During World War II in Greece, Maria Cooper (nee Deligianni) was unable to pursue her schooling. Rather, as a teenager and the oldest daughter of seven children, she was responsible for her younger siblings. Since that time her life has been very fortunate because, as Maria says, “echi o Theos” (God will provide).
From 1940 to 1946 Maria’s family, her parents Kosta and Katina, their children and her paternal papou (grandfather), survived primarily on horta (boiled dandelion greens) and items made from wheat or corn meal which they exchanged for the olive oil they made on their property. The children often went about without shoes or adequate clothing except what they received during the Greek War Relief program based in the United States. Even then, few of the relief items made their way to the small villages after they had been confiscated by those in authority in larger cities.
Maria was born on June 10, 1926, in the village of Mandanissa, east of Agrinio in Central Greece. In 1951 Paul Cooper and his parents, Nick and Alexandra, from Seattle, Washington, were visiting their village, Beriko, near Mandanissa. (The Cooper name was originally Kourkoutas but, because Americans struggled with the pronunciation and anti-immigrant sentiment was high, the name Cooper was chosen.) While riding a bus from one village to another, Paul tried to sit next to Maria but she refused his advances. When the bus stopped and Maria had left, Paul asked the driver about young Maria Deligianni. A few days later, on the first of September, Maria was attending a local wedding, having made the bride’s dress. Paul was there too. He reminded Maria of their encounter on the bus, cut in between two girls in the line dance to be near her and even gave her a boubouniera (wedding favor consisting of sugar-coated almonds signifying the bitter and sweet of marriage which unmarried young women put under their pillow at night to dream of their future husband). Even though Maria remained aloof, neighbors began talking about her and the young American. Maria’s mother Katina thought well of Paul. Paul’s mother Alexandra urged Maria to accept her son’s advances. And, Paul declared he was going to marry Maria. That was on a Sunday and the next morning Paul went to Athens to obtain the paperwork for their marriage and Maria’s trip to Seattle. Just nine days after they met, Paul and Maria were married on September 9, 1951.
Paul and his parents returned to America without his new bride but sent money to Maria while her relatives helped make the final arrangements for her trip to join him. She left Greece by ship on December 1, 1951, spent a few days in Italy where she bought a new coat and hat and arrived in New York City the day after Christmas. She had planned to spend some time with relatives in New York until Paul encouraged her to take the train to Seattle as soon as possible. In Seattle Maria was met by Paul and the Cooper family, including Tasia, her new sister-in-law (see WALLINGFORD REVISITED). Paul met Maria with a dozen roses (which Maria believed were only for the deceased in Greece, but she remained silent). Coming from a village of less than 1000 people, it was a shock for this young village girl who spoke no English. Fortunately, she and Paul were able to live in the Cooper family’s apartment building in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood and Alexandra Cooper did all she could to help Maria adjust. The two often went shopping in downtown Seattle, something Maria had never experienced in Greece.
Her father-in-law, Nick, had retired from the restaurant business and did much of the cooking at home. He began teaching Maria how to cook as her experience was limited. A few months after arriving in Seattle, Maria went to the grocery store to purchase the items for a family meal. However, she could only use Greek (thelo arnaki to pothi) or “I want a small leg of lamb.” When the butcher asked what kind of meat she wanted, Maria simply stood, pointed to her leg and said “baaah” to indicate her choice. The meal was a success and when Nick Cooper learned Maria had done it all by herself he knew his daughter-in-law was a “keeper.”
Maria slowly learned English with help from Paul’s cousin Audrey Southas and friend Penny Sakellaris (see THE LIGHT OF MY LIFE). Maria and Paul eventually became managers of the Wallingford apartment building, saved enough money to buy their own home and moved to the Ravenna neighborhood. Their first daughter, Alexa (after Paul’s mother Alexandra) was born on October 18, 1952, and Katina (after Maria’s mother) followed on April 21, 1956.
Paul was employed at the American Can Company where he worked for over 25 years. During the holiday season he would “moonlight” at the Frederick & Nelson department store in the candy department, known for its Frangos (chocolate truffles). When his daughters visited him at work they would often come home with pockets stuffed with Frangos. When American Can closed, Paul found employment at Olympic Stain. He was a loyal and dependable employee wherever he worked. In over 50 years of employment he only took one day of sick leave. Upon retiring he enjoyed mowing all the lawns in the family, finding all the grocery bargains in the Wednesday paper and watching the local football and baseball teams. If the windows were open the neighbors could hear his reactions to plays gone awry which were always attributed to poor coaching decisions. Paul died in 2003.
