My long journey to Ithaca
Thanks to my husband, my mother-in-law and her long line of ancestors, I finally made it to Ithaca.
The first time I traveled to Greece was in the summer of 1996. During the planning of our first trip to Europe, my travel companion asked me, amongst the Greek islands that were mentioned in her travel guidebook, which island I wanted to visit.
‘Ithaca.’ I said with utmost certainty.
I was doing a degree in English Literature and that year, we examined The Odyssey in detail as well as some other writings that were inspired by Odysseus’ journey. We didn’t end up going to Ithaca because we would have had to take a ferry from Patras and not from Pireaus which is just outside Athens. We went to the obvious Santorini instead. I never thought about Greece, Ithaca or The Odyssey again till the night I met my husband for the first time, about 6 years later.
My husband and I happened to be in the same bar in Hong Kong that night. He was with a friend and I was with a blind date whom I had no interest in. I wasn’t sure why I stayed for as long as I did – I didn’t even want to look at him anymore and should have gone home by then. While standing next to my blind date in awkward silence, I noticed my husband, then stranger, staring at me. I wasn’t particularly interested in him but then a voice in my head told me firmly that I must get to know him and never let him go.
After my blind date finally figured out that nothing was ever going to happen between us and left, I went over and stood awkwardly next to this stranger whom I must never let go. He promptly turned to me and asked for my name. I heard a gong sound in my head which seemed to confirm that he said the correct code that he didn’t know existed. I hate sleaze and was allergic to all chat-up lines. This stranger turned out to have the gentlest heart which is complete opposite of his rough appearance. We’ve been together for 17 years now and I’ve never heard him say or even hint at anything indecent.
No, I wasn’t going crazy sort of hearing voices. I grew up having guidance from this nameless voice and I never thought it was anything out of ordinary. Since learning the healing art, I understand this voice as my higher-self or spirit guides and that it is a gift that I’m able to hear them easily. My husband once asked me how I could be sure that this voice was not something bad. I simply pointed out that our being together is not at all bad.
He told me that he was Greek, living in Athens, although he was born in Australia. He said him and his friend went to Ithaca recently and asked if I had heard of this place.
‘That was the only place I wanted to go in Greece.’ This stranger unearthed my desire from so long ago.
He told me that his mother was from Ithaca and that he would love to take me there. How did that happen? My secret dream place was this stranger’s birth right.
So I waited for him to take me to Ithaca. For 10 years I waited. Just as long as Penelope waited for Odysseus to come home to Ithaca. My husband and I sort of promised ourselves to each other shortly after that strange encounter and kept a long-distance relationship for 10 years before we finally settled into his home in London. That same year we went to Ithaca together. When we finally went into the sea at Agios Ioannis beach, he asked if it was worth the wait.
‘Yes.’ It was May and the water was beautifully refreshing. I finally came home. My husband is my home and he was worth the wait. Ithaca is a thread that brought us together and it will always have a place in my heart. It symbolizes my long journey home.
My mother-in-law’s journey
My husband said when he visited Ithaca the first time, he cried. He thought Ithaca was like a paradise and was very sad that his mother had to leave behind such a beautiful place because of a catastrophe. In 1953, an earthquake that reached 7.2 on the Richter scale destroyed most of the island and made many people homeless. This happened when my mother-in-law was only about 10 years old. Her family home at Agios Ioannis was destroyed. The economy was bad enough from the aftermath of World War II and the destruction from the earthquake lead to many people emigrating to countries like Australia and America. When my mother-in-law was 17, she followed her brother and sister and emigrated to Australia. If you have seen the beauty of Ithaca, you would understand that leaving it was purely for survival and not for better opportunity. There was also the sad fate of being so far away from her parents and her other siblings, and everyone and everything that she knew.
One day when I visited my parents-in-law in Melbourne, Australia, they took me to a dis-used factory where they met. Originally from Athens, my father-in-law started working when he was 14 and was a seaman when the ship he was working in docked in Australia. He decided to stay behind and made a life for himself there. Whilst working in the factory, he was enchanted by my mother-in-law’s presence. He introduced himself to my mother-in-law’s eldest brother and asked for permission to get to know her. Soon they got together and started a family of their own.
I would like to think that my grandparents-in-law’s suffering was not in vain. They left behind the legacy of the most beautiful island for their children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren to return to.
