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Happy 70th Birthday Dad

A trip down memory lane

Today is your birthday. You would have turned 70.

It's been 5 years since you left us. I know this because my 5th wedding anniversary is only a few weeks away and I also know this because, my niece, your first grand daughter turned 5 last month. These 2 major events in our lives are what you missed by a few months. I remember that day because I was shooting a friends wedding on a Saturday in October, knowing that the phone call would be coming very soon as there wasn't much time left. I couldn't pull out of the wedding shoot so I pressed through the sorrow growing within me waiting for that phone call. I finished shooting the wedding, got home and the phone rang. I stood by your bedside an hour or so later and said goodbye. It's hard because every time my friends celebrate their wedding anniversary, I'm reminded of that night. It was only a few days earlier that I came to visit and I knew within me that it wasn't long now. I made a real conscious effort to tell you "I love you, Dad" as I left. I never said it often enough, it wasn't that kind of relationship, we just knew. I still remember your last words to me, "I love you too, Son". They're the most precious words I have of you and I tear up each time I think back on them.

I found it very hard looking at photos of my dad since his passing. The hurt was too much too soon to bring up memories that I'd never get to experience again. As a photographer, I make an effort to document my families gatherings, whether it be a special occasion or just a weekend visit to mums. When a family member passes, all you are left with is your memories and any photos to help you remember them. I came to a point a few years ago, probably about two years after dad was gone, that I asked mum about digging up anything and everything she had in terms of family photos. Every few weeks she'd call me up and tell me she had found another plastic bag with some old photos, or a cardboard folder with some loose negatives or even a lone polaroid just sitting on top of an old cupboard. Pretty soon I had nearly 2 large boxes of photos and thus began the quest to digitise as many as I could for archival purposes. Little did I realise I would be going on a journey through time tracing back my fathers footsteps from young boy to old man.

The point of this post is to share some of these photos, and stories, with friends and family, to share a little about the man I called "Dad" and to remember him and his funny ways and to just share this special day in a way that we would if he was still here with us. You may not be sitting around the kitchen table at mums house, or the table out in the backyard next to the garage where he spent many a day with the daily pop ins from the relatives, but if you've ever met the man, you know exactly how the story would go and a few hours later you'd be full of food, you'd be crying from laughter, and you'd be going home happy. That's as simple as he kept his life and he did so for decades.

We start the journey in Greece, in a small village called Metaxada, just outside the capital of Kalamata (yes, where the olives come from), where Peter "Panayiotis" Koukoulas was born in December of 1944. He was one of the middle children in a family of 11 kids. There were 2 sets of twins in that family and he was part of one set with his brother Kostas. Back in those days, village life was pretty much the norm and with so many mouths to feed my Grandfather John "Yiannis" Koukoulas would need to provide his own livestock and crops whilst my Grandmother Maria Koukoulas would do the cooking. I know how simple times were back then because even decades later dad would still cook the same simple meals that he grew up with. I guess nostalgia is a big part of our lives. Even from this young age Dad would be very active with the local church. It wasn't a choice back then, it was simply the lifestyle afforded to people of the village. I never quite understood all the religious traditions growing up, but it clearly meant something to him living in Australia, far away from the world he once knew.

It would be 17 years later that Dad decided to make a new life for himself in Australia. His sister had already made it out this way so he had someone here who could help him when he needed it but he was self sufficient enough to get by on his own and he really did want to make the effort to start afresh, not to forget his roots as a Greek man but to become Australian. A true blue dinky-di Aussie. He was fair dinkum about it, even if he could only pronounced it "fair riggum" after all these decades.

As you do in the first few days of landing in a new country, you and your mates just go sight seeing with your camera and snap photos of everything you consider to be a local landmark. A pier at a beach, a stick in the sand, a cow in a paddock, a train track in Northcote, a machine called a tram near Little Lonsdale St and maybe a big building with a big statue of a man in the front of it.

I'm very thankful that my dad is not an identical twin. Genetically speaking he got the less furry end of the spectrum. "Sometimes I thought my brother was wearing sunglasses when I saw him from a distance" he once told me.

I must admit, Dad was very handsome and he took some of the best portraits, even with his trademark cigarette in hand.

I recall the story Dad once told me of his first real attempt to become part of society. He had been working in various places but found a steady job in a plastics factory where he began to pick up a word here and there from the other locals working with him. It took him only about 3 months to really pick up a decent amount of words that he could begin having conversations with his work colleagues. After all, he only ever knew how to speak Greek.