Paul couldn’t see any reason why Maria needed to drive. However, his cousin Audrey, in her inimitable way, insisted, “she’s going to learn how to drive whether you like it or not. Now give me the keys.” And thus the issue was resolved. Maria could now also help Audrey twice daily during the summer months. Audrey, Maria and their children would drive to the home of Audrey’s mother, Athena Phillips. Audrey would drive Athena’s popcorn truck to the Hiram Chittenden Locks on the Lake Washington ship canal (a popular tourist destination) and Maria would follow in the car to pick up Audrey. In the evening, the process was reversed. The children looked forward to these trips because yiayia/thea (grandmother/aunt) was always generous with treats from her business.
Although Paul did not want his wife to work outside the home, Maria was determined to do something beyond raising her own family and began a day care in her home. Then, when her friend Penny encouraged her to “get out of the house,” Maria began working part time serving meals in the teachers’ lounge at Eckstein Middle School. She then worked at Ingraham High School and finally at Roosevelt High School, retiring after 18 years.
In 1996, Maria became a United States citizen. With only a second grade education and limited reading ability, she had put off applying for over 40 years. Her daughter Alexa helped Maria memorize the answers and had to remain seated behind her during Maria’s examination. Maria answered every question perfectly upon which the examiner wondered why she had waited so long.
THE COOPER DAUGHTERS
As it was all Greek at home, Alexa knew no English until she began school at Interlake Elementary (now the Wallingford Center) directly across the street from the apartment. Alexa remembers the apartment vividly and, with no other children living nearby, she would sit at the window and watch the kids at recess across the street. There was an elderly woman in the apartment with no children who became friendly with the girls. The woman taught Alexa to write her name and taught both girls some English. At age four, Alexa was able to walk by herself to the Wilmot library (now the Wallingford Branch) a couple of blocks away and check out a book. When the family moved to Ravenna, Alexa’s main concern was whether their new home was near a library. Her father drove her to the library on the first Saturday following the move where she checked out one book out of habit. This she finished in one day and realized she would have to wait until the following Saturday for her father to take her to the library again. She quickly learned to check out enough books to last throughout the week. Katina remembers Alexa teaching her and their mother some English and the excitement of moving to their own home in 1960.
There was no question that both girls would attend Greek School. In Wallingford it was held on Mondays at Hamilton Junior High. Alexa remembers being especially quiet at Interlake Elementary on those days to avoid being kept after school for talking. Their Greek teacher, Antigone Hazimihalis, accepted no excuses for being late. Both women are fluent Greek speakers and, although neither married Greek men, their families cherish and observe Greek customs and traditions, especially the closeness of family. Maria’s one granddaughter, Anna Helene Ruh, bears the name Anna from her father’s grandmother and the middle name from Katina’s mother-in-law.
Maria’s happiest memories in Seattle began, and continue, in her association with St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. She would take two or three busses from Wallingford to get there and made sure the girls attended Sunday school, which they did with perfect attendance. She loves being active with Philoptochos (women’s auxiliary) and has regularly helped with cooking and social events. Recently she prepared a meal in her own home for up to 40 women who reside at Jubilee (a women’s shelter) and enjoyed every moment of the process.
Maria’s first trip back to Greece was in 1965 where she remembered the poor conditions of her childhood. She knows the economy there is not as stable as it could be which makes her appreciate her life in Seattle even more. While her daughters remember their mother’s warning anexe ta matia sou (keep your eyes open), Maria’s life-long favorite saying is echi o Theos (God will provide). She is ever grateful for what God has provided – a better life in America that is deeply rooted in the Orthodox faith and her Greek culture.
By John and Joann Nicon, April, 2017
1 Maria Cooper, 2016
2 (l-r) Katerina’s sister Marigoula Triha and Maria’s parents, Kosta and Katerina, circa 1922
3 Maria in Mandanissa (center in floral dress), circa 1951
4 Maria, circa 1944
5 Maria and Paul wedding, 1951
6 Maria and Paul, September 9, 1951
7 Maria Paul “Race for the Cure”, 2001
8 Paul and Maria 50th anniversary, 2001
9 Alexandra, Paul and Nick Cooper, 1925
10 Collage of Paul, 1939 and 1940
11 Alexa and Maria voting, 1996
12 Katina and Alexa with Santa Claus, 1961
13 Maria’s family (l-r) Gordon Ruh, Katina, Anna, Maria, Paul, Alexa, Vance Thompson, 1996
14 Whole family on an anniversary cruise (Paul and Maria center front), 2001
15 Anna with her yiayia (grandmother) Maria, 1996
16 Cooper women: Alexa, Maria, Anna, Katina, 2016
Photos 1 and 16 by John Nicon; all others from Cooper family collection SOURCES
Video interview by Anna Ruh and John Nicon, April 2016