For millennia, olive oil has been associated with a long, healthy life. In the last half century, hundreds of scientific studies have provided evidence for its health benefits. Living over 100 years, Maria Giannakos appreciated the advantages of a traditional Greek Mediterranean lifestyle: an active life with family, kindness, and an olive oil rich diet.
Ilias Giannakos and his son Kris, co-owners of Ilias and Sons olive oil company, spoke fondly with Greek Liquid Gold about their mother and grandmother, Maria. One of the oldest women in Greece, Maria passed away last year at (approximately) 108 years old. Her longevity had inspired a letter from England’s Queen Elizabeth and attracted the attention of local media, who interviewed her at the retirement home in Sparta, Greece, where her long life came to a close.
Born Maria Anagostakos in or around 1912 in a small village south of Sparta, Maria grew up in “a small house with two bedrooms where we all slept together on the floor, without good or sufficient food,” as she told her grandson Kris several years ago. Wild greens and olive oil from their own olives provided essential nutrition. As her youngest son Ilias explained, “nothing was wasted; they had enough because they were working very hard on the farm.”
In fact, Maria’s parents took her out of school after third grade so she could help with the family and farm work. As the oldest of seven siblings, at age twelve, Maria informed Kris, “I went to work with my father in the fields. We collected pinecones and walnuts and [acorns]. We sun-dried them” and took them to Gytheio to sell them, walking 20 kilometers in the darkness of night, next to their loaded horse. When she was 17, Maria learned to weave and sew clothing, blankets, and everything appropriate for a young Greek woman’s dowry at the time.
In spite of poverty and hard work, Ilias believes Maria’s youth was happy, thanks to her close, loving family. She told Kris, “when I was 20 years old, I was very pretty, the best one in the village, good youth and a good heart, nice family.” In 1934, she married Evangelos Giannakos and moved into a 300-year-old tower house in the village of Vasilaki, between Sparta and the sea, that was “full of everything.”
During her long, productive life, Maria Giannakos raised five children, cooked, cleaned, washed, sewed, farmed, tended gardens, chickens, goats, cows, horses, and donkeys, and assisted at the family’s stores and restaurants.
Ilias remembers his mother “cooking with such a passion, making sure all the kids had enough to eat.” When he was growing up, with no refrigerator, “everything had to be fresh.” In the village, “you don’t have to buy your greens; they grow wild. Just pick your food for the day.” And add olive oil. Apparently tireless, Maria cooked breakfast and baked sweets for other children in addition to her own.
Moreover, Maria provided olive oil and homemade cheese to those who needed them. Kris pointed out that this was especially important during the World World II German occupation, when Greeks and Germans alike would come to their house to ask for food. Furthermore, as one of the first women to vote in Greece after women gained that right in 1952, according to her family, Maria was president of the women’s voting organization in her village.
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Major changes began when Maria’s husband died of cancer at age 56. In the three years after his death, Maria’s four grown children emigrated to Canada. She remained in Greece with her youngest son, 12-year-old Ilias, and the two of them worked hard to care for their olive groves, vineyards, fig trees, vegetable garden, and home until Ilias left for his mandatory military service in northern Greece. Ilias convinced Maria to join her other children in Canada then, as he did after finishing his service in 1969.
Maria lived with Ilias in Ottawa for most of the rest of her life. The two were very close. Ilias believes Maria was happy in Canada “because she was surrounded by family” whom she loved. She was very “proud that she brought up a good family,” according to Ilias. Maria helped raise his sons Angelo and Kris, since their parents had jobs. As she told Kris a few years ago, “I am grateful and praise God that I now have 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren; they all have my blessings.”
A few years after moving to Canada, Maria and Ilias began to visit Greece together every year to harvest their olives. Kris remembered his grandmother harvesting the traditional way, with a stick, “whacking down olives and collecting them. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She was a phenomenal woman, there to do anything.” Maria would also separate the olives from the leaves and pick out good olives to eat. Throughout her life, olive oil brought in the family’s main agricultural income.
Only in her final years did Maria decide to stop traveling back and forth across the Atlantic and stay put in her homeland. She lived in a retirement home in Sparta during the half of the year when Ilias could not stay with her at their family home.
Before that, Maria celebrated her 100th birthday in Canada with 50 or 60 family members. She was still able to cook, play with her great grandchildren, and hang up laundry. At 104, Maria surprised everyone by beating pneumonia. In most of her last years, she could still take care of herself and walk around. Unfortunately, she was bedridden after a fall six months ago, but her mind remained clear. She remembered her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and told stories about Kris’s childhood.
What was the reason for Maria’s 108 years of good health? “Working very hard and eating healthy food,” suggested Kris. They used to grow their own vegetables and olives for olive oil, and Maria continued to eat well. Kris added, “everything was home cooked; nothing was processed. Everything was cooked in olive oil. Having our own olive oil and being able to tap into this reserve is a huge benefit to our health.” Ilias said they never measured; “it just flowed.” His mother used to drink the oil, as he does sometimes.
Maria Giannakos was laid to rest next to her husband in Vasilaki, Greece, as she had requested. “She was very, very strong, very kind and giving to people,” Ilias reported. Maria’s long life and kindness will be remembered.
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