So one day he built up the courage to go into the local milk bar to buy some bread. He walked in full of confidence and asked "One loaf of bread please.". The owner didn't understand what he was saying. My dad was confused and wondered if he asked it wrong so he tried again "One loaf of bread please.". Still the owner told him that he didn't understand what he was saying. Flustered, dad left empty handed and relayed the story to his friends the next day. Once the laugher had subsided, his work colleagues informed him that they were Italians. They'd never spoken English before and what dad was actually learning to speak was Italian which he mistakenly thought was Australian. Back to the drawing board for him, but he never forgot how to speak Italian and kept learning more and more.

Dad's sister had already come out to Australia a little earlier than he did. She was older than him so had already been married and had a place to stay. She also had another family renting a room in her house when Dad arrived and took one of the other rooms that she had spare. That family turned out to be my mothers family and it was here that she met my dad. It wasn't until a fair few years later that they would finally tie the knot and begin their life together. I only heard the full story about how they met not a few months ago and seeing the photo below of the families together before the real union happened is a treasure.

One thing that dad was known for was his humbleness and willingness to help out, no matter who it was. It was his way of making others who had immigrated from Greece to Australia feel especially welcome. Because of this, he was asked to be the Best Man at many weddings and Godfather to many children. It was something he was especially proud of and he made sure he would never let people down when they needed him.

I remember once asking Dad what he had wanted to become when he was younger. His answer was simply "a Pilot". I never expected to hear that, it was not something I would have associated with him but looking back I can see the desire in him to travel and to take people with him. Alas his father didn't allow it so the desire went unfulfilled but he did get a chance to get into a plane cockpit at one stage from the photos I found.

From a young age dad had a real fascination with cars. He recalled the day he bought his FJ Holden ute and the joy he had driving around Melbourne and using it to help people move things. It was his pride and joy. Actually, all his cars were. But his favourites were his Valiants and when he had saved up his money and bought a brand new Black Chrysler VG Valiant, he was so excited. One of the main jobs he held during this time was as a Taxi Driver. He'd been using someone else's taxi to do his runs with but now that he had his own car and his own license, he was up and away. He knew Melbourne back-to-front and would use his taxi driving as his main source of income, often falling back on it when he went for a different job that didn't work out, so straight back into the taxi and away he went. He kept renewing his license for a few decades so always had the option with him if he needed it.

He would often remind me of this one story as a taxi driver. Dad loved wrestling and would often be found at Festival Hall where the locals would gather for their fix of this entertainment. He'd time his shifts so that he would easily find a fare after the event to take them wherever they needed to go but this one night, this man mountain entered the car and nearly broke the rear shocks. It was Andre the Giant. Dad was in awe of this man. He couldn't believe that one of his favourite wrestlers was in his taxi, in his Valiant, in Melbourne. He didn't care if the car felt like it was scraping across any and every bump. He didn't care that the horses in the straight 6 hemi under the bonnet now felt like an asthmatic donkey. He had Andre the Giant in his car and he LOVED it.

Engagements are huge in my family and this was no exception. All my Uncles and Aunties back in the late 60s/early 70s looked so young. Mum was a stunner. Dad did alright I must say.

Finding old negatives from my parents wedding is truly special. I'm in love with these B&W shots and coloured ones are so cool. They're even in square format, they were hipster before Instagram was.

I think it was commonplace for honeymoons to occur on the Gold Coast back in the 70s. It must have been a boom back then and Sea World seemed like the 'place to be'.

It wasn't long after that I was born, soon followed by my two sisters. Dad was a doting father, and loving uncle and would have made the best grandfather.

I'm so glad my wife was able to meet him a few years beforehand, and to have some photos of them together means the world to me. He loved her dearly. He knew what had happened during my first marriage and he was hurt a lot himself and so was very protective of me going into my second. He couldn't have been any happier with Laura and he knew I wasn't going to be hurt again.

Early on in my life, my grandfather and grandmother came out to visit Dad and his siblings, on separate occasions. I don't really recall those memories at all, I think I was just too young but they were very special for Dad as he hadn't seen family from back home for nearly two decades and it wasn't like he could Skype them each night, it was either STD or IUD calls across phone lines suffering through 2 second audio delays through something that sounded like literal tin cans joined by a string.

Little did Dad know that this would be the last time he would see his father. Years later when he got word his father was sick he began making plans to go over and see his parents before his father passed away but alas he was too late. I can't recall if it was a monetary issue that he couldn't get over there sooner, we weren't exactly a family with petty cash handy, or just that the timing to get passports and tickets organised but it wasn't to be. He still organised a ticket to go and try and make it for the funeral and to see his mother but here is where it gets even sadder for him, he landed in Greece only to learn that his mother had passed away the day before. I don't pretend to know what he was feeling at the time and ever since but you could see the hurt in his eyes when he got back and for years since. It was a regret that he learnt to deal with but something I wouldn't wish upon anyone.

