Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

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Part 17 - December 6, 2016 


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In 1958, a grieving "Giagia" and her three children finally welcomed some much needed happy news. Daughter Anastasia would graduate magna cum laude from SJSU--the first in their family to earn a college degree. And on August 17th, yet another great dream would come to fruition ~ a new union.

And so that day, Giagia grabbed her clutch, locked the door, then steered her trusted Chevy to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. And when she stepped inside, the celebrants were stunned. For gone was the traditional widow in black ~ if only for the day. And in her place stood a regal, beaming mother of the bride, resplendent in purple silk and long white gloves. It was a triumphant, poignant moment that bespoke a hard lesson profoundly learned: that one so often vanquished by life must also savor the sweetness of victory ~ fleeting though it may be.

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So with a humble heart and an eye to the future, she beamed as beautiful daughter Anastasia (my aunt/Thea) married a good Greek boy from San Francisco. It was a traditional Greek Orthodox ceremony reminiscent of the old country, so very like her own 27 long years ago. And as she watched the bride and groom exchange rings, she deeply felt the weight of Papou's absence. But ever wise, she gratefully welcomed the renewal of life on that beautiful day.

And so in the months to come, shades of the once feisty Penelope Conomos began to reemerge. She honed close friendships both at church and in her neighborhood. She never missed a Sunday Liturgy service. And she rarely lost an opportunity to chase a good deal. For with Giagia, price tags were but merely an American 'suggestion'. So to her children's dismay, she bartered for everything like she was still in Greece. And more often than not, her undeniable mix of charm and intimidation reaped rewarding results. Yes, it seemed the one time spitfire still had some spark left in her. But just as it seemed to crackle and build ~ it would suddenly turn to ash once again.

But then one spring day that spark suddenly, decidedly flared back to life. Checking on a rental property Giagia had acquired, she and Tasso noted something frustrating. That very same slovenly tenant had neglected to water the garden yet again. So just as Giagia grabbed the hose, the tenant opened her door. And Tasso stared in disbelief as the woman - twice Giagia's size - began to berate his mother. "What are you doing wasting MY water, Penelope??" she screamed. 

Well a dignified Giagia kept her cool until she noticed a pile of cigarette butts littering the garden. And. That. Was. That. For to Giagia's way of thinking ~ to defile God's good green earth was to spurn the very good Lord himself. So she aimed that hose right at that mouthy tenant and LET HER RIP. In her trademark Greek accent she roared - "YOUR YARD IS DIRTY -- AND SO ARE YOU!!" Then blasted her with water to the utter shock of a gaping Tasso.

Needless to say.. after that day, the sputtering, stunned and seriously soggy tenant never tangled with the Giagiaster again. But most importantly, an amazed Tasso realized that indeed - despite so much grief - the ever spirited, always determined, indelibly feisty Penelope Conomos had finally, inevitably and marvelously returned. And in Giagia's words ~ that was that.

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Part 18 - December 7, 2016

In the years following what shall forever be known as "the garden hose incident of '58" (see part 17), my grandmother "Giagia" entered into a time of peace and happiness. Indeed, the 1960s brought moments of great pride and much needed healing for the widowed, yet ever feisty, always evolving Penelope Conomos and her three children.

Eldest daughter Chyrsanthy excelled as a valued court clerk and now lived in an apartment near the family's "little pink house with the red door" in San Jose. Son Tasso thrived as a working college student at nearby SJSU as he pursued his Bachelor of Science in Geology. And Anastasia was settling nicely into married life with her Greek husband. She proudly worked as a 4th grade school teacher--helping children receive the public school education that my Giagia so revered and yet never herself achieved back in Greece.

Giagia continued to work tirelessly at the nearby cannery and food processing plant. Tasso often worked there by her side. And from the meager income they earned, she still sent money to my grandfather's relatives in Greece who had been so cruel to her. But in her wisdom, the former peasant girl also added a new dimension to her world ~ a well rounded social life. Reaching beyond her familiar support system of neighbors and fellow Greek immigrants, she sought comfort in friendships born outside her ethnic and religious circle ~ with the American working women who strained by her side at the conveyer belt.

