A eulogy for, and brief biography of, my mother who died at age 90…
The fates were such that my sister Diane and I were able to conduct a memorial for mom at my oldest daughter’s house in San Jose where fourteen of mom’s sixteen widely dispersed descendants were gathered on Christmas Eve day, 2008. Other family members were present, as well. The following is what Diane and I recited to the gathering, with some words after-added by me. After we had our say, others remembered her in their own way.
Mom perceived an afterlife. Within the last few years she said she wanted to be with her family and friends “on the other side.” She is now there and we can be grateful that she left here quite peacefully in her sleep.
Dad died in year 2000. They had been married 65 years. Mom mourned, but not terribly. It gave her a bit of freedom she had yearned for, we believe. Mom lived with Diane since then, and Diane has treated her like a queen: facials, nails and hair and clothes. Mom loved it.
After a year of on-and-off stays at various levels of institutional care for a hip replacement and some illnesses, mom suffered a stroke, larger than the small ones that had slightly crippled her dominant left hand around three years ago. Her cognitive functions continued to diminish. She wasn’t able to walk for around two years before her death—her brain and legs didn’t connect well enough.
Artemis Helen Pagonis began in 1918 as the youngest of four children of a poor Greek immigrant family in San Francisco: George Pagonis and Helen, née Diakakis.
George was then a skilled confectioner, but a failed businessman working for other Greeks in San Francisco restaurants. He might have had 6 or 8 years of formal schooling. George and Helen met in San Francisco, and both came from Astros, on the Peloponnesus in Greece. We know nothing of their antecedents.
Three years after mom was born, another girl was born and her mother Helen died from complications accompanying the birth. Florence was the baby’s name; the children were told she was adopted by the doctor who delivered her, but we believe this to be a tall tale for the sake of the other children’s sensibilities. More likely, she was taken to an orphanage.
The girls were at home alone during working hours for some time and survived on 5 cents a day while her father and brother Harry, aged nine or ten years, went out to make money. Harry sold papers on a corner and often waited up all night until George decided to return home from the coffee shops and card rooms where he spent his off-work hours. George hardly slept. (He ultimately contracted tuberculosis, for which he was treated, on and off, over the years until his death from pneumonia around age 65). The girls were mostly alone and Beatrice, who was 7 or 8, was the mother to Artemis, 3, and Angelina 4-1/2. Bea was made responsible for the household. She was in charge of the feeding and caring of the two toddlers.
The three girls were ultimately taken away by the County or the State of California because the neighbors complained there was no one home to care for the children. They were placed in a “horrible” Stockton orphanage, 60 miles from San Francisco. The matrons were stern and unloving. They carried sticks for discipline purposes. The girls were forced to eat and when they didn’t, they were beaten. Angie wet the bed so they put her in the basement with rats to convince her to stop. This made it worse. She claimed to have suffered permanent kidney damage from this, later in life, after she completed her registered nurse training at Mt. Zion hospital in San Francisco.
Whenever someone came to look at one or another of the children for foster care they all would act up so they weren’t separated into different households. They were all finally placed with Mrs. Vroman in Portland, Oregon, and were happy. Mrs. Vroman saw that Bea had musical talent and gave her piano lessons. The little girls were treated lovingly and got enough to eat. Mom remembered Mrs. Vroman, and their days in Green Oregon with great affection.
Mom and Dad first met when she was a baby. Dad’s father, Alexander K. Pavellas, was godfather to many of the children born to Greek immigrants in and around San Francisco because of his being well educated, influential and having been the Greek Consul General of San Francisco. Mom was about 5, and dad around 10. We were told that when dad and his father visited mom’s father, George Pagonis, mom sat on dad’s lap. They met again later when dad came to George’s home to sell newspaper subscriptions to the Greek-American newspaper dad inherited from Alexander when dad was 20.
