THEY NEVER LOOKED BACK
As the youngest and second youngest of two large families, Mike and Dora Christofilis are committed to their American ways in Washington State despite deep roots in Greece and their Greek culture.
Theodora “Dora” (nee Apostolou) was born in the village of Velaora Evrytanias near Lamia, Greece, on May 8, 1953. She describes her life in three phases. She spent her first 12 years in the village. Then, from 12 to 18 she lived in Athens. At the age of 18 she moved to join her big Greek family in Seattle, Washington.
Her parents were George (1909-1987) and Demetra (nee Geremes, 1911-1971). George was a very popular and outgoing tradesman, trading olives or produce for other goods. If there was a glendi (party or celebration) or panygeri (festival) in the area, George would be there. He was also the nouno (godfather) for several children. When he married Demetra, he moved to her village where her parents had their home. Demetra was a homemaker, raising eight children: Demosthenis “Demo” (1937-2002), Evanthia Skepetaris (1940), Serafim “Fuller” (1942), Elias “Louie” (1945), Konstantinos “Dino” (1948) (see WITH A HANDSHAKE AND TRUST), Penelope “Poppee” Barbachan (1950), Theodora “Dora” Christofilis, (1953) and Gregory (Archimandrite Cheroubim) (1959). By 1966 the oldest four siblings had left the village and Dino became the “man of the house” at age 14. He even built a small kafenio (coffee shop) adjacent to the house. When the family left the village in 1965, the family home was left to the church as a residence for the clergy. When the priest bought his own home, the house fell into disrepair. Subsequently, the home was restored by Fr. Cheroubim with the understanding it would remain with the Church.
When Dora was 12, and with little to do in the village, the remaining family members moved to the Pangrati neighborhood of Athens where she made several new friends, studied English for one year and finished high school. She was in the process of taking her final examinations in June of 1971 while her mother was in surgery for stomach cancer. Dora wrote to her brothers in Seattle, Washington, and the oldest, Demo, came to Greece hoping to bring their mother to Seattle. He arrived on a Tuesday and Demetra died the following day. Dora did not really know her brother as he left Greece when she was just a year old. She was very upset and did not want to be with the mourners at her mother’s funeral. However, a long walk and conversation with Demo gave her some reassurance with the plan for the remaining siblings to move to Seattle. With passport and ticket in hand, Dora came to the United States at what she believes was the “right age,” old enough to keep her Greek language and culture yet young enough to adapt to a new way of life. From then she never really thought about ever moving back to Greece.
Dora’s first job in Seattle was as a cashier in a cafeteria. Her co-workers were interested in her language and background and helped her with her English. But when Dora asked one of the women her age, she was rebuffed and learned that it is not something one asks in America. On another occasion while speaking Greek with a friend on the bus, another rider asked in a critical tone, “what language are you speaking?” and Dora replied in a defiant manner, “well it’s all Greek to you.” She then attended a two-year program in chemical technology at Seattle Central Community College (now Seattle Central College) and has applied this training to her culinary skills.
Asimas “Mike” Konstantinos Christofilis was born in the mountain village of Perthikovrysi Kynourias in the Greek Peloponnese on April 10, 1950. His parents were Konstantinos “Kostas” and Marigo (nee Nikolaou). Mike is the youngest of five children with a 13-year age span. He has fond memories of his time in the village where his father was a farmer, harvesting grain, olives and grapes. Farming was good as there was plenty of fresh water flowing from the mountains. There was no electricity in the village and an oil lamp was used to check on the livestock in the dark hours. Mike remembers stomping the grapes to make wine and walking the steep mountain trails up to a nearby monastery. Marigo was busy raising her five children and helping on the farm. When Mike was nine years old, the family moved to the larger town of Argos. They kept the family home which was improved with a second story in the 1980s and is still used by the family.
In Argos, Mike kept busy working, cutting grass, tending another farm and harvesting watermelon in the summer months. He preferred work to education and left school after the seventh grade. He began working in a tailor shop learning to make pants, jackets and other clothing items. His oldest brother, Taso, had finished college, married Voula Karimbakas who was from Bellingham, Washington, and the couple moved back to the United States in 1962. Mike’s sister, Soteria, married a man from Australia and moved there as did brother John. Soteria eventually returned to Greece and John married Helen Bararakos and eventually settled in Seattle. Mike’s brother Vasili graduated from law school and is also in Greece. By 1967 Mike was making plans to join his brothers in Seattle when Vasili warned him that he would like it so much that he would never come back to Greece. Mike had no concept of life in the United States. He “just wanted to go.”
Mike flew to New York and became lost in the airport. Fortunately, a Greek woman helped him get into a limousine to the connecting airport for the next leg of the trip and warned him “don’t get off the plane until it stops.” Mike was sitting in the airport smoking a cigarette when a large black man with a gun approached and frightened him. It turned out to be a security officer who also proved to be of assistance to him.
