1908 – 2012

The linoleum floor is shiny but still old-looking, no matter how much she mops. Black and white diamonds, peeling in places. Through the square, deep-silled window, the smell of bacon frying from the flat next door, and holy basil from the potted plants she tends like babies. Tiny leaves sharp as citrus on the morning air. Leda’s bare arms are white where they rest on the clear plastic tablecloth, speckled with sunspots and the blotchiness that comes from Sydney’s autumn cold. It’s just past six, the girls not yet up. She holds a cracked tea-cup in both hands, the fluted saucer now gone, broken or lost, its tulip pattern fading. She brings it to her lips, closes her eyes and allows herself to smile. This moment. This one moment of stillness. She is pregnant again – and even with all the pain of her marriage, she wants this child. When she opens her eyes again, her husband stands by the kitchen door, his workaday bulk blocking the wan light behind him.

I woke up and wanted you, he says, louder than a whisper. Why weren’t you there?

Leda Bellou (neé Waters) was born in Enmore, Sydney in 1926, to Irish-Australian parents, both of whom died in a factory accident when she was eight. She was the eldest of five children, their only daughter. She and her brothers were put into foster care and eventually all were adopted, except her. Leda lived in an orphanage until she turned eighteen and could leave and find work.

She was a devoted mother and wife, and her self-confessed needs were simple: she wanted the family life she’d been denied as a child. Happiness for herself and her children, to be cherished, looked after and loved. Not so simple after all. She wanted to see grandchildren born, but never did. Her eldest daughter, Lily, could not conceive, and her youngest, Eleni, lost a child. Leda wanted to grow old, live comfortably, surrounded by family, but couldn’t manage it. The complications of life conspired against this innocent ideal: her daughters’ demands, her thwarted love for her difficult husband, and his one final betrayal.

She married Pavlos Bellos, a Greek immigrant twelve years her senior, at the age of twenty-one. She gave birth to Lily in the same year and Eleni in 1947. As a young mother, she would sit in the dingy kitchen of their rented flat, in the heart of Sydney’s western suburbs. She and other tired mums in their twenties and early thirties would drink tea, at times something a little stronger, and listen to music on an old turn-table while babies and toddlers played at their feet. The passion she shared with her friends for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, was in some small way symbolic of their attempts to break free from the mundane reality of their lives. On her deathbed, Leda would speak self-deprecatingly of Frank serenading her among the asphodel when she reached the other side.

She was an attractive woman, with the soft features and high colouring of her Irish ancestors. As a mother, she still felt young, alive, on the rare days when the demands of domesticity didn’t wear her out. She was taller than her husband, and never wore heels. When she became pregnant with their third child, Pavlos was adamant that they could not afford another, financially or emotionally.

In the year after her loss she came to a watershed. What then transpired was later judged and mocked by many of her family and friends. She left her physically and emotionally abusive marriage, which in itself was not worthy of condemnation. But she also left one of her daughters with her husband, taking the eldest with her. Nobody knows why she did this, why she chose to apportion her love. Her daughter Eleni, the one left behind at the age of three, refused all her life to be drawn into this discussion.

After leaving Sydney, Leda settled on the Greek island of Syros, in a monastery near the sea, without taking any vows. She cleaned and cooked for the Orthodox nuns, Lily was schooled intermittently, and they didn’t venture past the island’s port town for eight years. When Lily turned twelve, Leda took her back to Australia to fill the gaps in her education. They found Eleni, now eleven, and took her away from her father, who had by now become an alcoholic. Leda found a home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and the girls went to high school there.

Leda never had another relationship. She cared for her former husband in his dotage, making the long trip from the beaches to Sydney twice each week to take food, clean his tiny room in a boarding-house in Glebe, where he descended deeper into drink. Her daughters left the country: Lily to California to pursue a career as a surgical oncologist, Eleni to Bali where she could live cheaply and without responsibility.

When Leda turned seventy-nine, she was diagnosed with a melanoma on her right rib-cage. It was removed, yet after six years metastasised into her lymph nodes, liver, lungs and brain. She chose not to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. She refused surgery, adamant against her eldest daughter’s insistence. Instead, she made contact with the Swiss organisation Dignitas and arranged for an assisted suicide. It was here Leda died, with dignity, in no pain, at a day and time of her own choosing.

Before she died, she asked Pavlos if he would consider accompanying her in a suicide pact. He was nearing one hundred, long-lived as his peasant forbears had been, though his liver was damaged from his long drinking habit. He said yes, made the preparations with the clinic – but at the last moment walked out of the room, and Leda died alone.

At the end of her life Leda learned that nobody would look after her but herself, that loyalty is not something one can long for indefinitely. She learned that she had to take care of her own death – and that the final transition is as much part of life as living itself.