Essay: Peter Politeson Medea

Mama becomes Medea

Mama told me that she never divorced my Dad because she was scared that he would kill us kids. I was driving her to physio when she confessed this. She was sitting next to me in the passenger seat and we were looking out of the front windscreen. The car rolled to a stop, and at the pedestrian crossing, a woman in torn jeans pushed a Bugaboo pram over the zebra stripes. Mama has always had an ‘I Need to Say Something’ energy. She talks with a flow that needs to be expunged. Mama reflected on her time in Greece recently. She saw many single mothers. I pointed a finger to the sky: ‘Actually Mama! Divorce is common in present day Greece! Greeks changed with the times, unlike here, where the peasants froze!’ Mama gave it back. She wasn’t scared of what the community thought of her. She was scared that my father would take his double barrelled shotgun and shot me and my sister. She was scared that he’d search for us like a hunter. I turned to her, and she was looking outside the passenger window. I could only see the back of her head – a helmet of grey hair. She let out the tiniest snort, followed by a laugh that was so dismissive that it could have crushed marble.

When I was a child and couldn’t sleep, she sat on the side of my bed and told me the myths. Her sleeping attire was an oversized t-shirt with a frayed hem. Its neckline was warped and exposed her milk white collar bones. I remember the column of long black shiny hair she used to have. The white skin and black hair were supernatural, they were more than Greek. Strands of black hair would fall upon me as she tucked me under a green and gold doona that had a picture of a boxing kangaroo on it. I’d hold her ransom until she would tell me stories of Hercules and his Twelve Labours. I remember him killing the lion with the gold fur, seeing him run across the plane of her thigh. The black hairs on her leg were stones. The dip under her knee was the valley he hiked through. I’d fall asleep to the rhythm of her voice.

The other night I worked till 2am earning minimum wage at the bar. I put a suburban and coke on the counter of the bar and copped a perve at a gay guy’s chest through his open shirt. In between his pec line was a gold medallion of Medusa’s angry face and snake hair. Medusa is associated with contemporary gay culture because of Versace, but most gay men identify strongly with a monster that can give you a death stare.

I’ve always preferred Medea. I love her unhinged at the breakup of her relationship and then her transformation in the second act into the terrifying producer of her own drama. I imagine my mother as Medea, her waist-long hair jet black and shiny. Medea came from Colchis which is modern day Georgia. It’s a country of the Caucasus and the people there share Mama’s colouring. Mama with her skin paler than any Mediterranean. She could be a barbarian of the Baltic. When she first arrived in Australia no one could guess my mother’s race. She arrived in her late twenties when she had black hair down to her waist. She inherited pale white skin from her vlach heritage. Australians, who are notoriously bad at guessing people’s heritage, could never clock her. Men would stop her in the street – ‘Excuse me are you Indian? Excuse me are you Irish?’ – and her eyes would fix forward and she would walk away furiously, a cape of black hair trailing behind her.

The god’s arrows pierced Medea’s heart to make her fall in love with Jason. She saved him with dragon teeth that turned into soldiers and chopped up her brother’s limbs on a boat to slow down her father chasing her. Medea in exile, forsook her own family for Jason. One of the behaviours of coercive control is to alienate partners from their family. My mother had to sneak around to see her sisters, she had to lie when she went to their houses for visits. I imagine Mama as the barbarian, a stranger in stranger land, a sympathetic figure who transgressed for love but was never rewarded. Mama even says εχουμε γεραση στην χενιτια, we have become old in a foreign land and her story becomes bigger than me, becomes a myth. Medea lost everything and the only thing she could do was take his children. Our father doesn’t mean much to me and sister. After I thanked individual members of my family at my first book launch, my sister congratulated me for not mentioning our father.

When I close the bar, I pour industrial bleach on tiles, pump it out of a five litre white plastic container. The yellow label wraps around the container, names it a Category Four chlorinated floor cleaner. I love the order of cleaning signs, clear instructions, sans serif fonts. There’s a wooden broom with polyurethane bristles and I scrub the gel into the broken tiles. The fumes rise to my nose and make me dizzy. With a stream of water that comes out of a hose, everything runs off down a drain. I talk up myself, I’m going to clean my house like this! But I get home late, the place is a mess and I want to sleep in and clean the following day. I shut my eyes.

Mama wakes me with a call. I reach over and pick up the phone. It’s a rush of loud Greek: ‘Wake up! Are you taking me to my appointment? Or are you too busy for your own Mother?’ I say yes and go to the bathroom, splash water on my face like Baba taught me – his military trick to stay awake. More moles have appeared on my face. We call them Elyes, the same word for olives. The things on my face link me to the trees on our ancestral farms in Greece that are older than the nation of Australia.

