John Rigas, January 30, 2007
(Mom) Ya Ya
Several months ago, I wrote a short piece about how the Texas Hot in Wellsville, New York was started. The story
naturally centered to a large extent on my father, James Rigas, who founded the restaurant and operated it with George
Raptis for many decades. I now would like to tell you a little about my mother, Eleni Brazas Rigas, a woman who
though not involved formally in the business or with a career outside the home, has a history that is no less interesting or
meaningful. While her story in one sense is unique to herself, it is at the same time representative of the experiences
encountered by countless immigrant women who have sought a better life in America.
My mother was born on March 25, 1902 in Arahova, the small village in the rugged Balkan mountains of central
Greece where my father was also born and reared. March 25th is a date which holds special significance for the Greek
people. On March 25, 1821, the Greeks began their War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, an uprising
which resulted in Greek freedom from nearly four hundred years of Turkish rule. March 25th also marks an important
holy day in the Greek Orthodox Christian year, the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the Angel Gabriel’s
announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God in her womb. In keeping with long-established
Greek custom, my mother’s parents named her, as the oldest daughter, Eleni, after her paternal grandmother. The
family eventually grew to eight children, consisting of six girls and two boys.
The name “Arahova” actually came from a Slavic word meaning “chestnuts,” no doubt reflecting the dense pine and
hardwood forests surrounding the village. (In centuries past, a large wave of Slavs migrating from the north occupied
this part of Greece and left a faint imprint on some aspects of life). The approximately 2,000 inhabitants of Arahova at
the turn of the century led a rather hard existence. Carved into the slopes of a mountainside, at an elevation of 3500
feet, Arahova and the landscape around it offered its residents little more than a life of subsistence. The economy of the
region revolved around timber, tobacco, and feta cheese made from sheep’s milk. My mother’s family owned and
operated a small store which sold a scant selection of food and a few items of cheap clothing. My father’s family
maintained a herd of sheep, and produced and sold feta cheese in limited quantities in local markets.
By today’s standards, or even by the measure of the developed world of that time, the physical conditions in Arahova
were primitive. There was no electricity, no running water, and little consideration for public hygiene. Rather than
streets running between the homes, there were narrow, rough paths passable only by foot or donkey. Chickens, sheep,
and goats wandered freely throughout the village. The homes were made of wood and tile and consisted of a few small
rooms, really just enough space for eating and sleeping. Extremely isolated, Arahova was separated from the outside
world not so much by distance as by the near total lack of access through the mountains.
After finishing the third grade at the one-room schoolhouse in Arahova, my mother worked at the family store and
helped care for her younger sisters and brothers. It was a very simple life, yet one not without its own share of virtue
and beauty. Limited as her training was, my mother memorized poems and songs, which she recited and sang to her
parents and siblings, mainly folk pieces having religious themes, some associated with a nearby monastery dedicated
to the Holy Mother, which, according to legend, had been built at the site where an icon of Mary had been miraculously
discovered. Along with most other villagers, she participated in the life of Arahova’s one church, St. James, attending
its weekly liturgies, praying before its icons, observing its fasts, and celebrating the festivals associated with its feast
days, especially the Dormition of the Virgin Mary on August 15. By the time of her late teen years, she was pretty well
settled into this life. Had it not been for an unexpected letter from a faraway land, from an unknown place called
Wellsville, New York, she, like most of her sisters, would probably have spent the rest of her life in Arahova.
After completing the third grade, all the formal education he would ever have, and before coming to America in 1912 at
the age of seventeen, my father spent his youth tending his family’s sheep herd in the mountains surrounding Arahova.
Two of his brothers had immigrated to America where they worked in a railroad yard in Cleveland, and they urged him
to join them in this land of immense opportunity. He did, though he did not stay long in Cleveland, moving almost
immediately to Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania. Ironically, the brothers left America shortly after his arrival when they were
drafted into the Greek army to fight in the bloody Balkan War against Bulgaria. They survived the War, but they never
returned to live in the United States. My father, fortunately, was too young for the draft and avoided the bloodshed.
He established himself in America through several small business ventures in Western New York State which
culminated in the opening of the Texas Hot.