With their encouragement, the now cosmopolitan Giagia adopted a hobby that left her children simply stunned ~ ballroom dancing. Of course, the former village girl was well versed in the art of Greek folk dance. For centuries, the sacred tradition played a crucial role in everyday island life. Greeks danced at religious festivals, wedding ceremonies, to ensure fertility, to overcome depression and to cure ailments. As Giagia learned from her beloved mother Damiani ~ to dance was to truly celebrate life, for each dance told a beautiful story of victory, loss, or resilience. Perhaps through ballroom dance Giagia intended to craft her own tale--a story of survival and resilience from one forced to adapt and to endure too often.

So on many a Saturday night, she would pull on her gloves, grab her clutch and drive her trusted Chevy to a fraternal organization dance. And surrounded by American friends, she'd waltz and fox trot the night away. Platonic male friends now truly accepted that Giagia--though still so very young and beautiful--would never remarry. As her son Tasso, my father, once told me, "Some people are just married for life."

Though my grandparents' union began as an arranged marriage in the old country, the always devoted, ever faithful Giagia would only ever identify herself as "Mrs. John A. Conomos". And in her words, that was that. But soon, she would welcome an additional, wonderful new identity: that of a doting, cherished grandmother. Yes. Penelope Conomos was about to become ~ "Giagia”.



Ann Condas, with daughters Penelope and Diana (Damiani), 1965

Part 19 - December 8, 2016

In 1960, my now 106 year old grandmother eagerly embraced a welcome new role. The eternally feisty, always enduring and ever evolving Penelope Conomos officially became a "Giagia." Daughter Anastasia gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. And in a show of respect, she and her husband named her Damiani after Giagia's beloved mother still living in Greece. A few years later, Giagia's joy multiplied when Anastasia welcomed a second baby girl. And in another great gesture of love, the proud parents christened her Penelope, after my dear grandmother.

The hard as nails Penelope - once reknown for raising her own children under the threat of spanking by Koutala (wooden spoon); who sent them off to school with the daily Greek admonition "do not bring shame to the family name" ~ was by all accounts a doting, devoted, darling of a grandmother. Just like her American counterparts, Giagia spoiled her granddaughters with an abundance of adoration and praise. But she never strayed far from her Greek roots. In lieu of Barbies, she'd give them traditional Greek peasant dolls. And instead of chocolate chip cookies, she'd serve plate after plate of Koulourakia. She'd present those traditional Greek cookies with a joyful order no one dared to ever refuse: "Fae!" Eat! 

But it wouldn't be long before devastating news from Greece tempered Giagia's newfound joy. Her beloved mother Damiani was suddenly ailing. And the resourceful peasant woman--revered in their village for helping to feed neighbors during the WWII Axis Occuption--was growing weaker by the day. Giagia needed to sail to the old country post haste. But ultimately time proved to be unyielding and unkind. Before she could even board a ship to return to those familiar shores, her mother's heart failed. Still living alone on their ancestral island of Kythera, the once indomitable Damiani passed in her lonely little stone cottage overlooking the sea.

Decades later, my future husband and I would join my parents to visit that quiet cottage on the trip of a lifetime to Greece. Surrounded by Damiani's once prolific olive orchards, my father Tasso led us up that rocky terrain to Giagia's ancestral home. He took out his key. Turned the knob. And opened up a world of incredibly poignant family history inside.

With heavy hearts, we solemnly gazed upon those stone walls now bare of family photos. The quiet corner of the cottage where Giagia was miraculously born. The back room where her beloved donkey "Keecho" and the family's livestock slumbered. The adjoining room where Giagia, her mother and three siblings slept side by side on the cold, hard floor. The well outside - now dry. The nearby latrine - a shadow of itself. The voices inside - eternally silent. But for one, of course. 


All these years later, that lone voice now lives in a 'little pink house with the red door' in San Jose, CA. But thousands of miles away that quiet stone cottage still stands proudly overlooking the Mediterranean. Just like my 106 year old Giagia, those lonely walls have defied the test of time. 

Giagia's beloved ancestral home in the village of Agia Anastasia, on the island of Kythera, in the southernmost tip of Greece, still receives the occasional inquisitive visitor. And when it does ~ just like Giagia's traditional Greek dances ~ it eagerly tells an incredible tale of human sacrifice and endurance. It's a beautiful, painful story of one very poor but proud family forced to adapt and to endure so future generations could thrive. As my beloved Giagia always says, "such is the life." And yet.. it hardly seems fair.


Penelope Part 1




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