Sunday, 28 February 2010
Life for Charlie and Mary’s children would be better than it had been for their parents, better yet for their grandchildren and better beyond imagining for their great-grandchildren. Within four generations family fortunes would move from extreme poverty to comfortable middle and upper class lives.
Mary was probably illiterate, although she could write her name as evidenced by the shaky signature on her marriage certificate. Perhaps her mother or father had given her some basic education but it would not have been much. And Charlie may well have been only semi-literate, but their children would receive a basic education and, while most of their grandchildren would leave school by the age of 13, all of their great-grandchildren would would have the opportunity to complete primary and secondary education and many would go on to university.
Whether this would have happened if Charlie had remained living on Ithaca one cannot say with certainty, but it would have been unlikely and in the new land which Australia was becoming there were opportunities for the poorest to rise steadily and surely with each generation. This is always the hope of the immigrant and the poor but Australia has proved to be one place where it happens more often than not. But when Charlie and Mary had their children in the 1890’s there was still a long way to go in terms of helping the poor to rise above their situation and in providing a good education for all children.
However, the 1890’s were a pivotal point in Australia’s history and by the time of Federation in 1901, barely three years after Charlie and Mary were married, the new colony would be well on the way to earning its reputation as the ‘social laboratory of the world.’ After the rapid spread of trade unionism in the 1880’s the 1890’s saw unprecedented levels of industrial strife, which, when combined with drought and depression created a crucible in which social and political experimentation would foment.
Was this something Charlie and Mary talked about at night over dinner, or as they lay in bed listening to the whispers of the black night? Or were they too tired to talk after long days of physical labour spent running a shop, running a home and running a family? Given the ‘rebellious’ elements which seem to trail down through the family I like to think that they did talk about what was at work in their world and what sort of future their children would have.
And there were changes at work, changes which would lay the foundation of a brighter future for Charlie Ross’s children and their descendants. One of the most important changes was a growing commitment to education. Perhaps the convict past of the new colony pushed people to think differently. South Australia was in fact one of the few States which did not have a convict past but had been founded with free settlers. However, the attitudes of South Australians would have been affected by the attitudes of Australians in general. As early as the 1830’s there was a growing belief that crime was the result of ignorance and ignorance was the result of a lack of education. Therefore, education would decrease crime and help the penal colony of Australia become an organised and law-abiding society. This society would be based upon the existing British system but would be an improved version, it was believed. Governments were therefore committed to setting up schools so that children could be taught not only the three R’s but to be moral, law-abiding citizens.
Interestingly, having begun as a penal colony, Australians have evolved to become one of the most regulated and law-abiding of societies. But balance is created by the larrikin streak which runs through the nation’s soul and the belief that ‘Jack is as good as his master.’ Australians are more than happy to abide by the rules, if they think that they are fair. If it isn’t fair they won’t do it. Egalitarianism is still a powerful force in the Australian psyche, forged perhaps as it was in the pitiful circumstances of those hapless prisoners who first brought the nation to birth and the struggle which was required to succeed in a land so alien to those from which they had come.
There were of course those who opposed universal education, arguing that a blacksmith’s child or a farmer’s child .... or no doubt a fishmonger’s child, did not need an education to follow in their father’s footsteps. Luckily for the Ross children and for Australia as a whole, common sense prevailed and the government poured money into education to pay teachers, erect and fit out schoolhouses and provide children with textbooks. There were of course church-run schools but it was the government education system, both at State and later Federal level, which ensured that the great majority of Australian children could read, write and do their sums.
One of the strengths of the Australian system, was and remains, the universal curricula and guidelines which the government laid down. Whether it was a tiny, one-room building in the bush with less than 20 students, or a big city school with classrooms holding dozens of students, the curriculum and the rules were the same for all.
Every child, regardless of gender, received instruction in basic subjects. Girls spent an hour a day at least learning to knit, sew and darn while the boys learned geography and arithmetic. Charlie and Mary’s daughter, Georgina and Anastasia would not get as good an education as her brothers, but she would get an education.
Each day would begin with an inspection to ascertain that face and hands were clean, hair was combed and clothes were neat. Singing was also a requirement, as were lessons in the need to be organised, punctual, polite and clean. Discipline was strict because it was believed that this taught children order. No doubt it does. There were rules as to how one entered a room, how one sat down, bowed to a teacher, posture for reading, writing and holding pens.
Most of the learning was by rote with tables, dates, cities and poems memorised by repetition. To be honest, it was a lot like this when I went to primary school in the mid fifties and changes only began to happen in the following decades. And the records show that the system remained basically unchanged for more than half a century beyond slight changes to how long was spent at primary school and how long was spent at high school. Sitting on hard wooden seats which grew sweat-slippery in the heat and writing with pen and ink, the metal nibs cutting into grasping fingers, staining the skin blue, is a memory I am sure my grandparents and parents could share with me. We may well have had more and better textbooks but some things had not changed much.
But from the 50’s on, change seemed to be a constant. Some of the changes were positive and some were not. I doubt there are many under the age of 50 who can calculate in their heads. These days, if a calculator is not to hand, young people will count on their fingers. And I doubt that few if any of them would know a poem off by heart. There is a lot to be said for rote learning and recent research shows that it is invaluable in helping children to create more and better synaptic connections in the brain. Rote learning has been around for millennia so it is hardly surprising that it should be more beneficial than was appreciated by those who sought to revolutionise education in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps it will return, as soon as the education system decides that the evidence in its favour is too strong to ignore.
There is no doubt though that attitudes toward children generally changed for the better between 1890 and 1960. When the Ross children went to school there was a belief that play was character building .... but only certain kinds of play. Running, jumping and shouting would not assist self-discipline and obedience, it was reasoned. Cricket was approved, as was rounders, but marbles was frowned upon. I can’t see why marbles were frowned upon. It’s a game which was always classed as a ‘boy activity’ even though girls loved it as well, but it is quite an organised, reflective and focussed game. Although it did get noisy when someone made a great hit! And given that marbles were often swapped, bought or bartered it probably led to arguments and fights.
When a child reached the age of 13 they could apply to become a pupil teacher and begin training to become a teacher. But this was an option open to only a few, and I doubt any if them were the Ross children, because most families needed the money their children could earn as soon possible. This was common even in the 1930’s when my parents completed primary school. Both left at the age of 12 - my mother to train as a sewing machinist and my father as a carpenter.
An update note from my brother Ken says that dad did not start his apprenticeship when he left school, but after he left the army. Family memories recall Sydney Charles Ross as a ‘bit of a lad’ who spent a lot of time leaning on lamp posts smoking cigarettes. He lied about his age and joined the army when he was 17, serving in the jungles of the Philippines as a dispatch rider. I’m not sure he ever recovered from his war experiences but there are plenty of men who were older than 17 who didn’t either. He did his carpentry apprenticeship post-war at the old School of Mines in Adelaide. His Army discharge papers have him completing Grade Seven at Parkside Primary School in 1938 when he was thirteen years old.
Further education was for the few who could afford to support their children through advanced education and who could afford to pay the fees if they opted to go to university. It was not until 1974, too late for me, that the then Prime Minister of Australia abolished university fees and made further education available to everyone, regardless of their circumstances. University education is no longer free in Australia but it is still one of the most economical and accessible in the developed world.
Education was compulsory by the time Charlie and Mary’s children went to school but it was difficult to enforce. Families were large and mothers often needed the help of their older daughters if they were to manage and sons were often much-needed backup for fathers who were more likely to be working for themselves, as Charlie was. Absenteeism was high and many children got as little as three or four years schooling. It was better than nothing but hardly enough. And for most it would only be to primary school level. The first free High School in South Australia, Adelaide High School, would not be established until 1908. By the time regional high schools were established in the Mid-North, Charlie and Mary’s children were well and truly in the workforce.
I don’t know how much of an education Charles Vangelios or his siblings got but my grandfather went on to become a stone-mason/plasterer. It is likely that he was apprenticed at an early age. After Charlie’s early death in 1907 Mary would have needed the financial support of her children if the family was to survive. The eldest, Constantinus, known as Jack, was 17 and no doubt at work, as would have been my fifteen-year old grandfather, Charles Vangelios. Thirteen-year-old Georgina Anastasia would also have completed basic schooling and would have been helping her mother and possibly working as a servant or helping her father in the shop. Ten year old Chrysanthous Christie and six-year old Spiros Andrew would still have been at school. Chrysanthous, or Christie may have completed another year or two of schooling, but no more. Spiros went on to join the South Australian police force and rose to superintendant level so there is a good chance that he had a better education than the rest.
