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Guest Column: Returning home to the North Fork for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving always puts me in a reflective mood. Although I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the past two decades, my fondest childhood memories took place on the North Fork of Long Island. This year will be a dream come true: a Southold Thanksgiving with family and friends.

My late parents, Mary and Nicholas Gianopulos, first came to the North Fork in the early 1960s. The “discovery story” of how they landed in Southold has been repeated over the years, and we never get tired of hearing it, as new details emerge each time it’s told.

My father was born and raised in Greece. His business, American Ship Repair, based in Brooklyn, had a workshop that served the shipping industry. The company remains in our family’s hands to this day. My mother, Mary, was born in New York, but spoke Greek like a native. She was a full-time homemaker.

As the story goes, in the summer of 1962, Nicholas Maltezos, a retired marine engineer who’d moved to Southold, contacted my father about fixing an aluminum staircase he’d built in front of his house on Soundview Avenue. Mr. Maltezos brought the damaged stair section to American Ship Repair and asked if he could use the welding machine. Dad told him to leave the piece with him, and quickly recognized it was better to make a new staircase than to try to fix the old one.

When Mr. Maltezos returned a few days later, my father wouldn’t accept any money. He felt indebted for all the advice and guidance he’d been given over the years and this was his way of expressing his gratitude. A small Greek drama ensued that was settled only when my father accepted Mr. Maltezos’ invitation to visit his Southold house for a family weekend. 

Despina Gianopulos Landers’ Cutchogue home. (Despina Gianopulos Landers photo)

My parents would often refer to this story with the Greek expression, filotimo, which is considered one of the highest of all Greek virtues. There’s no literal English translation, but the meaning suggests a combination of honor, respect, generosity and taking the virtuous path. Filotimo is essentially a way of life.

Mr. Maltezos’ weekend offer turned out to be life-changing for our family. My mom, dad and older brother Jim arrived in Southold late at night and went straight to bed. The next morning, Dad awoke remarkably refreshed by the restorative North Fork air. He’d discovered paradise. 

A few years after their first visit, I was born, soon followed by my brother Peter. My parents rented summer cottages while looking for a permanent house on the Sound. The area reminded them of their Mediterranean homeland: clean air, pristine beaches, fishing, the farm life and the common language that animated the homes of other Greek families who’d already discovered Southold. 

By 1967, my parents decided to build a home of their own. They bought a tree-filled acre on a bluff overlooking the Sound, near Horton Point Lighthouse. To make room for the house, my dad and brother began clearing the land during the cold winter weekends. It took the entire spring and summer of ’67 to construct the three-bedroom house, which my brother Peter and his family still enjoy. 

As a child, North Fork summers began the day school ended. Every year, we would load up the car and stay for 10 weeks. Our daily life was blissfully simple: hours spent at the beach swimming and watching the tide go up and down, fishing for minnows, walks with my grandfather, planting and pruning hydrangeas with my grandmother, tennis at Southold High School, yard sales, badminton tournaments, stops at Briermere Farms for pies and homemade bread, Wickham’s peaches, Drossos for mini golf and ice cream, movies in Greenport at the indoor theatre or the drive-in, catching frogs and turtles and riding bikes up and down the tree-lined roads. All of these activities were scheduled around my mother’s cooking for our family and the endless parade of friends who’d stop by the house day and night.

We had a small motorboat and would often go fishing with my dad and his friends. When we’d return after several hours out on the Sound, we’d clean the fish, then bound up the 100 steps to the house, carrying buckets filled with porgies ready to be fried or grilled and served with vegetables from local farms.

When it came time for my parents to put their affairs in order, they decided their final resting place would be in Southold. Dad passed away in 1996 and Mom in 2007. 

Given my idyllic history on the North Fork, I wanted my daughter, Sophia, now 13, to share the same kind of childhood paradise I’d experienced. She’s been coming to Southold every season since she was born, enjoying the same activities I loved. Of course, much has changed, but thankfully, many things have stayed exactly the same! It’s heartening to watch Sophia create her own sweet memories, which I know she’ll cherish in the years to come. Today, when people ask her where she’s from she says, “Half East Coast, half West Coast.”

With a fervent desire to maintain my North Fork roots, my husband, Jay, and I decided in January 2017 to buy a “fixer-upper” in the Fleets Neck section of Cutchogue. Our goal was to have the best of both worlds: make it a rental property and a home we could enjoy ourselves.

To say the one-and-a-half-story house on Stillwater Avenue was “rundown” would be a vast understatement, but it was on the water and it had a swimming pool. I thought all it needed was a passionate owner who would roll up her sleeves and bring it back to life. My intention was to handle the project from L.A. and visit the North Fork every few months during the process. It ended up being a lot more challenging than I’d envisioned.

In June 2018, when I was told we were close to completing the renovation, I discovered some significant glitches and quickly found myself without a solid team in place to get to the finish line. 

In a mental fog, I went to the town cemetery and, just like in the movies, talked to my parents in heaven, asking for their guidance. A few hours later, at Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck, I picked up a copy of The Suffolk Times that was sitting on a table next to me.

Skimming the back pages, I came across an ad for RIGAS & CO in the “Architectural Design” section. I took the Greek name as a sign from above, so I summoned my resolve and wrote an email to [email protected] asking for help.  

The next day a miracle occurred when designer and general contractor Constantine Rigas walked into our half- finished house. I was certain my parents had heard my prayers and sent him to me! It turned out Constantine had spent his summers on the North Fork, too, and clearly understood my attachment to this part of the world. 

He said he’d go to the building department, assess the situation and report back on whether or not he could help pick up the pieces and complete the project. 

The words he said the next day were music to my ears: “You’ve got some serious work to do, but I can’t leave you stranded. I have to help a fellow Greek who’s in a tough situation. Don’t worry, I will handle everything for the final inspections and get you the certificate of occupancy.” 

I remember asking him, “Do you know the expression filotimo?” He said, “What Greek doesn’t know the meaning of that word?” 

Four months later, in October, we were granted the certificate of occupancy. The worn-down cottage had been transformed into a showcase home that we will rent out with pride and personally enjoy for years to come. 

During Thanksgiving week 2018, Jay, Sophia and I will spend a week making some new North Fork memories for the future. We will honor my parents and the legacy they bestowed upon us. 

Ms. Landers had a long career in marketing at Conde Nast and E! Networks. She is currently CFO of the Lighthouse Company, a music production and publishing enterprise. 

Top photo caption: Despina Gianopulos Landers’ daughter lists her reasons for loving Southold Town. (Despina Gianopulos Landers photo)

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