If it were not for Harilaos Rapanos I might never have been born. Harilaos Rapanos was my mother’s mother’s second youngest brother. As kinship is reckoned, Harilaos was my great-uncle but since everyone in my family still refers to him either as simply ‘Harry’ or ‘Uncle Harry’ this all too brief account will maintain that usage.
In some family album there is one small black and white photograph of Uncle Harry and I together. It must have been in the very early 1950s. I’m a baby only just able to stand since my hand was held by my grandmother’s. I couldn’t have been two-feet tall. It was a family dinner with my yiayia’s best dishes and with the linen bright-white table clothes from one of the old restaurants. And there I am standing, with yiayia’s aid, on the table smiling away. Just by chance Uncle Harry is seen to my immediate left talking seriously to someone outside of the photograph’s frame. No other photograph that I am aware of has both Uncle Harry and together. Given that Uncle Harry died in the mid-1950s I have no personal recollections of him. Yet, as I will finally report, Uncle Harry is unquestionably the reason I am alive.
In the very early 1900s, Harilaos Rapanos was like many other Greek immigrants to the United States, and his life-story developed out of the actions of significant others. Sometime in the 1890s, my great-grandfather Nicholas Rapanos, who was Harry’s father, had come to work in Ameriki. No one recalls exactly when or how this took place. Nonetheless, it is said that Nicholas Rapanos ended up in Chicago working in the produce/grocery business with his fellow Greeks. But he was also one of those foreign workers known informally as a bird-of-passage. This slang phrase identified, first for American officials and gradually for Americans in general, foreign workers who came to work for a season, or even a year or so, and then returned to their home country. Since these very same foreign workers very often returned to repeat this process, the bird symbolism referred to seasonal migration.
Now I need to back up here a bit. None of the children of the Rapanos family who had settled in America had ever heard any stories about their grandfather Nicholas that were not touched by bitterness. According to these memories, each of Nicholas’ nine surviving children was put to work as soon as they were able. Or even before they were able. My grandmother Anastacia (called informally Tasia but with the village pronunciation of ‘A-ta-she-a’) was sent to work with family-members, who were principally shepherds, high above her home village when she was only five years old.
When my great-grandfather wasn’t working in the produce markets of Chicago he was a ‘horifilakas’, a type of policeman who watched/patrolled the fields immediately around his village. This position, it was reported to me, was due to my great-grandfather having some kind of political alliance with a man outside the village proper who held an influential position of some kind. Through means and processes no longer recalled, my grandmother, who was still a young girl at this point, was hired to care for the elderly and ill mother of a political figure known in these tales as ‘the ambassador’. In this employment my grandmother received a small allowance with the majority of her pay going directly to her father.
Always enterprising, my great-grandfather brought one son after another to Chicago. The oldest, Athanasios (Tom), was followed by each of his brothers in birth order: Alexandros (Alex), Harilaos (Harry) and finally Spiro (Sam). Which also marks at least four times my great grandfather went back and forth from the village to Chicago. Smiling all the way, the brothers soon all had their own pushcarts and then wagons. In time each of the brothers except Spiro had their own independent grocery store. Spiro was mechanically inclined and built from parts his first motorcycle. He rode it all the way to California where, in time, he owned a string of gas stations.
At the same time back in the village my great-grandfather had plans for his four surviving daughters. As it happened my great-grandfather was also a skilled wood-worker and among his regularly finished products were weaving looms. Not unexpectedly perhaps, all his daughters, each from a very early age, learned to work his looms on a regular basis. One of these sisters made a blanket especially for my grandmother with her full name and the title of ‘shepherdess’ cleverly woven into it.
At this moment in time with his sons in America and his daughters working diligently at home, my great-grandfather was receiving various lines of money from his different children on a regular basis.
In the turmoil leading up to the First World War and for reasons no longer recalled, at some point all communication between the ‘ambassador’s’ household and my grandmother stopped cold. In the frantic letters back-and-forth across the Atlantic, somehow Harry became directly involved. At first Harry simply wrote letters himself. Then, he began contacting local and then national Greek officials scattered across the United States. After a certain point, when none of these contacts offered any serviceable information, Harry got on the boat and went to Greece.
Again, after a flurry of letters and countless visits to Greek officials in Athens and elsewhere, Harry went to the Austria-Hungarian Empire to search for my yiayia. Nothing of Harry’s adventures during his quest for my grandmother were ever told to me.
Nonetheless, somehow, Harry did find ‘the ambassador.’ It was this Greek official who gave Harry and my grandmother the necessary papers to cross the various borders so the duo could return to Greece. It was far from an easy passage. As they were about to cross the border out of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, a woman up ahead of them in line had the back of her dress ripped off by the border guards. As I was told, this unnamed woman stood there crying and screaming in protest. Yet no one else in line dared to help her fearing the same fate.
The explanation for this violence always remained the same. Women’s clothing at this time often had a stiff-corset running up the back of the dress. Given the political tensions which did eventually lead to the First World War, the guards, I have always been told, must have believed this woman was transporting sensitive papers or other state-related documents in her clothing. Harry and my grandmother passed these very same guards without incident.
And here, basically, the tale ends. Harry returned to Chicago and my grandmother lived in the village until early May 1922 when she too went to be with her brothers in Ameriki. As with so many other Greeks and other immigrants of the 1890s to 1900s era, these individuals and families entered the country as what were then called wage-slaves. In time many of these way-faring individuals built their lives, families, and at times even their own businesses.
There was much more to Harry Rapanos’ life than this all too quick account reports. Over the course of his lifetime Harry owned on and off a string of grocery stores in the city of Chicago and outlying communities. It is still recalled that Harry was also an exceptional artist who irregularly drew stunning pen and paper images of the Parthenon and other Grecian sites. His nieces and nephews frequently recalled his life-long creativity in terms of his hundred-year calendar made in a series of circles that could – when turned accurately – provide the correct day of the year for the entire century.
The photograph who took the picture of Harry and me together has to be nearly 68-69 years old. And, yes, I could have written this family tale a lot sooner. I go to Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove Illinois, which is just outside of Chicago, more and more often now-a-days. The vast majority of my family and Greek friends rest there now. Harry’s grave is near the western front of the cemetery and I visit there now and again. Often with one of my relatives. We recall stories we heard of Harry’s life with perhaps too much attention to those tales where Harry is recalled fighting with others, or some tale that causes all to laugh. There are so many other things I wish I knew more about of the life and person who was my great-uncle, Harilaos N. Rapanos.