As a young woman leaving her family in Greece, coming to the United States as a new bride, traveling to distant parts of the world and expanding the knowledge of her faith, Kalliope “Popi” Tarlson knows that God has been her protector.
Kalliope is the name with which she was baptized, that she uses when she receives Holy Communion and plans to use when she dies. Otherwise, it is always “Popi.” She was born Kalliope Nikolaou Zafiri in Piraeus, Greece, on November 25, 1926. Normally young Greek women use their father’s first name as a middle name. And, upon marriage, they might take their husband’s first name as a middle name. Thus, Popi could be known as Kalliope Nikolaou Zafiri Glenn Tarlson.
Her maternal grandparents were from the town of Kimi on the island of Evia and her paternal grandparents from Kalimeriani near Kimi. Her parents were raised in Athens. Her father, “Nikos,” as he was known, was a fairly successful merchant who handled export and import items in Greece. When the price of coffee from South America drastically dropped, he went bankrupt and had only a large piece of property in a pine forest in Nea Kifissia, an Athens suburb. After the bankruptcy in 1938 the family moved to a modern apartment in Athens. Nikos was fortunate to obtain a job as manager for Metaxa Brothers who produced the amber brandy made with distillates and Muscat wine. He was also a partner in a factory that made chains. Nikos was instrumental in exporting Metaxa to the United States and remained with the company until he died at age 50 in 1941. His death following a gall bladder operation and subsequent peritonitis left the family with no insurance or support.
Popi’s mother, Magdalini “Lala” Stavrou, was educated. She graduated from conservatory and was a piano teacher. Lala’s father was a ship captain and other members of the family were also seafaring people. The family had a large house in Piraeus. Lala was an excellent cook and entertained frequently in their home where Popi remembers she and her sister had to remain almost invisible during those social activities. Popi remembers the Metaxa brothers visiting regularly. The family had a cook and maid named Katina. Katina was hired by her parents as a young maid when they were married in the 1920s and stayed with the family as a cook until she died. Popi remembers the strict two-year mourning period following her father’s death, with all the women dressed in black, with no music, no movies and no laughter. She still questions the mourning behavior which followed centuries of tradition but had no religious meaning.
Popi became the “man of the family” as she was the strongest among her mother, grandmother and older sister Ekaterini “Nina” (born October 26, 1925). It was all women in the home including the original cook Katina and other young women who helped with chores. Nina married a seaman who worked on ships carrying cargo to and from Crete. However, he never returned from Crete on one voyage and Nina, along with her children, also moved to the home.
Popi attended public school which was more challenging than her sister’s classes in a private school. Popi had to share classes with up to 40 students and studied ancient Greek, French, religion, history and geography. Her first foreign language was French which she also learned during preschool from a French nanny, Mademoiselle Helene. Later, her mother hired a French professor who came to the house three times a week. Ultimately, she attended a French institute and received her diploma to teach French. Popi also studied German (until the Germans occupied Greece) and learned English from a French-speaking Australian woman who spoke no Greek. For Popi, English was the easiest to learn, except for the pronunciation. With excellent grades she was readily accepted to attend law school without the required examinations. However, with the German occupation and subsequent Greek civil war, communist demonstrations and riots constantly disrupted classes. After one such incident she came home very upset and, with her mother’s urging, her law school days ended.
During the German occupation, their apartment in Athens was confiscated and the family was relocated to a hotel on Syntagma Square in downtown Athens. Popi remembers having to disassemble and move the heavy, expensive furniture with little assistance. They were not treated badly by the Germans unlike many villagers who resisted or fought back. During this time Popi cared for her family which received a modest income from the rental of their summer home in Kifissia. Food was available from the bread lines and Lala was able to get some chickens and rabbits along with milk from the goat at the summer property. Still, Lala was concerned as to how she would be able to provide for her daughters’ dowries when they married. Fortunately, Popi’s maternal uncle, John Stavrou, was a wealthy merchant marine who owned his own cargo ship and offered to provide for his nieces. In 1946, with conditions returning to normal after World War II and the civil war, Popi was able to travel to Thessaloniki, Greece, with her friend Rena. She was even preparing to celebrate her birthday by shopping with her friend. However, tragedy struck. Her Uncle John, while walking to obtain documents for travel to England to acquire a new vessel, was struck by an Army truck and killed. The family was back in black, mourning again.
About this time Popi had a friend who was working as a secretary for the Ministry of Coordination under the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Plan). The work involved handling files regarding heavy construction equipment. As the friend was leaving the job, she told Popi to apply. As part of the interview, she was given a file to review but could not understand most of the words describing the equipment. However, her employer had confidence that Popi would learn, and she was hired. When she brought her first earnings home, Lala was very surprised as women and children were not supposed to work.
Popi knew a family in Kifissia whose home was for rent and Popi offered to help by showing it to prospective tenants. One potential tenant brought a friend along, Glenn Tarlson. Glenn was with the Army Signal Corps and took an interest in Popi. Previously Popi had been promised to a banker from Crete who was 20 years her senior. Despite the promise of security, Popi went against her mother’s desires for the first time, broke off the engagement. However, she still thought her future husband would have to be Greek. Meanwhile, a friend told Popi she had a “blind” date, a phrase Popi did not understand. As she was told the date would be with that “nice blond American” and her mother was away at the time, Popi agreed to the date. There was no food served at the event and, after consuming several of her first alcoholic drinks, Popi was dizzy and sick when Glenn brought her home. Claiming she must have caught a cold in the open carriage on the way home, she later learned she had experienced the effects of the “highballs.”