My mother-in-law the guardian angel of our relationship
My mother-in-law didn’t initiate the relationship between my husband and me but she helped us stay together by being the kindest and most loving person I have ever got to know. Few months after that strange encounter, my husband went home to Australia for Christmas and I was lucky enough to be there for a few days because I was working as a flight attendant. The first time my husband took me to their family home was the first time I met a boyfriend’s parents. My mother-in-law opened the door and gave me a kiss and a warm hug. At the time I wasn’t used to hugging because most Chinese people don’t hug even amongst family members and I was surprised by her warm welcome.
She giggled. She giggled a lot and whenever she kissed me hello, goodnight or goodbye, she giggled. I guess she liked me. About a year or two later, whenever it was time to say goodbye till the next trip, she always said to me, ‘I told my son to marry you. I want you to be my daughter-in-law.’
She didn’t live to witness our wedding. My husband chose a bumpy road and something was always happening that prevented us from living together in the same place. When my husband’s career was finally going well, my mother-in-law was ill and passed away within a year. During her last days in the hospital, my husband told her that we were engaged to marry and she introduced me to all the hospital staff that I was her daughter-in-law. I had always addressed her as ‘mum’ anyway. When we first met, she told me to call her by her first name but my Chinese upbringing forbade me from doing so. Calling her ‘auntie’ seemed weird and Mrs. Anastasaki was such a mouthful. I asked her if I could call her ‘mum’. She giggled.
I heard stories how some people’s parents-in-laws were nightmares. If life had gone whichever way I had wanted it to, I would have loved to live next door to both my in-laws and my parents.
That 10 years when my husband and I lived continents apart was probably the longest challenge I had ever faced. That ‘never let him go’ guidance didn’t help with my endurance and patience. My mother-in-law’s love did. I thought my husband couldn’t have been a bad choice as my life companion when his mother was made of love. It was also because of my mother-in-law that I decided to study Orthodoxy and got baptized last year but that’s another story.
Some people say that God keeps his favourite people closest to him and so sometimes the loveliest people left before their times. This is the best description for my mother-in-law, who passed away when she was 63. I don’t know what words could describe how my husband or his family felt at the time when my own GP actually declared me ‘distraught’ and forbade me from working on the plane for a few weeks and thus giving me the chance to be with my husband, then fiancé.
Call me selfish if you want but during those months after the funeral, whenever I was with my grieving fiancé, all I could think of was that there was no hope of us ever getting married or living together now. All the light that used to shine out of his eyes were gone. Those short visits during my flight layover were never pleasant but I persisted, hoping that my presence could bring a little bit of joy back to his life.
Some say ‘time heals’ but I observed that it wasn’t true for my then fiancé. He seemed to grief even deeper every time I flew over. During one layover I lost all optimism when he was uncommunicative to the point that he barely looked at me and didn’t seem to have enough energy to even say hello. At 8pm he mumbled, ‘Going to bed.’
I started crying in despair. I turned around and saw my mother-in-law’s photo and I cried out silently with my whole being, ‘Mum! Help me! Help him!’ I’m not sure what exactly happened but at that moment, I felt this deep connection with her and I could feel it in the air, as if the air had thickened to cocoon both of us.
Miracle happened the next day. He woke up smiling and told me he dreamt of his mother. From that day on, he slowly became himself again. Soon he said he thought we should get married soonest, as we never knew what tomorrow would bring. We organized a celebrant to marry us at my father-in-law’s backyard.
During my husband’s speech, he said, ‘We are finally married! Let’s hope one day we will live together!’ Oh yes, we continued living in separate continents for a few more years!
My long journey home
The years when my husband and I lived apart taught me a great deal about life. My prince did come but he didn’t save me from loneliness. During the early days of our relationship, I had moaned about when he would ever come and take me home. Soon, I realized that no matter how strong my husband might seem, he had his own challenges and there was no point to fight with fate. So I learnt to enjoy my life by being with my friends and family in Hong Kong, took up belly dancing as hobby and even worked as a professional belly dancer for a while. I also became very grateful of my flight attendant job which ensured that I could visit my husband every month and I cherished all the little moments that we spent together.
At times I would exclaim how we wasted so many years not living together. But then I cannot fathom what life would have been like without that long colourful journey that shaped me into who I am now.
*All photos by my husband AKA PhotoMan‘s very long arm.