Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Pinellas

Yiayia Maria always chose happiness

The daughter of Greek immigrants lived in Palm Harbor and died of natural causes at 88.
Mary Poniros, pictured at center with a friend, left, and her daughter, Despina Catsikopoulos, right, loved to dance. She danced here at the wedding of her grandson, John Catsikopoulos. She also loved Motown and baking her famous Greek cookies.
Mary Poniros, pictured at center with a friend, left, and her daughter, Despina Catsikopoulos, right, loved to dance. She danced here at the wedding of her grandson, John Catsikopoulos. She also loved Motown and baking her famous Greek cookies. [ Courtesy Maria Catsikopoulos ]
Published Dec. 14, 2020
Updated Dec. 14, 2020

As she lay dying in her daughter’s Palm Harbor home, Mary Poniros told her youngest granddaughter this: “I have no ill will toward anyone. I love you all. See you soon.”

Mrs. Poniros, known as Yiayia Maria, didn’t come to that peaceful place from an easy life. It was a choice.

Her happiness was, too.

Mrs. Poniros died of natural causes on Nov. 12. She was 88, known for her one-liners, common sense, faith and a joyful disposition.

Mary Poniros with her husband, Pete, and daughter, Despina. "Yiayia would be amazed at the outpouring of love," her daughter said. "She would say, 'What did I do to deserve this?' And the answer would be, 'your love, smile and kindness, Yiayia.' "
Mary Poniros with her husband, Pete, and daughter, Despina. "Yiayia would be amazed at the outpouring of love," her daughter said. "She would say, 'What did I do to deserve this?' And the answer would be, 'your love, smile and kindness, Yiayia.' " [ Courtesy Maria Catsikopoulos ]

Mrs. Poniros collected a handful of sayings she left with her grandchildren.

“She would say, ‘Don’t think bad thoughts. Think happy thoughts all the time, and you’ll be in a good mood all the time,’ ” said youngest granddaughter Maria Catsikopoulos.

There was also:

“Remember good memories.”

“If you can’t sleep, pray about it.”

“If you can’t figure out a problem, turn it over to God.”

“And she lived her life by those principles,” Catsikopoulos said.

Mrs. Poniros was born in Weirton, W.Va., to Greek immigrants from the island of Chios. At 10, her father died in an industrial accident at work, leaving her mother to raise her and her sister alone. For the rest of her life, Mrs. Poniros’ mother wore black or navy in mourning.

Those were tough years, and Mrs. Poniros saw families she knew lose their homes.

She and her husband later bought their houses in cash and carried little credit card debt. She sewed her daughter’s clothes. And when out for dinner with friends who had more means, Mrs. Poniros always ordered the chicken a la king.

Her friends thought she was cosmopolitan. Mrs. Poniros would laugh to herself — it was always the cheapest thing on the menu.

Mary Poniros is pictured with her family, from left, granddaughters Stephanie Catsikopoulos and Maria Catsikopoulos, granddaughter-in-law Lauren Evanovich, grandson John Catsikopoulos, son-in-law Bill Catsikopoulos and daughter Despina Catsikopoulos.
Mary Poniros is pictured with her family, from left, granddaughters Stephanie Catsikopoulos and Maria Catsikopoulos, granddaughter-in-law Lauren Evanovich, grandson John Catsikopoulos, son-in-law Bill Catsikopoulos and daughter Despina Catsikopoulos. [ Courtesy Maria Catsikopoulos ]

Mrs. Poniros was married to Panagiotis “Pete” Poniros for nearly 62 years, but before it all started, she had a choice to make.

She was 17, living in Detroit with her family and a senior in high school when her 11-year-old sister met her at the gate one day.

“Maria, they’re marrying you off to a stranger,” she said. “We need to run away.”

Mrs. Poniros stayed calm and accepted the arranged marriage. Her future husband bought her her first pair of high heels, which she wore to graduation as she gave a speech as president of the National Honor Society. He kept a picture of her from that day in his wallet for the rest of his life.

Mrs. Poniros had a full scholarship to college but gave it up to become a wife. The couple had one daughter, Despina.

For five years, Mrs. Poniros was a counselor at her daughter’s Greek Orthodox summer camp in Rose City, Mich. “And she loved, loved, loved it,” said her daughter, Despina Catsikopoulos.

Mrs. Poniros went back to school in her 30s, taking one class at a time. After 11 years, she earned an associate’s degree in education at 48.

It was the same year she became a grandmother.

Mary Poniros loved the Tampa Bay Rays. For her 88th birthday, she got a crossbody Rays purse, which she proudly wore every day after and to see family friend and Rays' baseball announcer Dewayne Staats.
Mary Poniros loved the Tampa Bay Rays. For her 88th birthday, she got a crossbody Rays purse, which she proudly wore every day after and to see family friend and Rays' baseball announcer Dewayne Staats. [ Courtesy Maria Catsikopoulos ]

Mrs. Poniros would not have thought she deserved an article on her life.

“She would tell you, ‘I’m nobody,’ ” her granddaughter said, just someone who lived her life with common sense and by the Golden Rule.

But that approach to life, and some sass she always had ready, meant people remembered her wherever she went. She also looked an awful lot like Betty White, Maria Catsikopoulos often told her, with a halo of white hair and a sweet smile.

“She was like: ‘Betty White is 10 years older than I am. That is not a compliment.’ ”

Mrs. Poniros faced a breast cancer diagnosis in 2000, later developed congestive heart failure and lost her husband in 2012.

But she kept focusing on the good, volunteering throughout her life at a hospital and her church in Detroit, and later in Tampa Bay, after moving in 1997 to be close to her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren in Palm Harbor.

And she did not wear rose-colored glasses, said family friend LeeAnn Lamby.

“She was just a nice person, and we sure need more of those nowadays,” Lamby said. “She valued her family above everything else, except for maybe God, but they were pretty tied.”

Mrs. Poniros never said goodbye, not on the daily calls she made to her many cousins, family and friends, not after big or small outings or regular trips back to Greece.

She always ended with hope for the future, just three simple words: “see you soon.”

Mary Poniros with family and friends at an event at her church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Clearwater. Every other year, the ladies' organization hosts a festival of tables, and Mrs. Poniros and her daughter, who loved watching Hallmark Christmas movies together, made a table in tribute to them. They won a prize for the most creative table.
Mary Poniros with family and friends at an event at her church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Clearwater. Every other year, the ladies' organization hosts a festival of tables, and Mrs. Poniros and her daughter, who loved watching Hallmark Christmas movies together, made a table in tribute to them. They won a prize for the most creative table. [ Courtesy Maria Catsikopoulos ]

Sign up for How They Lived, our obituaries newsletter

Our weekly newsletter is called How They Lived. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up.

We’re also collecting stories of the people we’ve lost during the coronavirus. Please share suggestions for people to feature at khare@poynter.org.

Read other Epilogues:

Pass-a-Grille’s Seahorse Restaurant is closed. For now.

Dancer worked with Nureyev and Baryshnikov, then brought the world home

Leanza Cornett used her voice for HIV/AIDS awareness

WWII vet fought in Iwo Jima, came home to bartend and help people

Her spicy papaya salad would make you cry - in a good way

Remembering a man who savored small pleasures