WORKING IN A FLORAL PARADISE
Louie and Mary Malesis have made significant contributions to both the Renton and Seattle, Washington, communities. In 2015 their granddaughter Sophia Giakoumatos interviewed her grandfather and the results of that interview are presented here. Their story is supplemented with information in italics from a video interview with both Louie and Mary in 2017.
LOUIE’S FAMILY AND MIGRATION
My name is Elias “Louie” George Malesis and I was born on February 20, 1933. The first person to come to America from my family was my father, George Malesis. He came here at the age of 21. He arrived in America on May 28, 1909, and made it as far as Montana before he decided to head back home to Greece. He went back to Greece because he was injured by jumping off of a train, which prevented him from doing more work. A few years later, my Uncle Alex Malesis arrived in the United States in 1912 at the age of 22. He spent some time working in Alaska, as well as in Aberdeen, cutting logs. He eventually settled in Renton, with the persuasion of my Uncle Harry Malesis, who arrived on April 10, 1913, at the age of 26. My Uncle Harry Malesis, however, settled in Auburn, Washington. Uncle Harry delivered heating oil and coal in Auburn for the winters. He opened a produce market in Auburn, and another was opened in Renton, which was my Uncle Alex’s location. My family all came from a village called Mavromati, near Thebes. My father came to America with a ship from Naples, Italy, and my Uncle Harry came with a ship from France. My father and uncles came here because there were not many opportunities to make money in the village back home and found work in the Seattle area working on the railroads.
My father returned to Greece before I was born. I left for America in 1951, at the age of 18. I wanted to come to America for a better life. My Uncle Alex went to visit Greece in 1951 for the first time in almost forty years. It was around this time that my Uncle Alex brought me here to Washington. He chose me because I had my grandfather’s name. He also brought my cousin, Arhonda, because she was named after my grandmother. The village I came from is a beautiful little village located on a hill. However, there were a lot of problems due to wars, especially World War II.
I remember being hungry and being chased by the Germans and Italians and then the communists and running like rabbits to hide. One day while looking out of my grade school window, I could see the British and German militaries fighting across the highway leading to my village. British convoys were being blown up on the main highways from Athens to Larissa and to Thessaloniki. The teacher said “class dismissed” and sent us home fearing that a bomb might fall on the school building. School was closed for a month. During the civil war that followed I and other children were gathered and marched on the main street singing communist songs. We had no choice. If the communists came to your home and you said the wrong thing, you could be killed. Later many schools were closed and I was unable to attend the high school as it was too far away and we couldn’t afford it.
There was hunger, poverty and no electricity or running water. In order for me to come to America, my Uncle Alex prepared all of the immigration paperwork. He arranged for me to sail on the NEA HELLAS, which departed from Piraeus in Greece and stopped in Naples, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and ﬁnally, Ellis Island in New York. The journey took thirteen days. I made the journey in March, and the waters we traveled on were very rough, and would sometimes even come onto the deck of the ship. In order to arrive in Renton, Washington, I took a Milwaukee Line train from New York, which took three days.
When I came to the United States with Uncle Alex I knew no English. He knew I was smart and placed me in Renton High School where I was much older than most of the students. I was lost, didn’t understand anything and felt “like a dummy.” I told my Uncle, “I can’t do this,” and instead I attended Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central College) to learn English along with a few other Greeks: Theme Kollias, Penny Sakellaris and John Rebelos.
My father, George Malesis, married a woman named Kalomira Farmakis from a nearby village, Darimari, which after 1955 went by the name of Dafni instead. My father and mother were married for over 10 years before they had children. They didn’t think it would be possible for them to have children, but eventually they had three sons in this order: Harry, Elias, Vasilis, all about one and a half years apart. My maternal grandfather’s name was Gregory Farmakis. I do not know much about my other grandparents since they were all deceased before I got to know them. My paternal grandfather’s name was Elias Malesis. I do not know much about my family’s surname, Malesis. There is possible origin from Albania, from the Arvanites who settled in parts of Greece in the late middle Ages, including many of the surrounding villages of Thebes. There is also a region in Albania called Malési.
