Australian author Susan Johnson experienced a real-life ‘Mamma Mia’ adventure

She lived on a Greek Island with her 85-year-old mother...
Susan Johnson and her mum
Susan Johnson and her mum Barbara.

This is an edited extract from Susan Johnson’s book Aphrodite’s Breath: A Mother and Daughter’s Greek Island Adventure

Looking back, I see there was one shining moment which set the course for the rest of my life. At the time, I recognised the moment for its glories, but I couldn’t know its perfection would forever blaze behind my eyes, coming to stand for everything joyous and free.

I was young, as none of us will ever be again. I was 19 – now I’m 66 – and my moment arrived during my first trip to Europe, the first time I had ever left Australia. It was the coldest European winter in many years: London was grim, Paris blanketed in unseasonable snow, and even Italy had not yet unfurled for spring.

But when I got to Greece, the light and sun and wonder of the Easter Carnival hit me right between the eyes. By the time I reached the island of Kythera – in some myths the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite before she sailed in her shell to Cyprus – I had fallen irrevocably in love. It seemed everything had been leading up to this glorious moment.

I’d been to school in Brisbane with some Kytherian girls – their parents and grandparents were migrants from the small, rocky island above Crete and below the Peloponnese – and when one of my closest friends, Maria, had invited me to stay with her family while they were on Kythera, I’d rushed to accept.

We had been on the island for perhaps a week when I arrived at my moment. Kythera’s dramatic coastline and interior – perilous gorges and soaring peaks, granite cliffs high as Uluru – were offset by pretty villages, some with traditional, white-cubed houses, and with plane trees trailing low over restaurant tables in village squares. There were churches and lush valleys, dances held near clear streams, with tiny children and old men joining hands.

Susan was just 19 when she first visited Kythera.

There was a group of us – a ratbag collection of young people. There was only one bus travelling twice a day from one end of the island to the other – less than 40 kms – but mostly we walked. Sometimes we hitched rides, squishing up in the back of utes, or climbing into trailers hitched to tractors.

One bright morning, Maria and I set off together, walking her donkey, Kitso, down to an uninhabited cove. Hardly any tourists visited the island back then – there was only one hotel – and there was no-one at the cove when we reached the bottom.

Maria tied up the donkey under the shade of an overhanging rock and rigged up her fishing rod. Within half an hour, she had a haul of tiny, silvery-red local fish. I could see her reeling them in, while I lay on my back in water clearer than any I had seen.

It was easy to float – the water had a high salt content – and it was like being held aloft by the breath of angels. Further out, the sea had that particular ultramarine blue of the Aegean, but close up, it revealed everything: rocks, fish, the shape of my own toes.

Maria built a fire to grill the fish, and it was then – standing upright, out of the water – that I happened to glance down at the satiny rocks at my feet, at the eternal sky above meeting the land and the sea, and the beauty of the moment entered my heart so that, to this day, I can close my eyes and return to its shimmer.

That moment led to all my other moments – to my life as a writer, as a wanderer, as a seeker of beauty and joy in their countless forms – right up to that moment when I found myself living back on Kythera 40 years later, this time accompanied by my 85-year-old mum, Barbara.

Not many 85-year-olds would be willing to pack up their lives to live for a year in a place which – let’s face it – is in the back of beyond. Kythera is a seven-hour ferry trip from Athens (or an hour on a small plane) and still doesn’t feature in most tourist itineraries. There are still no high-rise hotels or mass charter flights.

You could say my shining moment joined up with other pivotal moments: both my sons left home within a year of each other, and the newspaper where I’d worked since becoming a sole supporting parent, following my divorce, was offering redundancies. Then I thought: what if I tried to make a living as a writer on Kythera?

Susan and Barbara’s new island home.

The problem was Mum. Like many only daughters in families with sons, I’d become my mother’s unofficial handler (‘carer’ is not the right word, since mum lived alone and still drove everywhere, and vigorously lived life on her own terms, thank you very much).

But since my father and maternal great-grandmother had died, Mum and I had become much closer, and I called her every day. It’s hardly news that love is a prison, and in a reckless moment, I asked Mum if she might consider coming with me to live on a Greek island.

“Why not?” she replied in a blink. “I’ll be close enough to heaven if my time is up. It won’t matter if I die because I’ll be in paradise anyway.”

As anyone can tell you, no-one has returned from paradise with a first-hand report. I perhaps had some idea of what to expect, but it soon became clear Mum did not: she was disappointed from the start.

Before we left Australia, someone told an ex of mine that we were moving to a Greek island and he quipped: “Doesn’t that sound like fun. Mamma Mia! meets Apocalypse Now.” I thought of this over the following months, when Mum complained about the house being too cold, the bathroom being too small to swing a cat, and Kythera having too many abandoned houses. We fought a lot.

But soon we found ourselves in another house (this time chosen by Mum) and as spring arrived at last, with cicadas and the Greek light and wildflowers spilling down the hillsides, Mum warmed up too. Our new house had a pregnant mother cat, and soon there were kittens. We had an abundance of fresh vegetables from the garden – lettuces, tomatoes, zucchini – and our new neighbour brought us calamari and fish straight from the sea. Mum was in her element: using an abundance of lemons to cook Greek egg and lemon soup, chicken with lemon, even lemon curd. The whole world suddenly turned fragrant.

And soon we arrived at another of life’s shining moments: one summer morning, down at the beach, Mum swimming in the same crystal waters I had swum in 40 years before. She turned to me, paddling beside her in the water, smiled, and said, “This is what we came for.”

I couldn’t know everything that was to come, and I’m grateful I have that moment to look back on: Mum and I, happy together in bright water, feeling blessed. She was so brave.

Aphrodite’s Breath: A Mother and Daughter’s Greek Island Adventure, by Susan Johnson can be purchased on Booktopia.

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