Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

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Part 23 - December 14, 2016

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In 1974, my grandmother - the resoundingly resourceful and always able Penelope Conomos - found herself entrusted with an enormous task. The former Greek village girl turned Americanized grandmother would take charge of the care and feeding of (my siblings) a 4 year old Penny and a 2 year old Johnny. For her son Tasso needed to take a business trip to Paris, France. And his wife Janice was to accompany him in what would become a life changing trip.

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And so as they boarded that plane, Giagia herded the children. Strapped them inside her 1966 Dodge Dart and whisked them home for two weeks under her ethnic loving care. Upon Tasso and Janice's return, the no nonsense Giagia would say in her trademark Greek accent, "You should have stayed in Paris two more days. I would have had Johnny potty trained!" And while his appreciative parents might have shared a laugh, little Johnny was far from amused.

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For he would not soon forgive his absentee parents for leaving him in the care of that strict taskmaster. The woman with the strange accent ~ who grew her own vegetables and out maneuvered every tantrum ~ took absolutely no prisoners! And to make matters even worse, poor Johnny would soon learn dreaded news. Mommy and Daddy brought home an unexpected souveneir--and 'it' was set to arrive nine months later.

And so on March 9th, the ever resourceful Giagia took care of little Penny and Johnny once again. This time their parents would take another shorter--but no less monumental trip--to the nearby Stanford Hospital. In a small delivery room on the second floor, Janice was set to give birth. And a few hours later, a baby girl with a full head of hair barreled into the world. Her name ~ Alexa.

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The next day, Giagia would journey to that hospital to meet her youngest grandchild. Upon holding that tiny bundle, she warily inspected every newborn inch. For she never forgot the pain of losing her own baby girl 39 years ago. But determining that God's new creation seemed hearty and whole, she emitted her trademark laugh and reveled in this affirmation of life. Little did she know she'd met her match: a mini-me to meet her laugh for laugh and wit for wit ~ but whose returning love would exceed even her greatest expectations.

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And so, after decades of hardship in her homeland of Greece and her new home in America, Giagia would enjoy a season of love and prosperity that would last for years. But great tragedy would once again cast a shadow upon her door. And the always evolving, ever enduring Penelope Conomos and her family would never be the same.

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Part 24 - December 15, 2016

In 1974, my grandmother - the ever evolving, wonderfully witty Penelope Conomos - began to enjoy a season of prosperity. She gratefully welcomed the birth of her final grandchild - a baby girl named Alexa. And with her children and five grandchildren now all living nearby, the Conomos family circle was complete. 

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And so over the years, the former peasant girl who'd never surpassed a 3rd grade education would attend every graduation. After leaving her primary family behind in Greece decades ago, she would spend every birthday and holiday with the new one she and Papou created in America. And time after time, the indelibly feisty Penelope Conomos would simply astound her 2nd generation American grandchildren. 

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For they would often wonder ~ what did she do to keep her '66 Dodge Dart so pristine? How did she understand THEIR jokes, then laugh louder than anyone else? Just where did she find the energy to mow her lawn, clean the gutters and climb the roof of her home? And on occasional fishing trips, how did she catch more trout than all of her grandkids combined? Yes, after all that wondering, they could only conclude one thing ~ their Giagia was the eighth wonder of the world.

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Even more years later, one grandchild seized upon the opportunity of a lifetime. Admitted into Santa Clara University - I would live less than a mile away from my beloved Giagia. And so over the next four years, I'd pack my school bag. Walk to that little pink house. Knock on the red door. And be welcomed into a world of warmth with her trademark greeting ~ "Oh my Alexa, my sweetheart!"

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And so after a little studying and a big Greek meal, we would sit at that tiny kitchen table and talk about 'the life.' And what emerged was the poignant story of a poor village girl who faced and overcame countless tribulations with courage and grit. Until that moment, I never truly appreciated the depth of loss she endured so that one day I could lead a richer life. But now, as I recall that my university sits across the street from the very factory where Giagia labored for years, I can't help but cry for the profound irony.