The three sisters and dad went to the movies. He and Mom talked all the way through the movie and became engaged. It was expected he would end up with Bea, the oldest and “prettiest,” by contemporary American standards. But mom fell head over heels in love, and so did he. He found her to be real, without guile and free spirited—plus, Diane believes, very sexy. He was immediately smitten. He was in need of love and companionship; he had just lost his mother, father and uncle and was burdened with the care of his aunt Genevieve and her son, dad’s cousin Nestor.
This was 1935, in the depth of the Great Depression. Dad was trying to hang on to the family newspaper business. Dad had to drop out of his senior year at Cal because the almost simultaneous deaths of the parents and his uncle who was important to the family and the newspaper.
Dad was on his way to Canada to sell more subscriptions and had 25 cents on him. Mom told him he couldn’t go without her because he wouldn’t come back, so she went with him to Canada with 25 cents in a Model T Ford. At the border, the Canadian officials were not going to let them in as one had to have a certain amount of money to enter, but they told the Border Patrol they were getting married in Canada so they let them in. Dad left his watch as security. We don’t know where they got married. Dad collected on a sufficient number of subscriptions to The Prometheus to get home again.
Upon arriving to home in San Francisco, they all lived together: Mom, Dad, his aunt Genevieve and his cousin Nestor. Nestor was 11. We don’t know where they lived.
My first memories are at age 4-5 living with dad, mom, Harry, Bea, Angie and grandpa (George Pagonis) in the upper flat on 433 Arguello Blvd., between Geary and Clement. I think my parents previously lived with one of mom’s sisters, after I was born, on Cherry Street when I was first born, as they mentioned it often. When I was around two years old the three of us lived for a year in the unincorporated town of Brisbane, just south of San Francisco. I had a dog, Brownie, and had whooping cough during that year.
Diane’s memories, starting in Brooklyn, around 1946:
Mom tried to protect various children who were abused. She even abducted two children in our cold water apartment building who were left alone and crying because their teenage parents were gone a lot. The Grandmother for these children came and took them with her.
Mom also had to protect us from the mentally ill and deranged building superintendent’s son, because he was always trying to kill Diane and her friend Barbara Suczynski. Mom also protected Barbara’s mother from her husband by hiding her at our house. She and Dad tried to keep us off the streets by giving Ron piano lessons and Diane ballet. She went to work at a Norwegian Hospital as a nurse’ aide to bring in money.
I remember her as kind but timid in this strange and dangerous world. Her happiness was her children. She was a devoted mother and tried to protect us from the streets.—
There were other more spontaneous memories shared, and two brief written ones from two former daughters-in-law recited by two grandsons.
What follows are some images with descriptions, generally outlining the arc of Artie’s life.
Artie with infant Diane, 1942, in front of 1822 Sunnydale Avenue, San Francisco. This two-story apartment was part of a new housing project for war workers and other eligible people. Dad worked at the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards
Artie with her brother Harry and daughter Diane at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Unlce Harry stopped by on his way from San Francisco to Greece to Marry Sophia Malanos. He brought Aunt Sophie back with him to visit us again on his return trip.
In 1951 the Pavellas family of four returned to San Francisco and lived 6 months with Uncle Harry, Aunt Sophie and their new daughter, Helen. In this picture we are visiting Aunt Bea and her husband, Uncle Tommy Thomas at their lagoon-side home in Newport Beach, California. Pictured, left to right are: Front, Tom Thomas, Jr. and Diane Pavellas; Middle, Ron Pavellas, Artie, Aunt Bee, Aunt Angie; Rear, Aunt Angie’s quondam husband, Eben George Smith.
Artie and Connie in the first home they owned, starting around 1960, at 62 Theta Avenue in Daly City, on the southern edge of San Francisco. They lived there until Dad retired from the typographical trade around 20 years later.
Artie and Connie after retirement. They lived their last years together at Nepo Drive, San Jose.
The now widowed Artie with her beloved cats, always present in the house, a few years before her death
What she knew best, and dispensed copiously to all, was love.