Eftychia and Her Big Fat Greek Family Reunited after 59 Years

March 10, 2019
Matina Demelis

It is a touching story: A 59-year-old adopted woman has a powerful desire to search for her roots. When she lost her step-parents she felt lost and alone. So, she started looking for her birth parents. The path led her to Nafpaktos, to a little village called Stranoma.

Her mother had also tried to find her, but with no luck.

When we sent Eftychia an email asking if she would like to speak to TNH, the quick response was unexpected. Her email was full of messages containing not only material for an interview about her life, but also with advice and help for people that are looking for the same thing: to find their lost families.

She was so happy to talk with TNH, she tried to speak Greek, saying “kalispera” and “efharisto poly” – saying after the interview that she takes Greek lessons on Skype with a Greek teacher who lives in the United States.

Matina Demelis: How did you decide after so many years to look for your mother?

Eftychia: I didn’t look before because I honestly didn’t think there was anyone to find. The papers we had said I was a foundling of unknown parents and the Greek lawyer had told my parents that I was a premature baby and that my mother had likely died in childbirth. And my parents were never given a Greek birth certificate for me. I’m an only child, had wonderful loving parents and we were extremely close. But then my father died in 2015, and my mother 2 years later.

After her death, I felt very alone, almost lost. My parents were older, most of my aunts and uncles were deceased. Most of my cousins were older and I was only close to a couple of them. I told my husband that the only blood relatives that I knew I had in the world were our two children, Heather and Justin. And I suddenly felt this deep desire (which I think was put into my heart by God) to search for my Greek family, never dreaming I’d actually find my birth mother.

TNH: So, what was the process you followed to find her?

E: Actually, I began searching on March 27, 2017 and found her on May 31, 2017.

Dr. Gonda Van Steen holds the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature and is Director, Centre for Hellenic Studies at Kings College, London. At the time I met her, she was a professor at the University of Florida. When I started searching I typed “Greek adoptions in the 1950’s” – how ambiguous is that! And it led me to a 1996 New York Times article “Stolen Babies and Lost Identities…” which led me to another website with a bunch of comments about the article. Unbelievably, one of the comments was from the son of the Greek priest from San Antonio who facilitated my adoption. He had his email listed so I gave it a shot and emailed him. He emailed me back and he actually didn’t know much more than I did, but he did know Gonda Van Steen. He encouraged me to contact her as she was researching the phenomenon of the mass Greek adoptions to the United States between 1948 and 1962. I emailed her at the end of March 2017 and over the next two months we corresponded through email and phone calls without ever meeting in person. We met for the first time in person in July 2017 at her home, along with another Greek adoptee, Merrill Jenkins, who is still looking for his Greek family. They are both on the board of directors for The Eftychia Project. She and Merrill are now two of my dearest friends.

One day Gonda spoke by phone to my cousin, Kostas Noulas, the president of the village of Stranoma, together with his wife, went to my mother’s house to tell her that I was looking for her. My mother was overjoyed and wanted to see me and my family. A week later, June 8, 2017, we had the phone call with the translator and a week after that, June 15, 2017, my daughter Heather and I were on a plane to Greece to meet her and the family.

This was a set of miraculous circumstances, that I found them so quickly! I started with a lot less paperwork than a lot of people who have been looking for their families for years and I absolutely believe that God puts the people you need in your path at the precise moment you need them. I give all the glory to our Father in Heaven. He’s had his Divine hand on my shoulder throughout this entire process

TNH: Can you describe the feeling when you first talked to her?

E: Nervous. Excited. Emotional. Curious to hear the sound of her voice. The wife of my cousin, Kostas Noulas, the village president of Stranoma, arranged for a neighbor, Despina, the wife of Father George, a local Greek priest, to translate the phone call. When I first spoke to her, she spoke back in Greek and began to sob, saying over and over in Greek, “When are you coming?”

My husband, who videoed the phone call, and I were both in tears by the end of it. I told him that part of me wanted to get on a plane right now and go see her, even though we had already planned a trip in October for the whole family to travel to Greece. And my precious husband said, “We’re not millionaires, so we can’t say money is no object, but this is your mother, and money really isn’t an object. Buy the tickets. Take Heather with you. And Justin and I will meet them in October like we planned.”

TNH: What was your first thought when you saw her?

