Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos


Part 11 - November 28, 2016 

The month of September, 1945 brought great relief to Giagia's New Kensington, PA home. WWII had finally come to an end. And soon, a letter from Greece arrived with welcome, but sobering news. The beloved mother and siblings Giagia had left behind in Greece were indeed alive. But a picture of her older sister revealed great suffering. Her stomach distended and eyes hollowed, Calliope nearly starved to death under Axis rule. And as Greece mourned a huge death toll, the people faced yet another tribulation. 

With the Greek economy devastated under Axis occupation, the task to rebuild would be daunting - and civil unrest was brewing. So as American soldiers returned home and working women left factories, Giagia sprung into action. She'd gather clothing, shoes and cash, then wrap them in cloth tightly sown with heavy thread. Little Tasso once remarked that "they look like giant American baseballs, Mama." Such measures were taken to ensure safe delivery. Yet Giagia suspected theft was rampant and to her utter frustration, many care packages never reached her family. Nevertheless, she would send even more off again and again with hope and prayers. 

Meanwhile at Papou's "The Busy Bee" diner, business slowed as military customers returned home. And the local New Kensington crime family only exacerbated the problem. Running local prostitution, loansharking and gambling, they also "taxed" most produce, meat and goods needed for inventory. So one day in 1946, "The Busy Bee" served its last hungry customer and shut its doors. And with the end of that era, Papou looked forward to retiring. 

But such was not meant to be. As if the Great Depression wasn't hard enough, Papou and Giagia learned terrible news. Whatever savings they'd left secured in the Greek bank in their homeland had turned to ash. And now any reunion between Giagia and her beloved mother siblings would face yet another agonizing delay


Part 12 - November 29, 2016 

After my grandparents lost savings in the post WWII Greek economy, the ever determined Giagia would live by a new euphemism. Yes, "such was the life" - but for her family to adapt and endure, they would "never put the chicken eggs in one basket again." And that was that. 

So while Papou settled into a new restaurant in New Kensington, PA - "The Kopper Kettle" - Giagia decided to wait tables there. And even though some diners assumed she was French and called her 'Fifi', somehow they didn't find her hair in their soup! Yet when it came to her children, Giagia was far less lenient. By her insistence, all were duly employed at the age of 12. Daughters Chrysanthy and Anastasia as assistant librarians. Little Tasso as a junior custodian, then future shoe-shiner, paper boy, and farm hand. 

Giagia's master plan? The harder the children worked, the more deeply they'd appreciate American education. And that was that. For after all, no one dared challenge "Mama's" grand vision. While some Greek mothers threatened the wooden "koutali" (spoon), Giagia had only to bend, then bite her index knuckle - and that sign of displeasure did the trick. 

And so when she decreed it was time SHE learn to drive, that was also that. Crammed into the back seat of neighbor Mrs. Miller's '39 Ford, the kids battled carsickness while Giagia battled the 4 speed stick shift. And when she declared the time -still- wasn't right to buy a family car, no one complained. After all, they'd always walked everywhere ~ what was a few more years on their feet? So that was that. And when "Mama" insisted the children "just sign the bank card!" they did just that - and were later amazed to learn she meticulously tracked interest rates and used a stockbroker. 

And finally, after a few more years, when Giagia announced, "the moment has come" - no one uttered a word of dissent. Not one. For it had been 18 long years since Giagia had left the shores of Greece to come to America. And it was finally time to reunite with the beloved mother and siblings she'd left behind so very long ago in her homeland.


Penelope Part 1

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