Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

Not Lost in Translation
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Not Lost in Translation

Molly Conom
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1 Stella Bass and her mother Molly Conom, 2013As a bilingual legal secretary, Molly Conom interpreted and translated for her boss, attorney Gust Kostakos, who spoke only English which his Greek-speaking clients did not know.

To some she was Magdeline 2 John Barbas family (l-r) Catherine, John, Tom, Sofia, Molly, 1935and to others Madeline but she has been most often known as “Molly” Conom (nee Barbas).  She was born in Detroit, Michigan, on November 1, 1927.  Molly’s father John A. Barbas enlisted in the United States Army on his first trip to the United States.  He was extremely proud to be called a U.S. veteran of World War I and an American citizen. He went back to Greece and married Sophia Papajohn and they left Kriekouki 3 Catherine, Tom, Molly and Rita Barbas, 1946(also spelled Criekouki, now called Erithrai), Greece, about 40 miles northwest of Athens near Thebes.  When they arrived in America, Sophia was five-months pregnant with their first child, Tom.  The winter sailing was a very difficult one for her.  John and Sophia arrived through Ellis Island just after World War I and settled in Detroit where Sophia’s brother, John Papajohn, was established.  Son Tom (now deceased) was born in 1926.  Molly also had two younger sisters, Katherine who currently lives in Detroit and Margarita “Rita.”  Rita had scarlet fever and was left with little kidney function.  When Rita was 23 years old, she married a young man named Tom despite the doctor’s cautions that she would live only five more months.  According to Molly, Rita was a “human guinea pig” and in the early 1960s she was one of the first to be placed on an artificial kidney machine.   She lived for three years and eight months and died when she was 26.

In Detroit it was all Greek at home and Molly was fluent in both Greek and English when she finished high school.  She studied typing and shorthand knowing she would have to work to help the family pay for Rita’s many medical expenses.  At the age of 15 she began working for her uncle Basil, an attorney.  With command of both languages she could readily understand the words he spoke in his heavy accent.

Molly had two paternal uncles, Chris and Gus Barbas, who 4 Barbas brothers and wives, 1945operated taverns in Seattle, Washington.  At the age of 19 Molly came to Seattle to visit her relatives.  They were invited by George Cotronis to attend the wedding of his sister Sotira Kanekaris.  At the wedding she met Pete (Panagioti or the diminutive Panagiotaki) “Taki” Conom.  It was love at first sight in August of 1947 and two weeks later they decided to marry.  However, Molly’s brother Tom had married that same year.  And, since their mother believed siblings should not marry in the same year, Pete and Molly waited until January 11, 1948 to marry.

Pete’s family had deep roots in Seattle.  The grave stone of his maternal grandparents, Meletios (1865-1940) and Anastasia Hatzopoulos (1865-1960), is one of the first markers to be seen upon entering Seattle’s historical Lake View Cemetery.  Anastasia was 75 years old when she met Molly and hoped to live to see grandchildren.   She did, living until the age of 95.

5 Molly at Mt. Rainier, 1947 6 Pete and Molly wedding (l-r) John Barbas, Sofia Barbas, Molly, Pete, Eva Conom, Tom Conom, 1948 7 Molly, early 1950s

Eva Hatzopoulos was widowed and came to America with her son Taki for the specific purpose of caring for her aging mother, Anastasia.  Eva’s sisters were very close to Eva and wanted her to leave Greece and bring their mother to the United States.  A little trickery ensued and Eva found there were many dinners planned with eligible Greek men (usually with children) who were looking for a wife.  It was her astute 13-year-old son Taki who learned her sisters were trying to arrange a marriage.  Luckily, in Anastasios (Tom) Economou (Conom) she found the best husband, partner and father for her son.

Economou arrived in the United States through Ellis Island and, after being told he would be treated differently as a Greek, he took advantage of his light complexion and blue eyes.   So Anastasios Economou entered the United States as Tom Conom at the age of 15.  He worked in restaurants and eventually worked on the railroad, ultimately making his way to Seattle. He was a widower and had three sons from that marriage: Howard, Earl and Tom Conom, Jr.  So at age 14, Taki and his mother Eva had a whole new family.

Moving from White Center to Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood the family was surrounded by other Greeks.  Stories have been told how the neighborhood women would share in the preparation of hearty meals for their husbands.  There was no room for others at gatherings in the small homes as they were filled with Greeks living in close proximity.  After the dinners, music was played on the record player, carpets were rolled up and dancing went on until the early morning hours.  This left time for a little sleep before the men went to work.

8 Tom Conom, 1953     9 Tom and Stella Conom, 1956     10 Stella Conom, 1959

Taki had wanted to change the name Conom back to the original Economou but never did.  With many ideations and spellings of both first and last names: Hadzopulou, Hatsopoulo or Hedges – Economou, Econom, Connomou or Conom – Panagioti, Panos, “Taki” or Pete, Pete was accused of having many aliases.  Imagine the recruiter who helped that 17-year-old fill out the paper work for Navy enlistment!

Pete and Molly first lived in the lower Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle 11 Pete Conom family (l-r) Tom, John, Molly, Stella, Pete, circa 1961before purchasing the family home in the Magnolia neighborhood.  Pete’s uncle, John Lucas, also lived a few blocks away in Magnolia and was married to Eva’s sister Nota.

Pete was a natural salesman and worked with his uncle John for 18 years selling Pillsbury Flour to bakeries throughout Washington.  During winter when the large delivery vehicles could not drive over the Cascade Mountain passes, the family station wagon became the delivery vehicle.  After his uncle John died, Pete changed jobs and became sales manager for Hertz Rent a Car until the sales department closed during Seattle’s depressed economy.

