Que Será, Será: A Story of Life, Love and Sandwiches

Anna Papanicolaou as seen through her daughters’ eyes, a Mother’s Day tribute. 

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She would sooner know a customer by their sandwich than she would by their name. There are customers that to this day still call her “Mom”. People in their forties and fifties who used to frequent the shop back when they were in high school will come back to Imperial Submarine, they’ll be carrying infants and Georgia will mistakenly think they are in the store to order a sandwich. Silly her, of course they aren’t, they are wondering if Anna is around so they can introduce her to their new child, or in some cases their new grandchild. Georgia describes walking through a grocery store with her mother, and they’ll pass by a familiar face. “Turkey bacon sub with extra meat?” she’ll whisper to Georgia, and she’ll nod.

Imperial Submarine is a County landmark if there ever was one. It’s as “County” as horn-trips and the Royal are. It is the heart of every late-night, coming-home-from-the-bar-drunk story. The shop is one of the most frequently named shops that County locals will miss when they have been away from home for too long. It has been in operation for the past 45 years, and for at least 42 of those years it’s been under the ownership of Anna and Spiro Papanicolaou. There are tales of people who have moved away from the County, have had wild cravings for an assorted submarine with extra sub sauce, and they have driven the two plus hours to the County in order to have one. The taste and the aroma of the shop has never changed, and it’s flavour is unmistakable. The Imperial Sub shop is a County institution, a tradition, a religion–home. And for many years it was the actual home to Spiro, Anna, Georgia and Angela. Both of Spiro and Anna’s girls spoke about how they would spend each day as infants or toddlers seated underneath the counter while their parents made sandwiches. The family lived just upstairs in the apartment above the shop. The store was their home, their livelihood, and their customers were like family. Some customers to this day will remind Georgia and Angela all about how they used to hold the girls as babies while Anna prepared their order.

A remarkable trait Anna has is the ability to connect with her customers. She never judges people, she takes the time to get to know them and treat them according to their personality. Some customers got a larger dose of her sassy or feisty nature, but she knew they could take it. She’ll joke, “you only come here because I harass you.” And then she’ll smile. On the whole, she is a truly kind and generous person. People respond to her like they have known her forever, even if they are meeting her for the first time.

People of PEC met with Georgia and Angela over a virtual video conference. Both girls are the immensely proud daughters of a mom they each refer to as their best friend. Georgia, the eldest, speaks about her mom in such glowing and confident terms. Georgia, the gregarious and talented co-founder of Shatterbox Theatre in Picton is surprisingly circumspect when it comes talking about her own life. She admits that she keeps to herself most often, and her Mom is the closest person she has in her life. She describes her father as a determined man who carries a firm belief in taking care of yourself, and know what you are doing. He doesn’t often allow for vulnerability. His firm resolve often would lead to tension in their household and Anna was the one to deflect anything away from both girls. Georgia recognized a strength in her mom that she admired. And she remarked about how intelligent her mom is. “She doesn’t often describe herself like that, but I see it, She is really very smart.” Georgia says. Angela agrees and adds, “She puts herself last. She will sooner put everyone’s needs ahead of her own. It’s her stubbornness to not take care of herself and that hinders her.” This observation only illustrates what the girls describe as her resilience.

Anna Papinicolaou

Anna was fourteen years old when her father insisted she get on an airplane and move from Greece to Canada to start a new life. She didn’t know a word in English, and she had barely ever left their village let alone boarded a plane and flown across the Atlantic. She was crying as she stepped onto the airplane, she desperately did not want to go. Leaving behind her family and friends was frightening for her. But she had finished her schooling, and her father saw the opportunity for a better life for her than what she could have in Greece. She moved in with her older sister in Toronto. She learned to speak English by watching Sesame Street, a fact she is very proud of and will bring up from time to time with people she is close with. Georgia is impressed and says it speaks to the enduring legacy and strength of the programming. But it also illustrates how quickly her mother was able to learn.

