its delicious heat, that it becomes a meal in itself. Like all the islanders we had our own olive groves. At around the time of the celebration of the name day of Agios Andreas in late November, with the first pressing of the oil – and to honour the tradition yia na mi triposi to tigani, to season the frying pan, Mama would spoil us with tiganites. These were little dumplings made of dough – consisting of plain flour, yeast and water – which were deep fried in olive oil and served hot, drenched with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. The secret is to eat them straight after they’ve been dipped in the syrup but before they’ve had a chance to get soggy, so that you bite into their thin crust to release a candied, mouth-filling fragrance. After we’d gorged ourselves – because you could never stop at just one - we’d sit quietly, way too full to move, with our faces sweetly grubby, trying to prolong the pleasure by sucking the syrup off our fingers as only children are allowed to do.
But for me, I have to say there was nothing more delicious than Mama’s fried eggs from our own hens and chips cooked in the oil from our olives, flavoured with the salt we collected from Agios Leutheri, a beach not far from where we lived. I still use her recipes but my cooking just doesn’t taste the same.
Hers was a working garden providing vegetables, fruit and herbs. It was redolent with the mixed smells of anitho (dill), rigani (oregano), maidano, (parsley) and always, always, basiliko (basil). We ate much of our fruit straight off the tree, but Mama also made glyka tou koutaliou – delicacies measured out in teaspoon-sized portions because they were so rich and sweet. She used sour cherries, grapes and figs, or the peels of oranges, grapefruit and quince, which she cut into thin strips and preserved with a syrup made of sugar, water, lemon juice and sometimes cinnamon. She grew tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, cabbages and capsicum for our salads, and grapes for their fruit and leaves, which she used to make dolmadakia, The grape vines grown over trellises provided a cool and dappled shade during the summer - although they also tended to attract wasps. There were onions and garlic, roses in tin cans and terracotta pots and geraniums, aromatic jasmine, bougainvillea. A bay tree. A lemon tree.
Our house, which consisted of a single bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and the apothiki, was small but no part of it was idle, even the roof was used to dry the figs, which we fashioned into the shape of a cross before storing them away. It should have felt cramped whenever Uncle Dimitrios and Theia Calliope came from Athens to stay. But the house had a big heart and the well Baba had dug for us produced plenty of water, so somehow the space was there. And anyway, there was always the garden to escape to in the scented evenings and listen to stories, make plans or look at a sky crazy with stars, while my mother brushed my hair into the soft smooth curls she was so proud of.
Mama was fussy about the way we looked; she would comb my golden blonde hair into in banana curls. But I was just as picky and I specified sling-backed shoes with short white socks when my uncle, Theodore Arhondoulis, would ask me what I wanted from Athens.
An apothiki is a storeroom and the secret ones built into the foundations of older buildings, were full of their own dark magic. Those apothikes were often in an almost airtight part of the house, the air was still and stale and the combined fumes of wine and oil thickened it making it heavy and slightly intoxicating. A light haze often hung sluggishly in the dim light so that you could almost see the microscopic droplets suspended in the atmosphere. Those were sometimes frightening places, places you spent as little time in as possible, they made you feel a little dizzy and the years of oil and wine fumes had left a slick on the floor and walls making them slippery and a hazardous. They were well concealed, sometimes under false floors and trapdoors. A klevani was even better hidden, because it was underground.
Our apothiki had none of that magic, it was just a storage space behind the kitchen for our preserves, lentils, rice, barrels – varellia - of wine and oil which was stored in terracotta pots called pitharia, and all the other things we needed to keep in a cool, dark place. It had a patari, a false ceiling creating an attic, which was used to store hay (sano) for the animals.
However, Mama used to store her fine sweets under lock and key in the lounge room, not that that stopped my sister for long, because she figured out how to unscrew the hinges at the cupboard door to get at them, which Mama found out at that embarrassing moment when she wanted to serve some guests and there was none left. My sister swore that she didn’t know anything about it but gave herself away when I told her that I’d put rat poison in the sweets and she declared ‘Well, if that’s true, I’d be dead wouldn’t I!’.
We also had a lano, a wine press at the back of the house where Mama and Baba trod the grapes he had harvested from his vineyards to make our wine.