But, however limited it may have been, Mary’s children would have had an education of which she could only have dreamed. That may have been the case for Charlie Ross as well, or it may not. I have yet to find out enough about his past to know if he was illiterate, semi-literate or educated reasonably well for a young man born on Ithaca in the mid 19th Century.
If he was a Rossolimo, then he was a member of a family which boasted wealthy shipowners. His uncle’s ship may well have been owned by his uncle instead of a ship on which his uncle served. These are the questions which need to be answered before I have any hope of really ‘finding Charlie Ross.’
Saturday, 27 February 2010
Just before Charlie and Mary were married South Australia celebrated its golden jubilee, but, by 1890 the State had experienced several years of economic depression and the general mood was gloomy. There was some optimism because of the rich, new silver-lead mines at Broken Hill but that was far to the east of Gladstone and just over the border in New South Wales.
There had been a surge of settlement into the northern wheat-lands where Gladstone was situated, in the 1870’s but it had been halted by three years of severe drought during 1880-1882. Good seasons had returned in the middle of the 1880’s but climatic uncertainty was recognised as part and parcel of rural life. These days we call climatic uncertainty global warming. For the early settlers it was just fate, destiny and life. However, when rural life was struggling, so were the towns.
The drought had also brought a stop to the practice of selling Crown Lands which had provided funds for building the railways. What made it all much worse is that along with climatic uncertainty there was a growing recognition that soil exhaustion was a reality. Average wheat yields had moved down and down from 0.39 tonnes per hectare in the early 1870’s to 0.28 tonnes by the early 1890’s and this would impact upon Charlie’s customers. Wheat yields would not begin to climb again until 1905, just two years before Charlie’s death.
South Australia’s Goyder Line would become a famous reminder of the need to respect Mother Nature. During the worst of the drought in the mid 1860’s, the surveyor-general, George Woodroffe Goyder went north to investigate the complaints of pastoralists and to re-assess their properties. He travelled nearly 5,000km on horseback, marking as he did the line of drought, which became known as Goyder’s Line of Rainfall. His ‘line’ indicated the limit of rainfall, which, not surprisingly, co-incided with the southern boundary of the saltbush country. He marked areas of reliable and unreliable rainfall and distinguished those suitable for agriculture and those which would only be fit for pastoral use.
Not everyone agreed with him however and when conditions improved in the early 1870’s the farmers crept north once more. No doubt such risks were taken because farmers were as desperate as they were optimistic. Within ten years however poor seasons proved Goyder to be right and farmers packed their bags and moved back south of the Line. The unreliable lands north of Goyder’s line sprawl toward the horizon in a roll of scrub, dotted with the mast-like shapes of old palm trees which tower above the shadowed and crumbling ruins of stone huts. There is an acquiescent beauty in these brown-stone remains as they slowly fold themselves back into the earth. So many dreams and hopes, so much sweat , so many tears and so much disappointment weave their way through the images which these remains evoke. Life was hard enough in such times when one succeeded; crushing in the face of failure. Modern farming methods have allowed farmers to move into the area once again but it remains, as ever, unpredictable.
From the very first days of settlement the fragile land and fickle rainfall pushed the people of South Australia to be innovative. Time and effort went into developing new technologies to clear the mallee scrublands, experiment with superphosphate on wheat crops and to develop systems of fallowing and dry farming. SA is still one of the world leaders in dry-land farming methods and advises on it around the world.
While times were hard and people were required to be resilient, South Australia offered benefits which many other places did not have. Areas which were settled were relatively compact in a geographic sense in a way which they often were not in other States. Even more important, the government had been active in terms of developing communications and services for most of the State’s population. Some 2700 kilometres of railway line had been built at a cost of £10 million and there were 3220 kilometres of macadamised roads. Few farms were more than a day’s return-dray ride from a railway siding or coastal jetty. For every 1000 people, South Australia had 7.2 kilometres of railway opened, compared with the 3.2 kilometres of railway per 1000 people in Victoria and New South Wales.
All of this made it easier for Charlie Ross to set up and maintain his fishmonger’s business in Gladstone. He did not even have to drive to the railway station but could walk across the road to catch the train to Port Pirie. And in 1892 Port Pirie was the largest centre outside of Adelaide, boasting a population of some 4,000 people. Port Pirie, where I would live for four years in the early 70’s, was, in Charlie Ross’s day, a boom town operating as a wheat port and smelting centre for the silver-lead mines at Broken Hill. By the time I arrived there it was less of a boom town but the Smelters were still active.
While SA may have been the colony with the least timber resources it also became the State which pioneered forestry in Australia. The Act of 1873 , passed when Mary Atkins was growing up in the Wirrabarra Forest, granted landowners a tree planting subsidy. More important was the declaration of Forest Reserves of which there were 91,000 hectares by 1890, with 4000 hectares enclosed for forest planting in several districts, especially in the southern Flinders Ranges east of Port Pirie, where lay the town of Gladstone.
By 1890, when Charlie Ross was getting his family and his business underway, there were also some 9,000 kilometres of telegraph line in South Australia, with 220 stations, including the international link to Darwin via Alice Springs. Perhaps Charlie had read the ‘signs’ of prosperity and progress when he first visited the new colony, or perhaps he had heard stories, back home on Ithaca, of how well a man could do in the great Southern Land.
No other colony depended as much on coastal shipping for transporting farm produce as did Charlie’s new home. It was the railway system which connected Charlie and all South Australians with the rest of the country and the world. Looking back some 120 or more years ago, life seems primitive but Australia and the world were upon the brink of a century of development which would dramatically change the way people lived and worked.
Thursday, 25 February 2010
My first mistake when trying out the cheese biscuit recipe was to ‘not follow my instincts,’ and my second mistake was to ‘not follow my instincts.’
It seemed like an awful lot of butter, 500grams, or a pound in Aunty Teeny’s day, for three cups of flour but some recipes do have a lot of butter and I bake a lot and thought it might be right .... but my instincts said it was probably not right. Even using a food processor, getting that much cold butter into so little flour was a challenge. My great-aunt would not have had a food processor but would have worked the fat and flour together by hand.... perhaps that was the problem. Or perhaps not. One egg did not help and the little bit of water probably ended up a bit more than a little, but not much and still the struggle. The Magimix gave up and came to a choking halt leaving me with a creamy mass or is that mess of flour, cheese and butter .... some still in chunk form. The Magimix did recover but I know how it felt.
There was no choice but to scrape it all out onto the counter and work in enough flour to make it manageable. My third mistake was putting the bag of flour back in its tin. With my hands caked with creamy dough which refused to budge, I knew that more flour was needed. The next mistake, probably out of pure pigheadedness, was to refuse to wash the massive globs of dough off my hands before picking up the flour tin. End result, dough spread all over flour tin and bag and levels of frustration shrieking that the whole thing should be thrown in the bin.
But it smelled good ...shades of the past, it really did smell like Aunty Teeny’s biscuits. And I was not prepared to give up although I do confess that I threw the flour tin into the sink in frustration. Having finally got a reasonable dough which might work, although given that my egg ratio is now minimal they may not, I patted it into a round and put it in the fridge to firm up. I probably have enough for three thousand cheese biscuits by the look of it and shall roll out a small portion and ‘test’ the results. In the meantime I shall write to my cousin for a check on ingredient quantities and trawl the net for cheese biscuits.
Trawling the net for cheese biscuit recipes was not as simple as it might be. Unless the search is limited to Australia one ends up with heaps of recipes for American biscuits which are of course scones. I did surrender at one point and typed crackers but it did not seem to improve the odds. Most recipes seem to use plain flour. Perhaps Aunty Teeny mistakenly used self raising flour and ended up with her unique cheese biscuits. I did find one recipe which sounds similar in terms of ingredients and by the look of it I think my butter quotient was way overboard. But then I knew that and just decided to ignore what I knew. Sigh.
Anyway, the biscuits went into the oven and no, they did not puff up as they are meant to do but they did emerge as very tasty cheese squares. They taste great but they are not right. I ended up with something more like pastry than a biscuit and that may well be where the remaining four wads of dough end up. It is sooooooooooooooo annoying but no doubt character building. And who knows, I may find myself with an excellent and to be repeated recipe for cheese pastry. I am thinking it would be nice as the base for a quiche.
And as for the biscuits, I will not give in. I am determined to get this recipe right and make the biscuits as I remember them.
