There’s a photo of my Baba (father) that sits above the fireplace in the lounge room of my house. He is in his 30s and cuts a dashing figure in a dapper tuxedo complete with a jaunty bow tie. Alongside this photo is a picture of me, Baba and Mama on my sixth birthday. I am on Baba’s knee. Mama nuzzles next to us, her arm draped around Baba’s shoulder, the other resting lightly on my knee. I am staring at an ornate birthday cake, looking peeved as if to say, ‘Hurry up already and take the photo, I wanna eat the cake!’ Further along, I am balancing on an outdoor swing, rugged up in dungarees and a corduroy jacket, the trees behind me bare of leaves. Mama and Baba are on either side, gripping the swing’s ropes, faces beaming.
When I think of my parents, these are the images that spring to mind as well as recollections of an idyllic childhood: Sunday drives to the Dandenongs for an indulgent afternoon tea of black forest cake at a Bavarian inspired café; Baba teaching me to tumble, one hand on my back, the other vigorously turning a whole lamb on the spit over glowing coals
This is what I choose to remember and not Mama and Baba’s faces distorted with anger as they hurled slurs of resili (disgrace) and poutana (prostitute) at me during the height of my rebellion when I was in my early 20s.
When did I first become a rebellious daughter? When did I wilfully flout my parents’ expectations and way of life to assert my independence? The immediate answer is at Melbourne University in the early ‘80s.
While I started conventionally, enrolling in a Commerce degree as dutifully expected, I realised I couldn’t stomach the rugger-bugger private school boys in my economics classes. I gravitated to the student theatre department where I found my kin on the stage of the Guild Theatre. I banded together with the other misfits and renegades to form our own theatre company, an enterprise that occupied my every waking hour and I stopped attending lectures. The trajectory my parents had planned for me before I was born – a tertiary education, a white-collar profession and a good Greek marriage – veered off course as I found my own orbit in a universe the antithesis of theirs.
My flowing curls gave way to a number 2 buzz cut which my mother hated.
I began to cast my own identity, including how I looked. My flowing curls gave way to a number 2 buzz cut which my mother hated. She also disapproved of my new look fashion: ripped Levi 501s, a black t-shirt and workman’s boots. ‘Why don’t you wear a dress anymore?’ she’d complain. I couldn’t tell her yet that the dresses she wanted me to wear weren’t for me, just like boys weren’t. I’d look out of place in a flowery dress at the women only dances where I began to explore my sexuality. Coming out to Baba and Mama as gay felt fraught with danger and I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the inevitable Greek drama nor the consequences of their hurt.
And then there was Carlton – magnificent, free-spirited, seedy Carlton. Together with my theatre mates, I consumed copious quantities of alcoholic beverages at any number of watering holes. After drinking till the wee hours of the morning, I staggered to Twins, an all-night greasy takeaway joint, for half a dozen fried dim sims and a fizzy lime soda to sober up. Going home drunk was out of the question as Baba was waiting for me no matter what the time, and that’s when the slanging matches started about how I disgraced the family. I tried to steel myself against the insults, deflecting them against an imaginary shield I carried home with me, but every now and then, some cruelty pierced the shield, and my heart. I accepted Baba’s angry tirades as the price I had to pay for my newfound freedom. Occasionally he locked me out of the house and I’d sleep in the car, the smell of Riesling and fried fat exuding from my pores.
While this was the heyday of my rebellion, its roots can be traced much earlier. A seed was planted in 1975, when I was 13, in what became known as ‘the Greek coffee incident’.
I accepted Baba’s angry tirades as the price I had to pay for my newfound freedom.
My father drank his kafe metreo style with one teaspoon of sugar. He came home from work at five, carrying his battered brown leather satchel and the afternoon edition of The Herald rolled under his arm. He then brewed himself a kafe which he savoured as he read the paper.
