Guest Viewpoints

Past Wisdom Meets Present Pandemic

Most of us of a certain age” heard the warning from our mothers: Ta matia sou tessera,” (“Use your eyes like four eyes”) a creative Greek way of saying, Be careful.” Having heard it myriad times, I joked, “…even 400 eyes, Mama,” secretly vowing Id never quote those words to my kids, if I ever had children.

Eighteen year old Vasiliki became my mother 18 years after arriving at Ellis Island aboard the S.S. King Alexander on July 4th 1921. Mamas simple traveling bag carried her own embroidered icon of an image of the Holy Cross adorned with bright red poppies, but few clothes: two dresses, one for church and one for everyday wear. Mothers small feet first stepped on American soil wearing her only pair of shoes. Your Papou didnt have enough money to load me up with clothes for that trip,” she explained.

Vasiliki was not toting a book of wise maxims to, at the proper moment, unleash on her future children. As far as she knew in 1921, Mother was departing her village— forever—as that eras pioneer immigrants did. Limited economics and difficult, time-consuming travel curtailed pleasure excursions. Also, expensive, narrow long-distance telephone service usually meant they— never again— heard the voices of parents and siblings in Greece. In most situations regarding women immigrants: once you got here, you got married, gave birth to children, and stayed. Mama was blessed to have the companionship of four sisters who also immigrated to Chicago, but always missed her parents, brother, and little sisters in Alea/Tegea. 

In those years most Greek family patriarchs believed girls did not need schooling beyond 4th grade. Discounting formal education for women, they erroneously believed their daughters were never destined to become engineers, lawyers, or doctors. Women werent supposed to seek professional careers. Much as she loved learning, Mother was only allowed a 4th grade education. Gratefully, Weve come a long way, baby.”

So how, before leaving their homeland, did our pioneer mothers become so well-versed on the wisdom of multiple aphorisms? No matter which part of Greece they hailed from, they all seemed to know the same, identically phrased proverbs. Those sayings were as much a part of my mothers knowledge as the Pater Imon(Lords Prayer). 

Perhaps this universal knowledge can be explained by the hardships involved in 19th and early 20th century agrarian village life: few conveniences or books; no electricity or plumbing. Life was tough. Accompanied by deep, spiritual faith, aphorisms eased laborious, monotonous, everyday challenges. Along with the oft-advised Ipomoni” (patience), old sayings inspired the selfless strength to endure. Proverbs I heard from Mother were catchy, usually humorous, making them easier to remember. Our ancestors grasped the old sayings from their elders, then repeated them to their American-born progeny.

In spite of my youthful vow, I not only remember Mamas maxims, I repeat them as easily as breathing—in Greek — and, yes, to our son. Hundreds exist, mostly extolling benefits of safety, respect — lots of common sense. One promises strict discipline: putting your two feet in one shoe.” Another: If you dont know— dont speak; learn to listen.” Limiting the list for this writing I include my elderly mothers: Where you are, I have been; where I am, you are coming.” She was right, of course.

When teenage me asked Mama permission to attend fun-sounding activities by pleading, ”but everyone else is going,” she questioned me: You know how people go to Hades? One following the other.” (Pos pane ston Adi? O enas piso apo ton alon.) Leaving for school but hurriedly returning home to retrieve a forgotten text book inspired, Whoever has no brains— has feet.” (Opios den ehei miala— ehei podia.)

To survive prejudice as new immigrants in early 20th century America, our forebears, my parents included, minimized risk-taking. Today, with fear of COVIDs infectious spread, intubation, possible death, Mother would have demanded her family and friends get vaccinated. Whenever simple solutions to a problem (perhaps like social distancing and wearing masks) seemed too burdensome, my mother repeated another wise Greek maxim: Kai mi herotera” (“It could be worse”). Her personal, difficult, life experiences  assured that there is always something worse— “herotera”— lurking to stun and threaten us.

Our early 20th century, pioneer Greek immigrant mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, women of indomitable spirit, may not have had much formal education but those intelligent, resilient, and valiant women possessed PhD equivalents in wisdom and common sense.

Ta matia mas tessera… Ipomoni.”


Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek-American Recollections; Cosmos Publishing, 2005, and American Kid, Nazi Occupation Through a Childs Eyes; Year of the Book, 2016.


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