submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My name is Argiro (Lily) Drakou and it became Argiro Crithary when I married my late husband John. I shouldn’t tell you my age (she joked with a cheeky grin that was characteristic of her light-hearted nature). I was born in 1926 in Karava, Kythera; in the family home with the help of a midwife because in those days there was no doctor. My mother was quite capable in looking after sick people, as well as wrapping bandages and so she would often assist the midwife.
I can’t remember much about those early days and never really found out much about it because we never asked questions. Back then it was almost a general taboo for the children to know a lot about things. The only thing I really remember when I was a child, was celebrating Name Days when we would go visiting friends or relatives in the villages. Going to church was an important part of our early life.
Outside when it was cool they would have the stamyies and I remember playing with my sister poking the holes while mum was inside with the relatives having coffee. I would enjoy the (vrises), the water that came down from the mountains and created streams where a group of us would gather to play; it was always a pleasure. In summer we would often go to Platia Ammo to swim.
My father was Yiannis Drakos and my mother was Panayiota Souri. My father and his brother came from Velanidia, Neapoli where they became boot-makers and that is where my parents got married. My mother was born in Karava. She didn’t have a nickname but I can remember my Yiayia’s nickname was Spidrouyianou. Her husband’s name was Yianni but I didn’t understand where ‘Spidrou’ came from.
When I was a baby, my father left and came to Australia. I never knew him until he came back to Greece when I was seven years old. Up until then, it was only me and my mother at home. When he came back I told her to kick him out of the bed, as I always slept with my mother. I started crying and would ask “who is that strange man?”
It took me a while to get used to his presence. Things became easier when my sister was born; my only sibling. My sister Helen was born in 1934 and that is why there was an eight years age gap between us as dad was in Australia. My parents only had my sister and I, so we were a small family compared to other Greek families around that time because my father was always away in Australia. By the time he brought us out to Australia in 1939, my mother would have been in her 40’s so they couldn’t continue having children. Sadly, she passed away at fourty-seven years of age to breast cancer, which was relatively unheard of back then.
Being in a country town, it was very hard because transport to the city was difficult and ‘any old butcher’ could have been a doctor in the country. She had a lump under her breast, but I remember that she used to comfort us by saying she had fallen while collecting olives. She was selfless and always put us first. Eventually my father brought her down to Sydney and they gave her six months to live. She lived three years. It was four o’clock in the morning when she was taken to the hospital. She became thin and withered. In those days we didn’t know much about it and she came down a couple of times and had radiotherapy; I don’t think chemotherapy was invented back then. That was a very difficult time in our lives.
Life in Karava was okay. In May we would go out with the school to the fields and pick flowers and make necklaces and bangles. Christmas was a big event because we would have all new clothes and shoes. We would go to Ayios Haralambos for the big feasts and every Sunday; and for Name Days we would change and go to Myrtithia. We also visited other churches on the island; Ayia Moni and Ayios Prokopis, which was close to Platia Ammo. We would be looking our best. Of course being an only child at the time, it was not so expensive for my parents so we were in a way spoilt with things that other families just could simply not afford.
My mother was from a family of six. Originally there were seven but the youngest died at four months old with gastroenteritis. There was a doctor in Potamo but by the time they got him to travel by donkey to Karava, it was too late. This is why I named my youngest son, Manuel (Manoli when we christened him), because I had no one else to name him after.
As a young child we didn’t have any animals. Getting around Kythera was primarily by donkey and walking. My husband and I were very accustomed to walking on the island and we mainly walked to Platia Ammo.
When we went back in ‘83, two years after my husband’s stroke, we still walked to the beach. It was about a twenty minute walk. Well there were two ways to get there; you could either go down by the Potamakia or up where the cars now go. In terms of family in Karava, my Yiayia lived by herself down the lane. I remember walking there at nights with only a candle and being completely scared but I would go and sleep with her to keep her company because my Pappou had passed away. My Yiayia passed away just after the war; well she had passed away during the war but we did not find out till after because no letters were coming through at that time.
I first went back to Kythera in 1973 when my daughter got married. She went in ‘71 for a holiday for six months and in the last four weeks she met a local from Karava and fell in love with him. His name is Dimos (Dimitri), they are still married. My daughter Anthea is a jovial girl and fun loving, so it was easy for her to make friends. She would write letters back because there were no phones. They had kept it a secret, so only the families there knew about it.
