Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

ConomosPenelope


Part 14 - Decemer 1, 2016 

After that long awaited family reunion in Greece, Giagia began to embrace a new motto: "Change is good". Perhaps as that cruise liner raced back to American shores, she reflected on the evolution of her life, how truly vast the world had become. 

ConomosCar

The family's first car--a Chevy Bel Aire. Giagia's wheels, as Papou never learned how to drive.

ConomosChrys

So upon her return, she urged Papou to buy their first family car -- a snazzy '53 Chevrolet Bel Air. She pushed her teenage children to choose a vocation or to pursue college. And she grew restless in the once bustling but now declining New Kensington, PA. So in 1953, she and daughter Chrysanthy hopped a Greyhound to visit Greek relatives in California -- and upon seeing that golden state, she declared, "This is IT!" This was the progressive place to be--and that was that. 

So upon her return to New Kensington, PA, she announced the big news: The Conomos family must move west! And when Papou promptly bellowed "Oxi!" (NO!) - she informed him, "Change is good, Papa. And that is that!" So with the Chevy packed to the brim, Giagia and her brood left a brooding Papou behind to tie up loose ends. 

Conomos

They drove for days until Giagia spotted a beacon-- the bright lights of a dazzling Reno, Nevada. "Let's spend the night here!" she declared -- and once inside the nearest casino -- promptly "attacked two slot machines at once"-- to Tasso's great shock. Indeed, at that very moment he came to a profound realization about his dear "Mama". That peasant girl who had once only ever travelled by donkey - was a relic of the past. In her place stood a truly progressive, westernized woman who had learned to adapt and endure. 

And so after Giagia eventually settled her children in San Jose, CA - a lonely Papou quickly followed. And then a new, beautiful era bloomed for the Conomos family. Life in California--with its golden peaks and familiar ocean shores--overflowed with promise and opportunity. But it wouldn't be long before tragedy followed and their family would never be the same again.

ConomosWedding 2


Part 15 - December 2, 2016

By the year 1957, my grandmother Giagia's great dream had finally come to fruition. Nicely settled in San Jose, California - the children were thriving: Chrysanthy - as a valued court clerk; Anastasia and Tasso as proud college students at San Jose State University - the first of our family to attend college. Although Papou still dabbled in restaurant work, he mostly puttered around their new 'little pink home with the red door'. 

TassoChrysConomos

It seemed at long last, the years of toiling in Greek fields and restaurant kitchens had finally paid off. And so a period of rejuvenation bloomed with blessings of new Greek Orthodox friends and frequent family sojourns to the beach. The nearby Santa Cruz shores seemed so wonderfully familiar that with a sigh, Papou would marvel, "Doesn't it look just like Greece?" But mostly, the former Greek soldier and one time peasant girl found their greatest contentment simply strolling the neighborhood together. 

ConomosBeach

And so one spring morning, Papou grabbed his hat. Giagia locked the door. And they ventured out together as they'd done so many times before. But suddenly as they walked along Walnut Grove Street, Papou suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed. Frantic, Giagia performed CPR as someone called for help--but ultimately it was too late. On that quiet, sunny morning of May 28th,1957 - just four blocks from home - Papou died cradled in my grandmother's arms. When my father later arrived at the ER to find a sobbing Giagia clutching Papou's hat, he knew in that moment that his father was gone. 

ConomosPapou

A few days later the family bid a final farewell to their beloved 'Papa'. As the funeral service concluded, Giagia embraced Papou one last time - crying his name over and over. In that profound moment, my father truly understood the depth of their love: a devotion that had sustained them through the years of hardship and sacrifice they'd faced together in Greece and America. But now a widow at the age of 47, a heartbroken Giagia would have to adapt and to endure on her own. 

For the rest of her life, she would never again set foot on Walnut Grove Street. Not one step. And in future letters to her mother in Greece, she would never reveal that she'd become a widow. Each letter described the Conomos household as if Papou was still alive. Always putting others first, she simply feared her beloved mother would die of grief if she were to learn the truth.

But out of deep respect for Papou, she would continue to send aid to his unappreciative, often unkind family in Greece. And in a final act of love, she would resolve to never marry again, though many suitors vied for her hand. To this very day ~ after 59 long, lonely years ~ Giagia has remained eternally and faithfully devoted to the memory of my Papou. Such is the life.

Penelope


Part 16 - December 5, 2016

n the spring of 1957, the one time peasant girl turned westernized woman assumed a new, unexpected and ultimately unwelcome role: that of a widow. As she had learned so many years ago from her beloved mother in Greece ~"such is the life" ~ and so one had no choice but to adapt and to endure. But now she would do so alone - in a new city still intimidating in its unfamiliarity - and beside three devastated children in need of her wisdom and grace. 

Grief-stricken and overwhelmed, she was dearly afraid. She once shared with me that she had a vision of Papou on the night after his death. He was standing in their bedroom and upon seeing that blessed face once more she begged him - "Please, let me go with you!" But Papou's spirit replied, "Oxi. No. It is not time yet. You must stay and take care of the children." And so a grieving yet stoic Giagia determined to do just that. 

On an early summer morning in 1958 - she exchanged her standard black widow garb for a white uniform - and drove her trusted Chevy to the Richmond Chase Cannery to report for duty. While daughter Chrysanthy worked at court and Anastasia and Tasso studied at nearby SJSC, Giagia labored at the conveyer belt. Like so many other working class women, she toiled day in and day out - sorting fruit and later walnuts - until her arms ached and her back strained. 

After her shift, she would prepare dinner in their 'little pink home with the red door' - often forgetting to set the table for -4- people now instead of 5. And all the while she'd fend off well intentioned friends anxious to introduce a prospective new husband to Giagia. Eternally devoted to the memory of my Papou, a shrewd Giagia would craftily evade their attention, then introduce said suitors to her unmarried friends. Her clever ploy to redirect their unwanted attention often met with a great degree of success. The once feisty Giagia might have even cracked a smile over those sneaky little coups.. but mostly the days passed with much hard work, few smiles and too little laughter. 

Yet there were beautiful, tender moments of peace and clarity as well. On those days she would grab her scarf. Lock the door. And venture on those jaunts that once brought her and Papou such joy. Except now, Giagia walked alone ~ careful to avoid Walnut Grove Avenue ~ the street where Papou had died in her arms. Instead, she'd journey two blocks west of home. Destination: the nearby Winchester Boulevard. 

For there behind an imposing iron gate lay a small plot of land with a beautiful marble anchor. It bore the simple, bold script: 'John A. Conomos'. And so with loving care, she'd tend that lonely grave, share the troubles of the day and gaze at the dual, unmarked stone ~ knowing one day it would bare her own name upon their eternal reunion. Indeed, it was a time to grieve. But as Giagia would come to remember ~ "change is good." And very soon a happy change would create a new, blessedly welcome role for my dearest Giagia - the always evolving, ever surviving Penelope Conomos.


Penelope Part 1



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