NB: Note to Self – always trust your instincts!
Monday, 22 February 2010
I have my cheese biscuit recipe but of course there is as much chance they are English as Greek. Not that it matters. These are the biscuits which Charlie and Mary's daughter, Georgina Anastasia, my Great-Aunt Teeny, used to make and they were delicious smothered in butter. Well, they were delicious even when they were not smothered in butter, rich as they were with cheese and butter and tangy with cayenne pepper. There was a time when people were simply grateful to have butter, as opposed to agonising about eating it. Not that I ever agonise. I am absolutely convinced that butter is good for you. Everything in moderation and if you enjoy it then it has to be good for you.
Auntie Teeny’s Cheese Biscuits need three cups of self raising flour; one teaspoon of salt; quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper; 500grams of cold butter; four cups of grated cheese ( I am assuming tasty cheese or maybe a mix of tasty and parmesan); one egg and a little water. All of this is mixed together into a dough and then rolled out thinly and cut into shapes. My aunt made them as diamonds so when I buy my cheese I shall do the same. I have the Parmesan but we don’t generally eat sharp hard cheeses and that is what I suspect the recipe needs. Bake at 180 C for ten to fifteen minutes. Remove from oven and put small knife slits in the top ... with all that self raising flour they puff up .... and return to the oven for a few minutes to crisp. Do not allow to brown. Biscuits can be re-crisped in the often if they soften during storage.
I have yet to put the recipe to the test but have high hopes. My cousin Barb, Teeny's grand-daughter, has come up with the recipe. I have so often thought of these biscuits and have no idea why it has taken me more than 40 years to chase up the recipe. If nothing else, this makes the journey to find Charlie Ross worthwhile. I can only hope that I can make them as well as my aunt did and that, so many years on, they taste as good as I remember.
Memory can be a moveable feast and less reliable than we think although Proust would not agree with that, having written into fame of his transportation back through time and feeling with one bite of a madeleine dipped in tea. Or was it coffee? It probably does not matter because all that matters is the memories evoked by the taste.
We spent a lot of time with my Aunt Teeny when I was a child. She lived in Hamley Bridge, a small town, situated a couple of hours to the north of Adelaide in the State’s famed wine region, the Clare Valley. It was a long drive to Hamley Bridge in the 1960’s but we drove up regularly and usually stayed overnight. The white-dirt roads in high summer would almost move in the heat, so powerful was the reflected light. As children we wandered far and wide around the town and along the river which meandered beside it, with our cousins, Aileen (Barbara) and Wayne.
The town is draped across a pretty valley between the rivers Gilbert and Light. It was and is, quite literally a town of bridges. It was named by the government of the day, after the Acting Governor Colonel Francis Hamley, whose wife laid the foundation stone of the River Light Railway Bridge on July 25, 1868. Jacarandas were planted along the main street in remembrance of those who fought for their country and they blossom in an exuberant riot of colour. I don’t remember them from my childhood but I suspect my cousin and I were more interested in ice-creams and local boys than scenery.
A railway station was established in 1880 and is now a private residence. It and the Catholic church stand as examples of some of the finest architecture of the era. I do remember being struck by the beauty of some of the buildings, even at such a young age.
The cottage where my aunt lived was tiny, as such cottates are. How she managed to produce the trays of crisp, cheese biscuits and mountains of perfumed marmalade cakes in the tiny kitchen, crammed into a lean-to, never ceased to amaze me. There was barely room to get past the small table on which she worked, to open the oven door. In essence it was a four-room cottage with a lean-to kitchen and a corrugated iron extension built onto the back which housed the laundry and the toilet.
The dining room off the kitchen had a big table pushed up against the old fireplace with barely enough room for chairs around it. But we crammed in and we fitted... just. A miniscule sleep-out, with louvre windows on two sides, had been built on one side of the tiny front verandah and this was my cousin Wayne’s room. The single bed pretty much took up most of the space and what remained was fought over by Wayne and a family of enormous huntsman spiders. He didn’t seem to mind, but the thought of them crawling all over him as he slept always made me shudder.
Wayne always gave up his bed to my father when we stayed. My father did not seem to mind the spiders either. My mother shared the double bed with my aunt while I had the spare bed in Aileen’s room and my little brother, hardly more than a toddler, slept with one of us or with my mother. It was a case of sleep where you can for my two brothers, Wayne and Ken and cousin Wayne, whose first name was Adrian but who was always known by his second name, as with his twin sister, Aileen. The boys usually made up beds on the floor of the tiny sitting room although sometimes they begged to be allowed to sleep on the verandah which was barely a spit from the picket fence and the road. Space may have been in short supply but fun and laughter were not. In that tiny house, with all of us tucked into something approximating a bed and the moon shining on the dry, ashen roads, we would talk and joke and laugh until we fell asleep. We were fed, we were warm and we were together and nothing else mattered.
It was what life was like for many if not most people until the 1950’s. Even my grandparents, Charles Vangelios and Hilda Rose had brought up a family of four children in a cottage not much bigger than the one in Hamley Bridge. With modern homes we have much more space and much more privacy but perhaps we have much less connection. I doubt though, that anyone could not argue that living conditions have improved for the better in the main. One tiny bathroom for five, six or seven people was the norm .... as was the outside toilet ... until the 1950’s. Although I grew up in a house where seven people shared one small bathroom, fitted with a tiny gas hot water system which roared when lit with a match. It terrified me every time I did it.
Like my grandparents and my aunt we also had only lino on the floor and one source of heating from a small fire-place in the sitting room. But we did have an inside toilet! The strongest memory of childhood winters is the cold, acrid smell of ash in the morning and bare feet on freezing floors. It was always my job to clean the fireplace. The consolation was that before long, like phoenix rising from the ashes, the warm, embracing flames would return. I am still more than happy to play cinderella and sweep the ash each morning in order to have the beauty and pleasure of an open fire. There is a meditative dance to the flames and a soothing whisper in the spit and crack of burning logs which never ceases to delight.
To my mind, cleaning the fireplace is one of the few jobs from the past which is worth the effort. On most other counts life has improved dramatically. And no doubt it had improved dramatically for many even when I was growing up but change comes much more slowly for the poorer classes. We did not have a washing machine until the late 1950’s. Even with four children and my grandmother to care for, my mother had no choice but to wash by hand. Every Monday the gas copper in the lean-to laundry would be fired up. I will say, a copper was a very useful thing. It was perfect for boiling water into which chickens (or swans) could be dropped to be more easily de-feathered. Not that we did this often but I bet Charlie and Mary did.
By the time I was growing up coppers were pretty much for washing only. Sheets and towels would boil in the soapy water and smaller or dirtier things would be rubbed against a washboard , with corrugations made of either timber or a glass. Long lengths, or bricks of yellow Velvet soap would be cut with a knife and broken to use on the clothes. The washing would be rinsed a number of times in the concrete troughs, including a ‘blue’ rinse for the whites. Bluo it was called and you can still buy it today, but in liquid form. Does anyone use it? The small blue squares were fascinating to hold and to smell although poisonous I was often told. Dropped into the water they would dissolve in billows of almost violet colour. Standing on a stool I would help my mother to wash by ‘stirring’ the clothes with a long, wooden stick. And then she would wind them slowly through a mangle which screwed onto the.side of a trough... turning the handle around and around as the washing was fed through and most of the water pressed away. And then it would all be hauled outside in a cane basket and pegged onto the clothesline which my father had strung across the back yard on high, supporting, wooden sticks. It was all very hard work. No wonder she was exhausted in body as well as mind.
In many ways washday, usually on a Monday with Sunday’s leftover roast for tea, would not have been so different to my great-grandparents’ experiences except that the copper would have been wood-fired and they may not have had Bluo or Velvet Soap. The mangle was invented in 1850 but of course my great-grandparents would have had to be able to afford to buy one. There may have been similarities in my childhood but there is no doubt that life in general was certainly less of a struggle. Georgina Anastasia’s life had always been a struggle but in 1960, when she was 65, it became even harder. She had been widowed some eight years earlier and was never robust, but she was adamant that she would care for her grandchildren, Aileen and Wayne, who were eleven when their mother Betty Jean was killed in a car accident. It was the third daughter that she had lost. In the diphtheria epidemic of 1924 -25 she buried two little girls a few months apart. Three-year-old Mary Doreen died in November, 1924 and the baby, Barbara (after whom my cousin was named), died on New Years Day, 1925. Diptheria epidemics were common until vaccinations were developed. In fact my mother nearly died of diphtheria as a very young child. Such losses, which are so uncommon today, must have been heart-breakingly common in times past.
