1935 – 2012

She eases herself down onto the front steps of her home, still warm with the day’s heat. Her children play in the lengthening shadows; their shrill, excited voices rise and fall in the dusk as they bounce a soccer ball across the road. Neighbours pass her gate on their evening stroll; call out greetings. Melrose Street is no longer itself at twilight, especially in summer. She could almost be somewhere softer, more familiar, somewhere else. She closes her tired eyes, can hear the distant roar of traffic. Maybe even Greek music, drifting over a neighbour’s fence. Her knees and back don’t ache as much as they did earlier today, when she was vacuuming and emptying waste-paper bins at work. Slowly she feels her shoulders relax and begins to hum under her breath, so low even her overblown roses can’t hear her. Mια χούφτα χώμα ελληνικό στον κορφο μου θα κρύψo, τώρα που πάω στην ξενιτια γρήγορα να γυρίσω. Her garden is moist and humid, the hose lies coiled on the grass where she laid it down. A last gentle trickle. The fragrance of wet soil mingles with the scent of the herbs she coaxes so tenderly: rosemary, small-leaved basil, mint. Night begins to fall. The children vanish from her sight, and all she can hear are their voices. But she’s not worried; her two eldest at eleven and twelve care for the younger ones. She feels the fifth baby stir in her womb, a sublime nudge into the past. For a brief moment, she really is somewhere else.

Athanasia Papanikou (nicknamed Soula) was the first-born of Alexandra Kazakou and Kostantinos Papanikos. She was born circa 1935 in Lithohori, a mountain village surrounded by pine trees, part of the province of Evritania in northern Greece. Her birthday may have been in November, the month of chill winds and bitter rain, but nobody is certain. As was the custom in those times, no records were kept of births; only saint’s name days are celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

In 1939, when Athanasia was still a child, many in the village were leaving to find work in the towns and her family was no exception. They left for Kalyvia in the Peloponnese, to find support with her maternal relatives. The Nazi invasion of Greece caught them there and it was too dangerous to travel back, so there they stayed. Later on in the war, they settled permanently in the village of Spolaita (outside of Agrinion), in a kaliva (shack) near the Achilleos River. Athanasia had an intimate knowledge of the River before it was dammed in the 1960s: daily collecting water and firewood with her donkey Atheneos. As she grew, the river became the source of many songs, folk-tales and personal mythology that she in turn passed onto her children in a new land. The village was never far away – and even in the late stages of her disease she would look toward the stairs in her house in Mount Waverley and call out μάνα, πατέρα (mother, father), her voice full of anticipation, absolutely certain they were only a few steps away.

Athanasia was a solemn, dark-featured child, with deep-set eyes and a straight bang across her forehead. Her younger sister Niki (b. Lithohori, 1939) twin brothers Spiro and Yianni (b. Kalyvia, Peloponisos, 1941) Lola (b. Lithohori, 1945) and further twins Petros and Takis (b. Spolaita, 1947) relied implicitly on her care, attention and love. She was a compassionate, diplomatic child, and this trait carried into adulthood. Yet she only briefly attended school, and this was one of the major resentments in her life. She would often tell the story of the few weeks she spent in the classroom, how she had to stay with a relative on school days, sleeping in the corridor. One day her father came by the school and seeing her playing with the other children, he took her away, declaring she was needed at home. Yet Athanasia’s childhood was not unique in wartime Mediterranean Europe. Her working life began early: collecting firewood for home and sale, tending the fields, collecting olives, preparing tobacco leaves. With six siblings to take care of, and her father often sick or away, the responsibilities of the household fell to her.

War came to Greece on 28 October 1940, when Athanasia was five years old. Her father was conscripted into the army while her mother was pregnant with the first set of twins. Shortly after they were born, King Paul I of Greece decreed that men with four or more children were free to return home. Unfortunately, on his return Kostantinos Papanikos was accosted by Italian soldiers and arrested for concealing an old hunting-rifle. He was put on trial in Patras, convicted of fighting with the partisans and sentenced to death. With the help of his brother he escaped the firing squad, and, badly beaten, he fled to Lithohori with his mother and spent many months bedridden, separated from his children.

Athanasia took charge of her three siblings as her mother went away for days to sell wood in Agrinion in order to buy food. She gathered wild greens and boiled them, hiding under a bridge. Yet it was not long before her mother also was arrested by Axis soldiers, for breaking the curfew. She prayed for the protection of her children as she was prepared for the hangman’s noose, and a German soldier had her frantic words translated. In order to confirm her story about her four children he placed her in the sidecar of his motorcycle and took her there, and on seeing Athanasia and the three young children he spared their mother’s life.

Life in Greece continued to be difficult even after the world war. At the cessation of the conflict Greece embarked upon a protracted civil war between Royalists and Communists more bloody than what had preceded it. Its effects were far-reaching, well into the seventies and the time of the junta military dictatorship. Greece was divided along ideological lines, with thousands in prison and many seeking refuge in Communist Bloc countries or in Australia, Germany, the US, UK, and Canada. Famine and extreme poverty was widespread and the US-backed Marshall Plan in the 1950s did little to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Greek families such as Athanasia’s. Even into the sixties, Greece was a third-world country, and economic prospects for women without education or connections were bleak.

