Passing on the Legacy of Greek and Greek American Origins

New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias

Preparing and giving her presentation on different ways of preserving family history, involved calling up many memories, says Efthalia (Effie) Makris Walsh, , about her talk, Everlasting Be Their Memory (Αιωνία η μνήμη αυτών), at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s Philoptohos-sponsored Kali Parea (Good Company) meeting in Washington D.C. on November 1. 

Walsh, for whom passing on family history has been a lifetime imperative, took her convictions to the next level by writing a book that does so, Beloved Sister, Letters from the Homeland, 1930-1948, Biography of a Greek-American Family begun in 2008 and published by in 2000 (Tegea Press).

To write Beloved Sister—whose title is derived from Αγαπημένη μου αδελφή, the greeting beginning the letters to her mother from sisters and brothers living in Greece—Walsh translated family letters from the Greek and by building a historical narrative of the times around them, revealed their universality.

Walsh’s talk was not about Beloved Sister specifically but about different ways in which to document and preserve the legacy of our origins, our Hellenic past, before the immigrants and their immediate families or friends are gone.  “There are so many ways to do this, translation of letters from Greek to English, filming or recording interviews, collecting documents such as passports and photos, visits to Greece, checking with local and state historical societies, writing novels, poetry, music, etc.” Walsh told the GN.

Beloved Sister is Walsh’s epistolary approach to preserving history, but she is one of a triumvirate of Makrises who have paid attention to posterity.  Her sisters Bess Makris Stamatakos and Elaine Makris Daniels (1938—2008) have done so via two other approaches, the historical novel, and a collection of reminiscences.

Stamatakos’ historical novel, Tea Leaves and Dreams (Feather Star Publishing, 2007), is about a love affair between a young village girl and a young Turkish Janissary during the Greek War of Independence, and Daniels’ Growing Up Greek in South Bend, The Early Years, 1926-1964 (Tegea Press, 2001), is her edited compilation of the reminiscences of 12 Greek-American women.

The three sisters presented their books to a large audience at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, Illinois on September 7, 2008.

Although Beloved Sister was brought to the public in 2000, Walsh says that she was motivated to do the book at least 30 years ago.  “I guess I was a nosey child.  I was always captivated by my parents and families’ stories of the past.  I remember so acutely the pain–and pleasure–my mother Panayiota felt when she received letters from her family in Greece.  Of particular interest were letters from family members in 1945, which after four years of agonizing silence during W.W.II documented their experiences.”

Fortunately, for her and for her descendants, her Panayiota was born in an era when girls in Greece were educated and could write, says Walsh, “She loved to write and collect items connected to her heritage.  She was quite an archivist,” Panayiota had saved all her letters, and they were in the attic, waiting to be found.  Beloved Sister includes about 150 or so letters from Greece from 1930 to 1947.

Panayiota wasn’t the only one to build an archive, Walsh, herself, saved about 400 letters written to her by Panayiota from the time Walsh went to Indiana University in 1949 until Panayiota’s death in 2001, and hopes to translate them soon, as well.

Why did Walsh undertake the exhaustive effort of translating the letters, researching the history of the times, and writing the book?  “I guess I was motivated by wanting to tell this 20th century Greek immigrant story to my children and grandchildren, and, of course, it was my story, too,” she says, describing the importance of the letters as personal introductions to grandparents she never had the opportunity to meet firsthand, “I never met three of my grandparents. but through the letters I met my Grandfather Anagnostopoulos, a warm and lovable person who wrote of his great longing to see his many American grandchildren.  The one grandparent I met was my mother’s mother, my YIayia, who came to the U.S. in 1950.  She was 76, but I saw where my mother got her energy.”

Also playing a strong role in Beloved Sister are her parents’ families in America. Frequent visits to close relatives in South Bend, Dubuque, Iowa, and Chicago remain unforgettable to Walsh, and some individuals among them were central figures in her life.

“Growing Up Greek in South Bend, a collection of 12 essays by women we grew up with, edited by my sister Elaine, was also motivated by the same kind of curiosity and love,” says Walsh, pointing out the positive aspects of this approach, “This kind of joint project can make the process of writing easier, and bring old friends together again.”

Walsh remembers that although the youth were restricted in their interactions with “Americans”, especially of the opposite sex, everyone loved growing up in the small parish of St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend, Indiana. “The church was the center of our lives, a refuge for our immigrant parents, and a major influence on our lives.  Our wonderful priest, the Rev. Arcadios Arcadiou, a superb Greek School teacher, as well as a wonderful liturgist, sermonizer, and friend, was praised by everyone.”

“Tea Leaves and Dreams by my sister Bess, a historical novel of the Greek War set in Silimna, Arcadia, Greece—my father’s birthplace—is another example of how our Hellenic biographies and education influence our own thinking… our years of celebration of March 25 with poems, plays, dances, etc.  The main characters in her book are named for those in the Makris family and in many ways reflect their personalities.  And it is a tribute to the Yiayia and Papou we never met.”

What about the fear of negative reactions to the author’s portrayals of them, which many times prevents individuals from recording the past?  “I was certainly aware that the people or their families might not like what I said about them.  But I wasn’t trying to grind any axes,” says Walsh, “The only complaints were from one of my mother’s cousins who did not like my reference to their house off of Halstead Street in Chicago as ‘rickety’, and another minor objection…. everyone else loved it, and even relatives in Greece were delighted.  A cousin’s daughter even translated the book into Greek.”

Politely admonishing those who have the desire to preserve history but are dragging their feet, Walsh says, “My advice to anyone who wants to preserve their families history is just do it!  Whatever your strengths are—or you’re your weaknesses, just do it.   Even if your ancestors hate it…and they won’t.  Because for us few Greeks it has been a great experience.”

Her postscript to those considering a historical preservation project is that perseverance in telling one’s story is what gets the job done.  “I tried to get Beloved Sister published by a few presses and was told they did not have a market for Greek books,” says Walsh, “ so my sister Elaine and I founded Tegea Press and published under it.”

Walsh describes the very successful, three year old, Kali Parea program as “a monthly luncheon of delicious Greek food where St. Sophia members and friends (mostly seniors), can meet, talk, and listen to good lecturerers on topics of interest to the community.”

As well as presenting DVD’s on the New Acropolis Museum, My Life in Ruins, Nyfes, and Social Network, and a yoga event with Diane Pappas, Kali Parea has featured presentations by William (Bill) Camarinos, Autism; Aphrodite Peponis, Icons: Sanctity, Symbolism and Spirituality; Dr. Spiro Manolas, on his book, American Arms, Greek Blood: The Greek Guerrilla War 1946-1950; Deacon Dimitrios Lee, Mission Work and the OCMC;  Stratos Tavoulareas, Mt. Athos; A National Security Conversation with Dean Popps: Lessons Learned Since September 11th During The Long War and Thoughts about the Future of Defense; and Rev. Dr. Christopher T. Metropulos, Be Illuminated: Come and Learn about the Orthodox Christian Network.

Efthalia Makris Walsh has a Ph.D in Early Greek Church Patristic Theology from The Catholic University of America.  Dissertation: Virgins, Widows and Barren Women in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom.  She is a longtime member of Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

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