Saturday, August 06, 2011


When the bell of the church of St Haralambos tolls dolorously, the inhabitants of the village of Perama on the outskirts of Ioannina cross themselves and ask: "Who is dead?" Immediately afterwards, they ask: "Where?" for half of the village lives in Melbourne and any news concerning any one of its number, whether a birth, marriage or death is immediately relayed home so rapidly, that often, the news is received on the other side of the world more quickly than it takes for it to reach the other side of Melbourne. Loss is keenly felt in the village, regardless of the separation of distance and time, for though it may have been split in two, somehow, the village has managed to survive as a complete and unsundered entity both in the consciousness of the children in its bosom, as well as those across the water.
It is for this reason that the bells of St Haralambos tolled at exactly the same time as those of St Dimitrios in Moonee Ponds, as we carried out our 105 year old great-grandmother Panayio's coffin out of the church and onto the hearse last week, vainly fighting back tears as we did so. I stood in silence, watching the hearse pull away from the church slowly, ripping from me, with each agonizingly ponderous revolution of the tire, a piece of my soul. Turning back towards the church however, I beheld a veritable multitude emerging from the door, spilling out onto the steps. Some were family, others friends, for my great-grandmother had touched many lives, but most were «χωριανοί,» migrants from the ancestral village, mostly ageing grandparents in their own right, who could not remember my great-grandmother as anything but an old woman, and who were reassured by her presence, upon their arrival in Australia, that nothing had changed. Consequently, she remained as their one thing constant in their otherwise completely altered world, a symbol of continuity but also of unity.
In the mythology of our ancestors, the Palladion was an image of great antiquity on which the safety of a city was said to depend, signifying especially the wooden statue of Pallas Athena that Odysseus stole from Troy and which was later taken to the future site of Rome by Aeneas. If anything, yiayia-Panayio was the village Palladion, removed from Perama and brought to Melbourne. As long as she was alive, as custodian of a tradition and ancestral history transcending the generations the village would always be one, because they would always be someone to remind them of their common origins.
One by one, they filed past us to pay their respects. "They are all gone, all the old people," one distraught «θείο,» lamented tearfully. "First my mother and now yiayia. We are all alone." His sense of distress, is shared by the entire ex-patriate community. The first thing that he, along with his other fellow villages would invariably do whenever they would meet us by chance on the street or at a function would be to ask anxiously after yiayia. If yiayia was well and thriving (which she always was), then all was right with the world. Now that talisman of fortune is gone and all the uncertainty that comes with the realization that nothing remains static, not even the palliatives that we create in our own minds, assails their secret fears of isolation and disintegration pitilessly.
We of the second generation generally seldom see or mix with persons that have migrated from our parent's villages us much as we used to in our childhood, though we still hear their news, owing to a whole gamut of obstacles that life has thrown up before us that have rendered us exceedingly time-poor and unable to appreciate or enjoy the extended networks of people that pre-exist us. Nonetheless, we are still dimly conscious that they are there, however dormant, and ready to be called upon at any time. Through my great-grandmother, I learnt the entire family history of most of the families in her village, stretching back five or six generations. It is a connection, an unbroken lineage of mutual assistance and support transcending time, that unites my life to theirs and their descendants, should they have knowledge of this unique connection, and theirs, to mine.
In times of crisis, especially deaths, the whole dormant network materializes out of nowhere in force, to offer sincere respect, concern, solidarity and assistance to the grieving. They in turn, rather than be put off by the intrusion, (for the modern zeitgeist tends to overly centre on the individual) are heartened by it, for the burden of grief is better borne when it is shared and because there is something deeply ingrained within the psyche of that generation that causes them to turn in times of hardship to a support network fostered at a different time, thousands of kilometers away.
Inevitably, as the years pass, the members of that network become fewer and fewer, for their offspring do not always replace them. It is for this reason that the final farewell to one of their members, especially their Palladion, is given added poignancy and why, the presence of so many second generation members of this network, to acknowledge the uniting presence and immense contribution of a selfless and truly remarkable woman made to so many lives, is so heartwarming. It gives lie to the assumption that links between people forged in the past have little contemporary relevance and should not survive their transplantation to foreign climes and sundry temporal realities. If anything, they serve as a point of reference and a custodian of those values and shared experiences that led inexorably, to the point we find ourselves today, the building blocks of what we understand to comprise our community.
As the generations grow older and the links that bind them are prized apart, first-generation funerals remain to remind us of how infinitely poorer our lives will become (and indeed, how ill-attended our own rites of passage will be) when and if those final links are shattered and lost, without being replaced by descendants willing to acknowledge the ties that bind them with others. For if we do not relate to each other on the basis of our common origin then what other ideological construct could unite our community and preserve our identity? Our Palladion is our knowledge of the intricate and often traumatic web of shared experience that connect us to each other. And as long as that is preserved, those who have had the privilege to symbolize it throughout their lives, will always be with us.


First published in NKEE Saturday 6 August 2011.