These are three great Americans. I knew two of them well; one of them died when I was an infant.
I want to write about them this weekend for a couple of reasons: to celebrate their love of the United States of America as it approaches its 241st year of existence and to comment on how I believe they would be reacting to the national mood emanating from the halls of power.
They are three of my four grandparents. From left they are: Katina Kampras Kanelis, my father’s mother; George Filipu, my mother’s dad; and Diamontoula Panesoy Filipu, Mom’s mother. John Peter Kanelis, my father’s dad and the man for whom I was named, was somewhere else, I reckon, when someone snapped this picture.
They were immigrants. Mr. and Mrs. Filipu came here near the turn of the 20th century from — get a load of this! — a Muslim-majority country. They were ethnic Greek residents of Turkey, which prompts me to ponder whether they would be welcome today. My grandmother Katina hailed from Kyparissia, a village in southern Greece.
They were great Americans. They loved this country more than life itself. Indeed, my “Yiayia” — Diamontoula Filipu — died on the Fourth of July, 1978. My wife has reminded me that Yiayia left us on that day just to ensure that we’d remember. I do. My Papou George — who died in January 1950 — loved this nation so much that in 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army just so he could obtain instant U.S. citizenship. He wanted to fight in World War I, but the war ended before he got the chance to see actual combat.
All of my grandparents were, shall we say, undereducated. They lacked a lot of formal education, but that didn’t prevent them from carving out great lives in the Land of Opportunity. Papou George operated a bakery; Yiayia was a homemaker. Papou John worked a number of jobs in America: steelworker, hotel manager and then he shined shoes in downtown Portland, Ore; my grandmother Katina also was a homemaker.
They were great because they loved their country arguably more than many of their peers who were born here. They came here because they wanted to be here, which to my mind makes them uber-patriots.
My Kanelis grandparents did return to Greece in the late 1950s. After my grandmother died in September 1968, Papou John returned twice more to Greece; he died in 1981 at the age of 95. My Yiayia and Papou George never went back to the “old country.” Yiayia always felt that the United States was “home” and she had no desire to return to the nation of her birth.
How might these great Americans react to what’s transpiring these days? I don’t recall any of them having acute political instincts. But my hunch is that they would be aghast at the kind of rhetoric we’re hearing these days.
This mantra calling for us to “make America great again” likely would enrage them. America is great. These great Americans came here because of this nation’s greatness. They forged their lives, reared 10 children among the four of them.
They would be aghast at the angry rhetoric. They wouldn’t endorse the behavior we keep witnessing from the president of the United States. They would want to remind everyone that we are a nation of immigrants. Every single American whose ancestry isn’t linked to those who were here when the settlers arrived comes from an immigrant background.
My grandparents understood it far better than many of our current leaders do today.
They were among the greatest Americans this great nation has ever welcomed. I am proud beyond measure to be their grandson.