Even though Mike had never been in a big city he adjusted quickly to life in Seattle. On his second day in Seattle, he began working in a clothing factory owned by a Jewish/Italian man making sports jackets for $1.25 per hour. Then, just six months later, in 1968, he was drafted into the United States Army. However, he was found to be unqualified, the reason given that he did not speak enough English. Later, he worked at Doces Furniture where several Greeks were employed and for a while with his future brother-in-law Dino Apostolou in Dino’s upholstery shop.
LIFE IN SEATTLE
Mike developed relationships with several other young Greek immigrants including Louie, Serafim and Dino Apostolou and their brother-in-law Jim Skepetaris. All were bachelors at the time and life was full of adventure and entertainment for Mike. He first met Dora at the family-run Joker restaurant. Some family members, especially hers, had hoped their relationship would develop. At the same time Dora’s brothers were skeptical as they had been sharing adventures with Mike and were protective of their little sister. They even accused Mike of working with them at the upholstery shop so he could be closer to her. On one occasion, when Dora was working for “double time” on the Memorial Day weekend in the children’s department at the Bon Marche (now Macy’s) Mike came in under the pretext of buying a gift for someone. On the following Monday, Mike called the Apostolou home and made a date with Dora for dinner at the upscale Space Needle restaurant, in Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair landmark, for the following Thursday. At dinner Dora left to use the restroom but when she returned she came to the table on the revolving floor thinking Mike had also stepped away. When another couple saw the two sitting at separate tables they made the connection. Thinking she was avoiding him, Mike asked “are you tired of me already?” Apparently not, as they were engaged two weeks later and married on Halloween, October 31, 1976.
After attending classes at Seattle Central Community College, Dora worked at the Bon Marche from 1973 to 1977 until their first child, Margo, was born on December 27, 1977. Their son, Dino, was born three years later, on October 20, 1980. They have two grandchildren, Kipani Marie and Cruz Asimas. Meanwhile, Mike worked with his brothers, Taso and John, at the Trolley Tavern in Seattle’s Northgate area until 1978. Then, the brothers bought Steve’s Broiler on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle which they operated for the next 20 years. When they lost their lease, a salesman at Chuck Olsen Chevrolet that Mike knew suggested that he would be good at selling cars. So, Mike went to Chuck Olsen Chevrolet where he has spent the last 20 years as a sales consultant. By working for others, Mike has not been burdened with the full responsibility of a business and has time to enjoy fishing, hunting and yard work.
Dora worked at Cascade Federal Credit Union in their Magnolia neighborhood from 1996 to 2014. Then, when their daughter Margo was 17, she had her first job at an ice cream parlor in Magnolia. The owner needed a manager and Margo helped her mother secure that position. The ice cream shop closed when the neighboring Greek restaurant, Nikos, (see WALKING AT WORK) expanded into the ice cream shop space. In 2015 Dora capitalized on her culinary skills and began a catering business from her home with her son and partner, Dino. She has found many ways to use her kitchen including a class making baklava for a small group.
As a Greek immigrant, Dora found her American friends and co-workers intrigued and interested in her background and her accent. While Mike was occasionally teased, he was never treated badly because of his Greek background. Both came to Seattle at an opportune time with older siblings already established and a growing economy. The prophecy to “not look back” did not come true once when Mike visited his ailing mother in 1985 and again in 1988 when the whole family spent six weeks in Greece. However, Mike’s two siblings, Soteria and Vasili, have visited their brothers in Seattle. Dora traveled to Greece in 1992 as a Greek school teacher to attend a seminar offered by the Greek government. She took a third trip in 2005 to visit her brother Fr. Cheroubim.
Mike and Dora came to the United States at relatively young ages and have been careful not to be “all Greek.” Yet in Washington, they have been involved in the Greek Orthodox Church, in Greek school (which Dora has taught), Greek folk dancing for their children and Greek social events. Those experiences were readily accepted by Margo and Dino.
Their Greek Orthodox faith and culture are inseparable. Dora was in church every Sunday as a child with her mother’s insistence. She was protected, if not bossed around, by her older brothers and even her younger brother Fr. Cheroubim to whom she must not only listen, but now also kiss his hand! When Dora has a difficult moment, she might say ach manoulamou or ach Panagitsamou (oh my dear mother or Virgin Mary) to whom she turns for comfort. Mike might be referred to as manarimou (my pride and joy or handsome one). They were surprised on one occasion when their 11-year-old granddaughter stayed overnight and said kalinichta (good night) manarimou to her papou (grandfather).By John and Joann Nicon, November, 2018 VIDEO SEGMENTS
1 Mike and Dora, 2017
2 George and Demetra Apostolou, 1969
3 Dora, 1966
4 Demo Apostolou and Dino Christofilis, 1986
5 Marigo and Kostas Christofilis, 1978
6 Mike and his goat, early 1950s
7 Mike and Dora, 1976
8 Dora and Mike, 1976
9 Dora and Mike wedding, 1976
10 Dora, Dino, Mike and Margo Christofilis, 1982
11 Dora’s Business Card
12 Apostolou family collage, various years
13 Christofilis siblings (l-r) John, Soteria, Taso, Vasili, Mike, 1990 SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, December 2017