Family is complex and so is belonging. Anthea Wilson explores her family tree and her place amongst the branches.
Visiting Grandma and Grandad’s house was always a chore. Maybe it was the hour long drive down to Wollongong, or maybe it was that I felt like I didn’t belong. My dad was adopted when he was a baby to my grandparents Bert and Joan. He is a true blue Aussie bloke that grew up in Wollongong, surf lifesaving on the weekend, wagging school and sneaking cigarettes with friends that later became my godparents. Mum, on the other hand, grew up with Greek immigrant parents. She is a first generation Greek Australian raised on traditional values and good olive oil. My mum lost her mum when she was 10. Her dad, my papou, remarried a woman named Kitsa, my yiayia, a few years later. Apart from my immediate family, the only blood relative I have is my papou, and he passed away when I was 12. This used to bother me growing up. I know my cultural heritage, Greek and whatever version of anglo my father is. What I was yet to understand was these “strangers” I call family.
I was very observant as a child. I remember going from room to room in my grandparents’ house counting how many photos I was in. I would search for my face in every photograph only to notice there weren’t as many photos of me as there were photos of my little brother and older cousins. It was clear to me who grandma’s favourites were and I guess I didn’t make the cut.
I remember calling grandma out on this. “Grandma, why don’t you have very many photos of me?” I asked. When talking about this memory with Dad he told me how caught out she felt. It wasn’t too long after demonstrating how good I am at counting how many photos I am in, new photos of me began to appear in the Wilson home. I still made sure to check, still not as many as my grandkid counterparts.
I always felt out of place with my dad’s side of the family. I wasn’t tall and slender like my cousins and I wasn’t the baby of the family like my brother. I felt like the chubby Greek black sheep of the family. Mum explained to me she felt the same way when she was engaged to my dad in the nineties. Mum and I overcompensate by wearing fabulous outfits to family gatherings, but we often still felt out of place and often overdressed. Just two short, curvaceous wog women in a family of white Australians. Grandad, however, always made me feel special. He would be the only one to compliment my outfit, every time.
Visiting Yiayia with Mum was a completely different experience. We would leave in the morning and drive all the way over to Roselands to pick up a seafood lunch. We would arrive at the small cluttered apartment and sit together at the little table in the middle of the lounge room and eat and laugh for hours. Unfortunately, I can’t speak Greek apart from a few phrases like ‘hi, hello, how are you, I’m good’, despite my best efforts at Greek school when I was little.
So I would sit there and listen to Mum and Yiayia converse in Greek, only picking up on what they were saying through few contextual clues. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying most of the time, I was included and engaged. Yiayia would reach across the table to hold my hand and tell me how much she loved me in broken English. My yiayia was a poet and philosopher. She would spend her time alone in the apartment writing, keeping her brain active and her imagination alive. She would present her new works to Mum to translate, so I could understand her wisdom. We would end each visit with a Greek coffee. Once the coffee was gone and the coffee grounds were left, we would swirl our espresso cups and tip them over. Yiayia would then read our fortunes in the cup.
As of 2022 I am grandparent-less. Even though three out of four grandparents weren’t blood, they were mine and they each loved me in their own way. A special moment for me was when Grandma came and visited me at my retail job selling handbags. She was the original shopgirl working for David Jones when my dad was growing up. I took Grandma around the store and helped her pick out a new handbag. For the rest of the night back at home she sat on the couch with her new handbag sitting right next to her. That’s when I knew that she did love me in her own funny way. Thinking back now as an adult, all the cakes, knitted socks and tapestries she made for me was her way of showing love. It wasn’t as obvious as Yiayia with her grand outbursts of love and affection. It was subtle and often overlooked.
Although my family tree is untraditional I have embraced this part of myself. Family isn’t always who you are related to, it is who is there to help you grow. I have experienced the pain of clearing out their homes and taking home with me a part of them through their belongings. My childhood bedroom is now filled with heirlooms ready and waiting for their next place in the Wilson family.