At primary school, I was always trying to fit in, but I stood out for a number of reasons, and was often teased. First, I was the only Greek kid in my mostly Anglo Australian class. Whenever my parents came to school, I was very embarrassed because they spoke Greek. And although my surname was Papathanasiou, I shortened it to ‘Pappas’ to make my life easier. Second, I was an only child, and back then, there weren't many only children around. Also, my parents were around 20 years older than other parents. And finally, for some reason, I’d been born in Greece, even though my parents had immigrated to Australia before I was born. These all felt like slightly strange things, but as a child, I just accepted them.
High school was more diverse than primary school, so eventually my differences didn’t seem so important. I did well academically and went on to do a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Science. But then, when I decided to do a PhD, Mum sat me down and told me some big news.
She revealed that they were not actually my mum and dad, but were instead my aunt and uncle. Mum said she’d fallen pregnant three times, but had miscarried every time. She described how she’d tried to adopt a baby from an orphanage in Greece, but it hadn’t worked out. Finally, her brother had said: ‘What if we have another child and you can take and raise it in Australia?’ So my biological parents, who already had two sons, had a third son for her. Mum went to Greece for a few months, where my biological mother taught her how to take care of me, before then taking me to Australia.
At first, I thought this was all an elaborate prank. But when I realised she was telling the truth, I felt shocked, and also a bit angry at both my parents for having lied to me all my life. I also felt curious about these two brothers on the other side of the world, and sad about my biological mum, who I found out had died six years earlier. Mum was asking for forgiveness about that. She said she’d wanted to tell me the truth for a long time. But they felt no time was a good time, especially when they saw me progressing academically. So they said to each other: ‘Let’s wait until he finishes university.’ But when I told them I was planning on studying for a PhD, they realised they couldn’t wait any longer.
Visiting Greece was something that I had to build up the courage to do, because I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of meeting my birth family. In the end, it took me four years, and in that time, my biological father died. When I did finally visit, I saw first-hand how my middle brother, Georgios, was now the sole carer of my mentally impaired eldest brother, Vasilios, who we call Billy. At that time, I was travelling the world and about to do postdoctoral research in America, so this imbalance caused me a fair bit of guilt.
But Georgios said, ‘We don’t want you to feel that way. Billy and I are proud that you’ve progressed academically, and we would hate to hear that your education was wasted, especially after the sacrifice that my aunt and uncle made in taking you away from us to Australia. So the best thing you can do now is to continue your work. And the other thing you can hopefully do is to become a dad because Billy and I haven’t been able to!’
Luckily, I was able to fulfil both of his wishes. In 2013, I took my wife to meet my brothers on our honeymoon, and we’ve since had three sons of our own. I feel there’s a beautiful symmetry in that number, because I’ll finally get to experience the dynamic of three brothers that I missed out on in my childhood. I’m already starting to see them play and wrestle and get on each other’s nerves. But that’s just normal family life, and we love it.
Dad was lucky because he became a grandfather right at the end of his life. And the lady at the centre of it all, who still has an amazing amount of energy and love, and who I admire deeply, is now a grandmother. At the age of 89, Mum still lives at home. Her grandsons visit often, and she always talks to them in Greek, in the same way she once did with me.
My memoir, Little One, which was recently published, is told half in my voice and half in my mum’s.
When I was writing, Mum finally told me about all the pressure she was under when she was young. In the Greek community, everyone had children, and family was everything. So she was judged very harshly, even by her mother-in-law, who said things like: ‘Why can’t you make my son a father? That's your job!’ It was shocking to hear some of these things, but I was very grateful to be able to capture her story. I look forward to the day when I can give the book to my sons to read.
To me, my dad will always be my dad and my mum will always be my mum. I was upset for only a short period when I heard the truth, but when I reflected on all the love and the support they’d shown me over the years, all the negative feelings disappeared.
I still remember Mum saying: ‘I hope you understand. We only just wanted to become parents. We wanted it more than anything else in the world.’
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