I first learned about Maria many years ago from her son Michael, my now husband and then boyfriend. He, for lots of complicated reasons, couldn’t go back to his home country of Greece for an extended period. His voice cracked and his eyes filled when he shared with me how he much he missed seeing his dear mother. He is a large, self-confident man so seeing him wracked with such deep emotion was unexpected. I fell a little more in love with him at that moment as I saw his heart breaking from the extended separation from this amazing woman.
I didn’t get to meet Maria in person until a few years after we were married. Michael and I eloped before I started law school. We were young and broke and our families and friends were spread to the four winds so it made sense to us. When I graduated, I planned a celebratory trip to see friends and family in Holland where my parents are from. Maria very much wanted me to come to Greece too even although Michael still couldn’t travel there. Michael encouraged me to go. So with my elder sister as my traveling companion, I did.
Walking off the plane in the hot Greek sun that summer in 1994, it hit me as hard as the acrid air around me that I was going to stay with my new family, with no common language and none of whom I had never laid eyes on before. I had serious butterflies and nerves as I scanned the faces waiting outside the doors that open and closed with regularity as guests departed.
The welcome I received as it was my turn to walk through was what I would come to know as vintage Maria. It seemed half the town had showed up with flowers and signs in our honor. Most were extended family but the group also included many of their friends. A number were chosen, I learned later, because they spoke good English. It felt like we were arriving dignitaries.
I have never felt more welcomed, any place in my life. Maria insisted she was my “Mama” and NOT my “Mother in law”. She clearly articulated, “NO, in-law.” She had been learning English in preparation for our visit which touched me. She proclaimed, “My new daughter!” to everyone with a gorgeous smile on her beautiful face.
She was a total “food is love” person. Her cooking was sunshine, lively music and a warm lingering embrace all wrapped up into a present that continued to reveal and delight as I ate. I thought liked Greek food. But I came to realize I had never eaten the real thing before. What she served involved fresh ingredients ever so lovingly prepared often the better part of the day, there was no rushing perfection, and then served generously, family style. She was an artist, her medium the ingredients of her signature dishes. Seconds were a given, not an option.
Visitors of all types, young, old and in between, gravitated into her orbit, stopping by for a meal, a coffee, a cocktail or a conversation and a chuckle. Joyful laughter punctuated each visit. Maria was happiness and light and most of all unconditional love. I have so many wonderful memories of her from visits over the succeeding years including at our Greek wedding when Michael could finally return and at the baptism of each of our three children. The youngest, our only daughter, shares her name – Leyla Marie.
Maria’s life was not one of ease. I admired her more as I got to know about her from others and just spent time together, very often in the kitchen. My husband was born when she was still very young and they in many ways grew up together. He was her world and she was his hero. And their relationship was indescribably beautiful, spanning more than half a century.
Hers was a life given in joyful service of others. She mothered everyone! And she did it because it was who she was. I remember waking up from naps that first visit with my clothes pressed and an iced coffee sitting on the night stand. I told my husband, “She really doesn’t need to do that for me. In fact, it makes me a little uncomfortable.” He said, “She does it because she wants to. It makes her happy.” I was skeptical at the time but came to understand the truth in those statements which humbled me.
In recent months, her body was failing her lovely spirit in so many ways and life was a struggle. Michael was with her when she sought and found a more peaceful place. And I truly believe that was her wish. Given we live half a world away most of the time; the chances were rather slim they could be together in the end but still it happened. And Michael summed it up well when he shared, “She took care of herself this time for a change.”
Maria Angelidou left an immeasurable legacy of love and light. We will all dearly miss her presence with us here. It is unimaginable to me to think of Greece without her welcoming arms and smile there to greet me. But her soul lives on. I can see a bit if her in so many places, including the face of her son, her daughters (including myself), her loving husband of 55 years, her grandchildren, and in the amazing food she patiently taught us to cook.
Bravo, Maria Angelidou, you lived well!
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