When I was a very young girl, still living in my Nanna’s house in the suburbs of Melbourne with my mother and sister, I befriended a shy young greek boy who was our neighbor.
One of the reasons he was shy was because other children picked on him. He was chubby and even then our society looked down on people who were much heavier than others.
I did notice the way his legs chafed together in his shorts and that he got breathless quickly. I also noticed how his mother would come out into the street and spoon feed him, which was fascinating to watch. I concluded right then that the reason my friend was so round was because his mother was force-feeding him as if she was fattening a chicken…
(If I got hungry I had to go home, or starve… there was no way my mother or even my Nanna was going to come looking for me to feed me in the street…)
When I looked at him, though, my first views were always of his golden brown curly hair, his smooth olive skin, and the glorious smile that lit up his whole face. I made it my mission to bring that smile out as often as I could and we became fast friends.
The little street in Melbourne where we lived did not have nature strips. There were bitumen pavements but no trees or grass and the closest park was blocks away. It had once been an area of nouveau riche people, (probably after the Gold Rush), so there were some large houses in the street and residents with better incomes. In the main, most of the residents were like my Nanna – not so well off, and working hard to make a living. The days of the colonial Gold Rush had long gone.
By the time I was born, the street had become part of an area where many European immigrants lived. They tended to use their yards for anything but children’s playgrounds. They’d have grape vines and veggie patches and concreted ground where tables welcomed family meals but not a lot of space to play, so the greek, italian and turkish children played in the street. My sister and I, being celtic-gaelic descent Australians, were the odd ones out in that scene but well accepted.
My greek friend wasn’t. I don’t think it was just because he was chubby. Chubbiness was common among the immigrant children though he was heavier than most.
(My sister and I were also the odd ones out because we were skinny. That’s why our playmates’ mothers often invited us to lunch. They thought we weren’t getting enough to eat…. Nice to remember being skinny once…)
I think the other children avoided him because he was so serious, and over responsible for his little sister who he had to watch over when she played in the street.
Maybe that, too, brought us together. I was also serious and I had a little sister I was responsible for. (My mother had put her in my arms as a baby and told me I had to look after her, and I did). I could understand the heaviness of that. We had something in common.
The difference between us was that although I was shy, too, nothing could keep me away from the games going on in my Nanna’s back street. Excitement and the fun of being active overrode every caution
While the other kids played cricket, chasey, and hide and seek in our back street, my greek friend did not go there. He lived in our front street and his mother would not let him wander far away. So I would go out there to play with him. I wanted him to have what I got from playing games with others. It was in those moments of playing games that my shyness disappeared.
By nature, he really wasn’t very active, so we played marbles. I got very good at playing marbles and winning all his tom-bowlers but I never kept them. At the end of each game I let him have his marbles back.
One day, he knocked on my Nanna’s front door and called me outside. He said he had something to show me.
He took me up the street to where a flat concrete driveway led to a red painted tin garage door. On the driveway was a puddle. He squatted beside the puddle and said “Look.” So I squatted beside him and looked.
The puddle had the clearest water. It had rained the previous day and the ground around it was now fairly dry but the puddle remained because it was sheltered by the cool shade thrown by the small alcove of rippled tin fence leading into the garage.
The sky was reflected in the puddle and we could see ourselves clearly on the surface but that wasn’t what he wanted to show me. “Look at the bottom!” he said.
On the bottom was a whole new world. There were all sorts of different colors – reds, browns, greens – and things that looked like lichen growing a forest in the watery scape, along with rotting dead leaves merging into the silted land beneath them. There were also tiny newts darting through the water. It was amazing.
Obviously, today I think that the puddle had formed there many times before and possibly had rarely completely dried up, but in that moment something triggered deep inside me and I began to look at the world in a different way.
Firstly, my friend became a romantic poet who made me realize that people don’t always show those deeper parts of themselves so readily. You either have to earn their sharing or wait long enough for them to reveal those elements, but there are often secrets hidden deep inside others that are beautiful and fascinating if you can discover them.
Secondly, I learned that wonderful life can exist in the most confined and unlikely places, that it can thrive to the full in the most ephemeral of moments, and that we need to always be on the alert and awake to each moment in case we miss that extraordinary burgeoning.
Thirdly, I noticed that things are not always what they seem. If I had only peered at the sky or myself reflected in the pool and had never looked past them, I would never have known about the world on the bottom. (Maybe I would have seen but not really acknowledged it, because my focus was too much on the surface).
In our street, although we were not well off, there were big houses with people who were well off. I got to see inside some of them because my Nanna earned some money cooking meals and cleaning house for those who were old and frail.
I learned to view those people not as being different to us or as having more than us but as just people living life and going through its processes in the best way they could.
That attitude may have been fostered by the way my Nanna interacted with those she served. She was never a servant. She was always a friend and a person who cared.
(Nanna’s family had been well off, too, since they were part of the pioneer group who opened up scrub land to farming in the Mallee region of Victoria. She’d also married into another family who were embedded in Australian history, but you’d never know that by talking to Nanna or by the lifestyle she and her children led after her marriage was dissolved – in an era when such things were not done. She was a hard-working, no nonsense battler, just like her immigrant neighbors).
While the way Nanna interacted with others may have grounded me with a general sense of equality when it comes to other people no matter what their wealth or status is, it was the puddle lesson that made me look more to the inside rather than the outside. After that, I could never ignore the underworld or undercurrents in all things, all situations, and all people in my life.
I never view people as being just what they show on the surface. I never class them by what they have or have not.
(Nanna, too, was not what she seemed to be, in her life as a struggling single parent. No one would ever know her founding story unless they were privy to it).
I may not always acknowledge my observations outwardly. The things that I see are secrets that should only be revealed when the time is ready. So I will interact with people on whatever level they seem to want from me, all the while looking well beneath their surface.
Because of this, some people don’t trust me. They think I have ulterior motives. They think I am plotting something.
I’m not. I’m just looking for the bottom of their puddle, that hidden inner beauty that my eye has learned to see.
I am so grateful to my shy greek friend.