Meet Helen Michalopoulos

My married name is Helen Michalopoulos, and I was born in Sydney Australia on the 23rd September, 1930. Before I was married, I was known as Nellie Tampazopoulos.

I consider myself to have lived a rather unremarkable life but nonetheless I feel fortunate to have been given that opportunity to share my story. We have a very large family. I am the youngest of nine children born to Nicholas Tampazopoulos and Irene Zorbas. With 8 young children already, in a new country and with an unstable income, it was a very tough time for my parents to feed and clothe all of us.

My parents migrated here to Australia in the early 1920’s from a Greek island called Castellorizo on the edge of the Aegean Sea, a 30 minute boat-ride from the mainland Turkish town of Kas. Castellorizo was a small fishing island with scarce employment opportunities.

They were looking for a new life and made the decision to leave Greece in search of new opportunities for their family. Looking back, it was such a brave move to make in the 1920’s.

When I was 7, our family was devastated by the death of my father, who in his early fifties, died when he abstained from surgery to treat an inflamed goiter. My mother now a widow and a solo parent, was left to raise 9 children between the ages of seven and nineteen.

Life changed a lot after my father died. I grew up a poor child in a poor family, in the Sydney suburbs of Pyrmont and Ultimo. It was reminiscent of the Darcy’s in Ruth Park’s famous novel Poor Man’s Orange – poor and destitute in wartime Australia. Our family had the added burden of being migrants in white Australia during the 1930’s and 40’s.

Early life
Despite being considered a bright child, I was pulled out of school at nine years of age to work in one of many family businesses to help support the family. These ranged from fish shops to fruit shops, from the city through to rural NSW. I never really had a choice in these matters as I was too young to have a voice.

Throughout my childhood through to my early adulthood, it was understood that my earnings were not my own. Every single child in my family was expected to contribute to the pooled income so that there was enough for all. But there never was. Meat and seafood of any kind was always a luxury. It probably explains why I’ve never tired of Christmas ham.

Prior to my marriage to Basil Michalopoulos, at the age of 33, I was a full time carer for my diabetic mother and an adult brother with an intellectual disability. As the youngest child, a woman and single, it was made very clear by my siblings that caring for my ailing mother and brother was considered my duty. I’ll confess at times, I rather resented this.

My Married Life
Marriage opened a new chapter in my life. My husband, Basil Michalopoulos, who was a migrant from Corinth, Greece, was a supportive and motivating partner who encouraged me to be more independent. He was dependable and a great provider.

Both my sons were born early in my marriage, and I didn’t have the opportunity to be a full time mother at that stage. I returned to work as we needed the income. After a time, and as my husband’s real estate business grew, my income wasn’t as crucial and so was able to work on a part time basis, mainly in supermarkets. I was a cashier at Flemings and Woolworths, and I was able to spend that income on myself. In fact, I told my husband, Basil, that I wanted the opportunity to buy nice things for myself as everything I wore prior to my marriage had been someone else’s first. It was a great feeling to have that independence.

I was very house proud when I first got married. I enjoyed cooking and knitting and providing my sons with access to a better quality of life than I had growing up.

I was particularly proficient at mathematics at school and I suppose that’s why I became a good cashier.

When you ask me about my achievements, I really do have to stop and think. I love to make people laugh and I think I do that well. But you see, my generation of women weren’t encouraged to do their own thing and certainly not in my Greek family. I can’t think of anything exceptional that I have achieved. But I have been kind, and I’ve treated people with kindness throughout my life. I do believe in God, even though I’m not particularly religious and I certainly do my best to be a good person. I guess THAT is an achievement!

Special life events
I would have to say the birth of my sons.

What I’ve learnt about life
Always be grateful for what you have.

SummitCare as my preferred home
As the youngest of 9 siblings, I am also the only one to have lived this long! I will be 93 in September and the only one in my family, that I remember, ever living in an Aged Care home. I have been here for 6 and a half years, but I don’t really remember that. Peter, my son, must remind me. Apparently, I came in here for respite care and I stayed as it was unsafe for me to be at home alone. At first it bothered me, and it was hard to adjust. But I really do feel safe here and am very well cared for at SummitCare Waverley.

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