Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Bit about my wife's heritage

Above: My mother-in-Law Lela, Athens circa 1945, before getting married

In June 1925 Greece was a very politically unstable place. On June 24th there was a coup d'état which saw Major General Theodoros Pangalos come to power. Among the things he did without delay were to prosecute anyone who could possibly challenge his authority, abolish freedom of the press and make it illegal for women's skirts to be more than 30cm above the ground. My mother-in-law Eleni [Lela] was 4 months old.

Pangalou's "reign" was short-lived. Following his disastrous and brief invasion of Bulgaria (sometimes called the "War of the Stray Dog", owing to how it allegedly started) his popularity dipped and he was deposed by former colleagues on August 24th 1926.

Born in February 1925, Lela was the fourth child of five, the preceding three having been sisters Katy and Effoula ("Efi") and brother Theodoraki. There was also a fifth child, another brother, but he was killed during the bloody civil war which wracked the country from 1946 until 1949.

Above: Lela and her "Beau" Kenneth, in an Athens park before they married

Life for the inhabitants of Athens during Lela's childhood was harsh, and became even harsher following the invasions of the country first by the Italians in 1940, then the Germans (assisted by Bulgarian forces) in April 1941. Lela was now just 16 years old. Her teenage years were spent hearing news of one massacre after another of her people by German troops all across the country. I wonder what her adolescent thoughts would have been about whether she'd ever be able to live a "normal" life.

When, in October 1944, the British came to Athens and the Germans left, it may have seemed that things would reach some kind of stability, but then came the civil war. But, now, stationed in Athens among the British Army personnel, was one Kenneth Morton White, from Bath, England. Kenneth was young and handsome, even "dashing" as one would have said in those days.

Quite how they first met I never had enough sense or curiosity to ask my wife's mum. Now, having learned a great deal more about her country's volatile modern history [from among other sources, the books "Captain Correli's Mandolin" and "Eleni"], I would dearly love to have her with us again to ply her with questions about what she remembers from her formative years.

Anyway, however their first meeting came about, Kenneth and Lela were married in Athens somewhere between 1945 and 1948 and were blessed with their first child, my wife's sister Christine, before Lela persuaded her young husband that they'd be better off re-locating to England, which they did between 1950 and 1954, since my wife came into this world after they'd settled in Kenneth's home town of Bath; to be precise: in the village of Bathford just East of the city. By all accounts, Kenneth loved Athens, despite all the political upheaval going on at the time. But to a young Greek girl the UK seemed like paradise. Hang the sunshine, in Britain you didn't need to eat weeds, in Britain there had been a stable kind of democratic government for decades, in Britain there seemed to be the chance of a beautiful life, the kind that she had no idea would ever come to her troubled homeland.

My wife maintains that her mum always loved her husband, even after she found it necessary to flee the family home with her four children circa 1968 and to pursue a divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty. Imagine how hard it was for a Greek woman, who'd taught herself to speak and read English, to provide for four children with ages ranging from their mid-teens to toddler level in the 1960's. My mother-in-law used to tell me that Kenneth just didn't know how to be a good husband. I won't go into it all now, but it seems that he lacked certain interpersonal skills, in much the same way as does someone with Asperger's syndrome. There were other factors involved too, but suffice it to say that despite his glaring inadequacy as a family man, he never stopped loving Lela until the day he died. Really, there's a novel in this story somewhere.

When I first saw my mother-in-law, I was sitting in my dad's car outside their house in the early hours of a Sunday morning after a night out with my new girlfriend, still in the process of saying goodnight, when the sound of high-heels could be heard clip-clopping along the pavement behind us. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I caught sight of Lela for the first time. She was just turning into her garden gate outside the house in Ringswell Gardens on the outskirts of Bath and my first thought was, "Surely this woman's too young to be my girlfriend's mum!"

I was nervous about being introduced to her for the first time, but needn't have been. She immediately put me at my ease and I would say that we were firm friends right from the start. She was a vivacious woman in her mid 40s, slim dark-haired and bubbly, with a ready smile. Right from the start her house was completely open to me. At this time my future wife's sister was working in Athens and so I had yet to meet her. Lela's English was excellent, although her accent always used to fascinate and amuse me. To be honest, for a young 18-year old, having a girlfriend with a Greek mother was quite exotic!

Lela succeeded in raising her four children, Christine, Yvonne [Maria], Paul and Philip while working for the most part as a waitress at the Blathwayt Arms pub/restaurant on Bath Racecourse. Nowadays it's just called "The Blathwayt."

Much of what happened from here on in is contained in the opening chapters of my first book, "Feta Compli!"

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