Glenn periodically had lunch with Popi and invited her out to a movie. As she hesitated to be seen with an American, they attended the movie at night. The relationship progressed. Popi decided that sneaking out with Glenn was not proper and they decided to get married. Lala did not approve until a friend at the United States Embassy was able to vouch for Glenn. Also, with limited funds for a dowry and Popi’s faith in Glenn’s honesty and family values, Lala relented. The couple was married in Athens on January 27, 1952. Unfortunately, Popi lost her first child in the seventh month of pregnancy and was in very serious danger. However, with the help of a Greek gynecologist who Lala found, a caesarian section was performed, probably saving Popi’s life but not that of the baby. This tragedy and leaving her family in September of that year were overshadowed by her faith which Popi believes gave her the strength and protection to continue her life with Glenn.
They traveled first class, courtesy of the US Army, in October of 1952, from Piraeus to Naples, to Marseilles and to New York where a cousin of Popi’s mother met them. They purchased a new Buick and drove across the country to Glenn’s home in Seattle, Washington, and lived with Glenn’s mother in the Rainier Valley neighborhood. Popi knew she had to find a Greek Orthodox Church. She attended St. Demetrios and, while at an evening meeting there she was overwhelmed to find Zoye Papageorgiou, a high school classmate from Greece who was visiting relatives.
Glenn’s next assignment with the Army was with Alaska Communications System, the first telecommunications provider and the only means of sending and receiving electronic messages in Alaska. In February of 1954, Glenn and Popi drove from Seattle to Fairbanks, Alaska, in their Buick. They were advised to drive in the winter when the roads were still frozen and passable. But, they did not know about the primitive section of the highway. At 60 degrees below zero, with speeds around five miles-per-hour, they had to burn paper to thaw the carburetor. Once in Fairbanks they had to bring the car battery into the house every night. After a short stay in Fairbanks, they were transferred to Whittier, Alaska, and took the train there seeing no houses, and passing under two icebergs on the way. Popi remembers snow piles of up to seven feet and leaving the house through tunnels in the snow. However, she was at home most of the time, pregnant for the second time and worried about the possible outcome. Fortunately all went well and their son Nick was born at Elmendorf Air Force Base on May 31, 1955. Popi’s only disappointment was that Nick could not become president of the United States as Alaska was not a state at the time.
The family returned to Seattle in September of 1956 where they remained until 1959 when Glenn was sent to Tehran, Iran. This gave Popi a chance to spend six months with her mother in Athens. In Iran, for the next two years Popi struggled with the language and depended on three-year-old Nick to translate as he was learning the local Farsi language from his Iranian nanny. The family returned to the United States at Long Branch, New Jersey, then to Huntsville, Alabama. They purchased a home and remained until Glenn retired in 1962. Glenn wanted to visit Greece again and they spent a year there while he worked for the US Embassy and Nick attended Greek-English school. They finally returned to Seattle and settled permanently in 1965.
Around Christmas in 1965 Glenn urged Popi to find employment, just in case something should happen to him. She tried unsuccessfully to work using her French language. However, her friend Zoye had a brother, Michael Papageorgiou, who worked at the Frederick and Nelson department store (now the Nordstrom flagship store) and found Popi a job in the cosmetics department. That short-term holiday work evolved into a 27-year experience for Popi from which she retired in 1992.
In 1983 Glenn asked Popi to drive him to the doctor as he was feeling dizzy, thinking he had an ear infection. She later received a call at work from the doctor, indicating a brain scan was needed. The finding was that Glenn had an inoperable brain tumor from which he suffered and died in 1984.
Popi believes her life has been much richer than it would have been had she not married Glenn and remained in Greece. She also believes it is God’s will for her to be in the United States where she feels closer to God having studied her faith rather than simply imitating her family’s behavior. While she believes many Greeks mechanically follow their traditions (with a small “t”) they do not always understand nor seek to learn the full meaning of the religious traditions. If asked to choose between her Greek ethnicity and her Orthodox faith, the Church will always come first. She served as Sunday school superintendent at Seattle’s Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption for 25 years. She also taught Greek for a while, served on the parish council and was president of Philoptochos (womens’ auxiliary). She has also helped with translating documents for many Greeks in the area and for her son, Nick, while he studied for his master’s degree in theology. Nick and his wife Mauna now live in northern California. Popi has three grandchildren, Diana, George and Claire and her first great grandson, Henry. Presently, she assists with translating Greek materials for the Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State.
Popi has a few favorite sayings. One is sterni mou gnosi na sicha prota, meaning I wish I had known God before. Another is dascalos pou thidaske kai nomo den ekrati or the teacher who was teaching didn’t know the law or what he was talking about. Popi smiles as she knows a literal translation is often meaningless unless the person can use it in the proper context.
Now, nearing her ninetieth year, Popi wishes to be viewed as one who tried to help the next person, just as she received help when needed. Again, “God takes care of me every time.”By John and Joann Nicon, November, 2015
1 Popi, 2015
2 Popi and Nina with their nurse, circa 1927
3 Nikos, Popi, Lala, Nina, circa 1937
4 Popi, Niko Vamvaka, Nina, circa 1940
5 Nina and Popi, circa 1942
6 Popi, 1946
7 Popi and Glenn wedding, 1952
8 Nick Tarlson, circa 1967
9 At friend Zoye’s wedding (l-r) Effie Wells, Jenise Diafos, Faye Nicon, Popi, Zoye Papayanni, Pauline Diafos, Paulette Diafos, Marihelen Cazone, 1950s
10 Diana, George and Claire Tarlson at Folk Dance Festival, circa 1990s
11 George, Mauna, Nick, Popi, Claire, Cody, Diana, 2011
12 Popi and great grandson, Henry, at his baptism, 2015
Photo 1 by John Nicon; all others from Tarlson family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, March 2015