The Tree of Life

I had been searching for a year. Because of the pandemic, in spite of the pandemic and to heal from the pandemic. Finally in May this year I was gifted what seemed to have become an impossible task.

I messaged the hospital manager : “the trees have arrived. I’ll come by later in the week to chat about where to plant them.”

“Excellent” was her answer.

We have a garden of remembrance as you enter our hospital. It has two benches, three tall aloes and a variety of African indigenous lilies. There are two glass walls with stainless steel plaques for anyone to pay homage and remember the departed. One wall has become the Covid-19 Memorial.

A few days later I popped into the manager’s office. 


“ Oh hi Dr Stathoulis” . She always calls me that. We asked about each other. “Can we do a walkabout to see where to plant the trees?” 

“Sure”. She always makes time for me.

We walked into the sun of autumn, a warm day, with the trees huddled in their black plastic uterine bags.

Ziziphus mucronata. The tree of life. That’s what the Zulus call it. uMphafa. If someone dies  in the hospital they bring a  branch from the tree of life and reverently capture the spirit to take it home. They even pay for an extra bus seat on the way home. The branch that has captured the soul of the person who has died is tucked into the eaves of the roof of the homestead to rest. 

I have a plaque in memory of my father’s passing in 2008 on the first glass wall. It reads in Greek: “Η αιωνιότητα είναι ποιότητα, δεν είναι ποσότητα, αυτό είναι το μεγάλο πολύ απλό μυστικό” from Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek. Translated it means “Eternity lies in the quality, not the quantity; that is the great secret.” When I finished school in 1980 I planted a  Ziziphus in the garden of our family home. After my father was buried in Johannesburg I took a branch from that tree and left it at my grandfather’s house in our village in Greece. 

It was difficult to find the trees. I had asked far and wide of nurseries and tree growers and finally a friend of mine, Jane Bedford, who had trained as a traditional healer with the Zulu’s, gifted them to me. A few days later the local nursery found another three small trees for me.

Jane delivered the first three trees as soon as  she got them. The thorns tore at her car seats. He forearms had bright red spots where the thorns had drawn blood.

The tree of life has a straight thorn that points to the future and a curved thorn that connects us to out past. The branch has a zig-zag pattern, much like the path we follow in life.

I had a dream in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was moved by the pain of families who could not visit their loved ones in hospital. I thought of these trees after my dream, and knew I should plant them in our Garden of Remembrance. I finally found them. Rather, they found me. So Rachel the gardener at the hospital planted them. Three in a row. The other three small trees were planted in a group a but further away.

This weekend I mixed some concrete and planted a sign to remember the reason we planted the trees of life.

A sense of peace descended over me. Now my soul can rest a little easier.

Rachel, our gardener planted the trees of life.
The tree of life….
The Garden of Remembrance

Conversations about Recognition

We were out to dinner with some friends last night and the chef was one of Ines’ patients from about two years back. Ines had never been to Vintage India but knew she worked there and looked for her to say hello. They both recognised each other. But that’s not the kind of recognition I am talking about.

I’m talking about the kind where you are acknowledged as a human being for all that you are, by another human being.

My father attained recognition in many ways. He was acknowledged leader in many circumstances, both officially and unofficially. He was acknowledged by the Greek communities in South Africa, by the Greek Church, by his children’s schools and by SAHETI. He remained Honorary Life President of the Federation of Hellenic Communities of South Africa and Honorary Vice-Life President with George Bizos at Honorary Life President of SAHETI.

At my humble high school his name is immortalised on the main sports field stadium. The Peter Stathoulis Stadium has quite a story to it. He was driving past the old Ellis Park Rugby Stadium in Johannesburg as they were demolishing it in 1979 to make way for the new one that eventually hosted the Rugby World Cup Final in 1995, which we both attended.  At that time the sports fields at my six year old high school had just attained the status of non gravel with some grass and were a poor sight for visiting school. There were a few simple scaffolds that made up the grandstands, all of 6 rows, with a sand slope down to the main rugby and athletics field.

My father had the vision to buy the steel structure of the main stadium of the old Ellis Park as scrap (remember, these were the days before Chinese consumption) and stored it until he could organise engineers and contractors to erect the stadium at the high school. When I as a school athlete I ran at many schools. I always noted the names of the stadiums, if any. Some seemed political appointments, most I had no idea. But I bet you none of those stadiums have a history like the one at my school. It is wonderful that his name is emblazoned on the corrugated iron cladding that rises up on the back, on a metal framework that witnessed great matches at the home of Transvaal Rugby.

We had a really good dinner and were brought complimentary sweets in recognition of Ines’ professionalism and caring. Then when we called for the bill there was a slight delay and the manager came out and said “there’s no charge for tonight. Thank you for coming, and it’s our thanks to the doctor here for caring for our aunty”.

That is true recognition.