He now had to face a problem common to most Greek men of that era who had settled in the United States—how to
find a suitable wife and begin a family. Still uncertain in their use of English and unsure about American ways, while
wanting to perpetuate Greek traditions in religion, food, language, and family life, these men typically wanted Greek
wives. But there were practically no single Greek women around. Some Greek-American men solved this dilemma by
marrying women in Greece and then living apart from their wives and children for most of the year, while sending
money back to them from the United States for support. Others married women they already knew in Greece and
brought them to live in America. Still others arranged to marry Greek women they had never met. My father fell into
the last of these categories.
By the early 1920’s, a political development in the United States had made the situation for Greek-American men
significantly more pressing. Mainly due to prejudice among some native American groups, there was a strong
movement to restrict immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Far East in favor of immigration from
Western European countries, ultimately resulting in a federal law to set strict immigration quotas for each foreign
country. Immigration from Greece would soon be reduced to practically nothing. The practical impact on my father
and others like him was to increase the urgent need to find a wife—before the new rules effectively shut down
American borders to Greek immigrants.
Among those Pop consulted was his brother Nick back in Greece. Nick, without hesitation, suggested the oldest of
the Brazas girls, Eleni, as a good match for my father. He recommended Eleni not because he knew her well
personally, indeed he barely knew her at all, but because he perceived the Brazas family to be honest, hard working,
and intelligent, and to hold sound family values. With Pop’s blessing and with his picture in hand, Nick sometime in
1922 or 1923 approached Eleni and her parents about the possibility of marriage. What he was proposing was not
exactly an arranged marriage, for while the people around Eleni may have held opinions about what she should do, the
decision in the end was to be hers alone.
For a twenty-year old girl who had never traveled more than a few miles outside of Arahova, Nick’s offer posed an
agonizing choice. She would be committing the rest of her life to someone she had never seen, much less met. She
would be journeying to a distant and strange country, of whose language, culture, and mores she knew nothing. She
would be leaving the family she loved, probably for good. And yet, as her father gently impressed upon her in a
heartfelt talk, there was very little future in Arahova or even in Greece if she stayed. What kind of life would she have?
What kind of life would her children have? This was an opportunity for her to escape the toilsome poverty of the
village to build a life with a good man who already had a good start in a wonderful country. She would see her children
grow and develop with possibilities she never had—for education, for a good job and maybe even a profession, for a
life of wide choice and expanded horizons. These persuasive arguments, from a man she loved and respected, made
the difference. She decided to become Mrs. James Rigas of Wellsville, New York.
As my mother prepared to come to America in 1923, she almost literally threw away the opportunity. Pop had sent
her a ticket in steerage for a boat sailing between Patras, Greece, a city along the southern coast of the Gulf of Corinth,
and Boston, Massachusetts. Somehow, she managed to lose the ticket; she now anxiously awaited her future husband’
s reaction and her fate. That he had bought her even one ticket might have been considered somewhat unusual, in view
of the firmly-entrenched Greek custom of a prika, or large dowry, required from a woman’s family as a condition of the
marriage. Pop, however, characteristically expected nothing and asked for nothing from the Brazas family. In this spirit
of generosity, he provided another ticket for Mom’s voyage to America.
The first leg of Mom’s journey in the autumn of 1923 stretched from Arahova to Návpaktos, a town on the northern
coast of the Gulf of Corinth, a distance of about fifty miles. At Návpaktos, she would board a small boat for the short
trip over the Gulf to Patras. Accompanied by her father and carrying a small amount of food and a few items of
clothing, she made her way along the winding path entirely by foot, spending nights on the bare ground. The trip took
them four days and four nights.
At Patras, Mom embarked a passenger ship named the Martha Washington destined for Boston. The vessel was
clearly not made for luxury. Crammed into the bowels of the steerage section, Mom set sail for the New World,
spending the next thirty days in what amounted to a dark, dirty, and dank hole, living with the wretched smells and
sounds associated with any large body of human beings jammed together for an extended period of time. She would
tell us later that it was a difficult journey, but there were plenty of other Greek women on board to share the hardship
and keep her company.