Athanasia Karagiorgiou (neé Papanikou) passed away on 19 July 2012, age 76. Athanasia arrived in Melbourne on 31 May 1962 on the Patris. Like so many others she left home reluctantly, her departure arranged by her sister Niki; economic migrants with no skills or contacts. For a young woman who had never strayed from conservative rural life, heading across the sea to a foreign land was a frightening proposition. She wept for months and accused her parents of driving her away. And there was another complication. A year before her departure, Athanasia had been formally introduced by her father and uncle to a young man, Christos Karagiorgios, at the Elveteon cake-shop on Papastratou Street in Agrinion. Christos was also chaperoned by his father, in the time-honoured tradition of arranged marriages. Today Christos does not recall her saying much, at most one or two words. One of the men then told Christos that Athanasia was leaving for Australia, and whether he wanted her. He looked at the attractive dark-haired woman, seated across from him, and without giving it a lot of thought nodded his assent.

They didn’t set eyes on each other again until Christos disembarked at Port Melbourne on 3 May 1964 on another migrant ship, Seven Seas, holding an invitation from Athanasia. They were married twenty-one days later on 24 May 1964 at the Independent Greek Orthodox church in Carlton. Such were the conditions of Christos’ entry visa: that he must be married within the first month of arrival, without a return ticket or the means to purchase one.

Athanasia took the arranged marriage in her stride. She was now a kind and caring adult, easy to get along with and welcoming to all. Her friends, however, were almost exclusively fellow migrants, people that had either made the journey away from their villages, or relatives by blood or marriage. In a sense her early life in Melbourne was surreal: a self-imposed ghetto of arcane social relations, Greek shops, Greek media, Greek village ethics and morals. She and Christos worked initially in factories – as did most migrants of the era, and then went on to open a series of take-away food shops in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, working twelve hour or more days, seven days a week. Athanasia was once again condemned to be an unskilled labourer, living above the shops, rising early to prepare for trade while her babies and children slept upstairs.

Athanasia and Christos had five children in rapid succession: Nikos (b.1965) Kyriaki/Kerri (b.1966) Yiannis (b.1967) Kostas (b.1972) and Alexandra (b.1977). Currently there are seven grandchildren: Kerri’s daughters Stephanie and Kristin, Kostas’ sons Christopher and Dean, Alexandra’s daughters Tiahna and Tahlia, and Niko’s daughter Damascin. Athanasia’s universe was her family, and she was their rising sun. Despite everything, she loved them unconditionally and with no regard for herself. She was the epitome of the selfless mother: investing all her own frustrated hopes and dreams upon her children, with varying results. She worked in the home and outside of it with a single-minded determination typical of the migrant mentality. Chiselled in the deep wrinkles of her face were fragments of every one of her children – evidence of the sacrifice and suffering she endured.

Yet there were bright moments in her days. She loved her backyard vegetable patch, growing all the edible plants of her childhood: tomatoes, string beans, peppers, spinach, zucchini, eggplant. She adored her fi g tree. She tenderly cared for her pots of rosemary and Greek basil that perfumed the summer night air, obscuring the stench of nearby factories. She loved to bake pita, and syrupy Ottoman cakes such as baklava. She was always organising parties and ‘open house’ days to celebrate name days and especially Christmas parties – the name day of her husband. These were major events for her with abundant food, drink, dance and song. She would recall all the lyrics of songs from her region of Greece and loved to sing and listen to the songs of the fi fties and sixties. On happy days she laughed and enjoyed a good joke, watching Greek comedy and spending endless hours on the phone with her sister Niki or cousin Despina. She enjoyed a drink, liked having people around her kitchen table drinking endless cups of Turkish coffee and sharing whatever food she had in the κατσαρόλα that day, talking until the small hours. It took her twenty-six years to return to Greece, but she loved going back after her first journey in 1978. She would say that her favourite place in the world was Aghia Eleoussa, an Orthodox church carved into a cliff-face on the road from Missolonghi to Agrinion, and she chose to baptise her youngest Alexandra there.

In 1996 Athanasia was working as a cleaner when a freak accident precipitated her decline. She was in the elevator of an office high-rise when it freefell for several floors, and the trauma to her cranium contributed to the onset of Alzheimer’s which gradually began to take hold a few years later. When the disease began to shadow all aspects of her life Christos would say in a depressed tone that she was a χαμένο πρόβατο στην στάνη (a lost lamb in the fold). At first she attempted to disguise her loss of memory but when she lost the ability to run the household, something she had done single-handedly for so long, everyone knew she was seriously ill. The disease progressed gradually but inexorably – soon she was unable to take care of herself the way she had so whole-heartedly taken care of others. Without flinching from his responsibility or asking anything of anyone, Christos became her carer, protector and servant. He seldom left her side and did all he could to give relief to what he called her ακυβέρνητο κορμί (ungovernable body). This was a role he persisted with over many years and to the very end.

Athanasia lived a life made noble by love and service. She was a woman of no pretensions: a village girl born into poverty, during a period when the world was preparing itself for the deadliest war in history. As a child, her growing consciousness developed in tandem with the reality of human suffering. Disease, sickness and death were achingly familiar to her. Thus, we can be sure she met her own death bravely with equanimity and γαλήνη, and with a strength born of her firm, simple belief in the grace of God and the tenets of her Orthodox faith. May her tender heart be with us forever.