My great-aunt would have washed those tiny, lifeless bodies herself and laid them out on the dining table ready for their coffins. I do not know if it was the same table at which we ate but it may well have been. The dining room was a windowless, dark alcove off the kitchen and funereal enough without such tasks. But it would have been the only large, flat surface. Did Mary come down from Gladstone to help her? I am sure that she did. Such things were women’s work and she had no sister. Her brothers by this time had moved either to Adelaide or to Murray Bridge although the women in her husband Eli’s Hamley Bridge family, the Hillards, may well have arrived with tears and hugs and helping hands.
I have no idea how many tears she must have shed in the days, months and years after she kissed those smooth, cold little faces for the last time, but cry she would have done. How could one not? Did her faith give her comfort? I like to think it did. She often went to church when I knew her and urged her resisting grandchildren to go too. And she would have been busy with her remaining children and the demanding drudgery of life for the working classes in the early part of the 20th century.
Georgina Anastasia died at the age of 71, in 1966 and is buried in Gladstone Cemetery, not far from her parents, her husband and her three daughters.
Sunday, 21 February 2010
In that way of ancestry research I have just had an email which might prove invaluable or might prove useless. One never knows. When I wrote away for the Ithacan cookbook I was asked by Kristalenia who replied to my query, if I had Ithacan links and so I gave her a brief outline. I have just had an email from the President of the Ithacan Historical Society, Lula Black, who is also a member of the Odysseus Editorial committee which produces a newspaper ( four issues per year) for the Ithacan Philanthropic Society. She has asked if I would like her to publish my appeal in the historical page of the newspaper and yes, I would! The newspaper goes to all who are of Ithacan origin or who have an affinity with Ithaca and may well produce a vital ‘clue’ , or not, as the case may be. But it is certainly worth a try.
Lula said she had sent a copy of my email onto a friend she knows whose mother is a Rossilimos. I pointed out that I am not sure as yet that this was the original surname but given the Ros in Greek on Charlie’s marriage certificate and the surname options available in Ithaca, it is my best guess yet.
His father’s name of Christie recorded on the certificate and the names he gave his children: Constantinus, Vangaleos (or Vangelios), Chrysanthous, Christus, Anastasia and Spiros are the only things which might help to give substance to any links.
I don’t know why it did not occur to me before to place an appeal in Ithacan or Greek newspapers but it is certainly a good idea.
Fingers and toes are crossed. I like to think that Charlie Ross is helping me across time and if there are links to be found they will be found.
Friday, 19 February 2010
I do possess one Greek cookbook because, as a food writer in the past I often reviewed cookbooks and this one came my way. I haven’t used it much. My preference in cooking is for French and Italian ... Greek cuisine is really very simple and therefore, to me, less interesting.
However, as part of the journey of discovery of family and Self, I have decided that I need to explore Greek cookery in general and Ithacan cookery in particular. I have ordered a cookbook produced by the Ithacan Philanthropic Society and when it arrives, I shall begin to cook my way through it.
I will be curious to see if there are any triangular shaped cheese biscuits in it. My Great-aunt Teeny made these every time we went to stay with her in Hamley Bridge, a small town nestled on the sprawling wheat plains to the north of Adelaide. It is not far from Gladstone where she grew up. These biscuits were delicious smothered in butter and I have often thought about them and never found a recipe which felt as if it might be the right one. I have asked a cousin, Barbara, who is Teeny’s grand-daughter if she or her sister Jenny might have the recipe.
Cooking dishes, which may have been my great-grandfather’s favourites will bring him closer to me in one sense at least. Then again, his favourite meal may have been fish and chips! It is highly unlikely that Mary, given the poverty and isolation of her circumstances while growing up, would have had much in the way of cooking skills. But who knows? My mother’s cooking skills were basic Anglo .... you boil and bake everything for long enough to ensure it is really, truly dead, and has no taste ... and you keep to meat, spuds and basic veg. Salad when I was growing up was iceberg served alongside sliced tomato, cucumber and onion drowning in sugar and vinegar. It didn’t taste too bad actually but I would never wish to eat it again. My mother only ever baked one thing .... Queen Cakes. These were small, plain cakes in patty pans which she made for us children. Admittedly my parents were always short of money and by the end of the week, when payday came around, there was not much left. We ate a lot of bread, including that English staple (which I loved) dripping spread on bread with salt and pepper.
No wonder my father had to sneak his exotics into the kitchen and cook them for himself. We would watch in fascination, although always refused a taste, when he grilled his eggplant or zucchini and snacked on smelly cheeses and olives from the fridge. I have no idea why we were not tempted until we grew up but perhaps by then we had all developed a greater interest in food and cooking. In fact, from the age of 11 when my mother took sick I did most of the cooking .... and loved it. But the food gene was in there for all of us kids and I like to think it came down from the Greek side.
Charlie may well have been a keen cook himself given how old he was when he got married. Did he make trahanas, a grain-based dairy soup; skordalia, a potato-based appetiser which is now so common in our supermarkets, or pasteli, a sesame seed and honey sweet? All of these things date back to ancient Greece. But Greece was a melting pot and some of the dishes which most of us recognise have been taken from elsewhere: moussaka, which I have often made and love, is originally Arabic; keftethes or meatballs, are Persian (Iranian); Pastitsio and makaronia or baked macaroni are Italian and baklavas, the honey-rich filo sweet known as yuvarlakia, are Turkish and much, much too sweet for my taste.
The Greek diet was typically Mediterranean. The ingredients commonly used were and are, olive oil, grains and bread, wine, yogurt, cheeses, fresh vegetables, fish and meats including chicken and rabbit. I don’t know if Charlie went out hunting for rabbits but I know his son and grandson did. My father supplemented our diet for a long time with rabbits. He would go out hunting rabbits with his father and brother, Laurie Simper. Laurie was Charles Vangelios’s step-son and was only small when his mother married ‘Nigger Ross’ after the death of her first husband. No doubt the nickname came from a Greek swarthiness and in this day and age would make the politically correct choke, but it would have been seen as a joke by my grandfather. They would take rifles, traps and ferrets out into the bush when they went rabbiting. The traps, enormous steel contraptions, always clanged horribly as Dad carried them to the car. They were also thick with rust. And, on the teeth, there would be small shreds of brown and white fur... vestiges of death. The ferrets lived in a cage in our back yard and had small, sharp teeth. They smelled of sour milk and I was frightened of them and hated taking my turn to clean out their cages and feed them the bread soaked in milk which seemed to be their staple.
Sometimes my father came home with a kangaroo and kangaroo tail soup was often on the table. The crazy thing was, in those days, that the rest of the animal was seen as being only fit for the dogs. These days kangaroo meat is considered a delicacy. It is very low in fat and absolutely delicious. But, for my father, the carcase was a way of bringing in some more money and we got to eat the tail as a treat.
I suspect if my father and grandfather had the skills and passion for hunting, that so did Charlie Ross. It seemed second nature to his sons and grandons. He may have had more rabbit and kangaroo on his table than chicken or beef. And, it may well have been liberally sprinkled and cooked with olives, lemons, basic, garlic, oregano and thyme .... in the Greek way. Or it may have been boiled or baked into submission in the Anglo way! Or perhaps a bit of both. We always had our rabbits roasted and when this was done properly the meat was moist and delicious; when it was done badly the meat was dry and thready.
It seems the Greek way was to use the meal table for sharing of food and sharing of conversation. I would have thought this was the sensible and civilized way. My father had inherited other ideas. Whether they came from his mother’s Scottish-Calvinist maternal side or her English-Jewish paternal side, I do not know. I am tempted to suspect it was the Scots who were to blame. Meals, as far as my father was concerned, were about eating quietly and clearing the plate. Talking was allowed sometimes but rarely encouraged. Not clearing the plate was never an option, no matter how much you hated what was on it. This attitude may well have come through generations of poverty and been fuelled by Calvinistic and Jewish economy, but it made the meal table very un-Greek indeed. More than one dinner ended up in a welter of paternal rage, maternal placating and copious childish tears.
Perhaps because of our experience, or our genes, or both, the meal tables of Charlie and Mary Ross’s great-grandchildren, at least in our family, have been very, very different .... and very, very ‘Greek.’ Lots of food, lots of laughter, lots of conversation .... in fact, a great deal of conversation and lots of jokes. The ‘goat’ would be happy I am sure.
