In my last blog, I listed Rob Lowe’s Love Life as one of my favourite books from 2014. I was especially moved by his discovery of his family history about which he says “I believe we’re all influenced by our epigenetic legacies”. He goes on to say “I am the son of my grandfathers. I sometimes imagine I feel them in my blood guiding me” (page 159). These two sentences have not left my mind. I twist them and turn them. I play with their meaning.
What is my epigenetic legacy?
How is it that the granddaughter of two illiterate women is a doctoral student researching the treatment of and attitudes towards romance fiction? Does their blood guide me? How did their blood impact my parents, and in turn, how did my mum and dad’s blood impact my life? Though my grandmothers were illiterate, their children were/are not illiterate. The few opportunities to learn to read were grasped by both my parents.
My mother, who mostly reads biographies, has the most incredible ability to read textiles. Her schooling was minimal as she was born in the Pindus mountains of Northern Greece in 1938. Her childhood was heartbreakingly difficult, losing her dad and five of her siblings due to World War 2 and the Greek Civil War. She first attended school when she was 11 and by 13 she had moved to attending textiles training. My mum can spin and dye wool, tat, embroider, knit and weave with incredible skill.
Once, my mum, while travelling home on a train for twenty minutes, examined the complex knitted jumper the person in front of her was wearing. She came home and within two days had completed a replica of this jumper from memory. It was similar to an Arran Isle pattern. She had no need for the written instructions. Her understanding of patterns and spatials and technique was sufficient. Though my mum taught me to knit and to embroider, I am an amateur, coarse in my needlework execution.
This is a legacy that I do not feel running in my blood.
My mum, like her mum, is incredibly kind and forgiving. My mum never falls out with people. She lives by the adage of “turn the other cheek”. I try to be kind but it is easier to fall out with people.
I would love for this to be my legacy.
My father was a huge reader. He surrounded himself with books. Like many men of his generation, he read every volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover. He read philosophy, Ancient Greek and Latin texts alongside Georgette Heyer, Auntie Mame and Peyton Place.
This is a legacy I can relate to, one that I feel running through my veins.
Like my mother, my father had a difficult childhood, too. He was born in 1928 on the day that the plague killed all of his parents’ 500 animals. Their livelihood was destroyed while my grandmother was giving birth. Dad would joke that his mum would say that he brought “The Curse” to their home. He, like mum, grew up in the Pindus mountains though much further south in Central Greece in the prefecture of Evrytania. His village is a tiny Shangri-la in Agrafa that would be snowbound and isolated for at least six months of every year. My father was curious and interested in learning. The local priest allowed him access to the church bible and my father learnt to read in his church. My dad had the bible memorised. By the age of seven, his mother gave him away to work on a farm to make money to help the family. He would go home on the fortnight for a few days. He was smart and found himself working in a shop in Lamia by the time he was 11. My grandfather, having lived in New York for ten years, taught my father a smattering of English phrases which he used to communicate with British and Australian soldiers. In April 1941, Germany bombed Lamia and my dad, a terrified 13 year old was running in the streets looking for a place to hide. Australian soldiers grabbed him and hid him for several days until it was safe for him to leave.
This moment became my legacy.
My father never spoke ill of his parents giving him away to work. Ever. He was matter of fact about it. “We were poverty stricken, what else could they do. There were 8 of us”. My father’s older sister was given to her godparents who rather than put her to work, sent her to school but as a boy, he needed to bring money home. Dad would say “My father would cry and didn’t want to give us away but my mother was much more practical”.
Is this practical blood guiding me? How is this my epigenetic legacy?
Eventually, my grandmother’s practical nature saw her murdered. The judge who presided on the day my dad and his father took her case to court, six years after her death said she was a victim of war. My dad said murdered. He called it a crime. She was stoned and kicked to death in a town square. She was seven months pregnant, returning to her village after cleaning the monastery where her brother-in-law was the High Abbott. There were some horrific atrocities in these mountains. There were stories of mass killings, not by bombings but by gathering people together and throwing them off a cliff, live. War crimes. My grandmother was a sole killing. She was travelling without a permit (it was as far to travel to get the permit as it was to go to the monastery and doubled her journey) and a couple of people decided to make her an example – to show others what the consequences of not getting the proper paperwork would be. She was not a victim of a war crime. She was a victim of crime. Both are terrible, both leaving their impact on subsequent generations.
It is my legacy to say murdered.
My dad, unfortunately, knew who her killers were as he went searching for his mother upon hearing she had been killed. He wanted to give her a burial so he approached some people who knew his family in the village where she had last been seen. The acquaintances he asked turned on him, beating him on his arms and his head with a plank of wood, breaking his collarbone and injuring him, the last words he remembered before passing out were those of other villagers dragging him away shouting “You killed his mother, you will not kill the boy too”. My father was 16 and his mother’s body has never been recovered. I bear my murdered grandmother’s name though she went by a nickname. I rejected her nickname when I first heard her story.