Vintage India, Durban Sunset

Conversations on Directions

My father always drew a distinction between a house and a home. The former was a shell that was never filled with love or tradition; the latter was filled with family, love, tradition, happiness and sadness. As Zorba the Greek might have paraphrased: “A home held the whole catastrophe”.

Before Greece started its cadastral records for the European Union our house in the Arcadian mountain village of Kakouri had no number, yet everyone knew where we stayed and any visitor could easily be directed from entry into the village. After the avenue of plane trees take the first fork left. At the next intersection our house is diagonally opposite you on the left. And if they lost their instructions they would usually stop at the fork and ask directions of the nearest house, which happened to belong to Caterina Simbonis.

Caterina was a big buxom bossy woman whose small sharp eyes in her round face always peered through her window covered in white lace to see who was coming to the village. At its peak there were no more than 1200 residents in the village. The population has dwindled to a few hundred, and in 2011 the primary school finally closed its doors for lack of youth to teach. So it was easy for Caterina, who was married to my father’s best friend George, to keep up with visitors to the village.

On being asked directions to our house she would squeeze her ample body, plaid blue dress with a black scarf as a belt and her tight bun of grey hair neatly tied, smelling of garlic and goats, into the usually small Fiat rental car. Sometimes the guest’s wife had to get in the back, knees up against her ears while Caterina easily spoke nonstop in Greek to the visitor, irrespective of whether they understood her.

She would motion left at the intersection and do her cross at the churchlet to the Resurrection. Then point straight up the road   and put her hand up to stop at the next intersection and as she said “Takis, Takis” excitedly she would motion for them to park at the house, like some graceful traffic policewoman. She would get out, nudge the gate open and call out for Takis, my father, if she could not see him under the grapevines on the veranda.

He would appear and she would say she has brought guests. He would welcome them and greet them, and introduce them to Caterina. She would embrace them, give them a double cheek garlic kiss and from that moment on they were part of her family.

After the cadastral records were formalised the house was given the number 45. Nothing changed with the number that was the same as our home number in South Africa.

Caterina Simbonis, Second from the Left

Conversations at an Interview

Alberton in the seventies was already blown wide open when one of the Greek community’s sons underwent gender reassignment surgery. In his teens he became a she. There was never any malicious talk that I can remember from that conservative community. There were no hushed whispers when she came to church.

We used to be friends when we were preteens, but then drifted apart. Nothing was forced, and they were a lovely family.

One day my father was interviewing for a post in the company. It was an administrative position, one that would normally be filled by a woman. It’s interesting how gender roles were so fixed in those days, and still we struggle to break them down. South African women were only empowered to vote in 1943. In the years when my father was active on the community there were no woman on the committee. Woman had defined roles, catering in the hall, preparing the bier of Christ, the epitaphio for Good Friday and other important events.

And in those times here was my father interviewing, quite fairly, a gay man for a woman’s post. No doubt my father sat at his ash wood desk with a folio of foolscap pages to make notes. He would have had some questions prepared, written untidily because although he wrote right handed, he was born left handed and all of society forced him to change. Being left handed was too close to the devil, too sinister. While interview, or chairing meetings, he would unnerve people by changing pen from right to left and continue writing.

He would always ask about education and achievements at school, because they were important. Playing sport was a good indicator of social integration. Church attendance was more important than what religion a potential employee followed; I am not sure if Jehovah’s Witnesses were ever employed. I have a feeling they were, but that religion was never discussed at work. Family life was another topic to be covered in the interview. I am not sure how that would have been answered by the gay candidate. It was acceptable in a manner of speaking in those days to declare yourself gay, but not to live with a lover. Of course, marriage to that lover was unheard of, and sodomy was still a crime in the Republic of South Africa.

The candidate was a good option for the job. Well educated, a sportsman, churchgoing and well spoken. My father let him leave.

He called in his senior secretary. Prim and proper, she sat down.

“Yes, Mr Peter?”

“He is a good candidate. But I will not take him. I am worried about you girls.”

Conversations on Potatoes

I know today is a holiday in Greece. The day we said OXI (no) to the invasion by the Italians. Yesterday we said yes to the European banks writing off 50% of their Greek debt. I doubt OXI will change to EFXARISTO (thanks).

My father spent many OXI days making speeches at schools and churches and communities. In 1974 he made a patriotic speech at the new church. Yes, church and state were indivisible. It is filled with rhetoric and slogans. I have translated from the Greek:

“NO to baseness;

NO to darkness;

NO to slavery.”

The great OXI was shouted out loud in October 1940, across the Mediterranean Sea and Balkan Mountains, hearkening back to the Ottoman Occupations and the freedom once known by the expansion of Macedon into Asia by Alexander the Great.

The next speech I have on record is 3 years later. On 28 October 1977 my father made a speech at Marais Viljoen Technical High School. This was a dual medium high school, with beautiful grounds at the foot of the koppies in Alberton. It had a strong academic and sporting tradition. They were my high school’s arch enemies in athletics. I remember running a 200m race and being cut off by their star sprinter in the corner as I overtook him on the inside. I lost that race, but we won the 4 x 100 m relay.