MAKING A LIVING
Beginning with my first job in America, I worked in Renton. I started off by working in retail at the fruit market with my Uncle Alex, called Victory Market, on the corner of South Third Street and Rainier Avenue South. I worked there for ﬁve years, from 1951 to 1956, tending to the flowers. Afterwards, I worked at a supermarket chain store called Market Basket in the produce department from 1956 until 1970. I was promoted to produce and flower buyer manager after being there for less than a year at the Eastgate store and also managed the flowers at six other Market Basket stores. Two years after I left Market Basket, I opened a flower shop, Malesis Flowers, in the location of the old Victory Market. I decided to open this flower shop because of my experience working in a fruit market with flowers. On the side, I also did real estate land development. I enjoyed it because it was a challenge and interesting to me. If I could go back in time, I would have only done real estate land development because it’s more rewarding and less stressful than working in retail.
Marianthi (Mary) Petratos was born on March 15, 1936, on the island of Kephalonia in the village of Digaleto just 15 minutes from the port of Sami. She is one of eleven children. As a child, she was initially happy when the Germans came and thought it was fun to gather up blankets and belongings to leave the village for safety. Mary was 15 years old when a severe earthquake struck the island as well as the adjacent islands of Zakinthos, Kerkira and Lefka. Mary was leading a horse to meet her father to transport grain to the local mill when bricks fell from the adjacent homes and she was buried in the rubble. Her father pulled her out and stuffed her head injury with tobacco to stop the bleeding. They came home and heard her mother screaming as the home collapsed on her. They were unable to save her.
After the quake Mary was transported to Sami in an old pickup truck with other wounded residents and taken on a boat to Patras for medical treatment. She and her brother were able to stay for a few days with former neighbors who had a home in Patras. They then took the train to Athens and stayed with an uncle until they found their own apartment. Mary had finished grade school but was unable to finish high school as it was too far away from her home. A few years later she learned that those impacted by the earthquakes could come to the United States if they had a sponsor. Mary then wrote to her sister, Aphrodite Cominos, who had previously immigrated to Seattle, Washington, and arrived in the United States in 1953.
At a New Year’s celebration at St. Demetrios Church a number of Greek men were looking for young brides. Louie saw Mary there with her older sister and approached her and began speaking in English which she did not understand. When he switched to Greek, she told him how little money she was making and how she wanted to return to Greece. Louie told her he wouldn’t let her go back and how life in the United States was so much better than in Greece. He kept in contact with Mary and gave her a small record player and Greek records to help her stay in touch with her homeland. Mary’s first job was making suitcases for $1.05 per hour. She then worked at a drapery business, bringing the fabric to the seamstresses. One seamstress, a Jewish lady, spoke some Greek with Mary and helped her learn some English.
On Valentine’s Day in 1957 Louie gave Mary an engagement ring. After they were married on June 2, 1957, she remained at home raising her children and eventually worked with Louie in the flower business. Louie and Mary have three children, Mary Ann, born February 14, 1960, Georgia, born July 4, 1961, and Alexandros, born July 8, 1964. There are three granddaughters.
MAKING A HOME
When I first got married, I lived with my uncle for six months. Then, I bought my ﬁrst home in 1958, which had three bedrooms and one bathroom. Market Basket co-signed for it. Then, I moved into a four-plex in 1960 and lived there for a few years. In 1962, I moved into a split-level home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, right across from Highlands Elementary School. This is the home where I raised my three children: Mary Ann, Georgia and Alex. In 1974, I moved into a home in the Bryn-Mawr neighborhood, just east of Skyway. It was a lovely three story home with two kitchens and four fireplaces, located on a steep hill. After twenty years, I moved into my current home.
Every year, I enjoyed celebrating the holidays with my family by decorating the house, especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas. For example, we would put nice tablecloths on the tables. We would celebrate holidays with our relatives, never with friends. The celebrations were usually at our home. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the main dish was usually turkey, while for Easter, we had roasted lamb. There was plenty of Greek dancing as well.
