And then there was one
My Uncle Pete died. They say it was kidney failure, but I’m not sure. I think it might have been exhaustion. So, now my mom is the only one left, the only one of the previous generation of our family left in America.
Peter Panos came to America in the 1950s. He came from Greece without knowing the language. He came crippled, with hip dysplasia that was never treated in his mountain village. He came with his wife and a three-year-old daughter, Aglaia, who had inherited this disease. He came believing he could help his daughter and make a better life for his family. And he did.
Greece had suffered. The village, the families, they all suffered. There was the depression, the Second World War, the Nazi occupation, then the civil war. There was rural life in the mountains of the Peloponnese, a region that had a long history of resistance, of the Ottoman Turks, and then of the Germans. A relative told me that the village of Arbouna prides itself that no Turk ever stepped foot in the village through all the years of occupation. I don’t know if that’s true or not, and it doesn’t really matter. Today the village is decimated, like so many others in Greece, by the great migration out of the countryside, out of the olive orchards and fields, out of the sheep and goat pastures, and into the big cities. And for some, into America. With the wars, Uncle Pete’s opportunity to continue his education and develop his love of classic literature ended. But he was smart as a whip, talked a thousand miles per hour, and was creative with his big strong hands. Eventually, he talked Sophia Vlahos into marrying him and going to America.
Uncle Pete knew how to repair shoes. He found himself in central California. He opened a shoe repair shop in Marysville. It burned in a fire. He bought land. It was a swindle. He opened another shop in Stockton. It didn’t work out. He always moved the family and tried again somewhere else. Uncle Pete met every adversity with renewed determination to overcome and to succeed. Energetic, driven, proud, and smart, he always figured out how to get through tough times and make the next opportunity happen. He also had a deep, fiery faith in the Orthodox Christian Church. He had faith that no matter what is thrown at him, Jesus Christ is with him and will support him. Eventually. he landed in Fresno. By then, there were three children. There was a boy with Down’s syndrome, and the golden child: a boy, strong, blonde, and blue-eyed. In Fresno, things seemed to head in a better direction.
Uncle Pete liked being in the middle of things, a trait he passed on to his son, Tommy. He loved introducing people to one another and easily made many friends. In 1960, he and his wife Sophia brought her sister out from Greece to help out. The 40-year-old spinster had had her own hard life in Greece, working as a housekeeper from the age of seven. The chance to go to America seemed worth taking. She came to work, but far from slaving away in her sister’s home, Efrosini Vlahos was soon married. Uncle Pete had a niece in San Francisco, Olga Rakos. She had a friend in Fresno, Maria Kalsoyas. And Maria knew Paul Serafimidis, 20 years Efrosini’s senior. By 1962, I was born.
To be honest, Uncle Pete was often a difficult person. It’s paradoxical because to anyone outside the family he was always perfectly charming, often deferential, and of course, generous. But with family it was often different. He could be controlling, and short tempered. He always wanted things his way. This always came from a conviction that he knew best, a desire to help, and an expectation of respect. Sometimes he was hard on Sophia and the kids. Too hard. He was also particularly hard on my mother, his sister-in-law. He teased her and they fought often. But they always made up, and the families always remained very, very close. I suspect a lot of what made him tick was growing up crippled in the highest mountain villages of the Peloponnese. In order to survive he was going to have to work ten times as hard and demand respect from people who might otherwise dismiss him. He did both of these things. He drove his children to succeed and supported them all the way. His little girl with his hips would graduate from UC Berkeley and eventually get her PhD, marry and give him grandchildren. His son Tommy would make it in the financial world of San Francisco. Along the way, a lot of support was needed. Uncle Pete provided it. He believed in them and pushed them. He scrimped and saved and managed to provide financial support seemingly beyond the means of a simple shoe repairman.
I remember some other things. Peter Panos was a master at grafting fruit trees. He always had a small orchard in the yard of any house they lived in, and there were always a couple trees growing four or five different fruit on the same tree. I remember how proud he was of buying new American style furniture, or adding a room onto the house on Griffith Way. I remember his cars, the Rambler, Valiant, and something big and brown from the 40’s. These were all symbols of having made it in America. I remember him driving my family to church every Sunday, since my father did not drive. Uncle Pete couldn’t understand that, but he always did this for us. I remember he was the cantor at church and had an extraordinary voice. I remember he liked to get where he was going early; we were always the first ones to arrive at church in the morning, or at the picnic grounds at Hume Lake. If we were driving to the Bay Area to visit Aglaia, you can bet we were on the road before the sun was in the sky.
There is much, much more to say, but I’ll stop for now. I’ll just say that I love you Uncle Pete, and I am going to miss you for a long, long time.