Winters in Cerigo are really cold. And in the old days, when we had no electricity, the heat from the stove, a fireplace and smouldering embers in tin buckets were just about all we had to keep us warm. Other things gave us heat as well; heavy blankets woven out of hard, prickly wool that scratched our skin, rag rugs called kourelouthes, window shutters and curtains and the shared body heat of large families. But the winds made it worse. Swirling around our houses, they rushed through the village flattening grass, bending trees, screaming like devils. No wonder we believed in ghosts. How could we not, when they were carried to our door on the back of the wind, when they whispered in the trees outside our windows, when they muttered in the creaks and groans of old houses. No wonder I was afraid of the baboulas who lived in our basement and sometimes came out, heavily disguised in a blanket I didn’t dare look under, afraid of the horror beneath. The worst wind is Boreas, which blows across Cape Malea. It’s a cold, damp, joint-stiffening wind that cuts to the bone and tricks you into believing that summer has gone forever; never, ever to return. It’s a malicious wind that catches you unawares and eddies icily into the forgotten corners of the room. We ran away from it and when it grabbed at us, tripping us up and hurrying us along, jabbing us painfully in the back, we’d race into our warm, comforting houses slamming the door shut against it.
Winter really showed the builder’s skill, especially when it came to the chimneys. We needed heat without smoke, but a badly built chimney let it back into the room to create a suffocating atmosphere, whereas a good flue would draw it out and release it into the cold air to settle its woody perfume all over the island. My father was a master craftsman and our chimney never smoked, keeping our house snug against the bitter weather.
The winds were so regular that we gave them names. We knew where they came from and how far they had traveled. We knew their characters and whether they would bring damp and sickness, or the soft echoes of wildflowers growing on mountainsides a long way away. Some were charming and light; some were wild, some mean, but each one had a personality.
Cerigo’s winds included the Meltemi, which is a warm, aromatic summer wind. It blows from the northwest, carrying the fragrance of wild island herbs during July and August. It’s a lovely wind, cooling the heat of a summer’s day and falling away in the evening. Sometimes, though, it’s active through the night too and then it’s particularly strong the next day. The South Wind, also known as the Ostria, comes from Libya, making its approach from the Cretan side of the island. It operates from Christmas to Easter, bringing with it rain and dust from the Sahara Desert. It’s a humid wind, warm and wet and brings arostimenos kairos (sickly weather). The Sirocco blows from the south-East. The Anatolikos, an easterly, is also called the Levantes, and it approaches from Avlemona and Kato Livadi. There’s the Zephyros, the west wind, the one that brought Aphrodite to Kythera; it’s also called the Bonentes or Thytikos. Finally there’s the Thytikos, Boreo-Thytikos or Skyronozephyros an angry, year-long, lightning and thunder-filled wind. Even as children we knew what to expect.
I guess I’m like my father, good with my hands. I could embroider and knit. I remember the jacket I made when I was ten, using the wool that had been gathered and spun by my Yiayia. And I used to make clothes for my favourite doll, the one Papou Minas gave me (oh, she was such a beauty).
Some of the embroidery I did was called metrito where I had to count out every stitch of the design. First I’d do the skeleto – you can guess what that is – and it’s important to get it right, because afterwards all you have to do is add the colours, but if it’s miscounted, you can’t keep the work smooth and people who know, can spot the mistake. I loved selecting the pattern and choosing the colours I would use to fill it in. Using cross stitch, I worked with silk thread on itamin, or canava, a finespun fabric with regular little holes, which allowed me to keep the design even. And as I worked, I thought about what it would look like when it was finished and imagined the home I would put it in because this was part of my proika and I wanted it to be perfect.
We had no electricity so I worked by the glow of an oil lamp, which gave off a warmer, kinder light than the coldly efficient electric lighting that fills every corner of our rooms with brightness. It had a golden radiance that was soft around the edges and left shadows that hid delicious mysteries. In the winter, I would find a sunny spot in the garden that was sheltered from the wind where I would work on my proika.
A proika is the bride’s dowry. It could be in capital; money, jewellery and gold, a house, an olive grove or a field. This type of proika was usually negotiated by the fathers; and they were hard bargains too. But it was also things the young woman had already prepared for her home. Colourful blankets woven from homespun wool, tablecloths and hand towels, curtains, bedspreads, rag rugs, napkins and doilies. Most of us made our own.