I had to make my own legacy. Epigenetics can only go so far.
Two semantic events have happened this week.
The first is that today marks twenty years since my dad passed away. Twenty years without his physical presence feels unbelievable to me, it is still a pain in my chest, its sharpness muted with time. There are times I wake from a dream where I have been speaking to him, holding his hand, arguing with his obstreperous ways and my dream has felt so real that I am startled to discover that he has been gone for so long. On the day of his funeral, my godmother held my hand and said that since the day her father died she has not felt complete, childlike happiness again. At the time I was upset with her. I wanted to feel that level of happiness that I had been fortunate enough to feel for 25 years. Sadly, she was right. For even when I was in the most euphoric state, playing and laughing with my kids and husband, in the tiny recess of my mind was a hint of sadness that my dad would never share these moments. My own parents must have felt their own tragic losses in this way even more so as their losses were due to unnecessary war and not due to illness.
The second is that earlier this week, several stories were released about the British involvement in Greece during the world war and the civil war. I am not a historian and nor am I going to try to explain the complexities of this terrible time in Greek history. I do suggest you read this article, though keep in mind that there are deep biases in reporting events even 70 years later. The strategies of the military and the politicians that drove these decisions have impacted my life for they impacted my parents lives. They both suffered during these two wars. My mother’s harrowing story is one that I will leave for another day. Today, But for my father, these wars left him with a need to leave Greece. Once the civil war ended, he applied to go to America as his father owned property in New York City. Upon finding out that NYC council had sold my grandfather’s property due to unpaid rates (my grandfather had left a caretaker to manage his home but lost contact with him during the war – the man had died) my father decided to migrate to Australia as it had been Australian soldiers that saved his life when he was a young teen.
My dad loved Australia. He became a citizen on the very day that he was eligible. He loved the 1950s insult of being called a “New Australian”. He was deliberately obtuse to its negative connotations saying “Did you hear that! They called me Australian!” He hated the move away from the term. Being called a Greek migrant instead of a New Australian meant he was no longer accepted as staying here permanently, there would always be a disconnect, he was forced to not identify with his new land, the land he called Paradise.
My dad sponsored several of his siblings to come and join him here and years later some of his other relatives came over too. My dad, like all people, had his faults. Among them was his lack of communicating. As much as he loved reading, he hardly ever bothered to write home. Often he would send cheques to his dad and on the back of them sign “I am well”. This devastated my grandfather who mourned the loss of his children to another country, an aunt who stayed in Greece told me. He would cry in the fields for his children and would cry that he wanted my dad’s words and not his money.
My parents met and married in Australia. When I was still young, one of the other relatives (not a sibling or aunt or uncle) was getting married. His was a love match to a beautiful Greek girl. My dad had met his fiancé and liked her a lot. She was happy and cheerful. As a family we went to the engagement party and chaos ensued. A relative of the fiancé was the person who had beaten my dad with a plank of wood. The person left the home from the back door insisting that the wedding be called off. My dad’s relative was distraught as was his fiancé. No reason had been given to them, just the demand to call things off. My dad pulled them both to the side and told them what had taken place 30 years earlier. But he finished by telling them that they must get married. It was imperative to get married. To break up because of someone’s actions before either of them had been born would be another crime, hate would simmer and there should no longer be hate.
This story deeply impacted me, as well as my other relatives (I am sure we all have our own version of events and I have left a large part of the story out of this post deliberately). At no stage did my father welcome the person in his home and his relative and wife were always careful to keep the person away from my father and his siblings. There were other impacts which I do not want to write about. Suffice to say the relative and his wife are still married and still happy with children and grandchildren. I found my dad’s forgiveness on that day heroic and amazing. My mum continues his legacy (which was actually their joint legacy) in that these relatives still occasionally visit her and love her. Though they have slowly moved away into their own circles, their own children have friendships with my grandmother’s great-grandchildren.
When telling me this story – my dad only told it to me once as it was an incredibly painful recollection so perhaps time has touched my retelling – my father told me that he could not think of any better memorial for his mother than love and romance, not hate perpetuated. Romance, he said, “αγαπη” and love had to prevail.
I am so glad that Rob Lowe’s writing about his family history touched me so deeply. Celebrity memoirs rarely make literary “Best of” end of year lists yet they are read and loved by so many people. That I was able to write this story inspired by a book called Love Life heartens me. I am so often perplexed that stories of crime and murder and sadness are given a higher standing in our society than love and happiness. Both my parents have lived both these types of stories. I love that when they had a deciding moment they chose romance. The value they placed on love, forgiveness and allowing future generations to have hope and happy futures is something that runs deep in my heart and mind and soul.
Stories of romance, kindness and heroism, whether written or spoken, are my epigenetic legacies.
In memory of my dad, I miss him terribly.
Dedicated to my mum, who remembers and tells us so many of their sad and happy stories.
I borrowed my copy of Rob Lowe’s Love Life from a NSW Public Library.