From Junk Drawer to Airplane Seat
How Greek Genealogy Set Me
on an Unexpected New Course
It all started with a cookbook. As it is with many things for Greeks,
the initial impetus was food-related.
(Roll with me a bit here - this really does get to genealogy.)
For years my sister and I had talked about gathering all our mother's and grandmother's Greek food recipes, and compiling them into a cookbook of some kind. This idea originated back when the plan was to type it all out on an electric typewriter and take it someplace to have it spiral-bound, just like the cave people did in days of yore. This would have been roughly the time MTV was playing Spandau Ballet videos on heavy rotation, so this project had been percolating a very long time.
Fast-forward to 2014. There were now online services that would print out photo books that you could design with nifty backgrounds and fonts and whatnot. I had made several photo books of my travels, and was pretty comfortable with using the format, so I had the brainstorm of making the Greek cookbook that way. I used Shutterfly, but there are a few different brands out there.
I decided to make it a surprise Christmas gift for my sister, who knew nothing about the idea being revisited after all this time.
Collecting the recipes was pretty straightforward - a few in the kitchen junk drawer, some tucked in the pages of actual cookbooks. So many family memories! I typed the recipes into the text boxes online, choose nice background colors and little illustrations of lemons and wine glasses and such. Nice! But it needed more. Clearly photos of Mum and Yiayia Anna were needed to round out the project. It was a book in honor of them, after all.
Now I should mention we have an embarrassment of riches where it comes to old family photos. They were crammed in shoe boxes, in plastic bags hanging on pegs in closets, jumbled in boxes in the attic, and an occasional dog-eared orphan in the back of a drawer. I started collecting them and by the time I was done, I had three large Rubbermaid bins full of them. And that didn't take into consideration the large framed portraits in the attic.
I began sifting through and found various photos I liked, including a few of my sister and I as kids, for fun. The finished product looked really nice. My sister loved it. (TEARS! LAUGHTER! MORE TEARS! Because we're Greek and that's how we roll.)
So now I have all these great old photos in various states of fragility. Being a girl who loves a project, I took it upon myself to scan them all so at least they would survive digitally.
This was a huge fricken' project.
It took months. I'd carefully place one tattered old sepia photo of Yiayia Anna's family in Neo Karlovassi, Samos, on the scanner bed, wondering why the boys looked like dusty Dickensian ragamuffins but the girls were neat and prim and held parasols. I'd see a handsome man, seated in a chair with a book on his lap, his pensive face leaning on his fingers as if in contemplation of what he was reading, and saw, in my mother's script on the back, "Pa's brother John". Hmmm. Okay. And this elegant lady with the fancy hat right out of Downton Abbey? Madame Aimée, the French woman my yiayia worked as a maid for in Cairo.
These people began to haunt my thoughts. Who were they? What were their lives like? How did they connect to each other...and to me?
I'd always had a passing interest in genealogy, but nothing very deep or structured. In the 1980s I asked my Yiayia Despina about the family lines on my dad's side, and asked my mum about her side. They had some information - sibling names, half-remembered spouses' names, and the like. I jotted it all down in a pocket calendar/notebook stamped "1985" on the cover, complete with messily-sketched pedigree lines and lots of question marks. The notebook was put somewhere and lost for years.
I took up genealogy again around 2015 once the scanning project was finishing up. I started a rudimentary tree on Ancestry.com, but it was sparse and sad. I looked everywhere for the decades-old 1985 Notebook, which I now saw as a holy grail. I couldn't find it anywhere, until after weeks of searching it finally turned up in the back of a drawer. The whoop I let out frightened my husband and possibly the neighborhood birds.
My next step was more photo and information gathering. My parents and grandparents were all gone, but my dad's two brothers might be of help. I contacted them, as well as sending out emails to all my cousins as an extended part of the photo scanning project to see what they might have. They were awesome and loaned me some wonderful photos, including several that were completely new to me...my paternal great-grandfather Athanassios from Arcadia in the Peleponnesos, looking striking and stern in his foustanella*; his wife, my great-grandmother Eleni, who I'd never seen before. My Papou George's brothers and sisters...even some of their neighbors! I was delirious. So many new avenues to explore!
My uncles were extremely generous, both with information and photos. But at a certain point they had told me everything they remembered. They suggested I contact one of their cousins in Chicago, who was lovely and incredibly helpful, and who in turn suggested I contact relatives in Athens, a couple of women about my age, who could really get me some information.
And so began a wonderful friendship and partnership with two of my second cousins - Moschoula and Ioanna.
The absolute TSUNAMI of information from these two great ladies - and by extension, their families - was unbelievable. Photos, names, dates, villages, stories, anecdotes...it was extraordinary. With their help, I was able to grow my puny little sapling of a family tree back to my paternal fourth great-grandfather, born in the mid-1700s. As anyone who has tried to do their Greek family tree might agree, getting back this far is a challenge, particularly if you're in the diaspora and far from the actual documents (which I wouldn't be able to read most of, anyway).
Our emails back and forth culminated in a trip to Greece to meet them in 2016. We were able to do some genealogical research there, including visiting the cemetery where my great-grandparents had been interred and seeing the house my grandfather was born in. Friendships were cemented, "new" old photos were discovered, people who hadn't been in contact much reconnected with each other, and promises of future visits were made. And just generally, my DNA sang to be there. It was an amazing experience.
All this from a cookbook. It was the pebble thrown into the pond, and the lovely ripples are still emanating out from it to this day.
Moral of the story - save your photos as best you can. Ask everyone - I mean everyone - in your family about your family history, and Write. That. Stuff. Down. Now. You may not be so into genealogy now, but maybe down the road you will be, and you (like me) will kick yourself that you didn't get the information when these folks were alive. Or you may never be interested in it, but when your kids are in their forties they might want to chronicle your family history for their kids. Anything you save will be a holy grail for them.
*foustanella - The traditional kilted garment worn in many parts of Greece until the early 20th century. It was worn by rural Greek men in some areas and was the military garb of choice for a few centuries. Today the Evzones still wear them.
In the next article in this series, I'll get into detail about 15 ways to get started from scratch with Greek genealogy.