Driving to Mamas and I switch lanes and radio stations. AM is too mundane with its Anglo monotone; FM is too vulgar with bad pop hooks. A space opens in between two Mack trucks and I speed through them. The air conditioning hiss stops being comforting, becomes claustrophobic, and then I’m driving down the long driveway to the house. Days of heat and rain have caused the grass to grow knee high. Food plants are rampant, parsley and rocket clumps under trees. The olive tree that our white goat Afroditi used to climb is thinner than I remember. Baba has been pruning. There’s an Aleppo pine that Baba smuggled illegally into Australia. It transfers me to the Greek island where I come from. There are no drunken Anglos spewing in this bronze landscape, no rocky Mykonos beaches that smell like amyl. A Greek island should consist of a pro Junta village hugging the coast and a communist one hidden in the mountains. German and Italian bodies from the second world war are buried under pebbled roads and a goddess coos into men’s ears.

Once I wrote a letter to my Mama. I read it at an event called Men of Letters and tried making a case that she is Medea. I presented all the cruel things that she said to me and my sister. Like when my sister took a big lawyer case to the High Court and she dismissed her with a ‘Pfft… will the High Court do the vacuuming?’ I told details of Mama’s sorceress ways, the prophecy coffee cups, how the warble of a currawong means a death in the community. And the time she said, ‘Of all creatures that can think and feel we women are the worst treated things alive’.

In the letter I recounted her history with Baba, when she just got engaged to him and then decided to break it off. It was before me and my sister were born. He tried to win her back and wrote letters for a reconciliation. With the anger of the gods, he threatened to kill her young nieces and nephews. My voice cracked on the stage when I read this. Afterwards people came up to me and congratulated me on my bravery. I was nervous from the attention, thinking about Mama’s bravery, the forty-something years, her shiny black hair turning a dull white. My mouth broke into an uncontrollable smile. There was something perverse about my smile, because there are no stage directions after catharsis and I always thought you must smile when people congratulate you.

Over the kitchen table, I read my Mama the letter. Her hand was wrapped around a mug of Nescafe, one palm flat on the plastic tablecloth. A crystal vase was filled with flowers from our garden. When I finished a smile cracked across her face. She told me that I was wrong. Baba never threatened the children in writing. He was too sneaky to make a written record. A big sneeze comes out of my mouth after reading. I tell her I’m recovering from the flu and she asks me if I have AIDS.

She can’t possibly understand the terror. Running to discreet sexual health clinics to get tested after brief encounters. She doesn’t understand the spectre of HIV for men of my generation. We grew up watching our morning cartoons interrupted by the grim reaper at a bowling alley, mowing down people. We saw healthy young men come back to their family after disappearing and then die of the ‘flu’.

She delivers her AIDS question with a smile and I’m inclined to think she is being deliberately cruel. A meme scrolls through my head: hurt people hurt people. But this pain transforms us into something more than human. My parents becomes myths themselves and the myths can become too close to us.

It was the goddess Hera who made Hercules crazy. He killed his wife and child and the twelve acts of strength were a penance. For all his heroism, the most important myth of Hercules is that he is trying to redeem himself after an act of domestic violence.

After physio I dropped off Mama and went for a long drive without radio or music playing. I pulled over just out front of my apartment. I called my boyfriend, told him the news of me and my sister’s potential death and he said that it was too big for him. I called her up. We talked while she was on the train coming home from work. Did she know that Mama was scared that Baba would have killed us if she initiated divorce? She snorted a yes and punctuated it with a laugh that cut through marble. My sister and my Mama kept information away from me. Stuff that I never realised. Mama never told me why Hercules had to commit those acts and I had to learn why later. But looking back at myself as a child, under the green and gold doona, black strands of hair falling upon me, listening to those twelve acts of strength – I realise those stories were not a lullaby but a prayer. And those myths wove into me. I need to scrub them away, with late night chlorinated bleach and then make up new ones.

I have transformed Mama and Baba. One is Medea, she pours through the streets, her eyes fixed forward as a cape of black hair trails behind her. The other is a temporary mad Hercules, he is full of rage and letters. They are both beings that are bigger than me. It’s a shitty form of narrative therapy or transcendental story telling. It’s better to think of them like this, rather than the facts of it all, knowing that a quarter of all domestic murders in Australia are filicide.