Monday, May 09, 2005


"Hi is your mother in? I've come to see her. Don't just stand there, let me in" Aunt Ismini is a formidable woman, reminiscent in her sharp geometric angles and her broad shouldered frame, of a Bulgarian tractor. Much like the Bulgarian tractor of the sixties, her face is covered in deeply chipped and furrowed with wrinkles, as if the ploughshare of time and hard work carved furrow after furrow upon her, sparing no millimeter of her skin. She frowns, causing her vast bushy eyebrows that have not been plucked since her wedding to converge with cataclysmic energy, sending her glassy, beady eyes into continuous flicker as she surveys her surroundings. When aunt Ismini is on the loose, no one's secrets are safe.
She pushes past you, the aftershocks slamming you against the wall. She lurches along, her voluminous posterior rebounding against itself, encased in lime green leggings and giving up any hope of escape, achieving a profound equilibrium. As you struggle to contain your breakfast within, you hold your nose as you pick up aunt Ismini's cork slippers tossed here and there and throw them outside. Years and years in the cleaning industry have done remarkable things to aunt Ismini's feet. They are the habitat of a unique fungus, only to be found in the Amazon that cause the soles of the feet to turn a muddy green while her toenails, infested with more flora and fauna that have over the years become resistant to chlorine, handy andy, pine-o-clean and all other chemical abrasives have swelled to three times their natural width and have turned a sickly yellow.
You can hear the chair sigh with resignation as she stomps into the kitchen and collapses on it. "Make me a cup of coffee," she yells to your mother, "and I'll tell you the news." As your frightened mother cautiously inches towards the briki, aunt Ismini surveys her every move. Her restless eyes rove up and down, viewing, analyzing and storing for later transfer to others in her long list of coffee stops, exactly what you and your mother are wearing, the quantity and quality of plates still left unwashed in the kitchen sink including whether or not they were Mikasa or of an inferior design, the volume of dust on the television and its exact proportion to the volume at her last visit, inversely proportioned and compared to the mean dust volume of all the homes that she visits. "Where did you get that doily from," she asks. "Maritsa has many doilies. She says that she makes them herself but you can tell that they are made in China. She gets them from the paliomarketa at Footscray. Anyway you can tell the handmade ones can't you? Nitsa still makes hand made doilies, poor girl, as if anyone has the time to make doilies these days and anyway they don't look nice with the black granite benchtops, I mean where do you think we are, in the village or something? How's that coffee coming along?"
Finally, the steaming hot coffee arrives. "Do you have any toothpicks?" aunt Ismini asks. Aunt Ismini picks her teeth at any given opportunity, whether eating or not and it is no wonder for as she opens her cavernous mouth, dark as the grave, one shudders in horror as she exhumes pieces of rotting flesh, remnants of last night's dinner at her niece's house and with dexterous movements, deposits them onto the saucer. Her gold teeth gleaming in delight, she sucks up her coffee noisily, making hoarse guttural sounds of satisfaction. This is one woman who definitely has the Midas touch. As she deposits her coffee cup on the table, she reaches towards her legs and with difficulty pulls up a plastic bag. "I've brought you some kolyva," she says triumphantly. "These are from Tasos' funeral."
When aunt Ismini is not going from house to house, terrorizing the inhabitants into giving her a free meal, she can be found at church. Not every Sunday mind you, but only when she knows a mnimosyno is being held or on weekdays for a funeral. For good pickings are to be had on these days. With the earnestness of a professional mourner, Aunt Ismini beats her chest and pulls her hair, loudly lamenting the futility of life, the passing away of beauty and hope and the final, inevitable descent into darkness. Week after week she is there, crying copious tears, falling upon the bereaved families, consoling them and assuming command of the funeral arrangements. Simultaneously, the beady eyes are hard at work scanning. The data is stored and regurgitated: "I mean it was a decent funeral you know, not like Spiridoula's. Yes, I was there last week. So cold and unemotional. Like Englishmen. They walk in quietly, not even a tear or a sob and get this, her daughter is supposed to be distraught with grief right? Yeah right? She went out the next day after her συχωρεμένη mother died and got her self a brand new low necked, short black dress so she could look good for the funeral didn't she? And she went to the hairdressers to get her hair done. And her bitch of a daughter in law just sat there looking at her husband the whole time, didn't try to console her πεθερό or anything, but that’s ξένες for you what would they know - what am I saying, the younger generation are all like that, they have no sense of tradition. If it wasn't for the poor woman's sister who fainted, I would have thought I was at an Aussie funeral."
As she speaks, Aunt Ismini inspects the kolyva with the eye of a connoisseur. "Mmmm not bad…I told you, Taso was a gentleman and his whole family knows how to treat a person. They were crying the whole time and his daughter actually came and thanked me for being helpful, no not the one with the mole on the nose and the bad fashion sense, the one who married that αχαΐρευτο who has spend half his life on the dole, poor girl she knows what pain is so she can appreciate a gesture like this. Good kolyva I tell you. And you should have seen afterwards in the church hall. What a spread! They had psarakia, pites, sausage rolls, salads, even chops and keftedakia. Τhere was so much food and they were so nice. They even asked me to take a plate home and filled it right up. I would have brought some but we are saving it for tomorrow night's dinner."
By this stage, Aunt Ismini has, with the aid of a soup spoon ("no don't get me a teaspoon, I can't feel it in my mouth") devoured the whole of the kolyva and is engaged in scraping the last remnants from the sides of the bowl. "Good people I tell you. You should have seen how they all cried at the grave. I went for a bit of a wander. Did you know that Kyriako has been dead for over a year and they still haven't ordered a tombstone for him? But his wife has time and money to go down to St Kilda for coffee with her friends. When you die, that's it, don't expect any favours. Have you been down to the cemetery lately? No? Next time you do, try to find Dimitri's grave. I don't know what the stuck up bitch of a wife of his was thinking. The whole thing looks like the Parthenon. But she didn't know him when he was living like a pig in a shed with all the animals and all his other brothers back in the village did she? My word these people have something to prove."
Then abruptly as she arrives, Aunt Ismini gets up, causing the coffee cups to lose their balance and fall on to their sides. "No I really must be going. I couldn't be at Anna's father's funeral because of Taso's. I promised I would swing by. Anyway, they won't have finished the food yet. Thanks for the coffee. Are you sure that vase looks nice there? Oh you are, are you? Ok then, I'm off." As we breathe a sigh of relief and hold our noses as the Aunt Ismini locates her slippers, opens her crypt of a mouth and engulfs us in the despair of the damned on each cheek, she turns and says: "Oh, I almost forgot. I managed to get these flowers for you from Taso's grave. Such a waste. You could put them in a vase or something. I've got plenty more in the car. I might take some to Matina's funeral tomorrow."
When Aunt Ismini died, her children were too busy to come to the funeral, being interstate. We all gave her a good send off and as we sat at home, surrounded by piles of food that no one could eat, her nephew approached her photograph in the living room and placed underneath it, a rose snitched from the grave opposite. "Rest in peace auntie," he said and walked away.

First published in NKEE on 9 May 2005