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In later years, Giagia and I would share another poignant conversation at her kitchen table. I'd just accepted my first reporting job in Palm Springs, CA. And in tears, I shared that I was afraid to move away from home. But in her trademark accent she said, "Oh my Alexa. Do not worry so. Remember that I left my mother in Greece to come to America. It will be alright." And yet, she would come to regret that long ago conversation. For that first job redirected the path of my life - and it now winds thousands of miles away from my Giagia.

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Over the years ~ weddings, baptisms, and just plain missing that feisty family matriarch would beckon me home for sweet reunions. But soon, a painful event would bring Giagia and her children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren together once again. A loss so profound the Conomos family would never be the same. 





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Part 25 - December 16, 2016

On a December night in 2002, my Giagia ~ the ever evolving, marvelous matriarch Penelope Conomos ~ savored a rare, full circle moment. With her youngest grandchild Alexa home for the holidays, the entire family reunited to plan the journey of a lifetime - a family trip to Giagia's beloved homeland of Greece. 

Their tour guide would be the always animated Anastasia--Giagia's second daughter. For ever zealous about their heritage, she'd often visited those shores to trace and to preserve their family lineage. And with each visit, she developed a lifelong passion for the homeland and legacy that Giagia had left behind so long ago.

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But later that very night, the phone rang with terrible news. No less than an hour after the family parted, Anastasia suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. After conducting a battery of tests, the results were devastating. Seemingly overnight, Anastasia had developed stage 4 cancer. And she was now in the fight for her life.

But the cancer would not relent. And as her health deteriorated, Anastasia would ask Giagia for one final gift: to visit their homeland one last time together. So at the age of 95, the still vigorous former peasant girl who'd once only ever travelled by donkey, then by boat and train, would now board a plane to grant her daughter's dying wish.

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Upon arriving at the familiar shores of Kythera with my father and other relatives, Giagia would lead Anastasia on final jaunts through time. To that lonely stone cottage overlooking the sea where Giagia had miraculously been born. The platia where Papou had first glimpsed the beautiful, laughing Giagia riding her donkey side saddle to market. And to the family cemetery - the eternal home of Giagia's beloved mother and relatives. It was also where Giagia's trademark feisty nature reared its wonderful head again.

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For per Greek tradition, relatives were buried together. One by one they'd re-open the slab and add another family member to the club. So upon reading the names on that family grave, she'd say, "My beloved Mother!" Cue wailing. "My sweet cousin!" More crying. "Oh look, there's so and so". More weeping. And then finally, an abrupt: "And there's--. Wait, what the--? What the hell is SHE doing in there??"


Indeed, amid such sadness, Giagia's inner fire provided much needed strength. For no one truly realized how much grit she'd have to muster to revisit the memories of her past. Each jaunt was a reminder of just how much she'd had to adapt and to endure over the years. And that very soon, she would have to do so yet again.

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So upon returning to American soil beside her precious Anastasia, the usually ever gracious, always wise Giagia became angry. And so having fulfilled Anastasia's last wish ~ she made this solemn vow: that she would never return to the shores of her beloved Greece again. Such is the life.



Friends, the pictures below show my beloved Aunt Anne on her first visit to Greece in 1960 (where she met Giagia's mother for the first time) - and her final trip in 2004.

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Part 26 - December 17, 2016


On Christmas Eve of 2004, my grandmother "Giagia" braced for the worst moment of her long life. On what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, that horrible hourglass sifted the last grains of sand for her beloved daughter Anastasia. 

Stricken with cancer, the once joyful Anne lay clinging to life in a lonely hospital room. An hour away from Giagia's 'little pink house with the red door', the family gathered to say a gut wrenching goodbye.

Searching for the words to thank my dear aunt for her infinite love ~ I told her a story about a boy I met in Dallas. And though now blind and unable to speak, my Thea Anne squeezed my hand. Again and again. As if to say, "Go on, sweetie." And so gathering my courage, I declared, "He's wonderful Thea. And I'm going to marry him." For I wanted her to know that the niece she loved would be taken care of after she departed.

Just minutes before Christmas Day ~ the priest arrived to deliver last rites. And yet still, my beloved Thea clung to life. For the entirety of Christmas Day, Thea Anne would not die. It was as if she refused to forever taint the memory of that holy day for us.

