Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

Part 20 - December 9, 2016 


In 1964, the indelibly feisty, ever enduring and always evolving Penelope Conomos faced a new loss: the death of her beloved mother. The once indomitable Damiani had succumbed to heart disease back in her homeland of Greece at the age of 78. Her great voice forever silenced, Giagia had no choice but to adapt and to endure alone.

But ever wise, she renewed her laser focus on life's blessings. Now widowed for 7 years, she relished the role of doting grandmother to daughter Anastasia's two girls. She and firstborn Chrysanthy forged even deeper bonds with neighbors and fellow Greek immigrants. And above all, Giagia remained far from idle. She labored at the nearby food processing plant by day, then waltzed and fox trotted the evenings away.

Perhaps she imagined her mother gazing down upon that dance floor with a smile. For like generations of Greeks mothers, Damiani had passed on the sanctity of that beautiful art form. For to dance - be it Greek folklore or classic ballroom - was to feel alive. And 'the life'--with all its imperfections and hardships--was always to be celebrated.

And so yes- despite her personal evolution, the former peasant girl remained true to her island roots. Each week, she'd toil in her vegetable garden, pluck fruit from her trees and mow her lawn. Without Papou to maintain their home, no job became too difficult. No task too large. After all, the indelibly feisty and fit Giagia - so used to Greek bartering and wartime conservation - reasoned: why pay someone to do what she could accomplish herself? So it came as no surprise when Giagia developed a lifelong passion for her ladder and a worrisome obsession with cleaning the gutters on her "little pink home with the red door".

And so for years, her children never argued that particular point with their do-it-all matriarch. For they recognized that Giagia's need to provide and to protect fueled her very determination to adapt and to endure. With Papou long dead, Giagia wished to bestow this incredible gift: that her children would never taste the bitter hardship that had been her constant companion.

And to her utter joy, a few years later Giagia received a gift of her own that exceeded her wildest dreams. The former peasant girl who'd never surpassed a 3rd grade education became the proud mother of an academic. After years of dedication and hard work, her son Tasso - my father - would graduate SJSU with a Bachelor of Science in Geology. He would then earn a Masters in Geology. And then accept a fellowship at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. And finally, he would earn his doctorate in Oceanography at the University of Washington. Little Tasso ~ the boy who hobbled around in leg braces, then became a shoe shiner, farm hand and junior custodian in those passing tender years ~ would ultimately become the well respected Dr. Tasso John Conomos.

But while he pursued that path at U of W, something monumental also happened. An intriguing grad student caught his eye. She was also a first generation American ~ the daughter of immigrants from Lebanon. And she was beautiful. Her name was Janice. And she was about to change Tasso's life and my Giagia's world forever.





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Part 21 - December 12, 2016 

In 1969, two great dreams would come to beautiful fruition for my beloved Giagia--the positively progressive, indelibly feisty and ever evolving Penelope Conomos. For her little boy who once hobbled around in braces, who labored as a farm hand, shoe shiner and junior custodian while attending American public school was to accomplish one of Giagia's greatest dreams. 

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Now an academic - Tasso earned his doctorate in Oceanography from the University of Washington. It marked a beautifully poignant, full circle moment for the former peasant girl who'd never surpassed a 3rd grade education in her homeland of Greece.

But another life changing moment was also about to occur. While pursuing his studies at University of Washington  a fellow graduate caught Tasso's eye. She attended the same local Greek Orthodox church. She too was a first generation American, the child of immigrants from Lebanon. And she was lovely. So after a few years of friendship and dating, Tasso Conomos asked Janice Rottle to marry him.

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And so in February of 1969, the former village girl - who once only ever travelled by donkey, then by ship and later by train - eagerly packed her bags. Locked her door and steered her now 1966 Dodge Dart to the airport. Destination: the Pacific Northwest. And on a beautiful yet rainy Seattle day, Giagia humbly watched life reaffirm itself once again.

Flanked by daughters Chrysanthy and Anastasia, she profoundly reflected upon her family's evolution. Her granddaughters - now flower girls - walking down the aisle. Tuxedo clad Tasso, proudly waiting at the altar. An elegant Janice, walking down the aisle on her father's arm. And the couple donning traditional stefana marital crowns in a Greek Orthodox ceremony so reminiscent of Giagia's own 38 long years ago in Greece.

A poignant photo below from that joyous day shows my father, mother and Giagia in profile. But it also illustrates a heartfelt absence. For Giagia, so often forced to adapt and to endure after Papou's death, was also left to celebrate life's blessings alone. After all of the sacrifices my grandfather made, Papou would never witness the blessings bestowed upon his family. As my Giagia always says, such is the life.

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But at the wedding reception, she would recall a lesson learned from her dear mother in Greece. Despite its hardships and imperfections, life was always to be celebrated. And so Giagia toasted the newlyweds. Mingled with celebrants. And danced. She fox trotted the night away. And in a nod to her heritage, she led the bride in the traditional Greek wedding dance. 

Yes, in that tiny Seattle ballroom, Penelope Conomos savored 'the life' in all its imperfections, beauty and promise. And very soon, my beloved Giagia would have reason to rejoice yet again. For the Conomos family was about to grow by leaps and bounds in another beautiful reaffirmation of life.

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Part 22 - December 13, 2016 

In 1969, my grandmother - the ever evolving and positively progressive Penelope Conomos - planned to embrace a welcome change. After so many years toiling in Greek fields and at American food processing plants, Giagia prepared to step away from the conveyer belt for good. With her daughters happily settled in their own homes nearby, the former peasant girl - who'd never known a day of rest in her entire life - was ready to retire.

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And even better - she was prepared to welcome Tasso back into the Bay Area family fold. After years of pursuing his studies at the University of Washington, Tasso would finally, blessedly, return. Having earned a masters in geology and his doctorate in Oceanography, the newly married Tasso began his career at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park - just a 20 minute drive away from Giagia's 'little pink home with the red door.' Yes, John and Janice planned to move to the Bay Area post haste.. and they would arrive with happy news to share. 

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For the ever evolving, always enduring and indelibly feisty Penelope Conomos was about to become a grandmother once again. And so while Tasso conducted research on the San Francisco Bay in his ship "The Polaris" ~ Giagia helped Janice settle into California living. And then nine months later, the family welcomed a beautiful baby girl, respectfully named Penelope. With her big brown eyes, little Penny was so beautiful ~ that according to family legend~ the nurses at Stanford Hospital fought over who got to hold her. 

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A then few years later, that beautiful cycle of life reaffirmed itself with the arrival of another baby. This time ~ the first and ultimately only grandson in the family. And in another great gesture of love, the proud parents named him after Papou. The birth of baby John marked another bittersweet, full circle moment for the one time village girl turned retiree. 

It seemed that after so many years of having to adapt and to endure ~ the Conomos family circle was now complete. But as Giagia would soon learn ~ God had other plans. For He was about to bestow an unexpected blessing: a final granddaughter for the ever enduring, indelibly feisty, always evolving Penelope Conomos, my Giagia.


Penelope Part 1

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