Beyond Moussaka my Greek cuisine exploits have really been limited to Greek salad. I love olives, as do all of the siblings as well as my children and grandchildren. Then again, these days in Australia, everyone eats olives. And they eat Feta, by the bucketload. Supermarkets are awash with dozens of varieties of Feta, many if not most of them made in Australia. How far we have come. In terms of food Charlie Ross would have been much more at home in modern-day Australia than he was in his own time.
Within what we call modern Australian cuisine it is common to see Meze, appetisers served with pita bread. Things like deep fried zucchini, eggplant and peppers; dolmades- stuffed vine leaves; marides tiganites, deep-fried whitebait (although this is also very English and Belgian); saganaki, fried cheese; tyorpita, baked filo pastry stuffed with cheese; tzatziki – yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip. Tzatsiki is pretty much a staple in most fridges these days and my two grandsons have been eating it and loving it since they were babies. I did make spanakopita many years ago when my flatmate, Maureen, gave me the recipe after cooking it for her boyfriend Kon. I also made a lot of taramosalata in my time without registering it was Greek. This is a dip made of fish roe mixed with breadcrumbs. My recipe used cream cheese but traditionally it would be mixed with boiled potatoes.
Greek soups are also more common in restaurants these days no doubt because of their healthy simplicity. Trahana is a wheat-based dairy soup like porridges; Fakes is lentil soup and Fasolada is a very traditional soup made of beans, tomatoes, carrot, celery, onions, garlic and of course, olive oil. Soup would have been ideal for Charlie’s growing family because it is cheap and easy to make and goes a long way. Did they have Revithia, chickpea soup; or soupa avgolemono, chicken, meat, fish or vegetable broth thickened with eggs, lemon juice and rice? They must have kept chickens. Everyone kept chickens in the early days. And they probably had a lemon tree. Lemons grow brilliantly in South Australia’s meditteranean climate, as do olive trees. The latter in fact grow like ‘weeds’ and some short-sighted councils have defined them as such. They line the roads in some parts of the State, having seeded themselves from the earliest times.
Lamb offal and tripe are also popular in Greece and may well have been on the menu, but mostly I suspect there was a bit of fish and a lot of rabbit and kangaroo, supplemented with grains and vegetables which Mary probably grew in the garden. There would have been a flour mill in Gladstone or at least in a nearby town and she would have made her own bread. They would have needed a high level of self-sufficiency. But then, however hard life may have been for Mary it could not have been harder than her childhood.
Then again, perhaps tripe was on the menu at Port Street. We certainly ate quite a bit of it as kids. Dad’s special recipe was Tripe in Batter. It may sound odd but it actually tasted quite nice. Especially, with plenty of salt and pepper. The tripe was bland, certainly, but Dad knew how to cook it so it was tender. And so do I. The key is to put it in a big pot and cover it with cold water. Bring it to the boil and then tip off the water and then cover it with fresh water and cook slowly until it is tender. Maybe Charlie and Mary fed battered tripe to their children. It would certainly have been cheaper than fish and may have reminded Charlie a little ... just a little .... of the fried squid and octopus of his childhood. There was not much chance that they were eating either of these at home. It was not until the 1960’s if not 70’s that fishermen stopped throwing squid and octopus back into the water because Australians had developed, finally, a ‘taste’ for this Mediterranean delicacy.
I can’t say that battered tripe is a recipe I have taken into adulthood but I still like tripe. My favourite recipe is made from thinly sliced tripe mixed with gently fried capsicum, onion and bacon slices mixed into a white sauce made with chicken stock and topped with creamy mashed potato.
The records show that the early settlers took on some of the eating habits of the local Aborigines but how far it went beyond eating possums and galahs, it is hard to say. The poor often had little choice and if Charlie Ross was as adventurous in his eating habits as many of his descendants are, he probably experimented with local ‘produce’ and aboriginal cooking methods. The practice of cooking meat and vegetables in a ground oven was common amongst the indigenous people.
Desert quandongs and native peaches would have been available. The Germans in the Barossa Valley, which is situated just to the south of Gladstone, used them in their streusel toppings. Native cherries and native currants were eaten fresh and turned into jelly. But there were other wild foods to be found like wild cress (lepidium ruderake) which was common in the Flinders Ranges; native cranberries (astroloma Humifusum) which liked sandier soil; bitter quandong (santalum murrayanum); the apple-flavoured muuntari (kunzeapomifera) which made delicious puddings and sourbush (leptomeria aphylla) which could be made into lemon-flavoured cordial. Many of these foods were first identified by the German botanist, Hans Herman Behr who travelled regularly with the Aborigines.
The explorer, Edward John Eyre, (1815-1901) compiled one of the most comprehensive lists of Aboriginal food. Eyre, together with his aboriginal friend Wylie, was the first man to cross southern Australia from east to west, travelling across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany. Eyre , who was born in England where his father was a minister came to Australia when he was seventeen years old. He went on many expeditions in South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia combining droving sheep and cattle with exploring. Eyre was hoping to discover good sheep country and he opened up much of South Australia for settlement. .
Eyre’s list contained crayfish and other crustaceans, fish such as mallowe caught on the Coorong waterway close to the mouth of the River Murray, frogs, small marsupials, snakes, lizards, turtles, grubs, the bogong moth, termites, possums, wallabies, eggs, honey from wild bees, emus, kangaroos, geese, ducks and other birds... including swans. Whether it was something remembered from his grandfather’s days, my father came home after one hunting trip with a swan. It took all day to clean it and cook it, my mother said, and then it was completely inedible... like leather. Perhaps if it had spent a few hours in an aboriginal earth oven it might have tasted better.
It was the missionaries who recorded in detail the cooking habits of Aborigines. In his notebooks the missionary C.G. Teichelmann wrote:
Since wood is scarce in this region, a kind of dense, low growing shrub serves as pot, heathand fuel. Onto this the crayfish are thrown, the bush shoved into the fire and the crayfish arecooked. Schürmann’s description of cooking kangaroo in a ground oven, which he ate on a five-day hunting trip with Kaurna people south of Adelaide shows not only detailed observation but evident pleasure in cultural learning as well: The way in which the Aborigines make a kangaroo palatable is worthy of note ... as soon as the prey is killed a suitable spot for cooking is sought out nearby ... Then the animal is carried to this site and the most practised one sets himself to skinning it as far as the head and the greater part of the tail, which latter is cut off and singed in the fire, while another digs a hole in the earth about one and a half feet deep, a third gathers small stones and a fourth wood and lights a firein the hole in which the stones are heated until they glow. By the time the fire has burned down, the butcher has already gutted the animal, cut off the legs and thighs and cut three slits in the thick flesh of the rump; meanwhile another has cleared the large intestines and with them made a sausage with the blood accumulated in the chest cavity. Now the stones are drawn out by the fire and the smaller ones inserted partly in the breast and bowel cavities and partly in the slitted rump, mixed with the foliage of a small gum tree as spice. Next the kangaroo is laid on the coals in the hole while twigs of the above-named tree are spread underneath as well as over it; in those on top of it, the legs, the tail, the sausage together with the vital organs are placed, and the whole lot covered with the remaining glowing stones. In the meantime a man has removed a piece of bark from a nearby tree, big enough to cover the kangaroo from its head to its tail; the gaps between the bark and the sides of the hole are then sealed with earth so that no air can penetrate. After a comfortable rest of an hour, the pit is opened and a clean, delicious tasting grilled meat drawn out.”
Farming families in South Australia certainly used these methods in the years when Mary Atkins was growing up in the Wirrabarra Forest. Whether it was something she and Charlie Ross did in Gladstone I cannot know. But Europeans had pots and these were such useful items they were not likely to be discarded in favour of ground ovens.
There was a wealth of seafood to be had including oysters but I am not sure Charlie Ross would have transported many of these more ‘fragile foods’ from Port Pirie to Gladstone, particularly in midsummer. But these delicacies would no doubt have made their way to the shop during cold, crisp winters. Was there a plate of fat, fresh oysters drizzled with sourbush juice and topped with chopped, wild mint on the table some nights? I like to think so.
The diet may well have been much more varied than one might suppose and Mary’s cooking skills may have been tested in ways which we can only imagine. She was not likely to have cooked snake or lizard but I bet she cleaned more than one galah and possum in her time. Moussaka made with minced possum or kangaroo? Char-grilled galah instead of char-grilled quail? Yum!