On the eve of a wedding, the marriage bed would be blessed with a celebration called the krevati. All the women would bring sweets and gifts and would throw coufetta (sugared almonds), rice or wheat and silver onto it to bless it with happiness, wealth and many, many children. They would toss a little boy on the bed, and if he wet it, it was considered a great blessing. On display would also be the proika to show how well prepared the bride was and what she was bringing to her home. This would include anything she’d made, woven blankets, embroidery, curtains, rugs, and anything she’d been provided with by her family like gold coin and jewelry and if it was judged to be mean, or poorly made, people could be scathing in their criticism.
One day I was on my way to visit my Yiayia when I ran into Maria and George Combes who were going to Notsolianka to gather some manure. Don’t laugh; our games were different then and anyway the manure was useful. To get into the field, we had to climb a wooden gate, but I fell onto a sharp stone, cutting my leg so deeply that I still have the scar. When Jim Hlentzos carried me, bloodied and unconscious to my mother, she couldn’t tell if I was dead or alive. Baba dashed to Hora to get me the vital tetanus shot which saved my life. I really could have died, you know and tetanus is a horrible way to go.
It was so easy for children to die in those days. Kythera may seem like a terrific place for a holiday now, but then, it was a difficult, dangerous place to live. There were diseases and accidents and not enough people with the skills to save us. We had to depend on local knowledge and common sense. But often that wasn’t enough; simple antibiotics, or a tetanus injection, which all school children must have here before they start school, often made the difference between life and death, but they were just about impossible to find.
Every day, for three months, Papou Minas had to take me to Potamos to change the dressing on the wound. The doctor had to repack the hole in my leg with fresh gauze, but without anaesthetic; ‘Those years were shocking; no antiseptic, no lots of things, they packed my wound with gauze and it would stick to my skin—we lived hidden from God in those years, I tell you. You can’t imagine it unless you been through it.’ The only way to do it was for the doctor’s wife to hold me still as he worked, but one day – it was so excrutiating I just couldn’t help it – I bit her on the arm.
To comfort me and to reward me for my courage, Papou Mina bought me a beautiful Italian doll. I’d never seen anything so fabulous and when he handed her to me, I thought the whole world was mine. I loved making clothes for her, dressing her in the latest fashions, keeping her as elegant as she was the day Papou gave her to me.
The gypsies would come to the island every year—they looked much like the way they do today, with their long skirts and their gaudy headscarfs, their jangling bangles and bracelets and their gold teeth; wearing all their wealth for all the world to see. Traveling in their caravans, they went from island to island, making a living by performing services like cleaning copper baking dishes by rubbing them with ash and sharpening knives. But they could always earn a bit extra by telling us our futures.
At roughly the same time every year, the gypsies would pitch their tents called tsantiria, near the bridge at Potamos, close to where the Gerokomio is today and trawl the island for work.To have your fortune told by a gypsy, well, that was something. They knew how to get you in. A gypsy would ask your name and then make up a rhyme about it, right there, on the spot, as if she’d known you for years and spent months composing it (she probably had a whole stock of them) and then she’d make predictions about your future.
Ah, but we didn’t trust them, although somewhere in our hearts we always believed them because so often they were right. Explain that.
Anyway, Baba’s standard greeting to a gypsy was: “Ella kai pes mou ti tihi mou, pou then xeris ti thiki sou.” (Come on then. Come and predict my future when you don’t even know your own.)
But a gypsy could always get your attention, she’d approach you and say something provocative and how she did it, I’ll never know, but it would be something that was private and important to you. One of your deeper secrets. She’d stick to you like a leech till you offered to pay and don’t ask me how she knew what to say, but she always did. Like this: she’d ask your name, and then make up a poem about it. If your name were Zaharia, which means sugar, she’d say:
Zahari to onoma sou, Sugar is your name
Zahari sto stoma sou, Sugar in your mouth
Zahari tha fas, Sugar you ate
Zahari tha kanis. Sugar you’ll make.
The gypsies never told your fortune from your coffee cup; that was for amateurs, they used palmistry and tarot. People didn’t really like them, but they always respected their power to see the future, and they were often more than a little afraid. It didn’t do to make an enemy of a gypsy.
The gypsy who told my mother’s fortune frowned and shaking her head said, Your lips have never smiled and they never will. She was right too, because it wasn’t long before my father, who had always been a strong and healthy man suffered a short illness and died. But she had a happier fate in store for me; my future would begin with a journey to a place beginning with A and I would return with some sort of qualification. Then I would marry a tall man who had curly hair. After my wedding, we would go to a place far, far away, also beginning with A and our first-born would be a boy.