When the ship finally arrived in Boston on November 7, Mom suffered another scare. As a foreigner seeking
admittance into the United States, she was required to be met by family or friends who would act as her sponsors
before immigration officials. She in fact would not be permitted to leave the ship until the sponsors came forward to
identify her and to acknowledge responsibility for her legal status in this country. Mom was to be met by her future
husband and by two couples originally from Arahova who had agreed to be her sponsors. She waited on ship for
contact to be made. But by the end of day one nobody had claimed her. The same was true for day two, and then for
day three. By this time, the immigration authorities were becoming impatient and were about to ship her back to
Greece. Fortunately, before taking this step, they brought her from the steerage section to the deck, where with great
relief and joy, she recognized the two couples, and, for the first time, laid eyes on James Rigas. The immigration
officials had somehow managed to obtain the wrong papers for Mom and for three days had been calling out the wrong
After proceeding through customs and immigration on November 9, Mom and Pop immediately married in a civil
ceremony in Boston. They then boarded a train for the long journey to Wellsville, a trip that proved uneventful except
for Mom’s sudden shout of astonishment and fright upon seeing the train porter. Having been sheltered in Arahova for
her entire life, ignorant of worlds beyond the next mountain top, she had not known that black people existed, much
less having ever seen a person of color. If not apparent already, this small incident must have made plain to her that she
had crossed the boundaries of her new frontier. Once in Wellsville, she and Pop were married in a Greek Orthodox
wedding ceremony held in the apartment over the Texas Hot, Mom’s new home.
Fearing that she lacked the language and reading skills necessary to pass the citizenship examination, Mom delayed the
process of becoming a United States citizen until well into the 1930’s. By then, she was well-enough established in her
adopted country and, through coaching, had learned enough about American culture and history and the English
language to feel ready for a test. Perhaps more importantly, she knew that the Allegany County Judge responsible for
citizenship issues looked kindly on immigration and was well enough acquainted with the family’s reputation to
recognize that she would be a good citizen; he was not likely at that point to be much swayed by what she had learned
and not learned. The swearing-in ceremony in Belmont, the county seat, formally making her a United States citizen,
was to remain one of the proudest moments of her life.
Mom picked up her language skills mainly from every day conversation with people at the Texas Hot. Her English
became passable over the years, though certainly never fluent, and with family in particular, a tendency to mix the two
languages became more pronounced as she grew older. My own children were often thrown into fits of laughter by her
misuse of certain words and phrases, as when she would repeatedly refer to her sister’s sons as “my nephs” or “neph-
me’s”. My children would say, “No, they are your ‘nephews,’ but pointing to herself she would respond “Yes, ‘neph-
me’s’.” Mom confronted the challenges and frustrations of learning a new language as she met most things in life, with
patience and humor. She never let her own shortcomings—in language or in other matters—discourage or dishearten
her, nor did she ever lose a rare ability to laugh at herself. By the time she had become a grandmother, she was a great
storyteller, reliving her years in Arahova and Wellsville, and recounting the adventure of coming to Wellsville for the first
Without question, Mom’s life in Wellsville revolved around her husband, her children and grandchildren and their
families, and the Texas Hot. From the first time she met Pop in Boston in 1921 to his death in 1981, she remained
utterly devoted to him. As in most immigrant families and, for that matter, most families of that era, Pop was clearly the
head of the Rigas household, a reality Mom never questioned or troubled herself about. This is not to say, however,
that she lacked confidence or influence over Pop or the family. When Mom felt strongly about a matter, she was not
afraid to express herself and Pop would usually accede to her wishes. Indeed, it seemed to us children that more often
than not she got her way, or at least had a strong role in shaping the decisions which affected the family. Mom never
seemed to tire of caring for Pop or the rest of the family, her daily acts of self-denial easing the burdens for Pop of
running a demanding business, and creating an environment within the family of love and mutual support. In my father’s
later years, as his health steadily declined—he survived a major heart attack, experienced a debilitating loss of memory,
and suffered from the colon cancer which ultimately took his life—she became especially attentive to his needs, despite
serious health issues of her own.
I always believed that the natural bonds between husband and wife were strengthened in my parents by their shared
mission of making their way in a new and sometimes forbidding country, their own ambitions and needs sublimated to
the clearly-defined goal of seeing their children and grandchildren secure a firm foothold in this adopted land. Most
people today view a marriage without a prior romance as a hopeless anachronism, as a practice which advanced
societies thankfully outgrew long ago. Yet, the commitment and set of enduring values brought by my parents and other
immigrant spouses to their marriages are rarely equaled by couples in our own time.