The early settlers were nothing if not innovative. They took, no doubt by necessity, the Chinese view that if it moves, you eat it! Emus, mutton birds, bandicoots, echidnas, bats, foxes ....were all on various menus across the Australian continent.
Australia’s first cookbook appeared in 1864. It was written by a Hobart landowner and member of the Tasmanian Parliament Edward Abbott (1801–1869), The English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many, as well as the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’ was something of an eclectic mix with more than its fair share of edible oddities.
One early cookbook had this recipe for Slippery Bob, a dish made with kangaroo brains:
"Take kangaroo brain and mix with flour and water to make into a batter; well season with pepper and salt, then pour a tablespoon full at a time into an iron pot containing emeu fat and take them out when done."
It was probably delicious. My father also loved brains but then there was really nothing he would not eat. He thought the comb from the chicken was worth chewing and the ‘parson’s nose,’ the chicken’s ‘bum’, was always his favourite bit. I like to think his adventurous eating habits came down from Charlie the Greek and while it may all be fancy on my part, the fact is, he also had a habit of taking olive oil by the tablespoonful which says the Greek genes had to be at work. That, and his habit of sucking lemons.
When I was a young child olive oil was something you bought from the chemist and a small bottle was always kept in the cabinet beside our front door. It was clearly medicinal and had no place in the kitchen. We used dripping to cook with in those days and I still think there is no other way to bake a potato than in dripping or goose or duck fat. Olive oil has however come of age with a vengeance. These days there is not likely to be an Australian household which does not have a bottle or three of olive oil in the pantry. And, Australia has become a big producer of olive oils ranging from the basic to the boutique and supermarkets offer not one small bottle of choice but dozens from olives grown around the country.
How much things have changed in the 120 years since Charlie and Mary first set up home together. I am determined to make a trip to Gladstone when I am next in South Australia to see the shop and the homes where Charlie and Mary lived and perhaps to find, in one or other of the backyards, an olive or a lemon tree. Well, perhaps an olive tree. The lemon would not survive the years but the olive would.
The olive is one of my favourite trees and I have planted a grove on our farm in the Adelaide Hills. There is something quintessentially Greek about the olive. Athena, who is my favourite Greek Goddess, brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift. Zeus had promised to give Attica to the god or goddess who came up with the most useful invention. Athena's gift of the olive, useful for light, heat, food, medicine and perfume was chosen as a more peaceful and useful invention over Poseidon's horse, which served only one purpose, as an instrument of war. Athena planted the original olive tree on a rocky hill that is known today as the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree. Olives are known to live for centuries and some, over a thousand years. What I like about them is that they have a misshapen, gnarled beauty and they thrive in challenging conditions. There is a noble strength to the olive and an independent beauty, no matter how old and weathered they may be. It is one of the oldest known cultivated trees with olives having been found in Egyptian tombs dated to 2,000 BC.
And the olive does not offer its gifts easily. One must work for the fruit of the tree. Fresh olives are unbearably bitter and inedible and even the birds will not touch them. They must be cured in brine before they can be eaten. At which point, they are of course, delicious.
I don’t think any Greek could survive without olives and am sure that somewhere in the Ross kitchen there was a big jar or tin of them. Perhaps Charlie Ross also had his small bottle of olive oil which he drank by the spoonful as an aid to his health. I do not know how robust his health was but he did die at the age of 58 from heart failure and asthma, from which the death record states, he had suffered for two years. His grand-daughter Flora , who was, I am told, the ‘spitting image’ of him, also suffered greatly from asthma but she lived into her eighties.
Many years spent on board ship may well have compromised Charlie’s health although the sea air may have helped his asthma. Not that the men in the Ross family appear to have had longevity. Charles Vangelios died at in Adelaide in 1955 at the age of 63 and his son, my father, Sydney Charles died in 1980 at the age of 55. Charlie Ross’s son got five more years and his grandson got three years less.
Thursday, 18 February 2010
I have three photos of houses in Gladstone which cousin Spike sent to me some time ago and which are said to have been Ross homes at one time or another. But which time or another? This photo, is I think, of the house next to the Anglican Church where Charlie and Mary would have lived when their family grew too large for the home behind the shop.
It seems, according to Spike, that Charlie and Mary lived behind the shop in Port Street and also in the house alongside of the Anglican Church. Later on, probably after Charlie’s death, Mary lived just out of town on the Georgetown Road and also in the house next to the present-day Fire Station. So much movement means that houses were rented and not owned but I would have expected that.
It also suggests that when Charlie and Mary (I have decided to call her Mary because while she was known as Polly, I did not know her and Mary seems more polite) set up home they would have done so in the house behind the shop. This means that their children would have been born here ... at least the first two or three. Perhaps the move was made to the house alongside the Anglican Church when the brood grew to four and five and they simply ran out of space.
I had some help last year from a Gladstone historian, Marg Arbon, who kindly did some tracing and found that the 1890 township directory for Gladstone showed a Charles Ross listed as a fishmonger in Port Street, which is on the east side of the railway line. The 1898 directory showed him still selling fish and still renting the same shop. By 1898 there were four children aged from seven to one.
Constantinus John, known as Jack, was born on March 6, 1890; Charles Vangaleos Ross was born on March 24, 1892; Georgina Anastasia, known as Teeny, on July 7, 1894; Chrysanthous Christie was born on August 9, 1897 and Spiros Andrew was born on September 8, 1901. Spiros grew up to be a police superintendant and of course Charles worked at the Gladstone Gaol which is ironic given that their father was an illegal, a deserter who jumped ship! All of the children were born in Gladstone and one presumes at home and the births were recorded in Clare, the nearest regional centre.
It was two years before their first child arrived. In those times it was more likely to be chance rather than choice, but who knows, Mary was nothing if not canny. Charlie was nearly forty when they married and Mary nearly thirty. Perhaps Charlie was taking the train to Port Pirie early each morning to buy his fish and then falling into bed exhausted, at the end of a long day, knowing he had to be up early to do the same thing again.
Or did the self-protective Capricorn, Charlie, take time to settle in with the freedom-loving Sagittarian, Mary? They make quite a good mix in astrological terms. I have done their charts using the tarot to find out the time of birth, and, if it is right, they look like a good match. I’ve used tarot in the past to find birth times with people and had it validated when they have asked their ‘mums’ so I there is a good chance the aspects are right. Anyone who gasps at such concepts as astrology can just skip this bit. I happen to find astrology a valuable psychotherapeutic tool for the living and the dead and have compiled a comprehensive collection of family charts across six generations. It is interesting how often aspects in parents’ charts will be repeated in the charts of their children. Whatever the explanation there is always family inheritance, family karma or family tasks to be undertaken in this lifetime.
Both Capricorns and Sagittarians tend to be broad-minded and both share a mission to make the world a better place. Mary would have had the vision and Charlie the will and ability to bring them into being. The goat gets grumpy if it is all just talk.
The Capricorn sense of humour would have come in handy although apparently Mary had a quick, if dry wit as well. My grandfather, with Capricorn Rising, was also said to have a great sense of humour but my father, with markedly less significant Capricorn qualities, was more of a trickster and when he told jokes they were, well, a bit corny. I have a cousin who looks very much like my father and who has pretty much the same sense of humour. Nature, nurture or astrological inheritance, I suspect that in Charlie and Mary’s home there was a goodly amount of laughter and laughter oils the ‘wheels’ of any relationship.
Charlie’s Aries Moon, which is the same as my sister, Teena, would have been a match for Mary’s Taurean Moon in terms of how they related emotionally to themselves and to each other. With Charlie’s ascendant in Cancer and Mary’s in Taurus they would both have enjoyed the security and privacy of their own home. Mary, like me, also has a strong Eighth House placement which makes for heightened sensitivity to one’s environment and a life which challenges one to grow within.
It is hard to know how ‘Greek’ Charlie really was. At the age of 39 he may well have already spent 25 years away from his homeland, sailing and living around the world. He may have been based in England, or he may not. This I have yet to find out.
But if his links to Greece remained strong then family and religion would have been central to his values and his behaviour. The Orthodox Church, like most orthodox Christianity, advocates the traditional patriarchal family and this is specified in the marriage ceremony. In this ceremony, which was not the one that Charlie and Mary had, the wife accepts the husband as head of the family. But even in an Anglican ceremony in the late 19th Century the wife would still be expected to be subservient to her husband ... God’s ‘representative on earth.’ In fact, in England until 1879 a man could legally beat his wife and until 1882 all a woman's property, even the money she earned, belonged to her husband. Divorce was made legal in 1857 but it was very rare in the 19th century.I have a sense that Mary was the sort of person who kept her own counsel but went along with things for the sake of practicality and peace. Her life was unlikely to have been very different if she had married an English man instead of a Greek.
