There are mysteries, and mysteries within mysteries, especially with regard to our progenitors who, having given us life, assume in our eyes, Olympian, pre-historic dimensions, given that they existed at a time when we did not. The first mystery of pappou Manoli pertained to his name. When his abashed son, gingerly approached him with the prospect of shortening his surname to something more euphonious to the Australian professional ear, rather than the storm of disapprobation his was bracing himself for, he was treated to his father nonchalantly shrugging his shoulders: “That’s fine,” he remarked to his astonished son. “It’s not our real surname anyway. It was your grandfather’s nickname in Smyrna and it stuck.”
The second mystery related to a cryptic note found in pappou Manoli’s wallet by his son after his recent passing away. The note read:“In my shaving gear, there is a lot..” Now when pappou Manoli was in hospital, he continuously asked after his shaving bag, to the consternation of his family who could not understand why the seemingly insignificant bag was so important to him. Examining pappou Manoli’s bag, his son discovered a false bottom. Opening it, he was astounded to find it lined with a mass of five dollar notes. This in itself, solved yet another of pappou Manoli’s mysteries.
For years, pappou Manoli would send his wife to the bank to fetch him five dollar notes, to the bemusement of the tellers at his local branch. These, as it turned out, were carefully secreted in the false compartment of his shaving gear and distributed to the children of his neighbourhood, who would often come to visit him. So beloved by the neighbourhood children was he, that one of these, brokenhearted upon hearing the news of his passing, referred to him as his “third pappou.”
Among his papers, pappou Manoli’s son discovered a page upon which was written the sentence: “I would like, at some stage to note down the story of my life.” Chances are that unless you are a member of the Monash Greek Macedonian Elderly Citizens Club, the name Emmanuel Georgiefendis means little, for pappou Manoli never got to commit his life story to writing. In many ways, this is fitting, for someone who preferred to be judged by his deeds rather than his words. Yet tantalizing crumbs remain. The finding of a chance photograph of pappou Manoli as a young man dressed as an evzone in the Royal Guard, attests to a life of service and commitment. And yet pappou Manoli refused to display the photo and never discussed his time as an evzone, as he did not want to “show off.” It is from minute clues such as these that all those who loved pappou Manoli, are now compelled to construct a mosaic of a thoroughly selfless, self-effacing man who, without ever being exposed to the community limelight, made a remarkable contribution to his local community.
Being a son of refugees from Smyrna and growing up in rural Drama in the thirties ensures that adulthood is reached uncomfortably earlier than usual. For pappou Manoli, the process is accelerated when his father, the mayor of his village, dies and he, at the age of thirteen, assumes the role of provider for his mother and other siblings. That tradition of service and protection is continued while an evzone and later, as an “agrofylakas,”or rural policeman, guarding the land and livelihood of his fellow villagers.
Arriving in Australia and settling initially in Richmond, pappou Manoli’s life ostensibly mirrored that of a myriad of other migrants, focusing as it did, upon settling in a new land and creating a comfortable life for his family. As a linesman at PMG, he, like my grandfather, learned Italian, in order to communicate with his co-workers, in a practical application of multiculturalism the way it should have worked, as a mosaic of cultural exchange, rather than a melting pot of mono-culture.
Very soon, however, pappou Manoli began to establish a reputation for sagacity, discretion and dependability. Streams of newly arrived migrants would come to him, seeking help with family, financial or other issues and many were the marriages and relationships that survived solely as a result of his sage advice. At a time when the Greek community was close knit but also self-righteous and judgmental when it came to people’s personal lives, pappou Manoli was able to look beyond convention and see only a human being in need, protecting the persecuted, succouring the destitute and sheltering those who had no place to go.
Pappou Manoli’s humanitarian mission extended to his beloved Monash Greek Macedonian Elderly Citizens Club, where he contributed time and effort and it is especially there that his name will be lovingly remembered. Yet pappou Manoli’s sense of community extended far beyond ethnic considerations, as his Asian neighbours came to discover one day while in their garden, attempting to prune their trees. Hard at work, they heard a cry: “Stop! That’s not how you prune!” And there was pappou Manoli, with trusty pruning shears at the ready, waiting to show them how it is done. Over the years, these neighbours would glean much horticultural lore from the vast repository of pappou Manoli’s life experience for he had a pleonasm of advice to spare and, most importantly, an inordinate love of trees and order. Pappou Manoli evidently had no qualms in approaching strangers and introducing himself, despite his basic English. Possessed of his secret weapon, a smile that would break out from beneath his heavily mustachioed countenance, his charm offensive would render even the most anti-social of people powerless to his ministrations. All his other neighbours and many other ‘strangers’ thus also benefited from his care, advice and intervention for pappou Manoli’s love for the members of his community was boundless.
Just before pappou Manoli left this earth at the venerable age of 86, wracked by the pain of an operation, he did not neglect to smile and thank the nurses and carers who were looking after him. It is this basic human dignity, so important now than ever before in an increasingly isolated, fragmented, technological world that remains as an example to us all. If measured by the yardstick of modern success, pappou Manoli’s passing should have left us all unmoved, a mere passage of one more elderly Greek member of the community to its terminal point. Pappou Manoli never became rich, never achieved the pinnacle of his career or assumed the public limelight. Yet it is his commitment to the care of others that constitutes the real binding element of our community, moreso than any building, festival or dinner dance and it his example that shall prove to be inexorably enduring.
When pappou Manoli’s son discovered the cache of five dollar notes in his father’s shaving equipment, he contrived of a fitting way to ensure his father’s legacy. Taking the money down to the school of his local parish, where pappou Manoli was a stalwart, he arranged for each child to be given a five dollar note and a photograph of pappou Manoli, ensuring that their ‘third pappou’s’ generosity and example of dignity and humanity will endure, even beyond the grave.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 September 2014