Saturday, November 15, 2014
The year was 1987. I was accompanying my grandmother on her weekly excursion to acquire groceries, when, passing by the local opportunity shop, we chanced, in the window, upon a rather large 19th century Greek icon, accompanied by a large framed tapestry with the Greek words intricately embroidered upon it: «Το πεπρωμένο φυγείν αδύνατον.» (It is impossible to escape fate). My grandmother shrugged her shoulders, as she walked past: “That belonged to old Maria. She died last week and already her children have cleared out her things. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Walk on…” When I ventured to suggest that she purchase the icon, as it was beautiful, skilfully executed and probably would be worth a significant sum in the future, she shook her head: “I will not bring the curse of an old lady who has been dishonoured by her children into my house. Let’s go.”
In those days, most homes were decorated in the Balkan Baroque style. Antimacassars or doilies, most often crocheted by the grandmothers themselves, covered the tables, arm rests and head rests of all chairs, while, at least in the homes of my aged relatives, the couches and some walls would be covered by hand knitted «βελέτνζες,» often sporting colour schemes louder that Al Grassby’s choice of tie-wear, thanks to the available range at Spotlight. Duller, two-chrome counterparts for the floor were known as «στράτες,» and these were strategically placed upon those areas in the house that received the most foot-traffic, regardless of the fact that all that they were protecting was carpet.
Above the mantelpiece of a fire-place that had long been bricked up and converted into a gas-heater, my grandmother placed two oil lamps, which she had brought with her on the long journey to Australia. Also prominent, were two plaster statues of the goddess Athena, purchased on the first trip back to the motherland in 1973 and in between these, occupying pride of place, an impossibly long and inordinately heavy iron key, the key to the door to a home that no longer existed, across the waters, in Turkey, a reminder of a first migration that was the precursor of the second. On the adjoining wall, the sombre and jaundiced visages of both sets of my paternal great-grandparents gazed down at us sternly, from yellowing photographs encased in thick, wooden frames.
The obligatory painting of the Last Supper hung in the formal dining room, complemented upon the opposite walls, by two matching, gaudily painted plates depicting a burly gent clad in an implausibly short foustanella, blowing a trumpet, (most likely his own) in front of the Parthenon. The wall of the living room, wherein, for reasons unknown the refrigerator was also housed, was adorned by a print of a scantily clad woman lying languidly upon some lush grass at night. When I asked my grandmother whether this woman was Persephone, and the scene the underworld, she dismissed my question summarily. “No idea. This was hanging here when we bought this place in the fifties. It is part of the history of this house, so we left it alone.”
Apart from these items, my grandmother’s house was sparsely decorated, furnished only with the glossy, pseudo-high grained furniture of the time, including complementary cigarette lighter and ashtray stand, and powder blue telephone. In my aunt’s cabinet of curios however, there existed an amazing array of traditional storage vessels and cooking pots and even an old tsimbouki, a pipe that was two metres tall and lovingly decorated with geometric designs. Most bizarre, was a pair of shoes, made out of reeds. These were objects of fascination for all of the cousins and woe betide anyone of us who was to be found playing near said cabinet.
Mindful of the many curses that our progenitors advised us befell those who dishonoured our ancestors, my grandmother’s various paraphernalia were packed up after her death and have been preserved until the present day. Yet not a week goes by when the personal effects of the deceased elderly members of our community make their modest appearance at local second hand shops. With their passage into other hands, an entire history can either be transmitted or lost.
Restaurateur, benefactor and enthusiastic collector of Greek ephemera John Rerakis recently was moved by the discovery of a pair of stefana in an opp-shop, complete with original stefanothiki. He purchased them, in order, as he stated, to save these sacred items from desecration by those who do not understand their significance. Among the many Greek-Australian items he has been able to collect, mostly embroidery, he singles out this and a large suitcase clearly marked with the words “PATRIS,” as his most poignant finds. This was obviously the suitcase that accompanied a now departed Greek migrant upon his voyage to Australia, and is thus, replete with a meaning for al of us, that ought to be preserved.
My own find of poignancy on the other hand, took the form of stumbling over the complete Greek library of a prominent local poet, weeks after his demise. The books, covering a gamut of Greek literature and poetry are not only inscribed with the poets distinctive signature, but also heavily annotated, giving a unique insight in to the appreciation and critical thought of a Greek-Australian of significance. I have chanced upon other, smaller caches of Greek books in shops around Melbourne and have acquired as many as I can, believing that in this way, I am preserving the collective cultural yearnings of a lost generation, at least until my own progeny, separated by my own yearnings by generation, language and zeitgeist, determine that they should divest themselves of the burden of their progenitor’s psychological clutter.
Nonetheless, in the increasingly solitary homes of the elderly in Brunswick, Fawkner, Oakleigh, Preston, Carnegie and beyond, a whole way of furnishing homes, firstly in the sparse style transplanted from the motherland, then with the nostalgia expressed by kitsch souvenirs, and lastly, when firmly established, with aspirational bourgeois Franco Cozzo style décor, representing a philosophy of combining nostalgia with practicality and the need for an invented past, is slowly passing away. When it does, much of what is tangible of the pioneering ethos of the first migrants will pass away and become irretrievably lost. This is the way of all things yet it is incumbent upon us, even when it is not possible or feasible to preserve all the ephemera that bear witness to their sojourn and foundation of the community in which we live, to at least record their natural habitat, even as it diminishes, before it vanishes. For this reason, let all of us descend upon the homes of our elderly, cameras in tow and photograph, the quaint, the stereotypical but ultimately, the warm, the vital and the endearing in the history of our home decoration, prior to the devastation of modern tasteless minimalism. We owe at least this to the people whose homes were built in hope, optimism and ultimately, immense love and to the interior decorators of the future, so as to determine the precise placement of the doily, when, in their infinite innovative wisdom, they resolve to bring it back.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 November 2014