Maria Vlahos fell asleep in the Lord on the 4th of December 2020 at the age of 86 from COVID-19. Maria was the seventh of eight children born May 21, 1934 to Nikolaos and Athanasia Geranios in Dafni, Kalavryta, Achaea, Greece in the Peloponnese region. Maria is preceded in death by her parents, Nikolaos and Athanasia Geranios; husband, Spero Vlahos; sister, Eleni Fora; brothers Konstantinos Geranios, George Geranios and Theodore Geranios. A Viewing will be held at 12:00 PM on SATURDAY December 12, 2020 at Sts. Constantine and Helen, 1101 1st Ave N. with a Funeral Service to follow at 1:00 PM.
Maria was raised on a farm with her parents and seven siblings living the simple yet wholesome life. During WWII, nine-year-old Maria witnessed the German invasion and massacre of her village and would describe her family's harrowing survival as somewhat of a miracle. The family was forced to flee their besieged village and hide in the hills and caverns. The family endured the perils of war and starvation by eating grass for six months. Maria and her family were lucky to survive the Axis Occupation of Greece and subsequent civil war. This, as many psychiatrists that have treated her believe, was the beginning of her battle with mental illness.
In the 1960's, she came to America to visit family in Charleston, South Carolina, where she met Spero Vlahos, whom she married and had two children, Cynthia and Christos. Together they thrived owning apartments, The Reef Club, and were active members of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, their joyous life together was cut short as her beloved husband died in 1972. Sadly, Maria was left alone in a foreign country to raise her two young children where she could not speak, read, or write the language; this tragedy sparked a major bout of depression. After much deliberation about moving back to Greece or staying in the United States, she was fetched by her family out west and settled down in Great Falls, Montana. Great Falls was where her four older brothers and their families resided and soon became her community. Maria became an American citizen shortly after arriving in Montana. She was proud of her citizenship as well as her Greek heritage. Mom had a big heart and was interested in helping people. When she heard about Anh, a displaced Vietnamese widow with five young children, Mom invited her to live with us in our tiny apartment until she could find a place of her own. Mom and Anh had a lot in common and a rich cultural experience was had by all when they would communicate through words, food, and nurturing their children.
Mom was very resourceful recycling aluminum foil and misshapen Christmas bows, using expired dog food coupons in order to buy cat food, and digging up dandelions from the backyard - boiling them to make horta vrasta, a dish that she would prepare with hard boiled eggs, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil. Olive oil was a versatile ingredient in the household as she would cook with it, use it as a beauty product, and also as an antidote for earaches warmed up on a cotton ball and inserted into her children's ears. Maria was also a pro at aiming and throwing the pandofla (slipper) or brass ashtray to create order in the house. Her two children learned the safe place in the house when misbehaving would be right in front of the china closet, as she dared only once to throw something their way for fear of breaking her wedding china and keepsakes. Maria enjoyed listening to her Greek records, playing board games, going for walks, looking at fashion magazines, and reading the National Enquirer - which she believed every story as truth. She could clean the spots off a leopard and was as fierce as a lioness when it came to her children. Maria particularly enjoyed going to church on Sunday and during Greek celebrations at the Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Great Falls, where she also sent her children every Wednesday afternoon for Greek school. Mom was extremely talented in traditional Greek dance and lent her talents to teaching the younger generations the art form. Maria especially loved her grandchildren and played Barbies, hide-and-go-seek, Xbox, and enjoyed taking them to parks and playgrounds.
As the years progressed and the children were growing up, Maria had a few diagnoses - PTSD, bipolar disorder, late-onset schizophrenia - and she struggled for control of her mind. Maria disliked the way the medications made her feel, so she would periodically stop taking her prescriptions. Mom was hospitalized in Great Falls numerous times with one stay in Warm Springs State Hospital for nearly a year - ending up in an assisted living facility and then multiple nursing homes. At times, our family had a strained relationship with her as we struggled to understand why she would not take the advice of her doctors. The brain disorders caused her to engage in behaviors that were troublesome. It was difficult to witness her descent into the madness and there was no way we could possibly understand what she was going through. One thing we knew for sure, Mom did the best she could with what she had, and Mom was, after all, Greek, and “Greeks are made of steel”, she would often say.
Over the years, Maria received excellent care at the Great Falls Clinic, Center for Mental Health, and Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls, Montana; Elkhorn Healthcare & Rehabilitation in Clancy, Montana; Warm Springs State Hospital in Warm Springs, Montana; Billings Clinic Psychiatric Center in Billings, Montana; and Montana Mental Health Nursing Care Center in Lewistown, Montana. Mostly, though, Mom received a lot of care and support from her four brothers in Great Falls - Andreas, Konstantinos, Theodore, and George. They supported her and us as best they could while raising their own families and included us in as much of their lives as possible. We are so grateful for that because those are the moments that sustained us when Mom was struggling to maintain her sanity, which she was so embarrassed about. Our mother was, at times, a dichotomy of sorts – invigorating and exhausting, hopeful and hopeless, outgoing and withdrawn, pleasant and painful – the light and the shadow. Although this was Maria's life for the latter half, we would like to remember her as the beautiful, gregarious, kind and remarkable woman she was before the mental illness consumed her. May Mom now find the peace that eluded her as she reunites with her beloved Spero and family.
Maria is survived by her siblings, Andreas (Aspasia) Geranios of Great Falls, Montana, Argerios Geranios of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Theoni Geranios Vouzikas of Athens, Greece; her children, Cynthia Spiridoula Vlahos Palmer (Russell) of Billings, Montana, Christos Fotis Vlahos (Tammi), of Billings, Montana; her grandchildren, John Joseph Kellems IV of Twentynine Palms, California, Kristian Marie Kellems (Michael) of Great Falls, Montana, Nickos Spero Vlahos (Teegan), of Billings, Montana, Ashlee Marie Vlahos of Billings, Montana; her great grandchildren, Kaylynn Joe Mattern and Michael Kaden Mattern of Great Falls, Montana, Milos Raymond Vlahos and Toula Dorothea Vlahos of Billings, Montana; and numerous nieces and nephews across the United States and in Greece.
PTSD affects 8% of the world population, bipolar disorder affects 46 million people globally, and schizophrenia affects 20 million people worldwide – with 69% of those afflicted not receiving adequate care. Brain disorders such as these - as well as others - are nothing to be ashamed about. The brain is an organ in the body just like the heart and lungs, and it is our hope that the stigma surrounding mental illness can be broken down by talking about it the same way we talk about heart disease and COPD. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Maria's memory to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) donate.nami.org.
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