Week two and I haven’t abandoned steady posting … Let’s celebrate that! Here’s a new memoir piece. Hope you enjoy.
Yiayia Filyo introduced me to the idea of inheritance. Not because she left me anything when she died. Members of my father’s family have a curious tendency to bequeath their worldly possessions to my stepmother, as if, when drafting their wills, they all receive the same legal advice about impeding child support debt recovery.
I would sit at the stool in front of her triple vanity mirror and watch as she ran a comb through my hair. She styled it like hers. When she was done, I was her bite-sized doppelganger. It’s the earliest I recognised that a piece of me had come from someone else. Now, I don’t understand how inheritance patterns work – besides my stepmother inheriting what my father’s due, I understand that pattern – but on the off-chance I comb my hair back, I see my grandmother in my reflection.
My memories of Yiayia Filyo are hazy now. I don’t know if it’s cruel or kind that the people we love occupy less space in our minds as the distance between us grows. I experience her in flashes – her running a hand and a brush through my hair; her drenched in black, watching me through the fence at pre-school; her sitting on the back step of her Marrickville home, peeling the potatoes that would become the best damn chips I’ve ever eaten.
I wish I could say she only took up less space in my mind when she died, but the truth is, it happened much earlier. When the rift between my parents worsened, and every second weekend came to mean never, I saw her less, I thought of her less, and I thought less of her. People have said she feared my father, so she did what he told her to, however harsh …
Nobody’s character comes out of a protracted divorce untarnished, but Mum did what was right when it counted. If she heard Yiayia Filyo was in hospital, she would sneak us in to see her. One afternoon in my teens, Mum announced that she was taking me for a drive. We ended up outside a nursing home in Earlwood. She told me it was where my grandmother lived.
It was the first time I’d seen her in years. She hadn’t aged in my head, so the sight of her, hair grey and speech slurred, hit me hard. I blinked back tears as we spoke. Don’t remember what about, but I left feeling like a weight I didn’t know I was carrying had been lifted. I would have carried it forever had she died before I visited.
It was cathartic, and I wanted that catharsis for my older brother. When I encouraged him to visit, he reacted in anger. He wouldn’t go. And it made sense. Dad had been the worst to him.
She died soon after. We found out by cosmic coincidence. My maternal grandmother, Yiayia Susie, came across the obituary in a days-old Greek newspaper.
My older brother was upset. He said he didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to her. I probably shouldn’t have told him that he did have the chance, he just didn’t take it.
Mum insisted we go to the funeral uninvited. I remember the breath catching in her throat as we approached the church in Newtown where she married my father years before. She had spotted what we soon would – Yiayia Filyo’s tiny coffin elevated on wheels, left unattended on the street. We stood there uncomfortably. We didn’t want to get too close. We weren’t supposed to be there. Minutes passed like hours, and nobody came to retrieve Yiayia Filyo. Mum did what was right when it counted. She encouraged my brothers and me stand by our grandmother.
We approached the coffin, scared that at any moment Dad would emerge from the church to chastise us. He didn’t. He was late. In his absence, we kept his mother company on King Street – my older brother, who refused to visit her at the end, my younger brother, who barely knew her, and me. We were the family she lost in the divorce, but we were the ones who were there in the end.
And while I’d be lying if I said that’s front of mind at all times, you can’t stop that shit from shaping you. When I think of Yiayia Filyo, I think of standing on King Street. I shouldn’t, she wasn’t really there, but it was the culmination of our story. An acknowledgement of the lost years. An apology. And I carry that moment with me. It’s the only thing I can say for certain that I inherited from her.
The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, I have freshly signed books available for purchase at Dymocks Collins St, The Little Bookroom and Readings Kids. If you’re after something like this, you can check out My Father Haunts Me and You Come Out.