By Theodore Panayotou
AN ORPHAN, since the age of two, Ms Eleni never got to know her father who died after falling from an olive tree. He left her and her siblings as an inheritance a mountain of debt and a legendary kindness which earned him the English nickname “Verygood”. At the age of five, in the midst of the Great Depression, she started working in the fields as a hired hand to support her mother in her struggle to pay the debts and save their house and the small farming fields which were their livelihood.
At 22 Ms Eleni got married, with borrowed rings and no proper wedding dress, to Panayiotis, himself a struggling orphan. A new struggle began for her, working double shifts to pay off their combined debts and raising five children. During the day she worked in construction as unskilled labour or at rich people’s homes and hospitals as a cleaner; in the evening in the fields and her house. Despite their poverty, the challenging times and several life-threatening mishaps they managed to raise and educate five children and even leave them a respectable property.
This was the struggle of most people in Cyprus, through the Great Depression, the Second World, War and countless other crises, both local and global. They struggle to earn very little but they never gave up, they never remained idle blaming others or finding excuses. They rolled their sleeves and survived. But this was before the advent of unemployment and welfare benefits.
Where Ms Eleni was different from many of her contemporaries and the generation that followed was the way she brought up her children and the role model of diligence and integrity she gave them on a daily basis until the last moments. She taught them by example to always create value for others far greater than what they received in return, instead of appropriating the value created by others. It is no wonder that none of her five children ever sought or obtained a public sector job or a job with reduced hours, and none ever complained about the lack of jobs. Not that there is anything wrong with public or banking sector jobs; what’s wrong is to bring up your children with the aspiration of joining a privileged class with advantages not shared by others where it is possible to enjoy benefits greater than your productivity. This to Ms. Eleni was anathema.
Neither the greater depression, nor the war, nor earlier economic crisis and high rates of unemployment, nor retirement were good enough excuses for idleness or complaints; “you create your own job” she used to say, adding that “if you don’t, you don’t want really want to work”. Neither was poverty and hardship enough of a reason for reduced generosity and compassion.
Although she dropped out of primary school after the third grade to be a able to work from early morning to late evening she believed passionately in the value of lifelong learning even though the only books she could access were what others were discarding. She continued to read and learn new things daily until the last moments of her life at age 92. She had broad interests, from religion to philosophy, from medicine to science.
Every day she would recap for her children what she learned the previous 24 hours, giving her own interpretation of how to benefit from it. There was also the occasional night when she couldn’t wait till the morning and she would wake them up to tell them about some amazing thing she learnt. Her work, her reading and her family-raising were intertwined and inseparable. When an entire week passed without finishing a book she lamented her loss.
At the age of 92 Ms Eleni continued to work 10-12 hours a day digging her garden, planting and watering trees and plants, harvesting olives and grapes, always a book in hand lest she waste a minute. Not because she had to, but because she believed that working is healthy and blessed. For herself she wanted very little; she was austere and did not believe in material possessions. She worked to create value for others not for herself.
Always generous, she gave to charity half her meagre pension to help the poor and the suffering without ever publicising it. She had the strong faith and healthy view of religion that one would wish to see in our church leaders, but rarely does.
While Ms Eleni believed in life after death, she was convinced that only with hard work in this life and with integrity and compassion towards our fellow human beings we can earn eternal life. For this reason, she was very worried about the plight and misery of our society, the economic crisis, the unemployment, the scandals, the greed, the corruption, and the refusal of people to own up to their failures and mistakes. To her it was inconceivable that there could be 75,000 unemployed people who were staying idle waiting for someone to offer them a job instead of trying to create one for themselves. Even though she did not use a computer or the internet she understood how much one can do with them to gainfully employ himself and others from the comfort of his own home and she regretted that she had not had such an opportunity in her life.
She followed the news at home and abroad, keeping herself informed in great detail. Always positive and optimistic she had ideas and solutions. She had a vision of a different Cyprus, ethical and industrious where everyone was a value creator and no one would deceive others or receive favours or exploit the work of others for his own personal benefit.
She felt that the root cause of our problems were parents who did not know how to raise their children, and politicians that do not know how to govern and she was proposing the creation of special schools to train parents and politicians.
Ms Eleni was full of love for everybody, even those who cheated or badmouthed her; she was always telling the truth yet forgiving those who lied to her. She had an infectious enthusiasm for life for both this one and the next. While full of life with a sharpness and clarity of thought that one rarely encounters even among the young, she was fully prepared for death which she was not afraid of the least. “When God wants to take me He is most welcome” she used to say.
“In the meanwhile I will use productively all the days He grants me to add value to the lives of others and put a smile on someone’s face”. Her only concern about death was that she might not manage to finish reading all the books she wanted to read.
Even for this she had a solution: “You can always put them in my grave to finish reading them there!” she used to say jokingly. She had an admirable sense of humour even at the most difficult moments of her life. She never took herself too seriously.
On September 26, 2013, still full of life and after a full day’s work and reading Ms. Eleni predicted her approaching transition to the afterlife. She tidied her house, water her garden for a last time, told her family what she learned during the day, gave them a book to read titled “Life after Death”, went to Church, received communion, visited an ailing neighbour, and lay down to rest. She had a stroke and faded away at the same exact age as her beloved husband ten years ago.
This was the life and death of a genuine Cypriot village woman who was born in 1922 – the year of the Asia Minor catastrophe – in the Cyprus village of Dali to a poor family, and grew up an orphan but never complained and never gave up. She managed through hard work and kindness to live to the ripe age of 92 without a sign of aging in her soul and spirit even though the hardships of life were visible from a distance in her distorted and bent over stature. She remained morally upright, even as her bones were worn out from life’s hardships.
I had the luck to have Ms. Eleni as my mother. The lessons of life she taught me and my brothers and sister proved far more valuable than my 12 years of university education in three different universities and my 25 years as professor at Harvard and a decade at CIIM. These lessons are relevant, timely and important for all of us, since the problems we are facing pale by comparison to the hardships and adversities she faced and managed to get through with determination, hard work, integrity and compassion for others, for almost a century. She made her father’s nickname, “Verygood”, a reality. This is the authentic spirit and the real soul of Cyprus not what you read in the newspapers and watch on TV every day!
*Dr. Theodore Panayotou is Director of the Cyprus International Institute of Management (CIIM) and ex-Professor of Economics and the Environment at Harvard University. He has served as consultant to the UN and to governments in the U.S., China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Cyprus. He has published extensively and was recognized for his contribution to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Contact: [email protected]