Due to my upcoming trip to Greece, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Grandparent’s immigrant journey from there to the United States. I’ve always felt a certain specialness that I am only 2nd generation American on one side of my family. It helps me tap into strength and courage when times are tough to recall what I am made of. I also love that on my dad’s side there was someone who rode as a minuteman. I love that I am a hybrid of those distinctly different American experiences. But, my Greek heritage has always been the dominant one, in part, from being raised Greek Orthodox.

In the early part of the 20th century, Elizabeth, Louis and my great-grandmother Caliope (my grandfather’s mother) immigrated from Asia Minor (now Turkey) to Ann Arbor, MI. My grandfather came across first – estimated around 1911 – the exact date isn’t verified. Elizabeth and Caliope entered New York Harbor on March 23, 1925, as recorded at Ellis Island.

I’m not sure of the complete accuracy of my family story from growing up, but here is the version I know. Elizabeth and Louis’ marriage was arranged. They were 13 years apart in age, married for just a few short months before Louis came to America, wherein Elizabeth moved in with her in-laws. I know nothing of my Louis’ father – my great-grandfather – nor do I know anything about either one of maternal great-grandparents. 13 years passed before the three of them were reunited stateside. Papou died 13 years before my grandmother. YiaYia died on Friday, the 13. Because of the language barrier between my grandmother and I, these were not questions I could have asked to get clarity on. Our communication centered around food. This was survival Greek: “YiaYia, δεν θέλω τίποτα περισσότερο για φαγητό.” “YiaYia, I don’t want anything more to eat.”

I have few memories of Papou, he died when I was 5. The one memory I do remember is a time when my sister and I were staying with our grandparents when our parents went out of town. I was 4. I came down with the flu. After a trip downtown to the farmer’s market with my sister, Papou returned with a get well gift of modeling clay. Perhaps he recognized the artist early on or just looking for a way to brighten my spirits. It worked.

Perhaps it’s because he died so early in my life, I have been focused on him in particular in anticipation of my trip. What did he feel on that ship, leaving his world behind to seek better economic opportunity and safety for his family? What were those 13 years alone here like? Why did it take 13 years to send for his family? Why in the heck did they settle in Ann Arbor, MI? I know there was a growing Greek community there and in other Detroit metro areas, but It’s always been a source of curiosity as to why people from the Mediterranean settled in the frozen tundra of the Midwest. It was before the auto industry boom, so I guess I’ll have to do more digging.

In any event, all this speculating has led me to photograph some of Yiayia and Papou’s possessions as a way of connecting with them and their journey. I call them my Greek artifacts.

Below is Louis’ backgammon board. I love all the little nicks and marks in the wood and the worn pieces that look like tires losing air, that reveal the many games that must have been played on it. I imagine the voices and competitive banter, the smell of cigars and cigarettes, and swirling smoke lighting up dust particles dancing in the low Northen light of a Michigan winter as it slants through the windows. Who was his favorite opponent?

Papou's Backgammon Board©Kathryn Van Aernum

Papou’s Backgammon Board

Detail – Papou’s backgammon board

Below are Louis’ worry beads. To see them in color click here

On March 7, 1925, Calliope and Elizabeth set sail for the new world from the port of Piraeus. Shorty, My sister, cousin Elizabeth, their husbands and I will also travel from the port of Piraeus, in the direction of the Aegean Islands. A different journey, to be sure, but one that I hope brings me closer to a sensory experience of the young Elizabeth and Louis and a mythical land called Greece. Opa!