Children and grandchildren and even their progeny are major components of the immigrant experience. People who
come to America for a better life generally take a long view on affairs. They are content to look over several
generations for fulfillment of their aspirations. My mother could have expected to enjoy more material prosperity in
America than she would ever have had in Greece; yet, she could not have expected to earn a college education of her
own. She would live long enough, however, to see her children and grandchildren educated at the college level and
I was the first child born to Eleni (or “Helen” as she was commonly known in America) and James Rigas, in 1924 in the
apartment above the Texas Hot. Not long after a pair of twins, Gus and George, were stillborn. Three healthy children
followed: Catherine in 1928, Constantine, or “Gus,” in 1929, and Mary in 1931.
In some ways, especially in a physical sense, conditions for mothers during this period were more difficult than they are
today. While families were generally larger, many of the automated conveniences which are now in practically every
American household—washing machines and dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators and freezers, and other appliances—
did not yet have wide distribution among the poor and middle classes, leaving women to do household chores by hand.
My mother, for example, washed our clothes by bending over a serrated washboard set in a basin of soapy water,
rubbing the clothes against the board over and over again until the rough surface finally scrubbed them clean. Mom
always felt that this vigorous, repetitive, back-and-forth motion in an unnatural bent position during her pregnancy with
the twins led to the problems at birth. To dry the clothes, she would hang them on an outdoor clothesline, regardless of
the season or the prevailing weather.
Mothers at that time also had the constant worry that one or more of their children would fall victim to a potentially fatal
disease, such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, influenza, chicken pox or the measles. As contagious as
these diseases were, at a time before many of the wonder drugs had been discovered, when people lived in close
quarters, doctors would resort to the quarantine as a way of containing a sickness within a town. At one time or
another, just about every family in Wellsville had to contend with a doctor’s quarantine order, which meant that no child
could leave or enter the house until the doctor was convinced that the children in the family no longer presented a risk
of spreading the disease to other homes or throughout the school. A quarantined house was marked with a large notice
on the front door. To digress a little farther, I recall how many doctors of that era commonly made house calls, and
even were so accommodating as to specify their time of arrival. The problem was that while they might say they would
be there at 1 pm, they might not show up until 1 am—after having stopped at the Elks Club for a few libations.
In other ways, though, circumstances were easier for mothers then. Life really was simpler and less hectic, and
accordingly it placed fewer demands on mothers. For one thing, there were far fewer organized activities for children.
Today, with so many different events to juggle—practices, games, open houses, birthday parties, music and dance
lessons, plays, as well as their own jobs—mothers bear levels of stress that would have been inconceivable to previous
generations. Then, too, mothers did not have to contend with many of the unhealthy influences which today bombard
children from a wide variety of sources from outside the home. They could stand to be more relaxed about the larger
culture swirling around their families, and hence more prone to allow their children to grow up in a less structured
environment. My own parents were certainly strict at times, yet they felt perfectly comfortable letting me run up and
down Main Street with my friends, unconcerned that I would be assaulted or exposed to something that could harm me
physically or morally. This free and unregimented existence was one of the great delights of my childhood.
Another fond childhood memory is of a house always open to friends and relatives. No matter how short the notice,
Mom was there with a warm welcome, genuinely happy to have visitors in her home, eager to make people
comfortable and to provide food and drink. Hospitality and generosity were qualities she had learned in Greece, where
people had little but were expected to share much.
Immigrant parents tend to set their priorities a little differently than their American counterparts. Though I played four
sports in high school, captaining three of the teams, Pop attended only one of my games. Mom did not come to any.
Nor were they likely to make many other school events, unless they were specifically asked to attend. It was not that
they were uninterested in what was happening in my life, it was just that they did not yet fully understand American
culture and indeed had slightly different ideas than American parents about how to best influence their children’s
development. They had clear expectations for us, which we comprehended implicitly, and even if they were not always
there to see us perform, the values they had instilled in us were constantly informing our decisions and guiding our
actions. They encouraged us all to excel, especially in school, there being no question that we would all attend college.
Education in their minds was the key to the American dream, and there were few qualities more awe-inspiring about
this country than its ability to accommodate all people who wanted to learn. My mother, with her third grade
education, could barely read anything in English, yet she had a good sense of language, and would often recite poems
she had memorized as a girl in Greece. She wanted us all to be good readers and good mathematicians and good in
whatever else the school and America offered, and this desire, as well as her unconditional love for us, made us want to
do her and Pop proud.