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Anna and Spiro were introduced through a photograph. The husband of one of Anna’s friends brought a photo of Anna to someone he knew in Spiro’s village in Greece. When he saw it, he fell in love and he boarded an airplane for Canada to come find her. Spiro and Anna dated for 6 months and then they were married. It was almost like an arranged marriage, but after 45 years they are still happily married.

In the early days of their marriage, Anna suffered through five miscarriages before she finally gave birth to Georgia. When she was pregnant with Georgia, she was bedridden due to a risk to the baby. When she gave birth it had to be done via cesarean section. Georgia’s heart had stopped beating while in utero and it was necessary to deliver her quickly without the trauma of going through the birth canal. But when she did come into the world she came out already crying. The doctor, head of the pediatric unit in east York, had remarked he hadn’t ever seen anything like it. Anna calls Georgia her special kid.

Anna with Georgia

Both Georgia and Angela were born in Toronto, and then they moved from Toronto to Picton. Back then there was no such thing as “The County”. Back then it was Picton, and no one knew where Picton was. Both Anna and Spiro’s families were half in Greece, half in Toronto, and yet they were packing up and moving two hours east in order to build a life in a new town where they didn’t know a soul. It was then they took over the operation of Imperial Submarine.

Their lives weren’t only devoted to submarine sandwiches, even though that is what people know them for in this community. Georgia reminisces about how her mother used to sing the song Que Será, Será (whatever will be, will be…) to her when she was little. It was a really strong sentiment to pass onto a child and Georgia loves that particular memory. She adds that her mother has a beautiful singing voice although she doesn’t sing. Angela doesn’t remember her mom singing to her but instead said she used to speak to her with a Donald Duck voice. It was an indication that Anna recognized differences in her daughters also and passed along her own unique treatment of each of them.

When the apartment above the sub shop stopped being home and they had moved into a house, Anna would put in a full day and then walk home afterward. She loves food. She would stand in her kitchen for another three hours making large quantities of food for her family. When the girls got into high school they would invite their friends over and Anna would gladly make them all a massive feast, more then they were able to eat. Then after cooking the rest of the day she would sit and rest. She watches her stories, or she’ll turn on one of her favourite sports. She would watch every Leafs, Blue Jays or Raptors game, and she passed this love of sports on to Angela. The two will often spend many afternoons watching sports together. Anna made everything fun, its why their friends all loved Anna. She was the fun mom.

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The girls described her like the energizer bunny. She would dance around the kitchen to whichever music she was listening to. She has quite an eclectic musical library, and her tastes run from Spanish music to modern pop. Georgia says her mother’s 8-track collection was expansive with everything from disco to Elvis. And on Saturdays, Anna used to pull out the tape deck, put in Michael Jackson’s Thriller and blast it on full volume while her and Georgia vacuumed the whole house. Both girls agreed that Anna had a wild side. “There was this one time in Greece…”Angela started to say, but then stopped. “Oh I think we’ll leave that story out,” she added. Each girl laughed, but they explained. Anna doesn’t drink, she doesn’t like it much. When she was much younger her sister had warned her not to drink too much because it would make her ill. Anna, ever the stubborn one, did it anyway. Her sister was right, and Anna got very ill. She has barely touched the stuff since.

But as much as Georgia and Angela spoke of their mother’s fun-nature and feisty exterior they explained that their mother hasn’t had an easy life. Anna doesn’t show many people the vulnerable side of herself, she is the strong and determined one, the one who is reliable and always willing to help someone in need. The girls were reluctant to share too many stories, they honour their privacy behind the same quiet strength their mother possesses. But they did share a few examples of some of the hardships they watched Anna endure.

