In 1979, when I was I was nine years old and living in Greece, life was pretty innocent. For me it was characterised by a love of family, the character Snoopy, the comic book Asterix and the TV show Charlie’s Angels, which I played out in the streets of my neighbourhood with my friends, recreating dramatic, thrilling and action-filled stories.
Way before they started popping up on Australian city corners, Greece’s main streets were dotted with large períptera, or kiosks/newsstands, every couple of blocks. They sold everything: newspapers, magazines, books, cigarettes, tobacco, lollies, drinks, ice-creams, postcards, toys, souvenirs and lots more. For me the drawcard was the selection of comics, especially my favourite: Asterix. I would look out for a new edition every month and take the opportunity to buy some chocolate or gum at the same time with my saved up pocket money. I couldn’t wait to read about Asterix’s latest adventures and laugh at his one-liners which I thought were hilarious.
Importantly, the local períptero also had a telephone that the peripterá (proprietor) would allow people to use as a public telephone for about 10 drachma. Getting a telephone installed in your home back then in Greece could take several years. If you didn’t have infinite patience you needed either a bit of extra money to help loosen the red tape or a personal contact in the OTE (Greece’s national telecommunications provider). Or both.
It was in 1979, standing near a períptero, that I first contemplated the idea that my parents would one day die. As I stood flicking through the comics, a man who looked about my parents’ age at the time, which I realise now would’ve been about 40 years old, asked if he could use the telephone. His call was short. His voice was solemn but not emotional. “Μítso”, he said, “Péthane i mána mou”.
Μἰτσο, πἐθανε η μἀνα μου.
Mitso, my mum has died.
That was more or less all he said, though if the conversation did last another minute or so I don’t remember. All I could hear were those words: my mum has died.
I remember distinctly feeling like my world had suddenly stopped as the words sunk in. All around me life was still spinning but my own inner world was perfectly still. I looked to the man’s face for some clue as to what he was feeling but there was no emotion there. His face was closed. Unreadable.
Immediately I understood the implications of this man’s phone call on my own life. This man had a mother. She had died. I have a mother. One day… One day a long way away in the future, I will have to make a phone call similar to this.
I looked for the man again, hoping to understand his experience better and through him gain some kind of insight into what my future held. I realise now that I had hoped to study him and learn how to deal with the situation, so I could be prepared for when it happened to me. But he had gone. And I knew then that I would have to figure it out – one day a long way away in the future – all on my own.