Saturday, August 06, 2016
As he cradled her dead body in his arms, μπάρμπα Νάσιο crooned softly: Ήσουν καλή, η καλύτερη, before embarking upon a heart-rendering soliloquy about how much he loved her. My great-aunt lay still and silent, her eyes disconcertingly half-open, as if she was still observing our behaviour from beyond the boundaries of this life.
Θειά-Ρήνα’s eyes were the first thing you would notice about her, for they were tremendously black and piercing. The inexorability of that gaze was framed by an almost constant frown that has been inherited and passed down among five generations of our family. On the surfance, it rendered her fearsome and awesome, yet that frown’s ferocity represented a fierce attitude towards the vicissitudes of life, towards those who lacked decency and especially, to any obstacles standing in the way of family cohesion. Her ferocity was thus an imperative to kindness, a tough, all consuming love of mankind that can only be understood and appreciated by those who have lived within the legacy of the Epirote saints. Sometime after her father was shot during the Occupation, she found her calling. She would be the family protector. It was in this calling that she wore her frown as military stripes and a badge of honour, for her responsibilities were great and she assumed them without question or complaint. And it was only when I noticed that her visage no longer bore the frown we all bear, upon her deathbed, that I finally accepted that she had gone.
The next thing you would notice about my great-aunt was the girth of her forearms. Hard as steel and almost three times the size of my own, these were the tireless arms that lifted countless bales of hay and innumerable bundles of wood as she went about her work in the village fields. These indefatigable arms would come to roll an infinite number of dim sims upon their arrival in this country, her skill and speed becoming so legendary that it was spoken of in hushed tones of awe among the dim sim manufacturers of Flemington. Again, it was with these arms that she insisted upon hand-washing her family’s clothes well into her eighties, for she never possessed a washing machine. And it was also with these arms that my formidable great-aunt struck a blow for feminism: As the village nurse, she would rise from her bed at all hours of the night in order to administer injections, saving scores of lives over the years. During one of her nocturnal journeys through the village, she was accosted by a misguided male, who delivered a smut-filled greeting. Two seconds later, the hapless individual lay flat upon the road, having been floored by a back-hand sweep of my great-aunt’s arm. Long before Christos Tsiolkas, in an Epirote village far, far away, θειά-Ρήνα invented ‘The Slap.’ No one ever dared question or contradict, let alone harass her, ever again.
Well into her seventies, θειά-Ρήνα ‘s hair was long, black and lustrous, reaching well below her waist, for in keeping with traditional custom, she never cut it and being immensely proud of it, would tend it carefully, combing it lovingly into a long, thick plait of the same thickness as my wrist. As she walked, always briskly and decisively, for she was seldom idle, her almond-shaped eyes encased in a frown, her golden prosthetic teeth flashing, grasping her plait in one hand, she looked like Manchu royalty and I would call her the Dowager Empress, always behind her back, for to make light of our family protector, was inconceivable, inviting unimaginable and yet never ever delivered, wrath.
This is because despite her fearsome, imposing countenance, θειά-Ρήνα was unfathomably kind. As a child, I was certain that she was the veritable Cornucopia of chocolates, soft drinks and fifty dollar notes, for these would be dispensed with unfailing regularity among all of her grandchildren, grand-nieces and grand-nephews upon our frequent attendances at her court. As she sat, ensconced upon her arm-chair with the regal air of the Dowager Empress Ci Xi, she would dispense artfully created quince spoon sweets. To refuse such bounty was unthinkable and unwise given that they, along with her γαλοτύρι and Easter soup, in which she would melt a 250 gram pat of butter, have achieved the status of hallowed culinary lore within our family and were remarkably comforting.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, a considerably larger pool of people was a recipient of her largesse. Over the years, tales emerged of struggling Greek families in her local area, as well as friends and relatives back in the village, and even local business being discretely financially assisted by the determination of a woman, only marginally better off than them, resolved to extend her role of protector not only to her own family, but all of mankind, given that in her selfless giving, the entire communion of humanity is sanctified. This is especially so given that in my local church, we receive communion from a chalice that she donated, upon the church’s foundation.
The sharpness of θειά-Ρήνα’s tongue, the quickness of her temper and her custom of calling things as she saw them meant that one could neither prevaricate, hide nor dissemble in her presence. To do so was to deliver an insult to a lady who had your welfare as her utmost consideration. When invited in jest by one of her daughters in law to assume the role of a docile old grandmother that could easily be managed, she riposted triumphantly: "Έχω τον Νάσιο μου εγώ." This is because the last seventy years of her long life comprised one of the most passionate and moving love stories I have ever known. A couple brought together during the tragedy of war, my saintly, ever-patient μπάρμπα Νάσιο and my querulous, passionate, generous θειά-Ρήνα were absolutely devoted to each other, relying upon each other in everything, and in turn, receiving the love and respect of all around them. Delivering my great-uncle home from church on Sundays, I would find her waiting outside her home, her immense arms folded across her chest, gruffly asking why we late, her eyes betraying her unspoken fear that something had befallen her husband on the return journey, for she could not bear to be separated from him, even for the briefest of moments.
To perform a great-uncle drop off was unthinkable. I would be ushered into the kitchen where I would be seated at the table and asked to relate my news and run through my plans with her, which I would do, as she listened intently, bidding my great-uncle make some coffee and ply me with cake. Then, having force fed me and processed the information provided, she would deliver, in the form of a Manchurian decree, amazingly pertinent and practical advice, of facile application, always ending in the words: “Honour, but don’t listen to your parents. Make your own way in the world.” Such was the force of her counsel and the intensity of the concern that informed her guidance that I always adopted it, almost unthinkingly, wholesale.
As the years passed, the delivery of such advice became difficult. A number of strokes rendered my great-aunt struggling to communicate. “I know what I want to say but I can’t remember the words,” she would complain to me, her frown turning into a sob. We witnessed her, this monolith of vitality, slowly lose her power of speech and almost turn to stone, which is why her brief moments of lucidity, when she would look at us and her eyes would flash a smile of recognition, meant so much to us. And through all of those years that she remained in thrall to the degeneration of her faculties, my great-uncle remained at her side, tending to her, speaking to her , holding her hand and loving her more intensely than ever before.
Baucis and Philemon, the archetypal ancient loving couple of Ovid’s 'Metamorphosis' entertained Zeus and Hermes unawares and as a result, were afforded protection from destruction, longevity and a great boon: to be permitted to die together. Upon their death, the couple was changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden, standing before their home. Such a boon has been denied to my intensely Christian great-aunt and great-uncle, who is now entering his nineties, for the first time in seventy years, alone. Yet in the place of trees, this loving couple, has sired a legion of descendants, some with the tendency to frown and others not, all of whom are imbued with a fierce love of humanity and a thorough disdain for the petty and mean-spirited things of the world. This too, is truly a blessed legacy.
As I light the lamp before the icon θειά-Ρήνα gave me on my wedding day, her words: Ἱf you have an opportunity to help someone, do so. Like Lot, you never know if you are entertaining angels unawares, resound within my mind. I shed a tear because our Queen-Protector is dead. In her passing, our Greek-Australian lives are much diminished, for the time of Queens is past. We shall have no others.
First published in Neos Kosmos on Saturday 6 August 2016