About 5 years ago Anna had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Very few people knew about her illness, and some to this day likely never knew. After her surgery she was back to work within three weeks although the doctors advised her not to. Georgia admitted it was heartbreaking to witness her mother push through everything. “You don’t want to watch anyone go through cancer,” she said, “I was used to seeing her be so strong.” It was an eye opener for Georgia that her mother wasn’t invincible. And Angela talked about how it was extremely difficult for her. She lived in Pickering because of her teaching job in Toronto. She couldn’t be here for her mother as often as she would have liked, so she found other ways to support her through her illness. Angela shared the story about when she was in the waiting room while Anna was in surgery. “Georgia, I don’t even think you know this story,” she said. And then she continued. Anna’s surgery was only supposed to take one to two hours, but Angela sat in the waiting room alone for closer to five or six hours. She watched as doctors and nurses passed by her without a word. She had no idea what was happening. Sitting there she was forced to consider the worst case scenario, and since she was alone she couldn’t convey her fears to anyone. She later learned that Anna had not awoken from the anesthesia. The moment has stayed with her for all of these years and she hasn’t been able to share them with anyone. And no, Georgia didn’t know. Her eyes had widened in surprise at the new revelation and for a moment there was a shared realization of how fragile and precious their mother’s life could be.

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Three years after her cancer, Anna was assaulted after attending a cardiologist appointment. She had been walking through the parking lot of the nearby drug store with a bottle of water, and suddenly a man came out from no where and shoved her into a car, knocking her down and causing her arm to break. It was a shocking incident, and the girls were angry because it could have been prevented. The man who assaulted her had been charged the day before for an incident on a city bus, and he had been released by local police. Georgia said the man had a fairly lengthy record, and Anna was lucky she hadn’t been hurt much worse. It was a moment that shook their family, how could anyone have done such an egregious thing to someone who is so kind and generous? Even customers had offered to go and do unspeakable things to this man who hurt her, even though Anna told them it was unnecessary.

Angela said she has had many moments over the years where her and her mom are able to share. Anna will allow her girls to witness small moments of vulnerability but more often than not she’ll share things with Angela that she doesn’t share with Georgi. Georgia and Anna work together day-in and day-out, they take that for granted. Angela doesn’t see Anna as often and it’s likely because when they visit she has to try and fit three months worth of information into a weekend. But during their discussions, Anna will open up about some of the mental health struggles she goes through. Angela can relate to it because she goes through some of the same things. Angela recognizes that it’s hard for her mom to open up about these things because she was always the strong one. It’s hard to watch someone you love hurt like that when you can’t do anything to help.

The week we sat down to talk about Anna was the Greek Easter, this pandemic has added to the emotional toll they have endured the past number of years, and Angela is feeling separated from her mother at a time that is very special to them all. They expressed how much Anna has influenced them to be the women they are today. The way Anna treats others with respect, kindness and patience has been inspirational to both of them and they want to live as she lived, treat others they way she treated others. Anna wasn’t one to use words to instill these values to her daughters, she lead by example. If ever there was a testament to the enduring legacy of her influence, its the number of customers and former staff that return time and again to visit with “Mom”. It’s not only for the sandwiches with the homemade sub sauce, (which is kind of amazing on its own), it’s for the love and care and connection.

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These past few years she has taken the time for herself, which is a blessing for her daughters. She moves a little slower than she used to, and she is a little more closed off than she used to be. Regulars will notice her walking home and will sometimes offer her a ride home, she graciously accepts. She is focusing on her health now and taking time to spend time with loved ones. She loves animals, so when she can spend time with her “grand-dogs” she is happy. Her daughters are constantly trying to find ways to give back to their mom. She doesn’t make it easy. She never expects much from them, and is content for a visit and a hug and perhaps to share a meal. Through the eyes of her daughters, Anna is a truly remarkable mom but an even more impressive woman. Her life is rich and full. She is loved and surrounded by wonderful people. And as it has always been for the past 42 years, Anna can be depended upon to be found behind the counter, making their famous sandwiches for their customers with the same love and care she always has. Happy Mother’s Day Anna, from all of your County “kids” young and old, and most especially, from your beautiful, caring, talented, and intelligent daughters who will no doubt carry on the legacy you have created for them.


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