In September of 1925, a young Apollonia Panagakos hopped on the rackety wooden boat harbored in Thessaloniki, the largest city in the Macedonian region of northern Greece. Her long, curly black hair, a trademark of so many from the Balkans, caught in the breeze coming from the sea before her. Her eyes were as blue as the water itself and could pierce even the densest stone. Donning a deep blue babushka and sporting an Eastern Orthodox cross and a five-foot-and-two-inch-tall stature, Apollonia was taking on the world. Isolated from all she had known, she trekked the long and labored journey thousands of miles across the Mediterranean, then the Atlantic. More than two months later, she found herself standing on another island in another harbor of another city, this time much greater in size. A towering, mint green, torch-bearing statue dominated the skyline behind her as she stepped off the boat that she now despised. Her English was minimal; unfortunately, at the time, the Greek population in New York City wasn’t nearly as large as it is today. Just a drop in the bucket of five-and-a-half million others, Apollonia was asked her name for the records, like all the people in front of her had been and all the people behind her would be. She responded, “Polly.”
During the Great War that ended just a few years before, Polly had decided that she was getting out of Europe. Now, in the cold November air of late 1925, Polly was spending her seventeenth birthday in Astoria, Queens. It was no Thessaloniki, but it was sufficient for the time being. Especially convenient was the fact that the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood was mainly Jewish and Polish. Polly found a job working at an Astoria deli and spent her first few years in America selling meats to Poles, Jews, and the occasional Greek.
Eventually, though, Polly grew weary of her day-in, day-out deli job. A year after she had arrived in the country, she had developed enough English skills to suffice her virtually anywhere in the nation. Somehow (and the details surrounding this are generally obscured), she caught word of a booming business in the deep hills of central Appalachia. Coal towns were popping up from Pennsylvania to Tennessee and North Carolina. Maybe the areas most affected by this boom were the central Appalachian states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Poor, rural eastern Kentucky (which would remain that way for a bit longer) was catching a glimmer of hope: the black seam that seemed to snake through the mountains themselves was now becoming the tangible economy. When all of these coal jobs began popping up, other jobs did, too. Always a passionate traveler, Polly planned to move from Astonia to a small town in northeastern Kentucky named Ashland to find a new job. Directly prior to her move, one event changed her life. The night before Polly departed from her home for the second time in four years, a racially motivated bar fight broke out right across the street from Polly’s tenement. An inebriated white man walked into the neighborhood watering hole and shot Mr. Burns, a black man who had become close friends with Polly during her time in Queens. Traumatized, Polly was glad to leave Astonia. She never returned to New York.
A few train rides later, Polly exited the terminal in Ashland, Kentucky. It was the start of a new year, 1930. Polly luckily found a job at the general store just south of the main city in what is today Catlettsburg, but soon quit and opened her own small café in the town, which she aptly named Apollonia’s Thessaloniki. This feat was practically unbelievable – just a year earlier, Black Tuesday had rocked the industrialized world and destroyed the job market. In most cases, she would have surely failed; luckily, her traditional Greek and Balkan cooking – “The culture of Hellas is food and dancing,” she’d say – was exotic to the locals who found it delicious; her diner soon became very successful. She developed both a passion and a niche for food. Her mix between the Greek diet and the local cuisine was unmatched. By 1933, people came from all across the region to try dishes from Ms. Polly’s diner. Now fluent in English but retaining a thick accent that she would never loose, Polly acquired some regulars in her kitchen. One of them was named Lee Tackett, a man from somewhere south of Ashland that Polly didn’t recognize but imagined as charming anyway, and a man from whom I get my middle name. Lee and Polly be-came close and married in 1937.
Now, the coal business dominated the economy of eastern Kentucky, and, somehow (again, nobody quite knows how), Lee convinced Polly to move back to his hometown in Floyd County in search of work. At the end of Polly’s third and final move, she settled down in the dark valleys of Kentucky’s rugged eastern forests and coalfields, in a tiny coal town known as “McDowell.” It was here that Polly had her first two children: Cleveland and Girly Mae. With the end of the Great Depression, the second Great War ravaged Europe. Many young men were drafted across America – Lee was one of them. Polly didn’t see Lee again until 1944. When he arrived back in Kentucky, he immediately resumed his mining job. They had their third child in 1945 – my grandfather, Perry Tackett.
Now, by this time, Polly had nearly perfected her cooking methods. She could make a gyro with fresh cucumber tzatziki sauce just as quick as fried chicken and dumplings, and she was visited by people from all across the spectrum – Lee’s coworkers in the mines, local mayors and judges, and yes, even Governor Earle C. Clements. According to Lee, Governor Clements commented that Polly made “the best Greek food he had ever tasted,” to which Polly would laugh and reply, “Bless him, that Mister Clements. It was probably the only Greek food he had ever tasted.”
By the early sixties, Perry and Cleveland had moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to work in Detroit. In 1967, Perry had his first daughter, my mother, Sherry. Shortly thereafter, Perry’s wife, Brenda, insisted that the couple move their daughter away from their dangerous, bars-on-the-window life in Ann Arbor back to peaceful east Kentucky. Perry agreed and moved back near his own parents, and Cleveland followed close behind. Now, Polly met her first granddaughter in the midst of the Civil Rights Era.
One of my family’s favorite stories to tell and hear begins in this age of reform and change. When my grandfather announced to Polly that he was bringing my grandma and my mother home from Michigan, she was overjoyed that she was finally going to meet her granddaughter, but she was also fearful of the local environment that her grandchild was entering. Today, Kentucky is often grouped in the Midwest, but in the late sixties, it was just as much a part of the south as Georgia. Segregation was com-mon and racism was a disease that was usually passed down through each generation. Polly had been terrified of race crimes and found the idea of racism frankly disgusting; whenever she witnessed or heard of it, she thought back of when she first arrived in the country. She thought about life as a new immigrant – different from all others in language and culture. She thought about how, though now she was Old Regular Baptist, she was looked down upon for her Eastern Orthodox belief system. Per-haps more than anything else, Polly thought back about Mr. Burns, her close friend from Astoria who was practically murdered just because of his race, something that seemed so foreign to her, and she remembered how the authorities frankly didn’t care.
Thus, Polly’s first gift to my mother was a baby doll with dark, African-American skin, in honor of Mr. Burns. My great grandmother, “Mamaw Polly” as she became called by the family, didn’t stop there. Mamaw Polly decided that she would set aside one of these dolls for each of her grandchildren to come. She made it a point to stress racial equality to the grandkids, and, somewhat against the culture, she loved relentlessly and unconditionally, a tradition that is still taught in the family today.
Later, when Mom told Mamaw Polly (now in her frail and feeble condition due to advanced cancer and not having spoken for quite some time) about her engagement with Dad, Mamaw rose up from her hospital bed, removed her mask, and said in her thick accent, “It’s about time!” These were some of the last words that Mamaw said, as she died of cancer shortly thereafter in a November not unlike the one during which she arrived here. Papaw Lee never got over the loss – a week before Mom and Dad were married, he died of a heart attack. They found him sitting in a chair in the middle of his horse barn, clutching one of my Mom’s horse show trophies in his arm and all her other ones surrounding him, along with a photo of Mamaw.
My great-grandmother’s love for food, family, and faith is something that I hope to carry on today. The stories that my family recalls of her bring us plenty of tears, laughter, and joy each time we hear them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even though she’s gone, her tradition is carried on today – each new child in the family is given a doll of a different ethnicity before anything else when they’re born, and they’re taught the same thing Mamaw taught: love.