‘Mum was quiet, gentle’: Melbourne family remembers mother lost to coronavirus

Lots of people claim their mother’s cooking beats any restaurant, but for Malama Valkanidis’ kids, it was true.

“Her cooking was spectacular,” says Peter, her eldest son.

“The spanakopita and the roasts, the bean soups, the fish and salads. She was very proud and passionate about her cooking.”

It’s hard sometimes for Peter, 56, to remember the good times. Specific memories of his mother faded during her exhausting 16-year battle with Alzheimer’s, but her kindness and resilience stayed with him.

“My mum was very humble. She was very quiet, but she was very gentle,” he recalls.

“You couldn’t ask for a more innocent person in life, and I’m not saying that because she’s my mum. She was genuinely a very loving human being, who cared so much for us and our family and friends.”

Malama holding her newborn second son Chris in 1969.
Malama Valkanidis holding her newborn second son Chris in 1969.

Malama’s death on 7 August was added to the statistics now routinely read out by Victorian premier Dan Andrews, one of 12 in the daily toll of Victoria’s Covid-19 victims. But Peter says his mother’s life was so much more than just a number.

Malama grew up in a mountainous region of northern Greece. It was there that she met and married Alex Valkanidis, and started a family.

“Dad was on his motorbike on the way to the hospital for my birth,” Peter says.

“He was stopped on the trail by a pack of wolves. If it wasn’t for the sheer luck of a shepherd coming past with his flock and his dogs, Dad wouldn’t have made it.”

In 1967, Malama and Alex decided to emigrate to Australia, hoping to create a better life for Peter, then three years old.

“On the ship I came down with measles and they had to quarantine me away below decks. Mum was very worried, she thought I was going to die,” Peter says.

Peter doesn’t know if he was separated for hours or for weeks, he just remembers his mother’s fear and subsequent relief when she finally got him back.

But the family’s new life in Australia was off to a difficult start.

“They did it tough in the early years as ethnic migrants. Especially my parent’s generation, but even in mine, there was a lot of racial abuse, name calling and that sort of thing,” Peter says.

In 1969, Malama gave birth to her second son, Chris. Although Malama missed her parents and Greece dearly, her little family managed to find a home in Essendon, teaching themselves English and making friends in the neighbourhood.

“We had really great next door neighbours who were Australian. Jack and Amy were like my uncle and aunty, and their son was my best friend. Jack would come over for a beer in the backyard with dad, and mum would bring out the Greek coffee and mezethes,” Peter recalls.

His father Alex continued the trade he learned in the army, becoming a diesel mechanic and working in “pretty much all the mechanic shops and dealerships in Melbourne”, Peter remembers.

Malama got one of the most Australian jobs around, working in the Chiko Roll factory in Tullamarine.

Peter remembers the little things best about this mother. Her daily routine of cleaning around the house, tending the garden with Alex, and cooking up a storm on the weekends.

Malama with her family at her grandchild’s baptism.
Malama with her family at her grandchild’s baptism.

“Many times when we’d go to visit family friends, on the way back we’d stop to get souvlakis for us kids. Mum and dad would go shopping together to get fresh fruit, veggies and meat. I guess it was that sort of domestic bliss.”

Malama was introverted but incredibly strong, battling prejudice early in her life and depression in her later years.

“She always said something to us – ‘Don’t walk around with a cross in your hands all the time’ – you know, warning us that as an adult, life can be challenging. But to Mum’s detriment, she maybe did carry her cross around too much,” Peter says.

“She was very depressed later in life. That, in my view, pushed her over into Alzheimer’s, because they do say one of the triggers for Alzheimer’s is depression.”

Alex was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, and his last wish was to ensure his wife was safe and comfortable in a nursing home, surrounded by Greek people and culture.

Malama was one of the longest-term residents at St Basil’s in Fawkner, living there for 16 years.

Peter, Chris and Malama’s four grandchildren thought they had already done their grieving. They watched their mother and yiayia slip away over the years, comfortable, but less and less cognisant until eventually, she was bed-bound and unable to communicate. They thought her death would be a peaceful end to a long life, but the Covid-19 outbreak took that from the family.

“I’m not grieving because an 84-year-old woman died, necessarily. It’s painful, we miss our mum, but we have been in pain for years … For us, it was painful because there are no answers,” Peter says.

Like so many others, Peter doesn’t know the details of his mother’s final weeks. She was Covid-positive, but showed no symptoms. There are days where they have no information about what happened, and they don’t know for sure if it was the Alzheimer’s, the coronavirus, or the confusion and stress of the outbreak and admission to hospital that caused her to pass away.

Peter remembers his mother’s little acts of kindness best.
Peter remembers his mother’s little acts of kindness best.

“We just hope that she wasn’t aware of where she was and what was going on. If she was aware, that would have made our pain a lot worse. I really feel for the families going through that,” Peter says.

“My brother is living in France with his family. He couldn’t come over for the funeral. By the time he would have got clearance from the French authorities and landed in Dubai, it could have taken another six weeks to get to Melbourne, so he had to watch the funeral on Zoom.”

But through this pain and confusion, and the battle of trying to grieve from opposite sides of the world, the brothers still have the memories of their mother’s meals.

They may not have tasted her cooking in over a decade, but the brothers still hold Malama as the benchmark for all Greek cuisine.

“You go to a good Greek restaurant and we’re pretty harsh critics of the food. I’ll tell you very quickly ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’, because we compare it to Mum’s,” Peter says.

“It was in a class of its own.”

Source: The Guardian

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