She wrote to us, “I want you to hear it from me. I met this nice young man, I fell in love with him...it was like a slap in the face, it is him or no one else and if my family objects I will have to choose him.” We did not mind because in Tenterfield, where was she going to find a Greek husband? So we were happy. My daughter was sure, even at twenty, but she wanted him to be sure so she came back and decided to wait two years for him to decide. We had great plans for him to come out, have the wedding and of course for him to work in the café. However, they decided to live in Greece. When she came back no one really knew about the relationship that had developed and they maintained contact via letter. I would help her write the love letters. So in ‘73 she packed her belongings and went over to him. It was hard for me because I left that place and she wanted to go back and live there.
Migration for me was slightly different because I just followed my parents; you never argued. However, if you asked me now if I would like to have stayed and live in Kythera, to be honest, I don’t think I would.
All the kids of Karava went to the same school. I started at seven years of age, a bit older than these days. You see, in Karava, the school had two buildings and upstairs we had first and second class. We had a lady teacher, Maria, who I think came from Piraeus, and the rest of the classes were downstairs where they now have the Karavitiko. Back in my day there were plenty of kids but they all ended up leaving Kythera for mainland Greece and other countries. They closed the school down because these days in Karava you would not get enough students. I finished school when we left for Australia; roughly sixth class. We used to get marked out of ten in those days and I would ace the class. My teacher gave me a certificate to keep just in case I wanted to get a job in Australia.
(Lily showed me her handwriting to attest to her claims of having been a good student. Her writing in English was as good as any.) When I came out to Australia I only went for a few months to school because I was needed in the café and so it was very hard for me to adapt to the language straight away. “I was just fresh out from Greece so how much could I absorb?” My sister Helen on the other hand was younger and adapted to it more easily and ended up going through to year twelve as well as learning to play the violin.
We came out to live in Australia and settled in Cobar in 1939 and my father worked for my uncle, his brother-in-law, for about a year or two. We came out on an English boat named the Strathelan. It took thirty-one days to get to Australia. It stopped in Alexandria where we weren’t allowed to go outside but I had an uncle who had a shop there so he came aboard and brought us food and chocolates. Then we went to Cairo and stayed there for a week. There were roughly twenty-one Greeks on the boat and some were even from Karava. That is where I got my name Lily, because as you would know, it is not the direct translation of Argiro. We met these people from Crete on the boat and they told us that in Australia we would need to change our names to Anglo-Saxon styled ones. She said that she had a neighbour named Argiro, who took the name Lily and therefore so did my parents. “So when anyone asks me, I say that I am lily from the valley, although I am a bit withered now,” she says jokingly.
After working with relatives, my father then decided to open up a business for himself. He had a friend in Young where he learnt to bake and make bread, pies, sweets, toffees and all that is included in the bakery. But twelve months down the track, business was not going as well as he would have liked, with just the bakery. So we opened up a café during the war. We combined it with the bakery and called it ‘The Victory Café’. I would work in the café and my mother would cook even though she had the early stages of her cancer. She and dad would subsequently argue because he didn’t want her to work so hard during her illness. I remember dad waking up at around three every morning to make the dough and prepare the shop.
My father had brought my mother, me and my sister out here. We came just before the war; a couple of months earlier before the outbreak of WW2. Otherwise, we probably would have been stuck somewhere in Greece. You know the Germans had gone to Kythera; they would fix the roads from Karava to Mesa Dimo. One time they went to my Yiayia’s house and asked for her son to help them work. Sadly, his wife had seen her father getting shot by the Germans. The Italians however, were more sociable and soft-natured.
In Cobar we experienced racism where we would be called dagos and all that. I can remember when some of the locals used to drink a lot; it would create tension and problems. My father made sure we didn’t talk Greek in the café because it would have been bad for business. But life there wasn’t altogether bad. We were in Cobar during the Second World War. Business was relatively good and we didn’t feel the effects too badly. The only thing we were worried about was which side Greece was going to take and this was for two reasons; of course we were worried about those back home but we were also concerned for us living here in Australia. We wanted them to join with the allies; otherwise life here would have been much more difficult.