Baba and Mama migrated to Australia 1957, the land of milk and honey as they called it. Opportunities abounded in Afstralia unlike the economic hardship blanketing Greece after World War II and the subsequent civil war. Baba took up the panel beating trade, learning how to hammer dented car bodies and twist them back into shape, before spray painting the duco as new. He eventually opened his own workshop in the back streets of Richmond. I loved visiting Baba’s workshop, he looked so worldly sitting at the desk in his cramped office. Often there was an olive green accounting ledger spread out in front of him, his fingers tapping on an adding machine as he tallied the daily accounts. No wonder Baba wanted me to enrol in a Commerce degree.
One day, when I was 12, Baba broke from his usual afternoon routine. ‘Ella etho, Maria, mazi tha fiaksoume kafe’ (Come here, Maria, together we’ll make coffee). He proceeded to teach me how to brew a Greek coffee, step by step. When I poured the kafe into his cup, Baba exclaimed ‘Bravo!’ and gave me a five-dollar note. Five dollars, what a fortune! I could buy my next record, Suzy Quatro’s Can the Can or Skyhook’s Living in the ‘70s.
The next day when Baba came home from work, he called out ‘Maria, kafe!’ and I ran to the kitchen, this time making the coffee without any coaching. Baba smacked his lips with pleasure after taking the first sip but this time there was no monetary reward.
For a year or so, I complied like a dutiful daughter until the day came when I didn’t want to make his coffee.
The next day Baba called out ‘Maria, kafe!’ and the day after that and the day after that. Every day, week in, week out, the clarion call of ‘Maria, kafe!’ resounded throughout the house. The novelty of making Baba’s kafe soon wore off and sullen resentment replaced my initial enthusiasm. Was I now destined to make my father’s coffee every afternoon? The short answer was yes.
For a year or so, I complied like a dutiful daughter until the day came when I didn’t want to make his coffee. I ignored the first ‘Maria, kafe!’ as I switched on my selective hearing which I occasionally used at the dinner table when it was my turn to clear the dishes. After a few minutes, I also ignored the second more insistent, ‘Maria, KAFE!’ Up until now I always responded after the second call. The third ‘MARIA, KAFE!’ had a dangerous undertone as if to say ‘Ignore me at your peril’.
I dragged my feet to the kitchen, seething with anger. Why did I always have to make the coffee? It wasn’t fair. As I banged the tin of coffee on the kitchen bench, Baba scowled. I reached into the cupboard for the jar of sugar and that’s when I saw it: Mama’s cooking salt in an almost identical jar.
A heaped teaspoon of salt followed the coffee into the pot and I stirred the mix with satisfaction. Placing the kafe in front of Baba, I hurried away to busy myself so I wouldn’t be looking directly at him when he took the first mouthful.
I reached into the cupboard for the jar of sugar and that’s when I saw it: Mama’s cooking salt in an almost identical jar.
‘Phtt!!’ he spluttered, spitting it out. ‘Ti eine afto?’ (What’s this?).
‘I don’t know what you mean Baba,’ I said, feigning innocence.
‘Ella etho and taste this,’ he commanded.
I took a mouthful of the vile brew and tried not to gag as I swallowed. I faked an incredulous look of surprise, ‘Oh Baba, I must’ve mixed up the salt and sugar.’ Baba stared at me with suspicion as I waited for the inevitable explosion. It never came. Instead, Baba ordered me to make him another coffee. ‘This time, make it right,’ he said, his voice edged with steel.
I scurried to the stove and made him another kafe without incident just as I did every day from then on until Baba put a premium on homework in high school and the pursuit of straight A’s instead of his coffee. But as I brewed the replacement, I felt secure in the knowledge that I had a choice: to obey or disobey. I now knew I could deviate from the norm and didn’t always have to be the good Greek girl. It was a choice I didn’t fully explore until a decade later when my rebellion took full flight above the sandstone buildings at Melbourne University.
This is an edited essay by Maria Katsonis. The full version of the essay, A Spoonful of Sugar (or not), can be found in her new book, Rebellious Daughters, co-edited with Lee Kofman. Maria will be appearing at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival 27-28 August.