Mother & Child

Mother and child.jpg

If my biological clock is ticking, it must be digital, because I’ve never heard a sound come out of it. I’ve been awaiting the maternal urge for most of my life. We’re given to expect it, us girls. Given dolls to play with, younger siblings to mind and practise with. I’m 38 and my friends tell me it’s like an overwhelming emotional pull, painful at times, that renders them teary. But it’s all a mystery to me, I may as well be a man.

   I am at the christening of my sister’s first child, a cute little bundle of eight months, and I’m the godmother. I expect I will be asked when I will have a child of my own. I’m prepared for the good natured jibes of kindly aunts and knowing winks from doting uncles. Most of them are already grandparents and they have pitied my mother and father, who have two grown up daughters, but until eight months ago, no grandchildren. My father is holding my sister’s daughter, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy. Here is a man born to be a father and grandfather; patient, kind, funny and with a true understanding of what is important in life. My mother hovers around him and the baby, eager to be of use, eager to prove that our sex is indispensable to the rearing of children. She's like a fly at a picnic.

   The ceremony ahead of ours is finishing. The priest nods in our direction, and our party moves from the back of the church to the front. The priest takes my hand and asks if I’m the koumbarra. I bow down and kiss his hand in a show of holy piety as is the Greek Orthodox way. If I’m going to be the godmother, I want to be a good one.

“Stand right here,” he tells me in Greek and then asks, “What is the name of the child?”

I stand at the front of the church holding baby Sophia. The priest begins mumbling ancient Greek rites, almost in one long indecipherable word. I’ve been told I’d make a good mother. I’m a caring person, a member of Amnesty International and a vegetarian. But most significantly I come from a happy family. My husband broaches the subject from time to time and I tell him I still feel too young to be a mother, my career is going so well now, and there is too much work to be done in the garden ... excuses.

   The priest is chanting now, and occasionally I recognise a word or phrase that hasn't changed over the centuries. In front of me are beautiful Byzantine icons. I hated this style of art when I was younger, it looked tacky and unrealistic and just plain daggy, but I love it now. I love the way the figures are stylised & how they're not realistic. If you want realism, take a photo. The figures look solemn, heroic. This place is holy they tell us. Don’t laugh, we deal with souls here. The smell of incense soaks into my hair and clothes; I adore this smell. Smokey streaks of light also capture the holy smell, as it wafts through the high space, buoyed by the chanting. Candles burn golden.

   Sophia is taken from me to a small table at the side of the altar and is undressed by my mother and a friend of my sister’s. My sister is standing to the back of the church. She is forbidden to touch her child until the service is over. I don’t understand this rule, just as I don’t understand why I can’t take communion when I’m menstruating, why I’m deemed unclean. Perhaps it’s punishment for failing to conceive.

   I am draped with a pure white towel and the naked child is put into my arms. The hired photographer moves in for a close up. Sophia is anointed with olive oil. A dab is put on her forehead, on both palms and the soles of her feet. The Anglo world has embraced olive oil now too, but for them it is simply a foodstuff, for us it is part of our cultural identity and a potent religious symbol. Think about that next time you’re dunking a piece of bread into it at a trendy cafe and pondering multicultural Melbourne.

Both my husband’s parents were born in the UK but he thinks of himself as 100% Australian and was shocked when I suggested he might want to go over there to get in touch with his roots. “Not interested” he said, “England has nothing to do with me.” Like him, I too was born in Melbourne, but I think of myself as Greek Australian. Us Greeks are like that.

   The priest takes three snippets of Sophia’s hair, and I wonder what that symbolises. I am struck by this voodoo-like ritual. Is there a small doll made in her image behind the altar, that the priest will include in an alternative ceremony, after ours is over? I almost smile, but then remember where I am.

   Another man, a church helper, is chanting along with the priest now, and Sophia is taken from me by the priest and dunked into a tub of water. Of course it’s not just any tub, it is a very large chalice-like object, silver and ornate, with two large handles on either side. It is a part of the church paraphernalia along with the incense burners and candelabras. I have a black and white photograph of myself inside such an object. My hair is wet and the priest has me by the shoulders and underarms. I have puffy cheeks, a full head of dark hair and a look of utter exhaustion on my face. There is a crowd around me.

   There was no crowd at my wedding. You see I was not married in a Greek church, as my sister was, but in a Registry Office. My husband was never christened, and as such could not be married in our church. It was against the rules.

   Sophia is dunked into the tepid water once, twice, thrice. Three is a magical number; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We hold together three fingers when we cross ourselves, three sips of wine are taken during the wedding service. The Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony can take over an hour, it is a heavily ritualised but beautiful service. My wedding took about ten minutes. There was no chanting, no incense; just the smell of disinfectant as used in all public buildings.

“Almost done now my little darling,” I whisper to my god-daughter. She is crying and I look back at my sister who is trying to be brave. It must be difficult for her to keep away from her daughter now. 

   A screaming Sophia is taken away to be dressed by my mother and sister’s friend. Only women are allowed to dress and undress the baby. My mother is efficient, she quickly pulls arms through sleeves, a hat is pushed firmly over a wet head and she has the nappy on in an instant. My sister and I were both out of nappies by the time we were one: Pavlov would have been proud of our mother. I am told to dry myself off on the towel. Sophia’s splashing has wet my new suit and my hair is falling into my face.

   The photographer snaps another shot of Sophia half naked and crying. If I have children they will not need to hide their embarrassing christening pictures. Their father being a heathen will exclude them from this religious service, despite the wishes of their Christian mother. Am I really a Christian? Or simply someone who likes incense and candles? A hippy.

   My mother hands Sophia back to me, dressed in her new Christian white clothes, ones that I, as her godmother, bought for her: white underwear, white dress, white socks and shoes, white hat and a white coat. Her hair is still wet and she’s a little grumpy. My sister walks to the front of the church, their eyes meet and Sophia  immediately stops grumbling. She breaks into a smile and her arms reach out toward her mother.  

   Even if I’m the best godmother in the world, I may never have this sort of bond with another human being. Mother and child. The words themselves evoke something holy. This tie of blood that even my husband and I don’t share. The service is now over and everyone crowds around to wish me and my god-daughter all the best. “Hurry up” they say, smiling. In a couple of years they will stop hinting, they will assume I am barren and will feel sorry for me.

   My sister takes her daughter into her arms.

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