My fathered suffered a lot with Parkinson’s as well as raising two girls after my mother died. Not only was he looking after us, but he had the bakery and the café whilst trying to discipline us and maintain a family home. He was very strict; for example, we couldn’t go out without stockings. We used to take the bread across to the hotel opposite us and one Saturday, I didn’t think dad would notice so I went without stockings and when I got back I was severely reprimanded. He was disciplined with us, very strict and never allowed us to go to the movies, unless mum was with us. He was also a very business savvy and a successful man. After we lost my mother, it was hard because we had to deal with her passing as well as do the work that she did. Dad continued to work very hard for us; it is what he knew to do. All this work did allow me to learn the language quite well as I was out the front conversing and listening in on conversations in English.
After I married, I moved from Tenterfield down to Sydney, where John’s family happened to be close family friends with mine. We had only four days honeymoon in Katoomba. “That was the main place for honeymoons in those days, not Fiji or Hawaii.” Marriage was a very different experience for me, I had no idea what to expect because I had no mother to guide me through it or warn me about it and my father was always working. We were supposed to be in Katoomba for a week but after four days my father- in-law, who was looking after the shop with a cousin of his, called and told us that the chimney had caught fire and we had to come back.
It was very hard adapting to my husband and his café, as it was all foreign to me. Also, my husband John was very shy at the time as well, with the situation being new to him too. We were a proxy but our families knew each other very well from Karava, as that is where John was born also. In the little villages everyone is close; you meet in the church and if you needed help in the fields everyone would help each other out.
Life in Tenterfield was good. We had the café ‘Cameo’ there which was very successful. My kids were born there and went to school there. It was a large part of our lives. My daughters ended up going to college in Glenn Innes which was about an hour away, to progress in an educational sense.
Anthea became a secretary and Peggy went as well and became a worker at the old Bank of NSW (Westpac). My son Emanuel has done a lot of different and interesting jobs like insurance and government work and now he is a landscaper. He also went into the war and served for Australia for three years. My eldest, Harry, helped a lot in the shop and after finishing school decided against college and made his own way through work.
Even after school all the kids would still come back and help because we were very busy. My husband was a disciplined boss and my kids felt he was hard on them. I felt he was hard but fair, which was needed to ensure the success we had there.
We had the old style café with the cubicles around the milk bar, we had tiles on the floor and on the other side, two large fridges for the ice creams and the smallgoods/butter etc. We would polish the apples and put them on display while stacking the lemons behind. Presentation was a big thing for us. A fun story about the lemons was that one night my husband and I heard footsteps from downstairs in the shop. We went down to check it out and my husband grabbed the mop and put me in front. It was the lemons falling down on the floor!
That old style café was a rarity heading into the 90’s which is why the local people kicked up such a stink when the Credit Union wanted to buy the building and forced us to sell and come down to Sydney. We eventually sold in ‘91 and stayed for a few months to show the new people around. The three or four owners after us thought it would be easy work running a café and yet they couldn’t maintain it. They sold all frozen goods, whereas our focus was on fresh produce. We would make steak, t-bone, fillet, crumbed chicken, roast pork (customers used to love the crackling of the pork), sausages, pies (we used to make the pies in the early years and then we got them from Brisbane) and the fish we got by train from Sydney. The fruit lined the front of the counter and was displayed in the window. People would wait outside our café to get room to sit; that’s how busy we were and we would have the health inspectors coming round all the time.
We left Tenterfield and travelled up through Brisbane overnight because my husband’s brother lived there. We then moved to Sydney and stayed in Randwick with my daughter for four months, looking around for a house. That was when we discovered this house in Westmead that I still live in today. Four months later John had a stroke and survived for ten years after that. One night he got up to go to the toilet and fell, I thought he had tripped over the sheet and so I called my son Harry in and we took him to the bathroom but we didn’t realize what was happening. My other son Manuel who had done a bit of training with St John’s came in and immediately told us that he was having a stroke and to call the ambulance. John would have wanted us to get to the methylated spirits, because he was a strong believer in it. For my husband, it was the cure for everything. Even after shaving he would apply it to his face.
He was alright, especially after four months of rehabilitation, and we went to Greece. He would claim the move from Tenterfield was what caused the problem. He did not want to sell ‘The Cameo’. Unfortunately, he had health problems that he never got checked out by a doctor. He had high blood pressure, was overweight, had fluid in the legs and an enlarged heart and he never even took medicine such as Aspro or anything to remedy his problems.