Of course I never knew her but I did see a lot of her daughter, my great-aunt Teeny, when I was growing up. She was a gracious woman with a discreet manner, a gentle sense of humour and excellent cooking skills. My father also loved to cook and while he lacked the knowledge and the temperament which would have disciplined his experimentation, he loved food and ate things which my Anglo mother and we children viewed with disgust. Prickly pear fruit, wild fennel by the side of the road, aubergine (eggplant), olives, feta cheese and blue cheese. He also loved to suck lemons and it makes my lips pucker to think of it, just as it did to watch him .... and he adored cumquats. These trees were quite common in gardens of the past but are less seen now.
Aunt Jessie tells the story of the English daughter-in-law, Alice, being introduced to cumquats and complaining that she did not really like them.
“You might like them more,” replied Mary Ross, ‘if you didn’t eat the stone.”
The foods which my father always loved so much, and no doubt his father and grandfather before him, were unusual and hard to find in 50’s and 60’s Anglo-centric Australia. I did however grow out of this ignorance in my late teens as did all of my siblings and all of us appreciate food with a passion and many of us love to cook. I became a food writer for many years and watched with relief and excitement as food in Australia became some of the best and most varied in the world. The term ‘foodie’ is no doubt an Australian invention as we embraced with a passion the best that every cuisine could offer.
There is no reason to not believe that Charlie Ross took the traditional role of a Greek husband and father. He would have been the main authority figure and the source of discipline in the family, leaving Mary as the focus of the home. The term nikokira refers to female family members, especially to the wife and mother who, traditionally, takes responsibility for the child-rearing and care of the house. The husband and father is, nikokiris, and this means he is expected to financially provide for the family and contribute to its progress.
These were very much the values by which my father lived although I suspect my grandmother, Hilda, was more of the disciplinarian in the family. I was six when my grandfather died and remember so little that I can only guess or draw upon the things my father and aunt have said. My only memory of Charles Vangalios is of him sitting by the fire in the small cottage in Leicester Street, Parkside, Adelaide... across the road from Benbows Hotel where my grandfather and father spent much of their time while meals were being prepared. There was an enormous step up from the kitchen where he sat, which led into the top of the house which contained the formal sitting room, which was never used, and bedrooms. We children would have to climb up onto this step and recite poetry or sing songs in order to receive our treat .... a sugar cube! Perhaps the step was not so much large as we were small but memory holds it to be enormous so it must have been high.
However, reading through Greek traditions I can only think that in the 19th Century and even until more than half-way through the 20th Century, these ‘traditions’ were not so very different to the norm in Australia. Mary was poor and illiterate and so was her family. It is unlikely that they lived any differently to the way in which Greeks lived ... particularly in terms of how they saw the roles of men and women. These attitudes would not begin to change until the 1960’s so Mary and Charlie were not likely to be arguing about who did what!
Family honour is apparently also a Greek concept although, again, hardly particular to the Greeks. One finds such attitudes, generally more powerfully directed toward the behaviour of women, common in many less developed societies. And, while the immediate family is important, so too is the extended family. Family obligations include participation in family celebration and religious occasions and in caring for the sick and elderly, according to one report I read in regard to caring for aged Greeks. But I would have thought this was pretty much a given for most people
It is not particularly Greek although perhaps the Greeks would argue that being one of the oldest cultures it began with them. Having lived in a number of third world countries, including India and Africa, it is easy to see that such connections are often more rigid and I would add, more necessary, in less developed societies but hardly unique to them. My family experience, in terms of how much we care about our immediate and extended families and how much effort we put into making and keeping contact, has been no different to that of the Greeks and neither has that of my friends, regardless of their ethnic inheritance. I think there is a belief that family connections are not so important in developed societies like Australia ... unless one happens to be ethnic of course ...and that we reject our old and ill and hardly bother to keep in touch with our immediate family.
The ‘strong sense of duty to parents’ which is said to be a part of Greek culture is also a part of Indian, African and countless other cultures. It is not, from my experience, so much a sense of duty but of necessity. Many Anglo-Australians have a strong sense of duty to their parents and many care for them in their homes, it is just that in less developed societies there are no other choices. Families become multi-generational because there families have no choice and my experiences in India in particular showed me that human nature makes some of these ‘shared living’ arrangements positive and some of them very negative.
And, in truth, the options were not available to many, if any Australians until the second half of the 20th Century. My mother, as a teenager cared for her mother who was sick for many years before she died at the age of 52 and then she cared for my father’s mother after she had a stroke. When my paternal grandfather died the decision was made, without consultation with my mother, that my grandmother would buy a house and our family would move in with her. Six months after doing so, my grandmother had a stroke and was paralysed down one side. My mother was given no choice. She was expected to become the carer. My father, like many men of his time, and apparently like a good Greek man, did nothing inside the house. My mother had three children under the age of seven and very soon another on the way but her duty was clear and would remain so for the next three years. I am sure her resentment and the massive workload that she carried contributed greatly to the nervous breakdown which hospitalised her six months after my grandmother died.
Greek values, like all tribal and patriarchal values, see the masculine as superior to the feminine and the community as more important than the individual. Identity is often tied to behaviour within the communal and public spheres. It is about how others see you rather than who you are. No doubt that made my father the ‘angel’ he was to others and the ‘devil’ he so often was in the home.
When I read about Greek values I am struck by how they are not so much Greek values as conservative, patriarchal, ‘village’ values which I had already defined as ‘old-fashioned’ by the age of twelve. But in truth, it is the values which separate, segregate and deny both men and women their freedom as individuals which I reject. Nothing is all bad and Greek society, like all societies, also had and has within it values which one can admire. But only when those values are expressed in a positive sense, and, the prevailing attitudes of the society will dictate how often or how easily that happens.
For the Greeks, Filotimo means the love of honour. It refers to the respect individuals have for themselves and for others. A person who has filotimo is hospitable, generous, considerate and has a sense of right and wrong. The downside of this is that it often translates into shame and honour. Behaviour and actions can reflect an individual’s filotimo in the eyes of his/her, but I bet it is more her, family and community. And, in the worst of cases, in some societies it leads to honour killings because when a person behaves in a certain manner shame or honour is cast on the entire family. This is a very, very Indian concept as well. However, for the Greeks, actions which do not become public knowledge are not described as honourable or shameful. Instead they are considered to be a matter of moral conscience. This brings the Greeks closer to the Western cultural framework and the Christian sense of guilt and innocence as one would expect. Although, Christian guilt can be a heavy cross to bear.
Filoxenia literally translates as the love of foreigners or strangers. This refers to hospitality. Since ancient times this value has been highly regarded in Greek society. In Greece’s villages and smaller communities travellers were welcomed into people’s homes where they would share a meal and be put up for the night. Nowadays it commonly refers to the hospitality offered to acquaintances, friends or relatives who are guests in one’s home. It is also hugely important in Indian and African culture. I suspect it is found in all ancient cultures because in times past one had few visitors and their arrival was both precious and rare. However, honouring the guest has been a part of spiritual practices, both religious and esoteric, since time immemorial.
Axioprepia refers to a person’s dignity. Supposedly, Greeks use this term frequently. They are referring to an individual’s acquired or earned honour or respect. A person is axioprepis if he/she behaves in a way regarded by the community as worthy of respect. I would have thought the Germans, Dutch and many other cultures would be right at home with this. I remember when we lived in Belgium , Dutch friends told us the reason why curtains were left open was so people could see inside and be assured that those within, had nothing to hide. A German friend in Bombay also told me how observant Germans were as to the habits and actions of their neighbours, judging them as often as not on how clean they kept their front doorstep. And once when we were staying in Switzerland, a Canadian friend who was applying for citizenship said that his application would not only be investigated at Government level but also at community level. His neighbours would be interviewed in order to ‘assess’ his behaviour and therefore his suitability. It all sounds very invasive to someone who grew up in 1960’s Australia. Some ‘values’ and ‘traditions’, are, to my mind, best left behind.
