Entering the house on Butterfield Street in Lowell, Massachusetts, the distinct smell of anise entertained the children’s noses before their eyes could even adjust to the lighting. With that one smell, they knew what awaited them in the kitchen — fresh Greek cookies.   

The smell of koulourakia was not an uncommon one in this house. Nor was the rocking chair placed beneath the lamp in the living room and, more impressively, the woman sitting in that chair. A hand-crocheted afghan always covered her lap, her hands folded on top until she lifted them toward her guests, receiving numerous embraces.

Just looking at her, one saw her beauty, and careful listening revealed broken English, mixed with Greek mutterings. Her skin was soft, but the creases and folds beneath her eyes and on her neck betrayed her age. The crown of curls that circled her head was pure white. Wrinkles might have shown her age, but they did not reflect the worries and hard work that brought them.

For Athena Malapanis Theokas, those wrinkles symbolized a life that built an incredible legacy.

Life in Greece

Born in July of 1902 to poor, Greek farmers, Athena spent the first 14 years of her life assisting her parents on their farm in Poliani, Greece. Athena’s one-room, dirt floor house with the occasional chicken running in and out was home. But she knew it was not all life promised her. She had heard about a better life in America, and a desire to experience it grew.

“She was the only girl in the family; the rest were brothers,” Athena (Tina) Krueger, her grandmother’s namesake, recalled. “She was never educated. The life was really kind of an existence. Just trying to maintain (was) very difficult.” 

Stavroula Theokas, Athena’s second child, also described their mother’s life in her homeland.    

“… They were farmers,” Stavroula said, remembering her mother’s recollection of her life in Greece. “The children worked on the farmlands. (Athena) never went to school, whether it was to learn Greek or English.”

The Chance to Come to America

As Greek farm life became more difficult toward the end of the 1800s, thoughts of traveling to America grew increasingly more appealing.

According to Stavroula, other young girls in Poliani began leaving the village for America. Once she realized it was possible, Athena could not push the idea out of her mind. So she talked to her parents. They could not afford the $58 ticket, but in 1916, a friend’s misfortune changed the course of Athena’s entire life.

“Lo and behold, there was a young girl, a friend of hers, who was ready to come to America,” Stavroula said. “(Her friend) had her ticket; she had everything. (But) she got sick. … So (Athena) took over her ticket. She finally convinced her parents: ‘Yes, I’m
going.’ ”

With $12 in her pocket, Athena said goodbye to her family and to her life in Greece and went down the mountain on the back of a donkey, unaware of the legacy she had begun with that one decision.

Her First Years

From Ellis Island, Athena took a two-day train ride to Lowell, Massachusetts, to meet her cousin, Jim Malapan. He welcomed her into his home, to live with him and his wife.

Refusing to live off her cousin’s kindness, Athena secured a job, working 12 hours a day in the Suffolk Mill. She earned $5 a week.

“I make the spool to take in the weaving room to make the cloth,” Athena said in an interview with Lewis Karabatsos in 1974. “I make the yarn, and … I’m a cutting, make the yarn and take it to weaving room and make cloth, make velvet cloth that time.”

Soon, cousin Jim decided it was time for Athena to marry, and he arranged for Athena to marry Andrew Theokas in 1920. While this was an arranged marriage, Athena grew to respect and care for Andrew.

Their family grew quickly as the couple brought five children into the world in five years —  until they were a family of 12.

Life During the Depression

Despite the happiness of raising children with her husband, Athena soon felt the full force of the Depression.

“(Life was) very hard, very hard,” Athena said. “At that time, they don’t give us nothing. Staying alive, it takes a piece of work. You can’t buy clothes for the kids. … Pretty rough times, very hard times.”

Athena stayed home with the children, and Andrew worked at Scriptures Laundry, making $9 a week.

Growing up, Peter Theokas, sixth in the line of Theokas children, never thought much about money.

“As far as I was concerned, we were doing great,” Peter said, his white eyebrows lifting with innocence, his deep voice carrying a tune of remembrance. “We lived right across from the park. We had places to go and play, and they’d call us in for supper or whatever.”

Yet Peter acknowledged life was hard for his parents. 

“Of course, there were 10 of us (kids) — that was no easy deal, you know,” Peter said with soft laughter. “Three rooms in the apartment. It was rough … but in those days, that was living. They knew what they needed to do, and they did it. They didn’t complain.”

The rough conditions during the Depression were a way of life for the Theokas family.

The children didn’t know Athena and Andrew were barely making ends meet, often buying food and coal on credit and many times not paying their $3.75-a-week rent.

“During the Depression time, ’course I don’t pay my rent straight,” Athena remembered. “I don’t pay no bread sometime because I need shoes for the kids. I need coats for the kids, I can’t pay everything all together.”

The bills ran high, and money was in short supply, so Athena picked up extra work whenever she saw the opportunity. With a steady hand and an eye for embroidery, Athena sold her work to help.

“It was fun being poor,” Stavroula said with a lightness in her voice that seemed to contradict her words. “Everybody was poor, so it was OK. … Life was different. But see, everybody was in the same boat, so it didn’t matter.”

Athena’s Legacy as a Mother

Athena’s love for her children and desire for them to grow into respectable adults translated into the way she raised them. Stavroula said while they all knew how much their mother loved them, Athena made sure they wouldn’t dabble much in trouble.