(Placed proudly on her fridge are three photos in horizontal formation signifying her favourite stills of Karava. From left to right is the Church Panayia Despina that stands high above the town with the words Kythera: Peace and Harmony lining the bottom of the photograph and then the beach Platia Ammo that she frequented as a child is in the middle. A photo of Karava in winter, with the almond trees in the foreground framing the shot is on the left hand side.)
The Kytherian Brotherhood in Sydney was quite big back then but because we lived so far away in Tenterfield, we only really went to one function. We came down to Sydney on a few occasions to go to church because there was no Greek Orthodox Church in Tenterfield; when we got married and when we christened our first son Harry. In Sydney there was only one Greek Church in Surry Hills, Ayia Triatha. I came down when my daughter came back from Greece to meet her at the airport. We would spend all night on the train. From Cobar it was like a two day ride down to Sydney, so it was really hard. All I knew was working in the café so I didn’t really have any hobbies then. It was about family and work. There is a funny story I remember that I once had an apron on and it wrote “I hate working on Mondays through to Mondays.” We couldn’t do much in Cobar as well because my father was very strict. He wouldn’t even let us talk to the waitress in our shop because she was Australian and he feared that she would corrupt us.
I remember once there was an international ball and everyone would dress up in their respective country’s colours. My father went as a ‘tsolia’ and my sister as a ‘vrahopoula’. I couldn’t dance much but my husband loved to dance. In the army he would go to the Trocadero and get taught. Before he married he did a show in Tenterfield with the baker’s daughter; he did the la conga. He would try with me in the kitchen and at home but I was not a dancer.
In Tenterfield, I knew Peter Allen’s mother and father. There was also Anthony, from the Wiggles, whose dad lived there and my sister Helen had a crush on him. I would love to go to the movies to see Diana Durban. In Cobar they had both indoor and outdoor cinemas because it was so hot there. In summer it used to blow a reddish-orange dust and sometimes you couldn’t see more than a couple of metres in front of you. Even the water out of the tap and showers would be orangey because of that. The local picture theatre was owned by Cypriots Mr. and Mrs. James. I had relatives, the Souris family who owned a picture theatre in Brisbane. The picture theatres played a major role in our country towns.
Obviously having my kids was a major highlight for me but other than that all I can remember was working cafes in Cobar and Tenterfield. In Cobar we used to close up the shop at twelve and clean it so by the time we left it was one in the morning, keeping in mind we opened at 7am. In Tenterfield, my father-in-law was up at 5am cooking the fish and chips and my husband would go down at 6am to open the shop. We would then get a young cook from Greece every couple of months to help us out. They struggled without a social life. We had them living upstairs and I would make their bed and clean their clothes; we treated them like family. They would constantly leave as they missed the companionship of people their age and so we took over the cooking duties permanently. I once nearly went into labour and I was lucky not to have the baby upstairs. We worked so hard. But I got a taxi to the hospital because we had no car. We didn’t need one, we never went anywhere, never closed the shop, even for a single day.
In terms of tragedies up in Tenterfield we were okay. The only time I had been to the hospital was with my four kids and two operations on my knees. And the way my husband John had become towards the end with his stroke we expected it because he deteriorated so much. I looked after him for eight years at home but he then went to the nursing home. We all felt his loss badly.
My greatest loss was my daughter Peggy. She passed two years ago of cancer. There are still times when I think of her that I feel this choking sensation close in around my throat and it hurts me. Not just because she passed but the manner in which the disease left her towards the end. She suffered and it was killing me to watch on as a parent, helpless in a way. The morphine was her only comfort. And now her daughter, my granddaughter, is getting married this year and I am thinking ‘where is my Peggy?’
My sister also recently passed in 2011 and I miss her company. Our mother’s passing when I was relatively young was also a great difficulty; it was extremely hard for my father to raise two girls alone and it was equally hard for us girls to be without a mother in our most important years.
I’d sum up my life as being quite content and happy. It has been a hard life, especially for a kid living in Kythera and rural Australia, but I am very content with how we ended up.
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This oral history was taken in 2011 by Joshua Kepreotis and final edit in 2014.
submitted by Cristall Short on 09.03.2018
Interesting to read. Thank you. There is a DNA match between Lily Crithary and my mother, they are predicted to be second cousins. My mother's name is Mary Kresos (born 1929). The Kresos name was originally Crithary but it changed somewhere along the way when her father came to the US. Her father's name was John Crithary (born 1878) but from Potamos. John's father was Panagiotis Crithary and his mother was Maria Diacopoulous who grew up near Karavas.
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