12 Pete Conom, 1972        13 Taki and friends, 1980s

Pete was very active in AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) holding several offices including district governor for one year.  The Conom family was also honored as the AHEPA family of the year.  He served as treasurer for Seattle’s Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption for many years and, with a background in business and accounting, organized the financial records of the church.

14 Catherine, Molly and Tom, circa 1981Molly put her typing and shorthand skills to work as a legal secretary for Gust Kostakos from 1968 to 1986.    Kostakos did not speak or read Greek so Molly’s written and verbal skills in both Greek and English were significant assets.  Many clients were hard-working Greek immigrants who operated restaurants and small businesses.  These clients were happy to have legal documents explained to them in both languages as Molly was able to translate and explain the information leaving clients well cared for and satisfied. She also served the other attorneys in the office by managing appointments and correspondence and was able to prepare many basic documents without their assistance.  With this position, Molly also assisted a number of Greek women to make sure they had full understanding and access to their husbands’ financial and legal matters.  She would often receive payment from her clients after church on Sundays.

Molly retired after 18 years of legal work and has 15 Molly with women friends and family, circa 1985since dedicated her time to church, family and other philanthropic activities.  She can be found every Sunday at the Assumption Church.  Serving in Philoptochos (women’s auxiliary), Molly has spent 35 years as secretary and over 25 years  as the “sunshine committee” sending greeting cards for celebrations, illnesses, sympathy and to those who haven’t been to church for some time.  She also served as secretary for the Daughters of Penelope (women’s counterpart to AHEPA) for 25 years.  In the mid-1990s Molly received the Penelope Daughter of the Year award!

In 1985 at the age of 60 and after 37 years of marriage, Pete died on Father’s Day, a coincidence that serves as an annual reminder to his children to honor their father.  Molly moved from her Magnolia home into an apartment and most recently to BayView retirement community.  Pete and Molly’s oldest son Tom is a criminal attorney and lives with his wife, Ann, in Redmond, Washington.  Her daughter Stella, a retired Seattle school teacher, lives a few blocks from the old family home which was purchased by and is now occupied by Molly’s grandson and his family.  Stella’s husband, Steve Bass, a certified public accountant (CPA), while not of Greek heritage has provided his expertise and accounting services to many Greek organizations.  Molly’s youngest son John is a special education teacher in Seattle.  He and his wife Diane live in Edmonds, Washington.  Molly has eight grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Molly’s mother Sophia was a very superstitious daughter of a priest.  At nine years old, Molly’s daughter Stella was visiting her yiayia (grandmother) in Detroit when she learned the practice of “pinching” the devil by stabbing a knife into the floor in order to find a lost item.  As she explains in the video segment “Stella Pinches the Devil” when she tried pinching the devil through a new carpet in her Seattle home, her father was very angry until he learned that Stella learned of the practice from her yiayia.

16 Molly and family, 1999For Molly her Greek culture and Orthodox Christian faith are inseparable.  Her grandfather in Greece was a priest and her mother kept the family in strict adherence to the faith and its practices.  Her sons were very active in the church when young but when they began working on Sundays their time at church declined.  With the increasing number of marriages between Greeks and non-Greeks, Molly wonders how the culture will survive. She believes parents can simply teach their children the “right things” and let them make their own decisions. While her oldest son Tom learned Greek as a child, Stella and John’s use of the language has decreased.  She believes that some aspects of Greek heritage, namely food and religion may survive, and travel to Greece will continue even though competition with other activities is increasing.

17 Magnolia mug, 2013The best thing about being Greek for Molly is “really everything.”  Having been raised in and living within a Greek community all of her life she sees no disadvantages to embracing the heritage.  She has always been happy and never felt she was treated differently.  Molly loves being able to use both of her languages in church as well as in phone calls and correspondence.  She views herself as an easy-going person who has survived well in a family of more assertive people.  She has done her best to pass along her enthusiasm and zest for a Greek life and all that it means to her family.

By John and Joann Nicon with Molly and Stella Bass, June 2014

PHOTOS
1 Stella Bass and her mother Molly Conom, 2013
2 John Barbas family (l-r) Katherine, John, Tom, Sophia, Molly, 1935
3 Katherine, Tom, Molly and Rita Barbas, 1946
4 Barbas brothers and wives (l-r) Chris, Marigo, Gus, Andromachi, John, Sophia, 1945
5 Molly at Mt. Rainier, 1947
6 Pete and Molly wedding (l-r) John and Sophia Barbas, Molly, Pete, Eva and Tom Conom, 1948
7 Molly, early 1950s
8 Tom Conom, 1953
9 Tom and Stella Conom, 1956
10 Stella Conom, 1959
11 Pete Conom family (l-r) Tom, John, Molly, Stella, Pete, circa 1961
12 Pete Conom, 1972
13 Pete and friends (l-r) Gus Carkonen, Pete Economou, Pete, Howard Conom, Terry Karis, Tom Phillips, Jim Stelios, 1980s
14 Siblings Katherine, Molly and Tom, circa 1981
15 Molly with friends and family (l-r) Molly, Helen Hauer, Marigo Barbas, Aspasia Dritsas, Sophia Conom, Andromachi Barbas, Irene Demetrios, Stella Bass, circa 1985
16 Molly and family (l-r) back: Molly, Tom, Andy Bass, Brian Bass; front: Molly Conom, Brian Conom, Danny Conom, John Conom, 1999
17 Magnolia neighborhood mug, 2013
Photos 1 and 17 by John Nicon; all others from Conom family collection
SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, September 2013