He was invited to speak at the conservative school on  ”What Hellenism has Contributed to South Africa” . It must be one of the few speeches he made on 28 October that did not contain any slogans and win which not a word of Greek was spoken. In fact, in that speech he does not mention the relevance of the day to Greeks.

He expounds on the history of Greeks arriving in South Africa:

The he moved on to explain the two types of immigrants who arrived: the unskilled initially and then the skilled. All of who had the entrepreneurial spirit. He expounds on great Greek sportsman, but refrains from mentioning that the Greeks started the Olympic games.

Along the way in trying to explain the dual nature of the South African Greeks he emphasises that “ we do not worship two gods”. I am not sure why he said that.

He concludes the four  page speech typed on a typewriter and edited with Tipex with a summary of the commercial success of South Africa Greeks. A classic is the Potato King, Lampies Nichas, whose spud empire threateden the USA.  They supported farmers to outstrip his production so that he would lose his dominance in the industry.

Conversations about Pictures

When my father was at school and varsity he used to develop and print black and white pictures in the bathroom at the old house. The prints were smaller than a postcard and were contact prints. He placed the negative over the paper and exposed it to light. No enlarger.

At home these prints were stored in the study in an old shoe box, along with other photographs of holidays and events. There was also an old brown suitcase with chrome locks that housed the 8mm films of family and sporting events. He never made the transition to a video camera but embraced digital photography. The thing about digital photography is that he bought a new memory stick whenever the camera had no more file space, and never downloaded them on a computer. He always had jumbo prints made of his pictures with digital cameras.

A few years ago he digitised the 8mm films. The athletics meetings we participated in were a harsh reminder of fit and fast young days. The family parties were a reminder of simpler functions. There was food and drink on the table, and afterwards they would often get up and dance, no hifi or disco, just a small tape recorder making the noise. The community affairs and Greek National Days were funny, with important looking Greeks posing for the camera and children reciting poems they did not understand. Wearing clothes they were embarrassed to have on: the foustanella (white pleated skirt) and white stockings.

At home in South Africa, in the lounge and dining room, are only wedding pictures of my father, his parents and his children.  The face of his only son-in-law does not shine in those rooms. At home in the village, in the simpler dining room cum lounge, there are all the family weddings, including his siblings and their children. There is also a table of frames filled with family pictures and achievements, birthday milestones and graduation pictures. In South Africa my mother’s fridge smiled with happy pictures of grandchildren, godchildren and pets.

In fairness, the house in South Africa was my father’s. The house in Greece was my grandfather’s.  So, in fairness, my father has honoured the genealogy of the house in Kakouri.

Whenever I am in the village I always spend some time being quiet and looking at the pictures. People preserved in their finest, at their finest hour. Smiles that hide the anticipation of a journey to an unknown world in Africa. Smiles that hide the next 47 years of marriage and end with fracturing of a relationship with a daughter. Smiles that hide the knowledge of a career not chosen. Smiles that hide children, and no children.

Still they smiled.

Conversations with the Baker’s Wife

The straight road from our village Artemisio into Tripolis reaches the first platea or square quickly. The bus stops here as well, and it’s our village square. The villagers alight here, greet each other and bemoan the state of affairs.  The square is dry and dusty, with bright light because all the buildings are painted white or have white marble cladding. The sidewalks are narrow and uneven. The roads congested with cars, and the occasional bumper bashing adds excitement.

If you turn left then left again around the square, further down the next block is a bakery. My father would always have a spot to park nearby and his first stop was always the bakery. In the morning all the breads and cakes and pitas had been baked and the smell stopped you even if you thought you were in a rush and had to be somewhere else..

The daughters behind the counter would always call their mother when my father arrived.  My father would tip his hat at the iconostasio high up in the middle of the bakery, facing the entrance, at the photograph of her late husband. A big man with a handlebar moustache. She would ackwoledge the greeting of her late husband, smile, and they would exchange small talk. He would always leave with a koulouraki or kourambiede or some other sweet in the morning.

Anybody who accompanied my father was always introduced, and their lineage dissected to a level where both parties were satisfied they could guarantee an understanding of who they were talking about and what relationship existed with a visitor from say three years back. With the “aha” moment a big smile would spread over both faces and the bond was deepened. The visitor would then be offered the freshest biscuit or pita, warm and fragrant, as one of the daughter came out with tongs to serve.

My father was in the village for maybe two months of the year, sometimes only a few days at a time when he had bank meetings. Yet he never failed to stop at the bakery and enquire to their health and progress of the family. He also never failed to make sure he walked into Tripolis with a fortifying offering from the baker’s wife.

He would always return just before lunch to buy bread for the house. Happiest when it was a large round village bread, the crust of which could withstand the pressure from any other shopping bags with which it was forced into the car. Also the bread felt it was made of something, it had weight beyond the airiness of designer and convenient breads of the American lifestyle.