My parents, George and Helen

Kiama, NSW

The second eldest of Michael and Aspasia’s six children, my Father was born 1924 in the Paphos District of Cyprus. The island third largest in the Mediterranean (after Sicily and Sardinia) has been occupied by a number of major powers throughout history given its strategic location in the Middle East. At the time of George’s birth the island was under British administration and had been since 1878. The independence which came in 1960 with Cyprus’ admission into the British Commonwealth and the tragic events of 1974 (when the island was effectively partitioned into Greek south and Turkish north), were still very much in the future. My Father’s family background was humble. It was typical of the supportive and largely self-sufficient communities which lived in villages and toiled daily on their inherited parcels of agricultural land. My Grandfather after losing most of the family’s estate during the depression of the 1930’s, when large loans where defaulted on him, would eventually become the owner of the town coffee-shop, the kafeneion in Peyia. The old man never recovered from the loss of his “fields” and fell into a long depression from which he suffered for the remainder of his life. When I reflect on my Grandfather and on his turbulent history, I see Richard Harris in that superb Jim Sheridan film The Field (1990): the memorable story of “Bull” McCabe an old man of indomitable spirit fighting for his land. I have often wondered given my own battle with the “black dog” whether ‘Pappous’ descent into melancholia was triggered by his personal circumstances or whether the bad germ was there, already in the blood. Something else of interest to me that on both sides of my dad’s lineage were ancestors who had undertaken pilgrimages to Jerusalem. These intrepid pilgrims the hadjis as they came to be known in the Christian orthodox world (originally an Arabic term of respect for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca), were a source of great pride to their families.

After completing his secondary education at the Greek Gymnasium of Paphos in 1942, a notable achievement for those times, and then taking stints working on building sites and in bauxite mines, the hard-working George would afterwards volunteer with the BMA (British Military Administration) during WWII serving in the Dodecanese and in the Middle East. Afterwards at the conclusion of the war, he made submissions to enter the British police force. He was rejected on account of the indiscriminately applied height restrictions. Dad would half-joke that he was “tall enough to be killed in the service of the Commonwealth but too short to be given a job.” He would in due course arrive in Darwin, Australia, on board an old twin-engine cargo plane on the 28th of October in 1948. The dashing captain of that rickety plane, we were often told, was the fantastically named Captain Spearmint.

Though my Mother (nee Fotineas) was also brought up in a village, born in the Peloponnese, Greece, 1934, her lineage carries a little more intrigue, particularly on her paternal side. The Greek Orthodox priesthood is a dominant factor in her family. Great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all priest-confessors. Another priest, this time a maternal uncle a holder of doctorates in both Theology and Law, would for many years serve as one of the legal counsels to the former Archbishop of Athens and Greece, Seraphim. Much later, too, her only son would be ordained into the priesthood. I mentioned some ‘intrigue’ from Mother's paternal side. This has to do with the possibility that my grandfather’s forefathers belonged to the court of the last crowned Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI of the Palaiologos dynasty. Whatever the truth behind this long-held family tittle-tattle, it does make for some interesting tribe trivia. The young and by all accounts very beautiful girl, Eleni, who learnt to sew and to play the mandolin, was the third of nine children of Father Andreas and Presvytera Stavroula Fotineas. She would arrive upon the shores of her adopted country ten years after her future husband, on board the famous Toscana ocean liner on the 18th of January in 1958. The first port of entry on reaching Australia was Fremantle, Perth. I asked Mother to describe those initial impressions. "A great numbness," she said. "And then the realization that it was all about to begin." Her first job was as an ironing lady with Lawrence Dry Cleaners in Forest Lodge.

George and Helen were married on the 19th of July in 1959 in the church of the Dormition on Abercrombie Street, Redfern. It was also the church of my baptism.

­From each of my parents I inherited some evident traits, for instance my Father’s ‘never say die’ attitude, and my Mother’s strong inclination towards compassion. Other traits or characteristics were evidently learnt behaviours by way of observation. Much discussion has centred about this question: what part of us is inherited and what learnt? What is the composite of our psychological make-up? Philosophers, as well as geneticists, are fascinated by this question. Perhaps the two, that which is inherited and that which is learnt cannot be separated, like the two strands of DNA which are wound around each other into a double helix.