As much as our parents loved America, they also wanted us to remember and appreciate our Greek roots. I
remember well how my own heart sank when Mom told me that she had answered the advertisement in a Greek
newspaper of a Greek woman who was looking for work as a teacher. Mom had convinced the other Greek-
American parents in Wellsville to bring this woman, Mrs. Toula Xanthos, to town to start a “Greek school” This meant
that every day after public school, and also on Saturday mornings, we had to gather in a backroom of the Marathon
Restaurant on Main Street for our Greek lessons. (The Marathon Restaurant was owned by another Greek immigrant,
Gus Giopulos, whose family lived in an apartment on the third floor of the building, which he rented from yet two other
Greek-Americans, George and Gus Cretekos. George Cretekos, whom you may remember as the owner-operator of
an ice cream and candy store from my story on the Texas Hot, lived with his family on the second floor of the
building.) This routine made for a very long day, and I, along with most of the other students, found this obligation,
which none of the non-Greek children had to bear, unpleasant to say the least. We often made life miserable for poor
Mrs. Xanthos. Yet, today, as I look back on my Greek school experience, I feel fortunate to have been given—and
made to accept—the opportunity to learn two languages and to be a part of two cultures.
Although the initiative Mom had shown in this matter caused some short-term consternation among the Greek-
American young people, it typified the quiet leadership of which she was capable. She was not content to wait for
others to address the needs of her family or her community. It was her responsibility to think of ways to make life
better for those around her, and then to act on those ideas. She would sometimes ask me as a boy to prepare small
checks—anywhere from $1 to $5—as donations to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the March of Dimes,
among others, not because she had been personally solicited by anyone for these tiny sums, but because she knew it
was right to support organizations which helped people. I would often see her in the back of Wellsville stores
rummaging through items of clothing that had been discarded, and, at other times, hear her asking store employees if
they had any surplus clothing to donate. Remembering the extreme poverty she had lived and seen in her youth, she
would spend hours packing this cast-off clothing in large boxes for shipment to Greece. This trait of assisting people in
need, of believing that people of all kinds were worthy of aid, was passed on to her children as part of the family
In later years, Mom became the main unifying force for the second and third generation of the American Rigases,
drawing them to Wellsville at holidays and other times of the year to visit her and renew ties of kinship. At these times,
she made it her personal and determined mission to make certain that everyone was well fed (a favorite ritual was to
slip each one of her grandchildren a chocolate bar each time she saw them), as well as entertained with stories of times
past. Over the years, she had become known, first to her grandchildren and the rest of the family, and then to all of
Wellsville, as “Ya Ya,” the Greek word for “grandmother.” Family members and others never ceased to marvel at her
simple goodness. She had a remarkable ability to keep things in proportion, to refuse to allow petty differences to
interfere with human relationships, to forgive people for their slights and insults, to overlook their shortcomings, to see
the good in everyone. Her capacity to keep her composure and to be fair-minded in difficult circumstances was an
inspiration to many. On an untold number of occasions, for example after someone had made a disparaging remark
about the Texas Hot or one of her children or grandchildren, she would tell us “Forget it, it’s not important,” or “Don’t
pay any attention,” or “We have to forgive.” She was a peacemaker of the first order, and her quiet diplomacy many
times deflated potentially explosive situations within the family and at the Texas Hot. I honestly think that her calming
influence and balanced outlook helped keep the Texas Hot partnership between two families alive for three generations,
a remarkable fact in itself. Mom may have had only a third grade education, but when it came to making decisions and
judging every day events, she had as much wisdom and common sense as anyone I have known.
Although Mom never worked in a formal sense at the Texas Hot, it was very much a part of her life and she was very
much a part of its life. She spent hours in the restaurant every day, greeting customers, encouraging employees,
observing what could be done better. If a customer was being overlooked, she would quietly inform a waitress. If the
chili sauce didn’t taste quite right, she would explain the problem to her husband.