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And so on December 26th a stoic Giagia sat by her daughter's side. Took her hand. And gave her beloved Anne one final instruction. In her native Greek she said, "Anastasia. It's not Christmas Day anymore. It's okay to go now. We will be okay. My sweetheart, you can go now." 

And a few hours later ~ the little girl who never knew a stranger, the first in our family to graduate from college ~ dutifully obeyed her mother. And yet in doing so she tested the very limits of my Giagia's endurance: she preceded her to Heaven.

In honor of Thea Anne, my parents and I journeyed to our beloved homeland of Greece six months later. And that boy I'd told her about came along too. For there, on our ancestral island of Kythera ~ near the platia where my grandfather first glimpsed Giagia decades ago ~ that boy asked my father for my hand in marriage.

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So on January 14th, 2006, a grieving Penelope Conomos grabbed her clutch. Locked the door. And journeyed to church. For inside those sacred walls, her granddaughter Alexa was to marry in a Greek Orthodox ceremony so very like her own 75 long years ago.


After I kissed my grandmother at the wedding reception, I looked deeply into her eyes. And was devastated. Her sparkle - gone. Her laughter - silenced. And with sadness, I realized the former village girl - who'd always danced to celebrate 'the life' - would break Greek tradition that night. 

To my utter regret, Giagia would not dance with me at my wedding. And I couldn't help but fear that the wonderfully witty and infinitely loving grandmother I'd always adored and revered ~ was now gone forever.

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Part 27 - December 18, 2016

In 2004, the once indelibly feisty Penelope Conomos - who'd courageously emigrated from Greece to America - lost her will to adapt and to endure. After her beloved daughter Anastasia died, so too did Giagia's fighting spirit. And overnight, my wonderfully witty, ever faithful grandmother became a shell of herself.

Even the births of more great-grandchildren could not re-ignite that indelible spark. For she would often say, "I don't know why I'm still here. God doesn't want me. But the devil doesn't want me either!" At the time, we didn't take such comments to heart. But that would soon change.

For one day, Giagia and I sat overlooking the ocean and she confided, "My Alexa. This looks so much like my homeland. I miss my mother. Too many of my people are gone. They are calling for me. I hear them calling for me." And with dread, I came to a profound realization. The longevity I'd always viewed as a blessing - had become a curse for my Giagia.

And so the years passed with too few smiles and too little laughter. Until one day, the former peasant girl couldn't help but notice that her garden needed tending. Her trees - a good trimming. The gutters - a thorough cleaning. And with that, the no nonsense taskmaster awoke. She ventured into her old garage. Grabbed her ladder. And got to work.

It wouldn't be long before Giagia's daughter Chrysanthy got a frantic voicemail from a neighbor saying, "Chrys, your mother's on the roof again!" And yet when my father recently threatened to take away her ladder, Giagia laughed and said, "You go ahead Tasso - I have two more." Yes, after so much pain and endurance, it seemed that sassy spitfire had finally returned.

Nowadays, my daily phone calls with my Giagia go like this: "Giagia!!!!" And she will coo, "Oh my Alexa, my sweetheart!" Then me: "Whatcha doing Giagia? What's up with you?" And she will sarcastically reply, "Well I'm still here." And we laugh. Then ~ "When you come to see you old Giagia?" And I will say, "I miss you - soon Giagia." And she will taunt, "Well I don't know if I'll still be here." And I will say, "Giagia! Yes you will. Come on Giagia!" And finally, with her trademark chuckle she will concede, "Alright my Alexa. Alright. I will wait for you, my sweetie."

And with that, I hang up the phone with a smile. And my heart is full. I marvel over that beautiful voice. Try to imagine that poor peasant girl from yesterday who journeyed from Greece in what has been an incredible, painful life. And lament that she will never truly grasp the depth of my respect and love for her.

And so in time for her 107th birthday in March, I plan to visit that beautiful, feisty matriarch in her "little pink house with the red door." I want to gaze upon her prized '66 Dodge Dart that still lazily resides in her garage. To sit at her tiny kitchen table and laugh like we used to. And if I'm ever so lucky, to listen as she shares just one more story about "the life." I'm coming soon, Giagia. Wait for me.

ChrysTasPen

Chrys, Tasso, and Penelope



PenTasso

Penelope and Tasso


Penelope Part 1

   © KSOCA 2012