During the war, Cerigo was first occupied by the Italians and then by the Germans. These were difficult years for us, but they made us even more self-sufficient. Baba needed to use all his ingenuity to provide for us, and nothing was wasted. He made us pedilla, shoes made out of old car tyres and carved us wooden clogs called tsokara.To protect us from enemy strikes, the village constructed bomb shelters in the gypsy camping grounds, which is where our panic-stricken feet carried us every time an enemy plane flew overhead. The war over Crete was so close, that from various parts of the island we could actually see it. We’d grab our valuables, our gold, and run. Papers were not so important and we had few photographs, and anyway who else would want them, but gold could be converted to things we needed; leather, for example, or oil, and that we had to protect. Every village had a place to hide, some, like us built shelters, but others had natural shelters. Pitsinades, for example, was close to a large cave near Agios Theologos.
I’m not the first member of my family to migrate to Australia, you know, and if things had been otherwise, I’d have been born here, and had a different sort of life.
In 1915, my own Papou married Yiayia in Kythera and brought her to West Kempsey where he had owned a restaurant for twenty-five years. He had to be one of the very first Greek migrants to New South Wales, arriving at least as early as 1891, probably earlier. Mama was born in 1916 and her sister a couple of years later. In 1921 Papou sold his business to John Balson (Baloglou) and relocated to Greece. John Balson’s daughter Angela, married Jim Miliotis (Miller). Their son George, is one of Australia’s most famous film directors.
When Mama was five years old the family returned to Greece, but as she grew up, she always wanted to return to Australia. It was an abiding grief that she never did.
I always remember Mama with a book in her hand. She was exceptionally well educated and in a time when too many girls were illiterate, she’d had her full measure of schooling, first in Logothetianika and then at the Scholarhio at Potamos, before she went to learn a trade. When she was fifteen she studied dressmaking with Marousa Stratigos in Potamos, who was paid about 60 okas (1,280 grams) of oil - approximately 60 litres - for the lessons. She didn’t come cheap.
Marousa was from Milopotamos. The wealthiest and most elegant Kytherian ladies went to her because she produced good quality, stylish clothes. As a canny businesswoman, she knew how to protect her own interests which is probably why her students always complained that she never taught them the real skills of cutting and pattern-making, setting them the finishing tasks of stitching and hemming instead. This was the woman who taught my mother her trade.
My father was an organized man. His workshop was so tidy that anyone who borrowed his tools knew exactly where to return them. However, one summer evening when he forgot them at Agios Dimitrios graveyard, he asked me to go and get them because he needed them for work the next morning. I had to go, of course, but it was dark and this was a cemetery full of dead people and ghosts and capricious little breezes rustling the leaves in the trees, and the night creatures were on the prowl, so you can imagine how scared I was. I have to say that I ran there and back so fast that I’m sure I flew, there’s no way that my feet touched the ground.
Because headstones were his specialty, it was only natural that he would carve his own, although now I wish he hadn’t - who knows what gives the gods ideas. He engraved his name, Panagiotis Theodore Patrikios, and the year of his birth, 1902. He had removed his parents’ bodies from the graveyard at Agios Dimitrios and prepared a family grave at Agia Paraskevi, but we didn’t know, did we, how soon he would take his own place in it.
I was a happy little girl, and like my mother, I also went to school in Logothetianika. My teachers were George and Maria Casimatis. I was a good student as long as it wasn’t history. How I hated it. It was those dates, I just couldn’t remember them. On the other hand, I loved geography, religion and maths. I would recite poetry during the school celebrations of the 25th March and 28th October as my parents watched me proudly.
But one day, I was chastised for not doing my history homework by having to stand one-legged, facing the wall outside the school where everybody could see me. I was dying of embarrassment, and it didn’t get any better when Baba remarked Kala na pathis (serve you right) as he walked past. He was never on my side, especially when mama punished me, but he only ever hit me once for refusing to eat some fish soup. I was so upset I tried to hide in the fireplace.
The first time I went to Hora I was eight years old. It’s the capital of the island, so when Queen Frederiki of Greece came to Kythera, all the school children, dressed in blue and white, lined up on the road between Hora and Kapsali to welcome her.
