Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

Part 2 - November 15, 2016 


In the year 1932, a 22-year-old Giagia continued to toil in the olive orchards alongside her widowed mother on the island of Kythera in Greece. And while her heart ached for the death of her father, the course of this peasant girl's life would take a dramatic turn. On a summer day, she rode her donkey 'Keecho' side saddle to the platia (village square). And she couldn't help but laugh when.. bullseye! A fly had landed right smack dab into a man's cup of coffee. That tall man was a 38-year-old native Kytherian who'd just returned from pursuing business opportunities in America like so many other Greeks. 


The former soldier rarely smiled after his time fighting Axis forces in WWI. But as he cursed and flicked out that bug, he couldn't help but notice Giagia's infectious laughter and her beautiful spirit. His name ~ John Alex Conomos.

Back in those days, arranged marriages were the norm in Greece. And a very intrigued John Conomos wished to make such an arrangement with Giagia's mother. So he approached her mother with said offer. But Giagia, ever progressive and always feisty, was not impressed. 


                         John Alex Conomos    

She told her beloved mother, "I am NOT a piece of meat!" But tearfully~and with great love~her mother shared her greatest fear: with the family so poor and Giagia's father dead, who would take care of Giagia when she died? That heartfelt sentiment resonated with Giagia, so discussions began - much to the dismay of my grandfather's mother and sister.

Disgusted that Giagia's impoverished mother could not provide a substantial dowry, they demanded he not marry her. But my "Papou" (Greek for grandpa) would not be swayed. So in 1932, Penelope and John Conomos were married in a beautiful, small church in Giagia's native village of Agia Anastasia

Penelope Benardos and John Alex Conomos

Years later in 2005, I would visit that platia and that beautiful church with my future husband and my family. We lit candles, prayed and imagined that incredible day so very long ago. Though it was arranged, my grandparents' marriage would become one of great devotion, sacrifice and eternal love. But great sadness would also follow.






Part 3 - November 16, 2016 

Diamani Benardou, Penelope’s mother

After my grandparents wed on our native Greek island of Kythera in 1932, they lived with his parents and sister. While Giagia grew to love her new husband, life at home was far from ideal. 

The Conomos home in the village of Agia Anastasia, Kythera

Disgusted that Giagia's impoverished, widowed mother could not provide a sizeable dowry, her in-laws were cruel. Her mother-in-law refused to let Giagia's mother visit their home. 

And when Giagia gave birth to a beautiful daughter named Chrysanthy (pictured at right) - her mother-in-law shunned the baby too. 

Giagia couldn't help but muse over that sad irony ~ as she had graciously named Chyrsanthy after her. But as Giagia is fond of saying, "such is the life."

So while my Papou toiled in the fields, Giagia also worked - but with little Chrysanthy strapped to her body. Years later I would visit their ancestral home and peer into the well from which Giagia drew water (pictured below). I imagined her perilously toting her 

baby, terrified that Chrysanthy would fall in simply because her in-laws refused to hold her while Giagia worked. And yet like so many of her generation, she suffered in gracious silence, never to burden my Papou with the insults and endless rejection she received. Perhaps she was sustained by a request her own beloved mother 'Damiani' had made to my Papou. She'd said, "Promise me, John, that you will never take her from the island. That my Penelope will live near me always." Though my Papou had kindheartedly agreed, it would prove to be a promise impossible to keep. Life was about to take an irrevocable turn. And my grandparents would soon set sail for the land of opportunity.

Penelope, John, & Baby Chrysanthy

Anastasios Megalconomos (Penelope’s father-in-law) and his daughter Marouli

Penelope and Alexis

Part 4 - November 17, 2016 

“Papou” John Conomos

Though my Greek grandfather 'Papou' promised to never take Giagia from the island, it was a vow he couldn't keep. The Greek economy was weak. The Great Depression was destroying his investments in America. So in 1933, he returned to the US post haste to manage them personally. And a few months later after a poignant goodbye to her beloved mother, Giagia and baby Chrysanthy followed in a life changing journey.

I often wonder - what was it like for her to leave behind the security of that tiny Greek village? In the blink of an eye, she who had only ever traveled by her donkey 'Keecho' would now journey by ship. (And poor Giagia was seasick the entire way.) And when she finally gazed upon that bustling, foreign and intimidating land of opportunity, how did she feel?                                                     

The level of sacrifice and hardship that immigrants like Giagia would endure is unfathomable. Yet to envision her name 'Penelope Conomos' written on an Ellis Island document of admittance into the United States is truly humbling. As my Giagia fondly says - "such is the life" - and thus the human spirit has no choice but to adapt and endure. 

Ellis Island

And so upon their happy reunion at the port, my grandparents began to do just that. The peasant girl who had only ever traveled by donkey, then later by ship, would soon board a train toward their ultimate destination - a rented home in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Though vastly altered, their cycle of life continued. Papou worked in his diner 'The Busy Bee'. Giagia cared for Chrysanthy, befriended other immigrants at their local Greek Orthodox Church and struggled to adapt to American culture. 

  The Busy Bee

But ultimately, it would be years before she could speak English or learn to drive a car. Often feeling alone and isolated, Giagia dreamed of a time she could return to Greece to see her dear mother. But money was scarce and the subsequent World War II made travel impossible. 

So it would be -18- long years before she would set eyes on that beloved face again. Yet a moment of hope soon arrived with the birth of their second daughter. They lovingly christened her 'Damiani' after Giagia's mother. But it wouldn't be long before tragedy arrived at their door.        

Penelope Part 1

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