13 May 2015


Maria Calomiris, Greengrocer, Matriarch, Friend

Artichokes for dinner. I will eat them and think of Mrs. Calomiris. Photo by María Helena Carey

Artichokes for dinner. I will eat them and think of Mrs. Calomiris. Photo by María Helena Carey

Update: A memorial service for Maria Calomiris will take place Monday, May 18 2015 at Saint Sophia Cathedral, 2815 36th St NW, starting at 10:30 am.

If you never had the pleasure of being helped by Maria Calomiris, the cheerful matriarch of Eastern Market produce stand Calomiris and Sons, I’m sorry. For those of us who did, and who had children who were regaled with Mrs. Calomiris’s smile, hugs, and produce, we are feeling the loss. When the Hill Rag reported yesterday that Mrs. Calomiris had passed away this past Monday, I felt the overwhelm of knowing I would not see her the next time I went to Eastern Market. Tim Krepp was uncharacteristically taciturn when he texted me with the news, making sure we would write a piece for the blog. He wanted to make sure we would convey “a general sense of what she meant.”

Last night, I reflected on what she meant to me. Her friendly eyes, quick smile, purposeful walk and encyclopedic knowledge of how to cook the vegetables or serve the fruits she knew by touch how to pick at their best were among my favorite things of visiting the Market. She was not just friendly and accommodating with adults, of course; her bonhomie and generosity with children was well-known. I am embarrassed to admit that, at least from my children, it was almost expected. Whenever we would stop in at the produce stand, the older child would forget his shyness and stand in front of her until she proffered the usual banana. The younger one would slyly threaten to punch the keys of the antique cash register until she would rush to his side and in her melodious accent would caution him to remember the machine was old and fragile. Just as quickly, she would make a bouquet of grapes or an orange appear, and the mischief would be managed.

As fellow residents shared the Hill Rag post, everyone remembered her sweetness and generosity. Fellow THIHer Jen DeMayo recalls that Mrs. Calomiris’s generosity of spirit and old-fashioned sense of hospitality made her feel welcome: “Mrs. Calomiris gave my baby a banana. I still felt new to the Hill and I did not yet know that this was what she did even if we weren’t shopping at her stand. It was such an unexpected act of kindness and generosity. I eventually learned to accept the banana without guilt. The kids learned to accept a kindness with grace, or something close to it. That baby is currently an opinionated teen who prefers kiwi over bananas. But Mrs. Calomiris was my first introduction to the ways of this throwback, old fashioned, neighborly neighborhood and I fell in love.” Like Jen, I was surprised and bemused by Mrs. Calomiris’s generosity at first. The first banana she gave my then-five month old child was gummed on the way back home: a gift and a lesson that banana peels aren’t the tastiest part of the fruit. (A lesson for me as well: don’t let babies play with unpeeled fruit.)

Mrs. Calomiris’s split-pea soup recipe made me abandon efforts to improve my own every winter. She knew I liked artichokes, and smiled through all the times I screamed when seeing the green globes, displayed with the neatness of a spreadsheet, at her place. She was also great at broadening her customers’ culinary horizons: she instructed me in how to microwave corn in its husk. My mother recalls Mrs. Calomiris introduced her to rutabagas, suggesting she add the tubers to beef stew for a creamier, earthier mouthfeel. Every visit to her stand featured some sort of cooking advice, or a newfound love: one summer, it was the crunch of raw sugar snap peas. Every season brought yet another discovery.

Unfortunately for us and for her family –who reeled from the 2010 loss of her husband, Mr. Chris Calomiris at age 86— this past year brought the sad discovery of Mrs. Calomiris’s ovarian cancer. Although she responded well to treatment, her once strong frame that moved with surprising speed around the stand, became even smaller and gaunt. She became more easily tired and her feet, which were normally encased in sandals even when it was cold out, could not withstand the long hours of standing around the concrete slab floor of the market. She became a far less frequent sight, but her generosity and friendliness were intact.
Rest in peace, lovely lady.

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2 responses to “Maria Calomiris, Greengrocer, Matriarch, Friend”

  1. Lovely tribute, Maria.

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