“Oh, she was very good to us,” Stavroula said. “She had full control of us, really. There were times when she had to yell at us, and we’d yell. We’d have fights with our family, naturally. You had 10 kids, you were gonna have disagreements.”

“She knew it was just the way it was, and that’s it,” Peter added matter-of-factly, before allowing a laugh to roll up from deep inside his chest. “You got disciplined differently than you do now. You did something wrong, you were (not) scolded for it. … You’d get belted across the head or against the back.”

Stavroula looked past the pain of a belt and saw how she learned from Athena during her childhood.

“I learned to respect people because she respected people a lot, even with us,” Stavroula shared. “Even though she’d get mad at us, she respected her children — ain’t no doubt about it.”

Learning the English Language

Living among fellow Greek immigrants meant Greek culture saturated life for the Theokas family.

“We only spoke Greek at home,” Stavroula said. “We went to school not knowing English. We learned our English while in school. We were talking Greek all the time (at home). … They didn’t know English, so we had to speak Greek.”

As the children began learning English, Athena desired to learn as well. According to Stavroula, a Greek woman learning English was not common, but Athena was determined.

“She started speaking English and was trying to understand the English language, and she did very well with that, too, but none of the other ladies knew English,” Stavroula said. “She was about the only one way back then who spoke a little bit of English. And by the time she passed away, she was fluent with it.”

After the Depression

In 1941, as the Depression ended and World War II unfolded, Athena went back to work, this time at Merrimack Mill, making $15 a week in difficult conditions.

“The people making you work so hard,” Athena said. “After the war over, the second world war, they doubled the work of the people. If I worked 10 machines, they give 15 machines. So the people work double hard.”

Every day, Stavroula saw her mother come home tired from a tough, demanding, dirty job.

“She worked in the mill … from 2 (p.m.) till 10 (p.m.),” Stavroula said, “… I would get home from work a little bit earlier so I could be home with the children. She would cook a meal for supper if she had the time.”

Peter emphasized Athena’s long days. However, complaining about a job was not in her character.

“She was a strong one. She was very strong. … She always had a good outlook. Made sure we were dressed and cleaned, you know, the whole bit. Don’t ask me how she brought up 10 kids.”

Three Theokas sons joined the service during WWII: John, Dionisios and Vasilios.

“It takes its toll,” said Peter, who also joined during the Korean War. “(Our parents worried) about them. Because at one point, we had one brother who was missing in action and another wounded at the same time. So that kind of took her through a loop …”

Athena’s Later Years

All her sons returned from war, and in time, nine of Athena’s children made her a grandmother — a yiayia. Two of her 25 grandchildren, Susan Webster and Sharon Stacy, children of Athena’s youngest daughter, Helen MacArthur, recalled growing up with their yiayia and described her as unique, loving and desiring of a good education for her grandchildren.

In later years, Andrew became sick and needed more help than Athena could provide. He moved to a nursing home.

“(She was) very patient (with Andrew),” Sharon recalled. “They had such a loving relationship. … Every single day, someone drove her over (to the nursing home), and she would bring food for him to eat. … (Peter) would go over and shave him. Anytime Yiayia needed anything, her kids were there. They were really devoted to each other, and all their kids were devoted to them.” 

After nearly 52 years of marriage, Andrew passed away January 26, 1972. Stavroula said Athena never emotionally broke down in front of her, but Helen recalled her mother’s more vulnerable side.

“One thing she told me when my father died, … she said, ‘You know, I have to tell you, I lost my best friend,’ ” Helen said. “That’s pretty strong. She didn’t say anything about a husband, but, ‘He was my best friend.’ ”

The Legacy Athena Left Behind

Athena lived 98 years, and when she died, she left a legacy to more than 100 descendants. 

“(She) had to be doing something right,” Peter smiled. “I hope to follow in her footsteps. She always had a smile on her face; that’s one thing I remember about her, always had a smile on her face.”

Peter also said his mother taught him the simple beauty of treating others with kindness.

“I don’t think she ever said a bad word about anybody; maybe once in a while,” Peter pulled out a mischievous grin. “That’s another thing: Respect your elders. That’s a big thing. Respect your elders.” 

“…she said, ‘Never be jealous about people, and never talk about people in a jealous manner,’ ” Helen added. “Because you never heard her criticize.”

For Helen, the most important lesson her mother taught was to live as an example. Athena could not read the Bible on her own, but she memorized scripture and lived according to it. Susan agreed.

“Her value system was impeccable,” Susan said. “(I don’t know) whether she was a believer in Christ as her Lord and Savior, but she truly, truly believed in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and she raised her children like that. I mean, it really was incredible. Ten children during the Depression, and, I mean, they might’ve gotten in a little trouble, but they were all good kids.”

Athena’s grandchildren also watched each day as their yiayia proved what hard work, determination and a willing spirit can overcome. Susan said Athena’s legacy carries on through the family’s women.

“I really believe we women are who we are because of (Athena),” she explained. “I mean, it has come down. When you think of all the (people) who look at the glass half empty, and it’s always woe is me — that’s just not the Theokas way.”

From one, brave girl who once stepped onto a boat, tightly clutching her only belongings, came an entire family who can hold onto the teachings, warnings and blessings Athena’s life and legacy provided. She left examples of her nerve and adventurous spirit for whoever will take the leap and accept the challenge of living fully, of not accepting defeat, and of leaving a legacy.

We hope you enjoyed this Legacy Story. If you’d like us to create one about and for your loved one, email Rachael at [email protected] for more information.