Little Adonis and the fruit box

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When my father was born his parents thanked God for the gift of a son. They named him Adonis, but for the first few years he was called Adonaki, Little Adonis.

Even his older sister knew that he was special. Her play revolved around amusing him and keeping him from harm. I have a photograph of him and my Aunty Milly. Wearing a white dress and ribbons in her hair, she sits on a simple wooden chair. My father is accorded his status in relation to her. Even though he is still a toddler and his nappy fills his playsuit, he is standing on a chair next to hers, so that he is much higher.

His hair is long and wild curls spring around his face. But, leaning precariously against the back of the chair, he looks worried. Was he afraid he'd fall? I still see that anxious look on his face sometimes, the way his eyes lift upwards, creasing his forehead in the centre. And I wonder about the things that concern him.

I carry mental snapshots of a few stories from my father's childhood that I've heard often. He's comfortable with the notion of himself as a small boy, always described as cheeky and resourceful, but often in trouble for one boyish prank or another.

But the stories peter out by the time he is a teenager, and I've only a vague, out-of-focus sense of who he was from then until he became a husband and father. There is a long period of time he skirts around. And I know, without being told, that there are secrets. I have contented myself with drawing conclusions about my father from what I've seen and heard myself. 

Of his childhood, the stories he has given me have colour and sound like scenes from films, and when I place them side by side, they form a narrative that, I think, builds towards the inevitable silence around his youth and early adulthood. Like one brick upon another, they create a wall that may have kept my father out, or that he may have disappeared behind. Either way, I have barely seen the other side.

Out of this narrative, three things stand out. Three stories represent my father's early life, and they are beautiful and awful. But they are all I have. They feature, respectively, The Rocks, the jam sandwiches, and the fruit box.

The Rocks

My father was born in Sydney when the community of Greek immigrants was still small, just a hint of the movement that would swell that city and others around Australia decades later during the '50s and '60s. My grandparents lived in the part of the city that hugs one side of Circular Quay known as The Rocks, its name inspired by the local sandstone that its original buildings were made from.

There was only a fledgling Orthodox congregation at the time, so my father was not baptised until he was two years old, and even then it was a Russian priest who performed the ceremony, sprinkling holy water over his head and presenting him to the gathering of friends and relatives at the church.

Afterwards, his parents would have led everyone back to their small home behind their fish and chip shop. They may have feasted on lamb cooked with rosemary, chunks of bread and wine. My father grew up knowing it was a very special day.

My father talks fondly of The Rocks. He learnt to walk in the streets at the foot of the Bridge under construction, and one of his earliest memories is of holding his father's hand and walking across it after it was opened, and the tremendous thrill at the scale of everything around him.

Crumbling arches covered steep stairways between the terraces, many which survived refurbishment programs following an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900. My father and his cousins chased each other under these arches, where they were accustomed to the sight of people slouched in doorways, or asleep in the laneways.

With great delight my father tells me he would sit on the stone walls overlooking the harbour and watch the ships come in. As their great forms edged slowly past the docks he allowed himself to imagine the places they had come from and where they would take him to one day.

But these were the Depression years. His parents struggled with business in their shop. They were also concerned about increasing violence in their neighbourhood, and with three growing children, they made the difficult decision to move away from their small network of friends and relatives to a more prosperous suburb on the north shore. My father was five years old. 

The jam sandwiches

My grandparents took a lease on a shop in the main street and settled their young family into the small two bedroom flat upstairs. Their new home didn't look like The Rocks. Beyond the main street people lived in separate single storey houses, not terraces. Tall leafy trees lined the roadside. No one slept in the streets.

Without his cousins around, my father spent his days in the back yard with Milly and their baby brother Stelios, playing among the extensive flower garden that became his father's source of pleasure and pride. He missed hearing his parents chatter in rapid Greek as they served food. Instead, they became quieter, conducting business with nods, or a simple yes or thank you.

When he was the right age to start school, my father was anxious. He couldn't imagine being away from his parents. On his first day his Mama walked him to the schoolyard. He carried his lunch in a brown paper bag. It contained two jam sandwiches. Mama told him his teacher would tell him when it was the right time to eat them.

He understood that his teacher would be a very great and educated person, like the priest, who must be obeyed and respected at all times. When his teacher met him at the door of the classroom she was not what he'd expected. She had grey hair, and she looked old, much older than Mama. But she smiled kindly and my father felt glad that she was there.

Mama kissed him on the cheek and told him that she loved him, S'agapo Adonaki. And then she turned and walked outside the school yard and away from him.

That morning my father began to learn to read and write. His head hurt with trying to remember all the letters and numbers, and the day felt very long. Nevertheless, when a bell started to clang he was surprised. Was school finished? Had he missed hearing when he was supposed to eat his lunch?

