Growing up, my family visited my maternal grandparents every summer on the Gulf Coast, where I could always count on two things: The sweltering Alabama heat and a never-ending supply of family tales, as told by my grandmother.
She was a voracious storyteller, the kind that made stories come alive like movies, and I became completely enraptured from a young age. On those afternoons when it was too humid to do much of anything outdoors, we’d all sit around the kitchen table and have a leisurely lunch as my grandmother told us the stories of her life.
She was one of those women who was ahead of her time. She started a career at a time when most women were still staying home to raise families. As a small-town girl from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she shocked her parents by announcing that she was moving to Chicago to attend nursing school when she turned 18. Naturally, they were concerned and tried to talk her out of it, but she’d hear none of it. Her mind was made up and she braved the big city with a fierce determination. So off she went, without knowing anyone and not even knowing how to drive!
By the early ’40s, just before WWII, she was thriving in her studies and thoroughly enjoying her new-found life as a city girl when she met my grandfather. Their courtship was short (to hear my grandmother talk about it, I’m pretty sure they fell in love immediately), and they were engaged three months later. My grandfather left for the war shortly after, and nine months later, my aunt was born. It would be another two years until my grandfather came home and met his daughter for the first time. My grandmother once told me how nervous she was going to pick him up at the train station that day.
“Will I even recognize him?” she wondered. “Will we still have anything in common after all this time?”
Obviously, all her worrying was for nothing because they celebrated more than 50 happy years together, with three daughters and a beautiful retirement in the South.
When she died in 2002, I not only grieved her death but also the death of all those family stories. Without her to tell them, I wondered what would happen to them. But thankfully, my mom began carrying on the tradition a few years ago, only with a new, high-tech twist. For major holidays like birthdays and anniversaries, she sends around an email with a family story. It keeps these stories alive in a tangible way, and is a great way to spark conversation. As I get older, I’m starting to realize the value of keeping family histories alive and passing those stories from one generation to the next. There’s this instinctual need to know where you came from and how you became the person you are today. Plus, I can’t think of a better or more loving way to honor my grandmother, the original bearer of the family’s history.
Maybe her influence is even part of the reason I became a writer. Stories are powerful. Sharing who you are is powerful. Being brave enough to be vulnerable is powerful. My grandmother was all those things.
Hearing those stories as a kid, I appreciated them simply as a look into my grandmother’s life when she was young. But now, I can’t help but see the sneaky little tricks she pulled on us. She was telling amazing stories, sure, but more than that, she was sharing her wisdom and teaching little life lessons along the way. About finding out who you are. About running full-speed ahead after your passion. About living fearlessly. About falling in love and not looking back. It takes courage to do that, and I’m grateful every day for the courage my grandmother passed on to me. Be brave. Be you. And tell lots of stories.
The life of my grandmother, Anna
Read the Greek version of this story
Author: Joanne Adam
Storyteller: Anna Adam
Community Language School: Hellenic Orthodox Community of Bexley North and Districts
Main School: Kingsgrove Public School
My grandmother's memories of Greece.
Today I would like to talk to you about how my grandmother Anna came to live in Australia. My grandmother Anna is my maternal grandmother. My name is Joanna. I have the same name as my grandmother, because her name is actually Joanna, but she is known as Anna.
Life in Greece
Well, I would like to begin by telling you that my grandmother was born and lived in a village in Greece named Skopi, Tripoli. Back then it was a very small village with only a few houses. My great grandparents did not own a car. However they did own horses and donkeys. They would use them as the mode of transportation. They would also use the horses to help them plough the fields. Motor driven ploughs as we know them today, did not exist back then.
There was a lot of manual labour. My grandmother did not have a small backyard as we have nowadays. They had a reasonable sized farm with pigs, rabbits, goats, lambs and chickens. These animals were either bred to be eaten or to get milk from. They planted wheat and corn, once again so they could eat. You see, if they did not have a corner store, where they could get goods if they ran out?
My grandmother Ann only went to school up to the age of twelve years. The whole family including my grandmother had to help in the fields. Money was not plentiful. It was times of war and life was very difficult. They went to school in the morning. At lunchtime they went home for a couple of hours and then they returned to school till approximately 5.00pm. There was also school on Saturdays but this was only for half the day. My grandmother recalls all the children going to school on Sundays and then the teachers taking them to church.
My great grandparents would work in the fields all day and often come home later in the evening, well after the children. In this case it was up to the children to start dinner. They did not have the luxury of television or radio.
My grandmother was often asked to stay at home with her older brother and look after her grandmother who was sick, because her parents had to work in the fields. Because of this it was very difficult to get a proper education.
They would have special celebrations such as Easter, Christmas and her father's name day- they would celebrate this by having a get together with family and friends at home.
Because life was not great in Greece, when my grandmother was 19 years old, she decided to make a better life for herself in Australia. Her father pleaded with her not to go. He also told her that if she didn't like life in Australia, not to be afraid to return. This was an extremely sad moment for everyone. They did not know if they would ever see each other again or what sort of life my grandmother would have in Australia. My grandmother already had a couple of cousins living in Australia and decided to come and stay with them. In 1959 she travelled 28 days by ship to Australia. The journey was very tiring. The seas were very rough and there was a lot of seasickness.
First my grandmother lived in Redfern with her cousin. At the beginning she cried a lot because she was homesick and she found things to be much different in Australia. The buildings were different, houses were segregated by fences, there were footpaths, automobiles etc.
To us, these might seem as normal everyday things. We're used to seeing them everyday. But to someone who came from a different country and different lifestyle, it was a major culture shock. Also the cuisine that my grandmother was used to was totally different.
There was also a language barrier. My grandmother did not understand the English language, which made it hard for her to communicate with other people. Also the currency was different which took a lot of getting used to. They had to go to the store for food and other products. They could not get it from the farm, like they had been used to. There were many new and different things she had to get used to. Even though things were extremely different and she was homesick, she still didn't want to return home. The desire for a better life was enough incentive for her to stay in Australia.
Settling in Australia
Her cousin helped her to find her first job at an ETA factory. Back then all she had to do was to go around and ask if there was a job vacancy. Eventually she got married and settled down in Australia with her own family. Of course it was very sad that her parents could not be here to join in her happiness.
It took a while to adjust as to the weather patterns as well. In summer for example it would be rainy and cold, but in Greece if it was summer you knew that you would have nice sunny weather.
From memory, my grandmother remembers there only being three Greek Orthodox churches in Sydney.
Obviously life is better here now. She has settled in Australia, and has her own children and grandchildren. She feels at home here because she has spent 43 years of her life here as opposed to 19 years in Greece. Even though she feels at home in Australia, Greece is always in the back of her mind calling her to go back home. As much as she'd like to go and stay, it is not possible because her life is here now.
However, who knows, maybe one day, I will be lucky enough to visit Greece with my grandmother and get to see her beautiful homeland.