A tale with a name: Penelope Delta

by L. Seizani

Once upon a time there lived a girl who was very rich and very sad. Her name was Penelope and she loved to write. She was writing incessantly in her diary. She wrote about what was going on in her own home, about her relations with her parents, her siblings, about her childhood memories, about her feelings. Penelope was a very sentimental person. She was easily hurt by injustice whether committed against her or against others. When she grew up she started to write books for children.

In one of her books the protagonist is her brother, a lively, naughty boy called Anthony ("Crazy Anthony") who used to do all mischievous things imaginable. Yet in the eyes of his sister he was an admirable boy, honest and brave, who used to take responsibility for his actions even if this meant that he would be slapped by "aunt Virginia's chubby little hand". In another book Penelope recounts the adventures of the heroic "Mangas", a dog, who can't understand how cruel and silly humans are. Among all these people, Mangas loves most his little Lucas, a good and innocent boy. While wandering far from home, Mangas will meet "Afratos" (the fat one), a stoic stray whose name is a euphemism for his constant state of hunger and his thin body. Later, in another book entitled "The secrets of the swamp", Mangas will go to war, during the Macedonian Struggle.

Penelope loved Greece and its history and wanted to teach it to the children who would read her books. And she was part of this history. She came to Greece from Egypt and was a friend of Venizelos, whom she adored. She was also a friend of Plastiras whom she esteemed as well. She met Ion Dragoumis and fell madly in love with him. As she was married to a kind man whom she never came to love, Penelope lived the love story with Dragoumis like a dream that turned into a nightmare. The society she lived in didn't allow for scandals to break. In her diaries we read how traumatic this unlawful relationship had been for her. Penelope and her husband had three daughters. All of them, like their mother, cared a lot for the community and their fellow men.  They would follow her example even through their sadness for her illness and her suicide on the day the Germans occupied Athens.

Yes, her daughters Sophia, Virginia and Alexandra followed the example she had set when in 1922 she would do everything she could in order to help refuges from the "Asia Minor Catastrophe", when thousands of Greeks had to flee from Smyrna and other greek cities in Turkey and escape the genocide.  Penelope and her entire family, her father Emmanuel Benaki, her brother Anthony and other wealthy relatives, were benefactors of the greek state, offering not only their houses and their art collections which today make for the biggest part of the Benaki Museum in Athens but other buildings and important institutions in the suburb of Kifissia. The tale of Penelope's life didn't have a happy ending. However, another tale she wrote "A tale with no name", in which she recounts allegorically the adventures of Greece, has a happy ending as the son of king Thoughtless (who true to his name had squandered the treasures of the state on silly feasts), becomes now king and takes the name Considerate. Working hard and selecting carefully the few incorruptible ones that are left, he manages to turn again this miserable country into a great one.

Penelope's books, all of the above plus the ones she wrote about the Greek Byzantine history ("For the sake of the fatherland" and "In the years of the Bulgar-Slayer") as well as "The life of Christ", are usually read by children but can be enjoyed by adults as well. What Penelope Delta had realized was that it's useful to know the history of our country, to appreciate it, study it and come through it to certain conclusions. She used to do that and at the same time she used to collect an archive of documents concerning contemporary events.  The archive is important as it regards the personalities mentioned above (Venizelos, Plastiras, Dragoumis) and their action (Expedition to the Ukraine, Expedition to the Meridian Russia etc.) 

If I may something very personal, which I believe expresses many others who grew up reading her books long before she was characterized overly patriotic (this of course is considered a shame today, not at all fashionable or politically correct), to me Penelope Delta is a constant reference of my childhood years. At home we used to repeat some jokes from her books all the time and her expressions were recurring in our everyday conversations: "He dared to say Hey you, to an officer!", "Pouloudia's marble balls", "Tits maritska moya" and many more. 

Penelope Delta is for me a person that will always be dear to my heart because her books were the first ones that I read in my life. Maybe they weren't always pleasant and they often made me shed many tears as I read about old Pagratis trying to turn the heavy grindstones and about Vassili looking for his lost child. The truth is that the greek reality with so many stories of the refugees and their lost homes was present in most families and the tragic pictures painted by Penelope weren't far from the tortures our relatives had suffered in the hands of the enemies. 

For all these and many more feelings that wake up inside me whenever I read her books, I felt like writing today this brief tale that bears the name of Penelope Delta.

First published on 31.07.10