The teacher told them to pack up their writing materials and my father was very glad that the day had come to an end. He followed the other children into the playground and continued out the gates and down the street. He was so hungry he ate his sandwiches on the way home.

When he reached the shop he hurried inside to play with his brother, but stopped short when he saw the frown on Mama's face. What are you doing here? And then she saw the crumpled paper bag in his hands. It is only playtime! She untied her apron, took his hand, and walked him back to school, just in time to join the other children filing back into the classroom. There hadn't been time to make any more sandwiches.

When lunchtime came he was hungry again. But that day he learned just how long the school day really was.

The fruit box

My father's parents told him he would grow to like school, but that didn't happen. He missed his cousins who he'd played with so easily. At school the children often excluded him. They told him he was different.

He knew this was true, because his skin was tanned like an almond kernel, not pale, pink and freckly like the other children. His hair was dark and long and curly, not ginger, or brown and flat. And when his mother came to collect him at the end of the day, some children laughed behind their hands when she greeted him in Greek. When that happened he was torn between wanting to shout at the children, and running away from Mama.

At the end of the first year he left the warm grandmotherly care of his first teacher. In subsequent years he learned that not all teachers treated every one of their pupils with kindness. Although my father showed academic promise from the very beginning, the social isolation and lack of encouragement began to impact on him. Slowly his delight in achieving became tempered with the desire to avoid attention.

This dynamic can best be illustrated by the story of the fruit box.

Whe he was about nine years old, his teacher was a stern and unpredictable man for whom teaching seemed to be less a vocation than a last resort. My father says everyone knew the man had been gassed during the war, and that he suffered ongoing respiratory problems that forced him to take a week or two off work every so often.

When he was in the classroom he made no effort to hide his resentment about his position, or his attitudes to Germans and, by extension, all 'foreigners'.

From the start my father felt his teacher did not like him. He describes bitterly how his teacher would draw attention to him in class, calling him Greasy Greek and Dago. I can see my father as he may have been, sinking lower into his chair, keeping his head down, wishing to disappear.

And then one day there was the incident with the box.

My father was working out sums off the blackboard. He liked maths and he was concentrating hard. The door opened and the teacher from the year six classroom came in and approached my father's teacher.

As the two adults talked they looked across to my father, which made him nervous. Then he was called to the front of the room, and told to go with the teacher to her classroom. He didn't ask why. He thought he must have done something wrong, and felt afraid of what was to happen.

When he entered the room the students, sitting in long rows, turned to look at him. Some whispered to each other. One pointed a finger. The teacher told him to go to the front of the class where a wooden fruit box had been placed up-side-down at the base of the blackboard. She nodded at the crate and when he didn't move, she told him to step onto it and face the class. He hesitated for a moment then did as he was told.

His legs trembled, and when he saw the teacher pick up the long wooden ruler from her desk he closed his eyes and waited for the sting as it whacked against his bare thighs. But it didn't come. He heard her speaking and opened his eyes and saw that she was pointing the ruler at him. She touched the corner of it to his hair, his forehead and very close to his eyes, where it melted into a blur.

She was drawing attention again, and he didn't like that. He didn't want to be seen too clearly. But she wasn't calling him names; she was speaking the way teachers do when they are telling their students something important, like history or geography.

She told the children to notice how my father's hair clenched into tight, shiny curls, how his skin was dark and muddy, how his forehead was higher and shinier than normal, and how his nose bulged in the centre. She told him to turn around and then she touched the ruler against the backs of his legs. He felt the tip of the wood on his ear lobes as she commented that his ears stuck out too much.

The whole time she didn't address my father personally or use his name. He heard murmuring, some giggles, and his face burned.

Finally the teacher told him to face the front again and she dropped the ruler to her side and waved her hand up and down the side of his body as though he was a statue. So you can see children, the features of a European.

She told my father she didn't need him anymore. He slipped back into his own classroom, trying not to disturb his teacher, wanting to avoid further attention. The sums he'd been working on beforehand were still on his desk, but when he looked at the board the list had been rubbed away.

He didn't speak to anyone for the rest of the day, and that he never told his parents what had happened.

When I picture him standing in that classroom on the fruit box, my photograph of him as a toddler, standing on a chair with his worried frown, seems both portentous and cruel. 

The Rocks, the sandwiches and the fruit box. A sequence that is precious because I have it from my father. And it points to the silent years that we do not speak about, but which I know involved leaving school early, scattered and inconsistent attempts to earn a living, some failures and many disappointments. But there is also a trip on an ocean liner, as the boy Adonaki dreamed of. And time spent overseas. 

