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Great men and women rarely live up to their billing in person, but who can live up to such expectations? We’re all human, we all have our foibles, our Paris Hilton moments when we’re young and our Donald Trump follies when we’re not so young but our head is still as full as the affectation of our spun-candy hair. As the example of Easter proves every year, true greatness comes from the humility of knowing that we all belong to a common humanity and none of us is without fault, despite our income, despite how many times we visit church, despite the many titles on our business card.
The greatest man I ever knew was my grandfather, who raised me back in Greece and was a gentle soul and a simple farmer, but who was not simple, at all. He had the grit to survive several brutal wars (and was proud of his service and devoted to Plastiras), to survive the poverty that haunted him for a lifetime, and to weather the frustration of knowing that he was a man with dreams, but beyond his means, who had to settle for a life of toil so he could raise his family. And yet he taught himself how to read, he sold his best fields to wide criticism so his son could get an education, and he saw himself vindicated when my father earned his PhD from Columbia. Yet my grandfather wasn’t a hard man, despite his privations: the eyes behind his usually fingerprint-smudged glasses always had a twinkle in them, his sly humor was legendary (he once convinced me we had to let the ice cream “cool” before we ate it) and he lived by a simple code of ethics. Nobody ever said a bad word about Dimitrios.
The greatest woman I ever knew was my grandmother. She wore her mantilla throughout her life (brown for every day, blue for formal occasions), her wedding ring was made of tin, her first house as a bride, I am told, was a chicken coop. And yet, like my grandfather, her love for life was boundless, her devotion to her children and her grandchildren fierce, her curiosity about the world she knew and didn’t know breathless. When she brought me to Canada to join my family she kept up animated conversations with our neighbor (though she spoke no English and he spoke no Greek) and the man seated next to her on the bus (though he spoke to her in English and she only nodded to him in Greek or peppered him with a prim yes or no), who thought Eisenhower’s head looked enormous on television and laughed along with the mechanical fortune teller at Coney Island.
Their gentle humanity inspires me still. And the misfortune of my children and the generations to come is that they missed out on these wonderful people who had achieved their greatness not with means, but without them, and yet lived a fuller and richer life than most of us: a life full of humor despite the heartache, a life of humility despite the backbone it had taken them to survive, and a life of genuine devotion to the important things in life: family, a sense of honor, and a faith that life was worth living and we’re all God’s children, great and small.