E: My cousin, Vasilis, and my aunt Georgia and her husband, uncle Kostas, along with their grandson, George, brought my mother to the Athens airport to meet us. It was an incredibly emotional moment as we hugged for the first time in 59 years and cried (and so did everyone else). But my first thought, honestly, was, “I must look like my birth father.” I could see a little resemblance around our lips and jaw, but I have my birth father’s hair and eyes and coloring, and I’m quite a bit taller than my birth mother.

TNH: What do you like the most about Greece? What are your thoughts about living there?

E: The thing I like most about Greece is my big, fat Greek family. Every visit (I’ve been there 10 times since that first visit) I meet some relative I haven’t met before. My Greek family has welcomed us with open arms and open hearts from the first moment and they are such a blessing to us. Other than my family, I am so in love with the beauty, majesty, and history of Greece. I adore the ancient ruins of Corinth, Delphi, the Acropolis, and places like Meteora, the quaint mountain villages, the beautiful islands.

For our 25th wedding anniversary on October 10, 2017, my husband and I renewed our wedding vows on the square in Stranoma with my mother and our 50 relatives. I’ve visited Greece 10 times since then.

We rented an apartment in Nafpaktos, just across the street from the Gulf of Corinth, and bought a car. I love living there part of the year – the people are so warm and friendly and giving. I love walking by the beach, walking to the shops and the super market, just being one of the locals. And I’m somehow related to half of the people there. We hope to buy a house there so we can retire and split time between our home in Tennessee and Nafpaktos.

TNH: Tell us about the baptism of your husband in Greece

E: My husband, Bob, has been incredibly supportive from the beginning of my search, and he has embraced and loves my Greek family. He has also embraced Greek culture and customs. We have become friends of the fathers at the Monastery of the Metamorphosis in Nafpaktos, and it is where we attend services whenever we are in Greece. I was raised Baptist by my parents and my family has always attended the Baptist church, but I have returned to my original religion and my husband remarked that he wouldn’t mind being baptized if the fathers at the monastery could do it, as he had also developed a close relationship with them. So on a two-week trip in October, he was baptized Greek Orthodox on October 16, 2019 and took two names: Rovertos Eftychios. It wasn’t lost on me that his second name is the male version of Eftychia. When we are home in Tennessee, we attend Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and what’s crazy is that the family of Father Gregory’s wife, Sofia, is from Nafpaktos. What an incredibly small world.

TNH: Is it easy learning Greek?

E: Greek is a magnificent language but there is nothing easy about it. I have a tutor who is originally from Athens and we have lessons once a week on Skype. Through my study of Greek, I have begun to believe that the father in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding is right – “give me a word, any word, and I will show you the Greek root of that word.” Haha.

TNH: Your name means happiness. Do you feel happy after all?

E: Most people who know me will tell you that Eftychia is a name that fits me to a tee. My mother said she had me baptized Eftychia in hopes that it would bring me happiness and good fortune. I can absolutely tell you that my life has been filled with both!

TNH: What are your children saying about their new yiayia?

E: They are, of course, happy to have the opportunity to love her and get to know her. And it’s been a little bit of an adjustment for them, because they both were so close to my mother and father. In fact, my children never spent a minute in daycare or with a babysitter because my parents always took care of them when Bob and I were working. But they call her yiayia and visit her home often when we are in Greece, and she clearly adores her only grandchildren

TNH: Do you think you can help other people find their families, And how?

E: It has become my passion to help others as I was helped. Nothing would give me greater joy than to help other Greek adoptees reunite with their birth families in Greece. So, with the help of Gonda and two of my friends, Maria Heckinger and Merrill Jenkins, who are also Greek adoptees, I am launching The Eftychia Project, a nonprofit organization designed to serve Greek adoptees by assisting with searching and reuniting with their birth families, translations, and reclaiming Greek citizenship. I am just one of over 3,000 Greek adoptees who were adopted by American parents during the scandal-ridden years of 1948 to 1962. My own adoption documents are fraught with forgeries, contradictions and downright untruths. Gonda, Maria, and Merrill, along with myself, will serve as the initial Board of Directors. Our educational program will provide opportunities for learning Greek language, history, customs, and culture, both for the adoptee and the public. We particularly want to help those adoptees from between 1948 and 1962, because the clock is ticking – we are in our 50’s and 60’s, our birth parents in their 70’s and 80’s.  We are running out of time to find our birth parents still living. The Eftychia Project is in the process of developing a website to make access to these services easy and streamlined for the adoptee. We hope to have the website up and running by the summer. In the meantime, those requesting assistance can send their requests to [email protected].


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