My father takes real human form for me after I am born, in the living, breathing, warm body that I have grown up knowing. And there are many stories now that are his and mine, my mother's, my brothers' and my sisters'.

And there is my father sitting opposite me now, on a chair at the kitchen table. His hair is still curly if it gets long enough, but it is soft and silvery. He listens as I read this story to him and wants to set some things straight.

I must specify that the sandwiches were plum, always plum jam, cut in rough, uneven chunks, unlike the neat triangles other children pulled out of their lunch bags — he laughs fondly as he remembers his mother cutting into the loaf pressed against her chest. And that the ocean liners really were marvellous, coming in and going out, so large and taking so many people to places very far away. And that he remembers all their names.


Helena KadmosHelena Kadmos is a Perth based writer. Her father's story about the fruit box, which has niggled at her for many years, urges to be told now when a new wave of migrants has been forced into the spotlight of the Australian mind. She writes: 'My father, who is 83 years old, is chuffed that his story may have meaning to new generations.'

 

Recent articles by Helena Kadmos.

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Topic tags: Helena Kadmos, creative non-fiction, migration, Greece, education, childhood, family

 

 

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Existing comments

Lovely story
Theo Verbeek | 11 July 2012


Bravo!
Delia Bradshaw | 11 July 2012


Thanks for sharing the stories about your father's childhood. The Greeks have certainly made a marvellous contribution to the Australian culture. They have introduced a warmth and sincerity which was sadly lacking in our British inheritance. I taught in Adelaide for 40 years and found the Greek kids the most enjoyable students to teach of them all.
Dennis | 11 July 2012


Beautiful and also heart wrenching. The pain of such actions remain in ones memory and heart forever. Mr Kadmos thank you for your story, Helena thank you for sharing
Stephanie Bryant | 11 July 2012


What a beautifully told story. The poor immigrant tale seems to be universal - and both sad and touching. You have shared something helpful to those experiencing being "different" today. Thank you.
Kathleen Anderson | 11 July 2012


Thanks for sharing that Helena.
Andrew Del Marco | 11 July 2012


Beautiful writing, happy writing. Thank you.
Elizabeth Brennan | 11 July 2012


There is a real joy in sharing one's story. We all have one and each can inspire in its uniqueness. Let's hope this story encourages others to bring to life some untold chapters from the lives of their loved ones.
Anne | 11 July 2012


A great read for all ages, on many levels... What a special gift to share these stories with your family, friends & the wider Australian community. Beautifully told Helena.
Theresa & Rhiannon Bouwhuis | 11 July 2012


Helena I enjoyed reading your Father's story,I'm sure there are so many stories and history out there that are never told.
Dorothy | 11 July 2012


You stories are wonderful Helena, I wanted to read more!
Juliette Grey | 12 July 2012


a wonderful story about my uncle and mother Millie. One of the many that should be told and remembered about all those early immigrant families
Frank Soldatos | 13 July 2012


Thank you Helena! So well said!
Katharine Massam | 14 July 2012


Thank you sister for capturing the joy & pain I see in our fathers eyes and for a lovely heartfelt narrative. Bravo*
Ally Kadmos | 14 July 2012


I found your story very touching. Thank you for sharing it.
Anne | 15 July 2012


You write beautifully, and like the previous comment from 'Juliette', I want to read more!
Susan | 16 July 2012


Helena, I loved your father's story-it felt so familiar with my own family stories,& it is important for our children, grandchildren & future generations to know their family history. I've just written my late husband's story. I need my grandchildren to know the vital, dashing survivor, as well as the loving, kind, ill Papou. Thank you, Helena......E.D.
evangelia dascarolis | 20 July 2012


Enjoyed the vignettes . Interest with tension rises and I find myself disturbed for the boy. The narrative style seems lean and I get the bones of the story and I am invited to flesh more out by inference and the dry insensitivity of adults. It's not laboured or sentimental but I am drawn to a feeling response .
Kath Daniel | 30 July 2012


Gorgeous. Poignant. Intelligent. Wish I could write a better comment...! Congratulations Helena. I feel like a proud ethnic relative.
Bruno Santarelli | 11 June 2013


Beautifully and poignantly written Helena. Am grateful for your gifts of heart and expression.
Rani | 17 November 2016


Thoroughly enjoyed the reflections. As I have grown older (I'm now 72) I have many questions for my mum and dad. (They're both dead now.) My memory is not the best, but I hope to record, in writing, my past experiences for my sons, who are in their mid-twenties, so that, when they reach an age when they can understand my descriptions they will also come to know their father (as I have come to know him). Thank you ! May you , Your family and friends truly enjoy this Christmas season....Peace-Bernie !
Bernard Mervin | 19 December 2017


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