Tuesday, September 22, 2015

For Mom...

Janet Paleologos (1924 – 2015)

“I went to a dance at the Commodore Ballroom in Lowell,” she told her sons. “And that’s where I met your father. He had no idea that I was Greek too!”  For Janet Paleologos, this proud exclamation was proof positive that she had made the triumphant transformation from daughter of immigrants to American Bobby Soxer.

A bloody war with Turkey had forced her parents to leave their beloved birthplace behind. So they made a new life in America. Her dad worked tirelessly in the tannery a few blocks down Conn Street from their modest home and her mom tended to a backyard vegetable garden and chicken coop while raising nine kids—a small slice of Greece in Woburn, Massachusetts.

Their sixth child was given the name Demetra--the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest. As a little girl, when she arrived at the McGarr Elementary School, she couldn’t speak a word of English. With the unofficial authority so typical of that bygone era, Demetra’s first grade teacher decided to call her Janet—after the American actress, Janet Gaynor.

By the time Janet Paicopolos arrived at the Commodore Ballroom, she’d blossomed into a fiercely independent, statuesque brunette with a business degree from Boston’s Fisher School—which she had earned by attending classes at night. And she caught the eye of a young World War II veteran, fresh off PT Boat duty in the South Pacific. The happy couple married in 1952 and made Woburn their home. Janet and her husband Arthur started their lives together in a small apartment on Pleasant Street—a stone’s throw from the stately Woburn Public Library. As their family grew to include three baby boomer boys, the newlyweds bought their first home on Franklin Street where Janet had lunch ready for her sons every day when they walked home from the nearby Plympton School.

For the girl who took such pride in downplaying her heritage upon first meeting her future husband, their shared culture and religion actually cemented a lifelong loving relationship that revolved almost exclusively around family and church. Together with her four brothers and four sisters, Janet and Arthur were part of the growing nucleus of newly minted Americans who formed the core of Woburn’s Greek community. Holidays, weddings, christenings, summer picnics, and teenage dances—they all revolved around the church. And Janet loved every minute of it. She baked spanakopita for the Ladies Philoptochos Society, organized trips for the Mr. and Mrs. Club, and sang in the choir.

Though a fervent Orthodox Christian, her independent thinking shone through on many occasions. Once asked why she had a picture of Pope John Paul II hanging in her home on Rumford Park Avenue--where she and Arthur spent the rest of their lives together--Janet replied simply, “Because I like him.”

Outgoing and fun loving, Janet would always say whatever was on her mind. At a high school play when her oldest was being strangled on stage she exclaimed from the audience (to his horror and everybody else’s delight), “Don’t kill my son!” 

A few years later, when he ventured into politics, she offered him some valuable advice. “If you tell the people in the South End that Janet Paicopolos is your mother, they’ll vote for you.” 

He did. And they did.
Everybody loved Janet. She took great pride in the bond between, and the accomplishments of her three sons. She also delighted in the exploits of her five grandchildren. Her spirit never flagged. She could easily complete the lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People” even as her memory faded. And her expressive face still exploded into joyful laughter at the drop of a hat.

In April, at age 91, she shed her walker and took to the dance floor for one last time—to celebrate her son Jonathan and Zulma’s wedding. As she danced with grandson Arthur, her caretaker gently reminded her that it was time to leave. “But it’s still early!” she said.

As always, she was right. It was way, way too early.

Janet Paleologos is survived by her three loving sons Nicholas, Jonathan and David; daughters-in-law Patricia Worth, Zulma and Gayle; younger sisters Helen and Marie; and grandchildren Maria, Joseph, Rose, Arthur and Angelo. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her memory to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church on Montvale Avenue in Woburn, Massachusetts.