On one occasion, I approached the Texas Hot through the rear alley accompanied by two sophisticated, well-dressed
bankers from New York City. As we neared the back door, we spotted a little, old, gray-haired woman bent over a
garden hose, intently cleaning the alley way with the hose and a broom. Walking on, I asked the bankers if they would
like to meet my mother. They immediately exclaimed, “Why, yes, of course,” expecting to see her once we were inside
the restaurant. Much to their surprise, when I said, “Mom, I want you to meet friends of mine,” the old woman with the
hose, now grinning broadly, stretched out her tiny hand in greeting. When I explained to Mom that these people were
my bankers, she commented softly in Greek, “God help us!” I can only imagine what these two bankers were thinking
when they discovered who this woman was. They probably wondered why John Rigas, with all of his perceived wealth
at that time, was allowing his mother to clean a dirty old alley. The truth was that she would have it no other way. This
oft-repeated initiative exemplified the strong work ethic possessed by that generation of immigrants, an attitude toward
responsibility that refused to leave to others what could be done by themselves, in this case something as ordinary as
the daily task of keeping the restaurant property clean.
Mom’s frequent presence in the Texas Hot, along with her gentle disposition, her humble bearing, and her openness to
anyone willing to talk, made customers not only feel welcome, but also cheered, as if somehow all was right with the
world when she was around. Moving from booth to booth, smiling warmly, answering to the repeated refrain “Ya Ya,”
she interacted easily with everyone there, her genuine love for people radiating strongly. She had become a part of the
ambiance and attraction of the place, a reassuring image which customers anticipated with as much fondness as the chili
sauce or the pies. Her cheerfulness and optimism served to brighten the perspective of employees, and to smooth over
the inevitable workplace tensions and disagreements, making waitresses, cooks, dishwashers and others content about
working at a place where human values shone through with such clarity. Mom took tremendous pride in the Texas
Hot, seeing it as a creation of her beloved Jim and an enduring part of the family legacy. In her eyes, the names “Rigas”
and “Texas Hot” were inextricably bound, a sacred union of sorts that was meant to live for as long as good fortune
Mom had an unusually strong sense of place, a tremendous loyalty to locations that would seem unimportant to most
people. One such spot was the humble—some would say drab and dreary—apartment above the Texas Hot, where
she had been married and her children had been born. When I was in about the seventh grade, the family moved to a
rather spacious house in a pretty setting on Maple Avenue, complete with shade trees and a pleasant green back yard.
Most people would have viewed this change as a vast improvement in living conditions, certainly as a step up in the
world. But while Mom liked the new arrangement, her heart always seemed to yearn for the old apartment, as if that
were where she really belonged. And, in fact, when the children were grown and had moved away, she and Pop gladly
migrated back to their home on Main Street.
Mom had similar feelings toward Wellsville, the town which had so warmly welcomed her—a simple, uneducated, non-
English speaking woman—to the New World. The people of Wellsville, she would often say, had always been so kind
and good to her and her family, taking a special interest in the children as they played on Main Street and advanced in
school, remaining so loyal to the Texas Hot and so caring and friendly as neighbors. Without this all-embracing
support, she would insist, life in this country could have turned out a lot differently for us all.
Another of Mom’s endearing traits was her naïve simplicity, which was sometimes touching and often-times humorous.
Shortly after the McDonald’s came to Wellsville, for instance, she and Pop decided to check-out the Texas Hot’s new
competitor. They came away with this report: the place looks nice, but it will never make it; we waited and waited but
no one ever came to take our order. Another time, just after seating herself in one of those old Toyota models in which
the seat belts fastened automatically, she exclaimed, “God Bless America!”, apparently having no idea that Toyota was
a Japanese carmaker.
It took courage for my mother to leave her homeland and family to come to an unfamiliar land to marry a man she had
never met, and then to raise a family while she herself was still adapting to the culture. During many difficult times, it
would have been easy for her to succumb to anger and alienation. Yet, through everything, she remained remarkably
calm and level-headed. This courage and serenity could only have come from her faith. Many people today, with
varying degrees of sincerity, talk about God and what He has done for them. But for Mom it was never a matter of
talk. While she often expressed her gratitude by saying, “Thanks be to God,” she was never one to proselytize or to
make gratuitous remarks about her religious beliefs. Yet, her faith permeated the very fiber of her being, shaping her
every word and act. Whatever the circumstance or occasion, she held an abiding trust in God and His love, and this
trust was projected in the compassion, hospitality, and tolerance she bestowed on people of all races and conditions of
life. I recall vividly how respectful she was of the symbols of her Greek Orthodox faith. When the priest came to bless
our house, it was a solemn and holy occasion, and when she kissed his hand, it was with true veneration. She
displayed similar reverence toward the icons she kept in a special corner of the house and in the sign of the cross she
often made when setting out on a journey or undertaking a new venture. Without reservation, I can say of her, as I can
say of few others, that her faith remained foremost in her attitude toward life and its challenges.