I told you earlier that Dad loved his cars. His Valiant, his pride and joy, well it wasn't feeling that loved of late and reluctantly he decided on a new(er) car. Us kids had no knowledge of his plans. I remember we were all at Uncle Louie's house in Preston and dad had left us there to run an errand but in actual fact he turned up later that day in this huge long orange car which turned out to be our new family car.

Dad loved travelling by road. Mainly by choice because we couldn't really afford to fly. This new Orange boat of a Valiant began the tradition of travelling to Mildura every Easter and Christmas holidays for many years. There was just something about those holidays in that Valiant. Yes an aeroplane would get you there sooner but there is a disconnect there with the journey. I suppose that's why I love driving so much now because I enjoyed it so much back then. And it was all because of that valiant he loved, with its super-easy power steering and lone electric rear window.

One holiday he decided he wanted to go further and aimed for a road trip to Adelaide, but not just Adelaide, some 2 hours past Adelaide to a beach side caravan park in Ardrossan. There is STILL a saying in our family today when we ask about those Ardrossan Caravan Park Sea Breezes.

Dad would often take us to the beach. He loved it, but working a 6 day week meant any day off he had was taken up sleeping. He'd still make an effort to take us to the beach if it was a hot day, he never denied us that, but the one thing I remember about going to the beach is dad passed out on the mat. It was a common occurrence and one we all knew would happen.

In my younger years, dad and I did have some father-son time. In fact it was grandfather-father-son time where all 3 of us would drive down to the Yarra River, find somewhere to settle on the banks just off Punt Rd, and go fishing. We'd mainly catch eels in there. I didn't think anything of it, fishing in the Yarra was just something we did. For me it was more about 3 men bonding. I never ate any eel back then, nor do I now. Other times just dad and me would go fishing with my Uncle and cousin. Those were some early mornings down at the beaches past Geelong. I remember those mornings. I remember the packed food we'd take with us. I remember the smells. I remember the cold. I remember being with my dad. Yet sadly I only have one severely underexposed photo to remember it all by.

Being a labourer for most of his non-taxi driving work life, he became a staunch Labor supporter. He would often caught up in the Labor v Liberal arguments. I applauded him for it. He had made a real effort in his life to become a part of the community and his schooling and grasp of the English language meant he caught make a real impact in his world. He regularly attended their functions and support the local Labor ministers in everything they did. He knew them all and they knew Peter Koukoulas.

His greatest moment was when he met his Labor idol, Bob Hawke, and in his haste to get a photo was caught off guard and gave his best herr derp face. It didn't bother him, this was more important to him than meeting Andre the Giant. He felt special, he felt like he was a part of something and with what had happened in his work life with his back injury he felt like he was contributing again.

But he never forgot his roots and anytime there was a celebration of anything Greek, he was right in there, even putting mum front and centre.

And then for some reason I found some pics of dad on a horse and on a donkey, and I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Growing up, I always remembered dad sitting in the same chair in the kitchen reading his Neos Kosmos and drinking his Greek Coffee. He'd often read the Sun to help with his English but that was 'his' spot. When he began the minor renovations of the kitchen area he would knock out that window behind him and put in sliding doors because his next favourite spot to be found was in his backyard.

He had built a garage and pretty much turned it into a second lounge room. I think he missed the little shack at my grandfathers house so he made one of his own, complete with fireplace, TV, and the remnants of the old kitchen. But it wasn't until he hand built his own combination BBQ/Souvla temple of sorts that he really made the backyard his own. Any time I would come to visit he would always be out there with some form of meat cooking over hot coals. It was his Masterchef area. It's where he would cook for anyone who wanted to eat. I could tell him that I'm bringing over some friends from Uni and he'd get the meat cooking in readiness. I miss his cooking, so much. It wasn't just about the food, it was about letting him have a reason to cook something special for someone, it's what he enjoyed.

Dad always loved dancing. Being from Kalamata, the birth place of the traditional Greek Kalamatiana dances, dancing was in his blood and if there was ever and event on, he'd be there. Dinner Dances were almost a weekly thing for Mum and Dad and if there was nothing official happening somewhere, well the cassette tapes would come out and we'd dance at home. It wasn't about location, it was all about participation. Get up and Dance he'd say.

In the later years he had a fascination with dressing up as a Sheik. I don't know where it came from but it happened one night and it stuck ever since. He had his 'kit' with him ready in the car. If the party called for it, and they usually did, off he went and came back as the star of the show. So much so that soon he had the kids joining him as makeshift belly dancers. If you've ever seen the show you'd know just how popular it got. Tickets were usually sold out in advance.

That's my Dad. It didn't matter who you were or where you were from, he'd invite you into his home for you to be a part of his family and would just make you feel welcome. He loved every one of his nieces and nephews and treated them like his own, it's something I feel in my heart too each time I see my nieces and nephews and I know that's from him. He loved his brothers and sisters, especially those who chose to come out to Australia with him. He loved is mother-in-law and father-in-law like they were his own parents. There wouldn't be day gone by where he wouldn't be at there house around the corner spending time with them. I still remember the small little shack my grandfather made out in his backyard, complete with fireplace, in-wall TV and makeshift cooking area. Dad would always be there, it was his home away from home and some of my fondest memories growing up.