Ypohreosi is one’s sense of obligation or duty to another person for a special favour or service received. It also expresses the requirement or commitment to take some course of action, often as defined by custom or communal expectation. The downside of this is that it often translates into bribes, baksheesh, black market payments and corruption. I have not been to Greece so I have as yet no idea how corrupt it may be but the black market was and is a way of life in India and Africa and it was in Belgium in the late 80’s. Although ,I have heard that things have been ‘cleaned up’ since then.
The Greek view on life in general, as well as a person’s life experiences, is grounded in a belief in fate and destiny expressed as ‘God’s will’. There are terms and practices which tie this sense of fate with faith in the Christian God. Other practices link it to an evil curse or superstition derived from pagan or folk beliefs.
Tihi (Tyche) is a frequently used word meaning ‘luck’ or ‘fate’. It stems from the ancient Greek name of the deity of luck or fortune, Tyche. Greeks often use this word to explain the inexplicable or incomprehensible. It is especially used about marriage, wealth and health. If a person has either a successful marriage or a marriage breakdown, this would be attributed to their good tihi or bad tihi respectively. A person who is seriously ill or who has an incurable disease is said to be experiencing bad tihi.
This is a very common belief in Africa and like so many things which are said to be Greek, more common to the human family than one may think. When we were living in Zambia I was surprised to find that Zambians equate ‘good luck’ with evil forces and those who experienced good luck were at worst shunned and at best talked about and mistrusted. In India the common response to bad luck was, Inshallah! Which means, As God Wills. The Hindus, and Buddhists for that matter, also have particular teachings in regard to evil and in both cases, as it was in early Christianity, ‘evil’ equates with female. One Hindu teaching says that evil forces pass through women and forces for good pass through men. Now, that is convenient. This is why, in orthodox Hinduism, when a husband dies the woman is held ‘responsible,’ and from then on considered to be ‘bad luck.’ She is forced to wear white and will not be invited to many family or community gatherings because she is clearly a ‘transmitter’ of evil or her husband would not have died. In orthodox Buddhism the presence of a woman will ‘pollute’ a priest. The equating of evil with the feminine has, sadly, been universal. At least for the few thousand years that God has been a Man!
Mira (Moira) literally means ‘portion’ and refers to one’s destiny in life. Mira is often described as having been ‘written’ at birth for each person, implying that one cannot escape his/her destiny. This belief in the power of destiny, originating at birth, stems from the ancient Greek belief in the female figures (the three Fates or Moirae) who controlled the thread of life of all mortals and immortals. The Arabs would be very at home with this concept which is one with their belief: ‘ it is written.’ It brings to mind the scene in Lawrence of Arabia where he is forced to kill a man whose life he previously saved. ‘It is written,’ shrugs his Arab friend.
In modern Greek culture tihi and mira are sometimes used interchangeably. Mira mainly refers to the individual’s life journey, whereas tihi describes a particular event or incident in a person’s life contributing to their destiny (mira).
Mati or ‘the evil eye’ is the belief, dating back to antiquity, that individual misfortune is caused by the envy of another. Greeks refer to envious people as having the ability to cast the evil eye on a person with good fortune (wealth, beauty, good health, or beautiful and successful children) causing them ill-health or some other misfortune. The person who casts the evil eye may do so unintentionally, for example, by staring, gazing, or looking enviously at a person, their possessions, or their children.
I suspect that my father would have stood out in provincial Greece for his black, Scorpionic eyes, were very ‘evil’ indeed when he was angry or displeased. If I had known as a child that there were ways to handle ‘evil eyes’ I might have been less frightened.
Apparently, the curse of the evil eye is broken though a strict process. The healer recites a secret prayer received from an older relative of the opposite sex, performs the sign of the cross and spits in the air three times. The transmission of the secret prayer/s from one person to another must follow this sequence. According to superstition if the secret prayer/s is indiscriminately passed on then the healer loses his/her ability to cast off the evil eye. For the many Greeks who believe in the power of the evil eye, there are ways to determine whether in fact a person has been affected. When the healer and the affected person yawn as the healing process takes place, and when the healer places drops of olive oil in a glass of water and the olive oil sinks or dissolves in the water, naturally, this wouldn’t occur if there was no evil eye involved.
Spitting lightly three times on the admired or complimented person or object is the most common way for Greeks to prevent casting the curse of the evil eye. This is a very common and encouraged practice. Hmmm, I suspect if I had started spitting in the face of my father’s evil eye I would have been on the receiving end of a backhander. One wonders if the Chinese habit or spitting is sourced in such beliefs. Other ways to ward off the evil eye include wearing a blue bead with an eye painted on it (either on a pin, bracelet, or necklace) and hanging garlic close to the entrance of one’s home.
I adore garlic and always have a huge bowl of it in my kitchen. Perhaps I am unconsciously protecting myself.
Supposedly, many Greek Australians, both elderly immigrants and those born in Australia, believe in the power of the evil eye and continue practices that ward it off . Younger Greek Australians wear jewellery with blue eye beads. At the baptism of their baby children parents may pin a blue eye bead on the child’s clothing to prevent a curse being cast unintentionally by those admiring the young child.
I wonder if the wedding tradition of ‘something blue’ is related to this obviously ancient belief in the evil eye and the need for remedies? Then again, traditionally boys wear ‘blue’. Does that mean that they need to be protected against the evil of their mothers and sisters?
Katara is the Greek word for ‘curse’. Unlike the evil eye katara refers to a deliberate curse resulting in grave misfortune for another person. This word is used to describe a cursed individual, family, or community.
I have no doubt that more than one hundred years ago some, if not all of these beliefs would have been a part of my grandfather’s life. And no doubt his children. In reality, many of these beliefs were common throughout the world hundreds of years ago and given the age of Greek culture, one could suppose that this was where they originated. Unless of course, as with so many things, the Greeks also inherited or learned such things from those who had gone before and those who still remained, like the Egyptians. Perhaps such beliefs are more about human beings who lack experience and education than anything cultural.
I have no idea if my grandfather believed in Fate but he was supposedly a pragmatic sort of man. I remember little of him apart from his smile and his gentleness. My father was less pragmatic but he was very practical. When he faced death he did so with calm, gracious, wise acceptance as if he believed it was just the way it was meant to be. This was not how he lived his life much of the time.
We are all formed from the beliefs and sayings of our parents and ancestors. I don’t remember hearing any of the following Greek superstitions but they may well have been at work at an unconscious level.
• Handing a knife to someone could result in a dispute with that person. Instead the knife is laid down enabling the other person to pick it up. And the English tradition is that you can never give a knife or scissors without receiving a coin. They must be purchased or they will bring bad luck.
• Crows are considered to be omens of bad news, in particular, they are an omen for news of death. This belief is also found in Celtic, North American and Russian shamanistic mythology.
• Tuesday the 13th day of the month is considered a day of bad luck and is equivalent to Friday the 13th in Western cultures. Thirteen has been considered since ancient times to be a powerful number. The fear of it seems to have been taken furthest by the Americans who often omit the thirteenth floor in hotels.
• Shoes turned with the soles facing up are considered a sign of very bad luck. They are promptly turned back, accompanied by some spitting! There are similar beliefs in Celtic tradition but it may well have come from the Greeks.
• Touching a red-coloured item occurs when two people say the same thing at the same time. This prevents an argument occurring between them. I haven’t heard this one before. I wish my father had known about it.
• Using the same door when entering and leaving someone else’s home avoids bad luck. If you enter through the front door and leave through the back door you could invite bad luck on the inhabitants of the home – especially on a pending marriage proposal. There you go, the Greeks invented feng shui!
• Placing money in something new brings good fortune. Throwing coins into someone’s new car will bring safety. Placing money in a newborn’s crib will bring the child good fortune.This works on the principle of ‘like attracts like’ and is no doubt sourced in energy beliefs. Everything has its own energy. Similar energy draws together.
Again, many if not most of these beliefs can be found in a variety of cultures. But the Greeks because their history is so ancient, could no doubt claim that they were the first to think of them.
About the only Greek tradition which I thought was a good idea was the pinning of money to the bride’s dress at weddings. I first saw this in Port Pirie when we were invited to a wedding by some Greek friends. Then again, Indians also give money at weddings and the modern practice is now to have a ‘wishing well,’ where guests give money instead of gifts.
I doubt there was very much money pinned to Mary’s wedding dress, if indeed, she even had a wedding dress. Charlie had no family to provide such things and the Atkins family was poor. One likes to think she had a saucepan or two with which to begin married life. The Greeks do love their food and while I am sure the family ate a lot of fish, one wonders if Mary learned to cook some of her husband’s favourite dishes.