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They Always Go in Threes

March 14, 2021

When I was growing up, funerals were a regular part of what I came to realize was my distinctly Greek social life. During the late 1950s and early 1960s I heard women of my grandmother’s generation ‘sing’ the laments over coffins. This practice was discouraged but continued for quite some time. It was while attending these funerals in Chicago that I heard of a wide variety of Greek funeral customs and beliefs.

I even heard about funerals that had happened years before I was born. These tales even went back to burials in the village. My father’s grandfather Kostandenos swore a mighty oath that he would not be exhumed to have his bones washed in red wine and then placed in a wooden carved box to sit forever after in the village ossuary. And true to his word when I traveled to Greece for the first time I visited his grave and I finally saw the wall of stone covering it that I had only heard about in Chicago living rooms.

My mother told me that as a girl she had attended Greek funerals in the apartments and later homes of the family of the deceased. Other Greeks in Chicago insisted that the use of funeral parlors for what is now called ‘visitation’, was something that only became accepted very gradually. Depending on the family, other traditions still held sway.

In the early 1960s, a cousin on my mother’s side came from Greece. Initially she refused to go to funerals and so her husband simply went without her. When my mother finally asked her cousin why she would not attend funerals she was told that the singing of the laments always deeply affected and in fact terrified her. It took my mother quite some time to convince her cousin that such traditions rarely if ever took place in Chicago of the 1960s. Gradually her cousin began to accompany her husband to such occasions.

Over the years during my attendance at Greek funerals I began to hear more of traditions and legends no longer maintained in America, while at the same time experiencing other customs and beliefs that still held sway.

One folk belief that remained strong is expressed as ‘they always go in threes.’ This saying, was often accompanied or was immediately followed by, the speaker quickly doing the sing of the cross.

This folk belief conveyed the village-held notion that once one person died – two more would quickly follow. I could never seem to properly phrase my question(s) of why the number three was so critical or mandatory in some sense. And, yes, I did ask for specific examples of such occasions when three different individuals known to the person I was speaking to had died in this manner. As one might expect some, individuals I questioned did name a specific trio they had known who had all passed away at around the same time. And, again, as one would expect others I posed this question to could not provide any examples. On those occasions I was frequently told that they simply could not remember exactly who the three were but that at some point in their lives this had still occurred.

This particular folk belief came to mind again with the recent passing of Harry Mark Petrakis (June 5, 1923-February 2, 2021). Unquestionably the leading Greek-American writer, perhaps of all time, with Petrakis’ passing we have lost a singular voice on the experience of Greeks in North America. As I searched on the Internet for obituaries on Petrakis I unintentionally discovered two other recent deaths of especially notable Greek-American figures, Peter Sam Poulos (April 5, 1936-October 22, 2020) and Paul Sarbanes (February 3, 1933-December 6, 2020). Each of these individuals was, what is termed in the social sciences, as a ‘cultural bearer.’

A ’culture bearer’ is a term first employed in anthropology to describe ‘any individual, especially a migrant, who carries, and thus diffuses, cultural values and traits between societies. “The role of culture bearers is particularly important within those cultures undergoing transition or experiencing threat from outside the culture,” (Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. HarperCollins Publishers 2000). Now none of these three individuals was an immigrant but all three spent their lives, in one way or another, representing, supporting and/or preserving Greek-American culture and society.

Curiously, Peter Poulos, who – at the moment – is the least well known of the three cited here, may in time, become more widely known to future generations of Greeks for his lifetime of contributions than either of these other especially accomplished men. Let me explain. Peter Sam ‘Pete’ Poulos, 84, died in his beloved Missoula, Montana on Thursday, October 22, 2020. His parents, Sam and Mary Poulos Panagopoulos, Greek immigrants, were from the area of Kalavrita, Greece.

Peter Poulos was born in Missoula and as his obituary reports, “he lived on East Pine Street in the same house for 70 years, until 2006 when he moved into an apartment/condominium. In 1957, he lived in Seattle, Washington for 1 year. In 1959, he lived in Hollywood, California for 3 months, then back to Seattle for 6 months. In 1965, he went back to Seattle and stayed another 5 years. Seattle was kind of a second home to Pete.

He was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Order of Ahepa, Greek American Progressive Association (GAPA), CPCA, the Garden City Stamp Club, and he had been affiliated with the Greek Music and Greek Historical Archives. He had also been with the Greek Orthodox Church of Assumption in Seattle, Washington…

Pete had served in the National Guard after graduating from Missoula County High School in the Class of 1955. He attended Modern Business College and then ran a novelty shop in 1958 on West Main for one year. While in high school, Pete was in the Order of DeMolay International…Trisagion for the Departed and Wake will be at 6 p.m., Monday, October 26, 2020 at the Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation in Missoula. The Funeral Service will be at 10 a.m., Tuesday, October 27, 2020 … The celebrant … was … Father Haralambos ‘Rob’ Spaliatsos. Burial was at Missoula City Cemetery.”

The key point noted in his obituary is as follows: “[S]ince 1960, he had been doing research on the Greeks in Montana. He had gathered tons of photos, names, dates, etc. He assembled a book with over 800 pages on this. He also researched other Greek items and places, also keeping up with the Seattle scene. He collected anything Greek and had a huge collection of books, magazines, music, photos, etc. This collection will be donated to the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. His Greek music collection consisted of the Greek music archives of thousands of records, tapes, recording CDs and catalogs.”

Toward the end of his life, Poulos began donating large segments of his collection to the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. The last time I visited this museum just happened to be the day yet another skid sent by Poulos of Greek Orthodox church histories, collected from around the nation, arrived. As I was told by museum workers at the time this was either the fifth or sixth such wooden palette of church histories sent by Poulos. In point of fact, Poulos donated a huge selection of wide-ranging materials, images, and artifacts from his quite considerable collection of Greek-Americana.

Yet Peter Poulos did more than simply collect Greek-Americana. Sometime in the late 1970s-1980s or so Poulos issued at least one 33 1/3 r.p.m. album of old Greek 78 r.p.m. records. It was an album whose theme revolved around the suffering of the early Greek immigrants. These songs were all of a theme … the hazards of working in America and the countless deaths by industrial accidents, the various diseases and the out-and-out attacks all too common among the hard-working Greeks. At this moment all I can recall from this album is Yorgos Katsaros’ song ‘Mana mou eimai Fthisikos’ (1935). I would be more detailed in my description of this album but I donated it years ago to Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music.

Peter Poulos was always a soft-spoken gentleman. Sure in his knowledge and recollections of the Greeks in Montana as well as what he discovered over the course of a lifetime concerning the history and experiences of Greeks in North America. Hellenism owes this man a debt that can never be repaid.

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