Dad and I nearly shared the same birth day. He was born on the 6th of December and I was on the 9th so it was always a tradition that we'd have our birthdays together. We haven't done that for a while as it would have been nice to share his 70th with him. I remember at my 21st birthday party, we organised a surprise 50th Birthday cake for him. The look on his face was priceless. He had spent so much time helping organise my 21st that for people to stop and think of him and his special occasion was just heartwarming.

One of his proudest moments as a father was to see his first child complete their education, reaching what he considered a pinnacle of a University degree. This was something he was never afforded the luxury of and all his life he wanted to make sure that he could provide a way for his children to do so. When I got my first job out of Uni he would want to know everything about it. I would often bring home work shirts that were given to staff that I would pass on to him. He would wear them with pride (see above). It was his way of saying how proud he was and that's all I needed.

But he was always the prankster so when a cousin graduated be borrowed the gowns and took some photos that he then sent back to Greece. It didn't matter that they were fake but just wearing the gown, just like sitting in the cockpit of that plane, was enough for him.

Sadly the last proud moment of his life was the day of my sisters birthday. She wanted to make a small speech, which wasn't usually the case, and she and her husband announced that they would be having a baby. The whole house erupted and it wasn't long that dad stepped out for a bit. I think it was all overwhelming for him. He wasn't one to show too much emotion, because like me once he lets it out it's hard to stop. He was extremely proud to know he was going to be a grandfather and even though he didn't get to meet his granddaughter he still knew that he was a grandfather which, again, was enough for him.

Dad's older sister passed away not long ago. She had helped him settle into Australia where he met his wife. His twin brother had passed away a few years back and there are still more siblings left back in Greece, but his two remaining siblings here in Australia are still going strong and I see Dad in them each time I catch up with them. This is my family, this was his family.

Dad was the epitome of the Dad joke. I groaned at them then but I love his jokes now. It reminds me of him each time I bring up his classics in conversation with family and friends. But he had a stubborn side which brings me to the last anecdote of this post.

There was a big gathering at his house and about 10 of the cousins were sitting in the kitchen area having our usual food and laughs. In walks dad with his usual "Hey what's going on in here?!" conversation breaker. For some reason, the conversation turned to talk about Collingwood, dads favourite AFL team, and that of Peter Daicos. I remember when dad used to take me to all these Collingwood events where I met players like Peter Moore and Rene Kink and Bill Picken, but Daicos was his favourite, not because of his ability but because he was Greek. Well dad he's not Greek. All of us would tell him "No, he's Macedonian" yet he would insist "No, he's Greek. Daicos, it's a Greek name". Back and forth we'd go "No he isn't", "Yes he is", "No he isn't", "Yes he is" until someone finally comes out and says "Then why is he called the Macedonian Marvel?".

Something clicked in Dad, he knew he was wrong, but his stubborn patriotism for all things Greek caused him to blurt out "Well maybe his brother is Greek" and walked back outside again in a huff. We all looked at each other dumbfounded. That's how dad would win an argument, with something so absurd, so hilarious, that it still lives on today.

Here now is one of my favourite photos of dad that I found going through these negatives. It's this shot of dad at the snow. AT THE SNOW? Dad was never one to go to the snow, he was never one to wear jeans of any sort, nor would he wear anything other than his black dress shoes or steel toed work boots, when working.

This image just threw me when I came across it. It was from a trip that the local Greek Community club had put on to Lake Mountain. They often organised trips for the retired pensioners in the local area and mum and dad were frequent participants, even organisers, of these events. This photo is something I never expected to see and yet here it is, years after he's gone and I see my Dad in a way I'd never seen before.

It's how I picturing him now, he's doing things that I don't know about. He's away enjoying life somewhere and he's OK.

Finally, I miss Dads laugh. It's one of those 'real' laughs, like a child would make when you're tickling them. Dad loved The 3 Stooges. LOVED them. Any time they were on TV he be there watching them and just laughing uncontrollably. It's the happiest I would see him. No matter the issues that were going on in his life, the let downs, the mishaps, the losses, he'd always be laughing. It's how he dealt with things, it's how we all should deal with things.

My sisters and I bought him the entire collection of The 3 Stooges on DVD for Christmas one year, so he could watch them any time he wanted to and it was Easter when I found him in the garage watching an episode. I could hear him laughing from inside the house so I took my video camera out there just to record a snippet of it. It's the most precious video I have of him. I miss that laugh but I'm thankful that I hear him every time I laugh because it comes out quite the same.