Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

The Old Greeks

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

The Old Greeks

Article excerpt

I

It was nothing more than a scene glimpsed in passing. Two women are walking arm-in-arm through a suburban park. The younger woman is middle aged, perhaps fifty or fifty-five. She is dressed in a black knee-length skirt and matching jacket. Her hair is dyed a rich orangebrown colour that disguises the grey that dominates near the roots. The other woman is much older. Noticeably bent over, she is dressed in the plain black attire worn by Greek widows. Her thick grey hair finishes just above the line of her collar. Thirty years ago, these widows were a common sight in the Sydney suburbs populated by Greeks, Italians, Macedonians and Maltese. While her movements are steady, she relies on the support of the younger woman to guide her over the uneven ground. Apart from the two women and myself, the park is empty of inhabitants. This emptiness contributes to the impression that the space being traversed by the two women is more daunting than the confines of a suburban park. Indeed, as I watched these two black-clad figures, I imagined that it was not really a matter of space at all, but rather of time: the time that separates one generation from the next. I remember this scene because it occurred shortly after the funeral of my uncle, my father's eldest brother. My uncle arrived in Australia from Cyprus in 1951. Ten years later, he paid for his youngest sister to join him. In 1966 he purchased the boat fares required to bring my own family to Australia. After our arrival, we lived together in a small worker's cottage in the part of Newcastle known as Cooks Hill. As the eldest and the first to arrive, my uncle occupied a position of authority in the family. Any instance of questionable behaviour was viewed through his eyes. Not surprisingly, Icame to regard him as someone stern and quick to judge. Like all the other male adults that were part of my extended family, his life was defined by work. The eulogy at the funeral sketched some of the main details: after a number of years in north Queensland cutting sugar cane, he used his savings to establish his first shop, a takeaway in the coalfields town of Maitland. Then came a string of small seven-days-a-week businesses in and around Newcastle. He didn't gamble or drink. As far as I know, he had no hobbies or past-times that might have distracted him from his work. He married and had two daughters. There were troubles-as there always are. But later in his life, he was blessed with a number of grandchildren who loved and respected him. When he sold the last of his shops, he spent the first years of his retirement helping his eldest daughter to run her own business.

The final chapter in his life was dominated by what the priest who delivered the eulogy euphemistically referred to as his 'sickness'. Gradually, he stopped attending the christenings and weddings. When he did attend, he would sit quietly next to his wife, occasionally responding to the greeting of an old friend with a look of bewilderment. Soon, even these appearances became too difficult to manage. In the end he was completely housebound, dependent on the round-the-clock care of his wife. When they could, my parents would drive up to Newcastle and visit him. Nearly always, they would return from these visits exhausted and looking much older than when they left.

Reduced to these basic details, the story of my uncle's life sounds remarkably similar to the stories told of other migrants of his generation. Change a few of the dates and details and the priest's summation of a life devoted to hard work, thrift and the virtues of family life could be used at any number of funerals occurring in Greek Orthodox churches all over Australia. My uncle's story matches the more general story of postwar migration that is told in school textbooks and government histories. Part of the reason this story is so familiar is that, in its basic details, it corresponds with the life experiences of many members of this generation of migrants. …

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