Much-loved Kytherian yiayia, Vasiliki Megaloconomos, celebrates her 100th birthday

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Words by Peter Condoleon, Interview by Andriana Simos.

Vasiliki Megaloconomos, better known as Bessie Conomos, has lived through the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Great Depression, two World Wars and more recently, being isolated in an aged care facility during the coronavirus pandemic.

But none are as special or as memorable as celebrating her 100th birthday on April 20 surrounding by 44 out of her 47 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“You couldn’t hold her back on the day and you know, the cards came from the Queen and the Governor General and she saw the photo of the Queen, which is a very, very young photo of her, and she goes, ‘Who are they trying to fool. She’s only five years younger than me!'” Diamanta Condoleon, Bessie’s daughter, tells The Greek Herald with a laugh.

It’s this sense of humour which Bessie has utilised throughout her entire life.

From Kythera to Australia:

Bessie was born in the village of Kato Livadi, Kythira on April 20, 1921. She was the eldest child and only daughter to Nicholas and Diamanta Gianniotis. She lived in a small house in the village with her parents, three aunties and her brother George.  

READ MORE: ‘Marry a younger woman’: 100-year-old Louis Ampoulos shares his secrets to living a long life.

Bessie Conomos as a young woman. Photo supplied.

She immigrated to Australia shortly before her seventh birthday, along with her mother and brother George. Her father had migrated to Sydney earlier. One of Bessie’s earliest memories is of an incomplete Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

As a child, Bessie would assist her parents on their poultry and later, vegetable farms. Every day after school she helped collect eggs and feed the chickens. During the Great Depression, Bessie and her family survived on food that grew on the family farm.

Her father, brother and herself used to get four suitcases, two big ones for her father to carry and two little suitcases for her brother George and herself to carry, fill them up with vegetables and go door to door selling them.

READ MORE: ‘A great Aussie success story’: Maria Boulas turns 100 years old and reflects on her life.

Married life in a country town:

In 1942, Bessie married Theo Conomos and moved to Carinda, NSW. Bessie often said Theo was a very big influence in her life because he taught her to be honest, truthful and hard working. It was in Carinda where they raised their family, Regina, Diamanta, Emmanuel and Nicholas.

Whilst living in Carinda, Bessie was a dedicated member of the Women’s Country Association for nearly 30 years and supporter of the Bush Nursing Association receiving recognition for her drive in both these worthy causes. 

Bessie and her husband Theo. Photo supplied.

“They were the only Greeks in the town… so it was very, very hard for her because her mum was in Sydney. But I can remember she had beautiful gardens and she was fun loving. We all got it from her,” Diamanta says.

The family moved to Dubbo in 1962 and it was there that Regina married Robert Hadgis in 1964, Diamanta married Arthur Condoleon in 1965 and Emmanuel married Dianne McGovern in 1971. Nicholas was to later marry Marylyn Dahingo in 2010.

READ MORE: ‘I have love for everyone’: Christina Giannakis turns 100 and shares her secret to a long life.

Bessie’s passion for volunteering:

In 1985, Theo and Bessie moved to Brisbane to be closer with their family. Theo passed away in 1987. Bessie then committed herself to volunteer work, firstly at the St Nicholas Nursing Home, caring, entertaining and being friendly to the elderly.

Later and together with Betty Comino, running a stall after Sunday church selling all sorts of sweets and goodies raising money for the Greek School and the Southside Parish. She also assisted with ‘Meals on Wheels’ delivering food to the elderly. 

Bessie was passionate about volunteering. Photo supplied.

“She did a lot of walking. After we moved here to Brisbane, the church is a couple of kilometres and she’d walk there and walk back. I’m talking in her 80s. She was always very, very active,” Diamanta explains.

It’s because of this constant activity and volunteer work that on Australia Day in 2009, Bessie was honoured with an Order of Australia (OAM) for services to the Greek community, particularly through organisations, providing assistance to the elderly and to the community of Carinda, NSW. 

Today, Bessie resides at the Carinity Wishart Gardens Residential Aged Care Facility in Brisbane. Diamanta says Bessie chose to move to a nursing home because “she didn’t want to be a bother to her family” – something which is incredibly important to her.

In fact, according to her grandson Peter, if Bessie were to look over her life right now, she’d say: “you don’t need things to make you happy. Family and friends is the true way of being happy. Happiness is love of family, friends, health and understanding give and take.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

READ MORE: 109-year-old Castellorizian, Eleni Confos, is the oldest Greek in Australia.

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