When we weren’t celebrating holidays, I enjoyed spending time with my family and relatives by going to picnics, visiting parks and the beaches of oceans and lakes. When it came to meal time in our home, a typical dinner consisted of lamb, roasted potatoes, Greek salad, some wine, and for dessert, cake or ice cream. We spoke a mix of Greek and English in our home, but family gatherings, such as during holidays, were almost always in Greek.
I learned how to read and write English by going to ESL (English as a second language) classes at Seattle Community College (now Seattle Central College). There were people in my class from many different countries. My children were all born here and they went to Greek school at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church to learn how to read and write in Greek. The friends I made here in Washington were mainly people who came from Greece around the same time as me. We had many get-togethers at St. Demetrios. I lived in Renton the whole time I’ve been in Washington. There were not as many Greeks in the suburbs as there were in Seattle but I can remember a couple of other Greek families living here. In the first years that I lived here, I preferred to listen to Greek music. I had purchased a record player, and I listened to Greek records that were imported from Greece. I never had much free time, but when I did, I enjoyed going to church, going on picnics and exploring the lakes in South King County. Religion has played a big part in my life. I have been a member of St. Demetrios since 1952. I served two terms on the parish council. I was on the real estate committee and in the maintenance department in the early 1960s. I have been a part of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) for many years.
INTROSPECTION / IN CLOSING
My Greek heritage has been passed on to my children and grandchildren through the church and the Greek community. My son was an altar boy at church. We also attended many AHEPA conventions. The best thing about being in Washington State is the experience of having a better life and being able to earn enough money to support my family. The worst thing is being away from my family in Greece. I never imagined though that there would be so many Greek people in the Seattle area when I first came here. I got very involved with my Greek community and found it very encouraging. Something I want people to remember about me is that I have given my best to be a good husband and father and to be supportive of my family. I wanted everyone to be successful. I also want people to know that I am proud of my many accomplishments. I want the younger people reading this to understand that you need to work for things in order to earn them and that it’s important to use your time wisely. It’s also important that you are using your time to do good things for others and not only for yourself.
For over 30 years Mary and Louie enjoyed the friendship and love from their customers at Malesis Flowers. The remodeled building, while no longer bearing the business name, remains at the prominent corner of Third and Rainier Avenue in Renton. Mary and Louie speak with a passion about creating arrangements as artists in their craft. They both like beautiful things and for Louie, there is nothing more beautiful than nature’s creation, her flowers. Mary especially enjoyed Valentine’s Day, weddings and school graduations. And, they have donated flowers for their St. Demetrios Church whenever requested. For births, graduations, weddings and funerals, providing flowers for life’s events and making people happy has been their pleasure while working in paradise.By Sophia Giakoumatos and John and Joann Nicon, September 2017 VIDEO SEGMENTS
1 Louie and Mary, 2016
2 Louie’s Parents, early 1900s
3 Louie with his brothers Harry and Vasilis, circa 1950
4 At Market Basket, circa 1960
5 Louie, 1951
6 Victory Market, 1970s
7 Mary’s family in Greece, early 1900s
8 Marriage record, 1957
9 Mary and Louie wedding, 1957
10 Sophia, Mary, Louie, Alexandros and Georgia, 1967
11 Mary at a flower show, 1990s
12 Back at the shop, circa 1976
13 Newspaper article, 1980s
14 20th anniversary of the shop, 1990s
15 Louie cooking a lamb, 1998
16 Remodeled store at Third and Rainier, 2002
17 Mary with granddaughters, Sophia, Anna and Maria, early 2000s
18 Louie and Mary, 2016
19 Malesis family: Sophia, Cindy, Georgia, Roger Best, Mary Ann, Kosta Giakoumatos, Mary, Maria, Anna, Louie, Alex, 2016
Photo 1 by John Nicon; all others from Malesis family collection SOURCES
Interview by Sophia Giakoumatos, March, 2015; video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June, 2017