This post was inspired by my dear friend Melanie, who recently lost her grandmother. xx
I grew up without grandparents, without any first cousins, or aunts and uncles that were my parents' siblings; and yet childhood Christmases were noisy, crowded affairs. In lieu of "close" family in Australia, our koumbari, our second and third cousins and our neighbours became our extended family. Every Greek woman was Thia, Aunt, and every Greek man, Thio, Uncle. Ties of blood were replaced by ties of proximity and a shared culture.
We didn't have a lot of money but food was plentiful: kreas, pastissio, salata, yemistes, tarama and big loaves of wog bread. I remember long neck bottles of Fosters or VB, and for the kids Tarax or Gold Medal soft drinks in bright colours: yellow, orange, crimson.
But my cousins and I couldn't wait for lunch to be over so we could hit the asphalt streets, and ride our Malvern Star bikes and red scooters at dizzying speeds. Back then there were no driveways leading from the houses to the street; everyone who had a car, and back then not everyone did, parked on the curb; so we could zoom up and down without fear. Indeed the road itself was virtually empty.
We would be called in for dessert: kourabiethes, baklava, the usual suspects. I remember one year Koumbara Soula brought a cake that she made from a packet. It was iced with chocolate frosting and multicoloured sprinkles. I thought her very modern. My mum insisted we make everything in the traditional way, with fresh eggs, milk, butter – boring!
After everyone had gone or we had left whoever's house we had been at, we would play with the toys we had received from Santa. For me this was often something arty: Derwent pencils, a sketch pad, or a new set of textas. I used these up quickly and had to resort to pulling the ends off the top and pouring in drops of water, to make them "go" for longer. It was a treat to have a new packet with bright, vivid colours.
One year I got a Dynamo label maker from Norman Brothers Stationers, at Northland. When my teacher at school found out, she asked me to make a set of spice labels for her – my parents were proud for me to oblige. Her husband was a VFL umpire. She showed us newspaper clippings of him behind the goal posts, wearing a long white coat, like he worked in a laboratory. Their life was unspeakably different from mine.
Now I have a family of my own. My daughter has grown up with her yiayia and pappou, and from my husband's side a devoted grandma. At Christmas lunch she will sit with my sister's children, her first cousins, who she adores. Afterwards they might shoot hoops in the back yard or play on their electronic devices – though they long to wander the street, unsupervised, as we did.
We do not invite the neighbours and not having been married in the Greek church, we have no koumbari. Sometimes I think my childhood was richer for the mish mash of people it involved. I remember the old lady I called "Yiayia", who lived across the road, and her grown-up daughter, at whose wedding I was flower girl; and "Pappou" was the lodger who slept in our spare room. He was an old Greek man, divorced from his Australian wife.
"Yiayia" and "Pappou" were fond of me, but of course they never loved me in the same way my parents love my daughter. Seeing her with Mum and Dad brings home to me how much I missed, by not growing up with my grandparents.