Spring 1988, Volume 5.1
Eileen Schultz Tarcay
Emilia—Yoryis: Emily—George by Helen Papanikolas. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987. xiv + 327 pp.,
Eileen Schultz Tarcay (M.A., U of Utah; M.A. Johns Hopkins U), is a freelance writer (editor, critic, poet) living in Baltimore. She has published articles in Western Humanities Review, Western Folklore, and others.
A combination of autobiography and biography such as this may properly be called a memoir, an intimate portrait of lives and relationships that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, it is a story told in a graceful, literary style, and thus is eminently readable.
Helen Papanikolas, the daughter of Greek immigrants, has explored their experience and her own to bring us an astonishingly detailed account of what were the circumstances in the Old Country that drove people to emigrate, what befell them here, and what it was like to be reared as the child of immigrants. Of course, it is the particularity of the Greece left by the parents—separately, as unacquainted individuals—and the particular time and part of the America they eventually came to—pre-World War I Utah—that is presented here so vividly. In the process, the account destroys most of the cliches of the immigrant story. It also adds to the history of labor, religion, and race and class relations in the state.
It was the desperate poverty of his family and their village, rather than an adventurous spirit, that finally drove Yoryis, or George, to leave. In Emilia's case, her poor family placed her as a servant girl with a Greek family in Constantinople, condemning her to a life of drudgery from which she longed to escape. In this country both of them endured dreadful poverty and hard labor for long years before they earned the proverbial "milk and honey" of a life without want.
With the art of a novelist, the author reveals the drama and meaning of her parents' lives through her own observations and through information gleaned from them during hours of questioning and note-taking in their later years. Additionally, she used the resources of the Utah Greek community, and the family's friends and references. On trips abroad she explored the villages and cities relatives in Greece, Chicage, and Turkey, as well as many print where each parent had lived. It is this wide range of research, and especially her parents' prodigious memories fostered by the oral tradition of Greek culture, which makes her use of dialogue and even internal streams of thought so natural and convincing.
The structure of the work helps establish its versimilitude, beginning as it does with the recollections of Papanikolas herself as a child in Helper, Utah, where the Greek community, as well as traveling Greek journalists and visiting priests, helped keep the traditional culture alive. At the same time, while the father was trying to succeed materially, the mother and children, by then four daughters, were striving to advance culturally. For them, this meant Americanizing. House, furniture, food, and social affairs all were improved and expanded by American standards, especially under the tutelage of the ever-helpful Kilarney Reynolds. Visits to the Greek school and church and the local Greek town dwindled in frequency and importance.
On the other hand, Papanikolas does not want to forget their richly traditional celebrations of Easter, much more significant than the American Christmas. The incense and ikons of the church, "screeching mothers in the sala, men singing of their ancestors waiting to ambush the Turks," all these were "what Greekness was."
Oddly for a child from that background, it was the YMCA, with its library, the American Jesus, song books and Victrola, that meant the most. She says, "They were what being American was."
In succeeding chapters the author alternates the chronological story of each parent in patridhe and then in this country. As in a novel, although we know the outcome, we want to know how and why. How was Yoryis, the immigrant laborer, transformed into George, supervisor on a railroad gang, and from there to prosperous owner of a chain of grocery stores?
As for Emilia, how could she stand the hardship of the revolting chores she was put to in that Constantinople household? It seemed to be a devotion to the All-Holy, the Virgin, that sustained her while she refused suitor after suitor and resolved to escape to America.
Few other accounts make so real the complications arising for immigrants out of being ruled by two different, sometimes opposing traditions. Among these Greeks, filotimo—honor and pride—was an ever present concern. It involved sending every cent that could be spared back to Greece, often for the dowries of sisters. Men of the family must rescue them from the shame of spinsterhood. Also, one's filotimo was affected by the actions of other Greeks here; thus those who turned to gambling or procuring brought shame to all.
If this were in fact a novel, it would end when George became a successful businessman and Emily finally attained a "proper" home in Salt Lake City. As it is, the reader is made witness to the couple's long, slow decline into age, illness, and death. Its length was agonizing for the family, but this unsparing, rich and full picture of their lives is compensation of a kind.