My parents would phone their respective mothers in Greece once a month. The calls would be placed successively on a Sunday evening. The atmosphere was always slightly hysterical with the need to fill in the vacuum of the previous month. How to transmit the sense of daily life in South Africa in précis while the clock and the meter were running?What to speak of first? The children? Work? Your deep-seated and permanent nostalgia for the small things: pots of basil, tomatoes in the summer, that particular shade of blue paint, the smell of your mother?
The small facts of your existence were already strung out in the past like the carriages of a receding train. Each truncated conversation freighted with loss. All sense of immediacy held hostage to the platitudes that settled heavily on these monthly rituals. My father’s mother resorting to guilt and bitterness. A permanent sense that she had been wronged by the twin disasters of distance and time. Enforced cheer on my maternal grandmother’s side to keep my mother positive, with both having a tendency to melancholy that needed to be averted.
Eventually there would be a summoning to the phone. “Come say hello to your grandmother.” Followed by the staccato “Fine, fine, fine” of the put-upon child.
Each generation of families living apart has its own pain, I suppose. I think of the people who relied on the post. Letters substituting for the particular timbre of voices you feared you had already forgotten. So, it is not true to say that I had not seen my family for over two years. The wonder of contemporary technology ensured that I saw them practically every day during the pandemic. My mother filling the screen with her need for connection and my father always appearing left of centre. A similar dance happening every time we called — my mother skewing the phone towards him, and shouting, “Say hello to the child.”
I looked at the gradations of the seasons outside their window as they held up the phone to the blue skies, the lapping sea, the bougainvillea blossoming riotously and then fading into a washed-out pink. Every day I thanked the gods of science that at least one element of the future as envisioned by Star Trek had been realised in our time.
When you’re isolated on different continents, the privilege of video telephony cannot be overestimated. We could watch my brother’s baby daughter in London grow and play in real time. And the joys of uncapped data meant morning coffee could be taken together, almost as though time and space had collapsed and the family in London, Samos, Joburg, and Cape Town could all chat together — at once. The interruptions and shouting over each other just another telephonic miracle. Almost like real life.
Each generation of families living apart has its own pain
And yet, a sense of gloom hung over these calls. Where was the damn teleporter when you needed it most? I longed for the sweet and singular comfort of my parents’ embrace. I wanted to hold that baby in my arms so hard to stop her slipping out of her infancy and settling into her words and her feet and her mutable personality. And I longed for all of the quotidian delights of place with the same intensity of nostalgia I now recognised in my parents.
Oh, to find myself buffeted and buoyed by the sea of all my childhood summers, and then to chase that heavenly pleasure with an ouzo and calamari and the silly banter of my people and their foibles around a shared table. It suddenly felt like only the gentle rhythms of my parents’ household could fix me again. These two years had been cruel in so many unfathomable ways.
As the tiny propeller plane landed on Samos I felt my chest unclench. I’d never realised how tightly I’d been wound.
For now, just a happy list: the susurration of the crickets during the afternoon siesta, the stolen figs from the only tree that had ripened in the olive groves, the daily walk to the coffee shop in the bay, the sighting of the familiar island prototypes — the bearded fishermen, the disco lotharios, the friendly fires, the souvlaki at Robinson’s, the annual hike up through the forests and vineyards, the greeting of the potter who remembers us every summer, Oresti serving us honeyed dumplings under the moonlight at the open-air cinema, watermelon, ancient ruins propped haphazardly next to the DJ on the beach, and my mother’s Greek coffee taken every morning with her sitting in close proximity.
These simple rituals of continuity are the balm to my wounds.
• From the November issue of Wanted 2021.