In 1949 I went to Astiko, the high school in Potamos. I have fond memories of Mr. Triarhis, he really was a very good teacher and he absolutely did not deserve the pin I so carefully placed on his chair, pointy side up. The sight of him leaping up with an oath and demanding to know ‘which little devil’ was responsible was funny, but my laughter soon changed to shame at his hurt surprise when I owned up and I blushed poppy-red as I apologized. Mind you, although I was the one who did the deed, it was not exactly a surprise to my classmates, including Harry Zantiotis, Con, Tasoula and Erifilly Bavea and Jim Protopsaltis, who waited with as a much gleeful anticipation as I, to see his reaction. Even now my laughter is tinged with guilt when I think about it.
My classmates included Tista Hlentzou nee Comino, Andromache Feka, nee Cominou, Maria Cominou nee Combe, Sofia Hlentzou nee Lahana, Anna Poulos-Zantiotis, Vasiliki Vazeniou, Theodore Hlentzos, Minas Notaras, Zaharias Matevis, Manoli Kalopedi (Xemonas), John Comino and George Hlentzos.
Life in Kythera when I was young was simple but not easy. We had to work hard to earn our comfort, but we also had a lot of fun. Our pleasures were plain. There were lots of picnics and dances around weddings and christenings and saints days. There were the religious festivals, a whole Easter week starting with Palm Sunday and ending with the Anastasi and Easter Sunday—the Lambri, the coming of the light, and the end of Lent with the feast, where we could eat meat and dairy products again.
We’d roast a whole lamb, chicken and potatoes, cracked the red eggs and ate the koulouria made with yeast – tsourekia - we couldn’t wait for them, and there would be the mageiritsa, made of brains and liver and the lining of the stomach and other offal. I know, it sounds revolting, but it’s actually a delicious ending to that difficult forty day fast.
The entire island celebrated the 15th of August, the Dekapentismos, (the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin) and many villages had panygyria, where people would gather in the platea and dance all night to the music provided by village bands. But I wasn’t allowed to go because I was too young, and then Baba got sick and I couldn’t go anyway.
But there were also the eortes, the name days, which we celebrated instead of birthdays. Mine, like all the Panagiotis and Despinas because these are all names of the Virgin, the Panagia, is on the 15th August. Mama would make thiples and amigdalota to give to the people who’d visit to wish me a happy name day.
On summer evenings people would meet in the platea and sit and gossip and tell stories, till late at night, while the sky would fill up with stars, but I was only allowed to go if Yiayia took me.
Although the island is small, there were lots of people my own age. My best friends were Tista and Andromache Cominou and Anna Anastasopoulos. Then there were the relatives and the neighbours; it was a small community and everybody knew each other, which meant that there was also a lot of gossip, but that was okay too. I enjoyed visiting, Theia Marigo, who lived nearby because she made the best spanakopita; she was famous for her pastry.
Any gathering: a wedding, a christening, a name day or a funeral, included the entire village. People got together to dance, to have fun, to connect, to meet that special one, to commiserate, to commemorate, to celebrate. to negotiate, to arrange marriages. To eat. Family and friends came from all over the island. But nobody ever went away hungry.
Jim Mavromatis and my mother’s godson, John Lahanas, often came over and they taught me to dance. One time, at about Easter, we danced from two in the afternoon to four in the morning. I think that may have been my father’s last dance, after that he was sick for about a year and a half. My mother never left his side and for the last three months he was bed-ridden and bleeding from a small spot on his neck which started shortly after a he’d had a silver tooth extracted. To see a man who had never been sick in his life, suffer so cruelly from a bad tooth was terrible.
I remember how my sister cried out in her sleep and there was nothing I could do to comfort her. That sadness and sorrow marked my young life and even though almost sixty years have passed, the memory of it stays with me still. It will be with me for as long as I live.
My father died on St. Dimitrios day in 1952 at the age of fifty one. He is buried with his parents in St. Paraskevi’s cemetery where he had carved his own headstone in 1949. Our privileged life changed forever. My mother was a strong woman and lived her life with dignity and faith. She took care of us and kept us strong too. I stayed in Kythera for another six months and then went to Athens for three years to learn dressmaking. In 1955, I got my ‘psalidi’, my dressmaking qualifications and in early 1957, I started a new life in Australia.
And there it was, my mother’s sadness after the loss of our father; my two important trips to places beginning with A; Athens and the dressmaking course and Australia and the rest of my life; my tall, curly haired husband and my firstborn child, a son. Oh yes indeed, the gypsy got it right.
submitted by Barbara Zantiotis on 18.12.2011
Thank you for sharing this story. Mary Sofios is a lovely lady who is still wonderful friends with my mother - mentioned above as Anna Poulos-Zantiotis and Anna Anastasopoulos.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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