As fervent as Mom’s beliefs were, she never let them narrow her view of other people’s religious traditions; she
remained remarkably accepting of all faiths and approaches to God. Because the nearest Greek Orthodox churches to
Wellsville were in Buffalo and Jamestown, a distance too far to travel each week, many of the Greek-American
children in Wellsville began attending the Episcopal Church, the branch of Christianity (along with Roman Catholicism)
which held doctrines closest to those of the Orthodox Church. Some of us boys, in particular, developed a close
relationship with the local priest, Father Petross, serving as acolytes and members of his youth group. Mom
encouraged this affiliation, and never tried to persuade us that one of the two forms of worship was better than the
other. She often said that churches worshipped the same God, and that above everything else, we had to love and
forgive. She took the same attitude when a large number of her grandchildren became Roman Catholics.
In conclusion, one other topic deserves elaboration, though it is a theme which has pervaded this entire piece. Mom
had a love affair with America. To her, it was the greatest country in the world, one that had lavished extraordinary
blessings on herself and her family, one whose faults were negligible in comparison to those of the rest of the world. A
common expression of hers was “God bless America,” and she would use it repeatedly in reference to so many
different aspects of American life. She never ceased to be awed by its freedom and wealth and opportunity. She also
loved the Greek culture, and it was important to her that her children and her grandchildren know its customs and
respect its rich heritage. But the United States was her home. She never returned to Greece, partly, as she always
said, for fear that her frail health would not be able to withstand the travel and the emotional reunions with people and
places, but also, we always knew, because she truly dreaded the thought of leaving her home for even a single month.
We will never know if subsequent events in her family would have shaken her faith in this nation and its democratic
processes. But while she lived, she never lost a vision of America that was simple and generous and pure.
On occasion in Mom’s later years, I would use a cheap tape recorder to record informal conversations in Greek
between the two of us. One day, when she was in her eighties, I asked her to say something for her children and
grandchildren. What she said, unrehearsed and from the heart, surprised me in its depth and understanding; it captured
so well her thoughts on America, the culture she left behind, and her family’s success in bridging the gulf between the
two. Her own personal pride in her country and in her family shone through, but she could just as well have been
speaking for millions of immigrants who came before and after her. The passage was translated from Greek into
English by Betty Pappas of Olean, New York, and set into verse form by the late Reverend Robert Merten of
Coudersport, Pennsylvania. It was replayed on tape and then recited in English by my daughter Ellen at Mom’s funeral
in Wellsville on December 31, 1993. Later, Congressmen Michael Billirakis, a Greek-American from Florida,
recognizing the capacity of these words to touch Americans of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, read
them into the Congressional Record. For a simple woman of little learning, who spoke broken English at best, this was
an extraordinary honor indeed. I now conclude with Mom’s message.
We came to America
Because our country was poor.
It was not only we who came
to live here all by ourselves.
All the Greeks
and all the other nationalities
that came here,
Came to live
And to help the people
back in their homelands
Because they were poor.
And that’s why we came here.
And we said that this country
Is better to live in
But we did not forget our village
We did not forget our church
We did not forget our own people.
We have lived here many years
We have not forgotten our own people.
Where we walked
We remember every step.
We love America
And so we have two countries.
We love America.
We got our citizenship papers
And we became part of the American family.
We raised our own family here.
A wonderful family.
Our children were so good
in school and everywhere.
And that’s why we are proud.
Here where we came
We found very good people.
Very good people.
We found good Americans
and good Greeks.
We found families
Very good families.
And we saw their goodness
And we grew up together.
And we bless and praise God.
And all we wish
Is that our children and grandchildren
may always be blessed.
I had good children
The finest of grandchildren.
Our children were wonderful.
They went to good schools
And had the best of reputations.
And we are proud.
And very fulfilled.
And very blessed.