Thea SophiaPosted: May 15, 2011 Filed under: breast cancer, cancer fatigue, food, kids | Tags: avgolemono, children and grief, chocolate cake, funeral, glioblastoma, homemade cakes, James Coney Island, Kahlil Gibran, loss and grieving, The Prophet, tiropitas 30 Comments
I can’t believe she’s gone. Even though I knew it was coming, my brain doesn’t want to process it, and my heart sure doesn’t want to accept any more bad news.
My Aunt Sophia died early this morning.
My heart hurts. A world in which Sophia Hontasis Katopodis doesn’t exist is just wrong. Just plain wrong.
Cancer claims another victim. This time it was a Stage IV glioblastoma. Man, I’m so sick of cancer.
Sophia was an incredible woman. The best Greek cook ever. Entertaining was her forte, and she did it up right, every time. She loved having her family gathered around the table for a feast, and every meal was indeed a feast. From the elaborate holiday meals to burgers by the pool, the bounty of Sophia overflowed.
I spent many hours in and around her pool, and when it was time to congregate around one of her two round umbrella tables to eat, it was always good. Not just ok but really good. She was famous for saying, “Come on over to swim. We’ll just have hot dogs.” Those who knew Sophia know that “just” was never part of her culinary plan. “Just hot dogs” meant steamed buns, homemade chili, shredded cheese, diced onion, and homemade ketchup for crying out loud! Good luck finding a better hot dog than hers. Not even at James Coney Island, a Houston institution. Fellow Greeks Tom & James Papadakis started that institution in 1923, and Sophia started her own version in her own home. While she didn’t churn out 30,000 dogs a day like the Papadakis brothers, she knew how to feed her friends & family better than anyone I’ve ever known.
To say that Sophia was a good cook is akin to saying that birds are good at flying. It was so much a part of her, of who she was and the things that were most important to her. Her husband, my Uncle Bill, could never match her in the cooking skills, but he was a great host, and so they made a fantastic pair. Uncle Bill could not rest until his guests had something to eat and/or drink.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew Sophia, and she continued to add new friends to her already-bulging group, well into her 80s. One of her neighbors befriended an Irish guy from work named Mickey. Mickey and his wife Jean would come to Houston a couple times a year, and they got to know Sophia. Mickey & Jean brought their kids to Houston, and of course Sophia had a pool party and laid out a fantastic meal. My kids had a blast getting to know Ian and Aoibhinn. Leave it to Sophia to have friends around the globe who loved hanging out in her backyard.
One of the most amazing things about Sophia was a decision she made a long, long time ago. Uncle Bill was married to a woman named Ann, who was much beloved by everyone. This was before my time, so I never knew Ann, but have heard this story many, many times and continue to be blown away by it.
Ann & Sophia were best friends. Young Greek women who walked the fine line between preserving the way of life brought over from the old country while assimilating to the American way. Ann and Bill had 4 kids, 2 boys and 2 girls, and were happily raising a family together. Tragedy struck, as it is wont to do, when Ann contracted an illness that proved to be uncurable. The story I’ve always heard was that it was Mediterranean anemia, and in the early 1950s medical care was not what it is today, and Ann knew she was not going to survive her illness.
Sophia was unmarried, and Ann asked her best friend if she would please marry Bill and raise her children after she died.
And that’s just what Sophia did.
She took on 4 kids ranging in age from teenager to preschooler, and she became their mama. She and Bill were married 40-some years when he died 11 years ago. A fiercely independent widow, she missed her husband but lived her life to the fullest. She treasured her family, and being surrounded by her kids and her grandkids was one of her greatest joys.
Sophia was the kind of mama who cooked from scratch, ran a ship-shape house, and sewed her daughters’ wedding dresses. She was amazing.
When my own sweet mama joined the Katapodis family, Sophia took the non-Greek under her wing and taught her some things, including the art of Greek cooking. That my mom, a “white woman,” (aka non-Greek) mastered that art and was every bit as good as the ladies from the old country was a huge source of pride. For everyone involved.
One of the best things Sophia taught my mom to make is tiropitas. The recipe itself is quite simple, but the filling and folding of the buttery, flaky triangles is something that requires patience and practice. My mom exercised both, and her tiropitas were every bit as good as Sophia’s. My dear aunt would make a batch, put them in a big tupperware in the freezer, and give them to me to have on hand for dinner parties or casual entertaining. What a gold mine I had, tucked away in the freezer. Knowing that I could pull out a few or several dozen, put them on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 15 minutes was something that filled my soul.
Another one of Sophia’s specialties is Avgolemono, which is Greek chicken soup. I was raised on this soup, and hers was terrific. In Greek, “ovgo” means egg, and “lemono” means lemon, so you can guess where this is going. Instead of a bland-ish chicken soup with noodles, Avgolemono is thick and lemony and full of rice or broken spaghetti. Sophia made me several pots of it when I was recovering from my mastectomy, and because she knew I didn’t eat meat, she’d put the chicken on the side, just in case I changed my mind.
Sophia was suspicious of anyone not eating meat, and one of my favorite Sophia stories concerns just that. We were going to her house one time for dinner, and while discussing the details on the phone she said she was making pork loin or whatever, and realized that I wouldn’t eat it. She said, “Oh, yeah, you don’t eat meat. I’ll make you some chicken.” I said, “Uh, chicken is meat.” Her reply? “No it isn’t, it’s a bird.”
She was also suspicious of sunscreen, and I think she thought it was a made-up product. She’d been out in the sun by her pool in Houston for 40 years, and never used sunscreen. She also had the most beautiful skin. Period. No lines, no wrinkles. No fair.
I learned to swim in her pool when I was tiny. She taught all the kids in our family to swim. She loved the pool and was in it all the time. All the kids loved her pool, because it was huge and it had a diving board. One of the family stories often repeated is the one about me crawling on the diving board as a wee child, before Sophia taught me to swim. In typical me fashion, I got too close to the edge–I pushed the envelope even then, before I knew what it meant to do that. I fell in the deep end, and my brother John jumped in and saved me. Good times, good times.
Sophia loved my kids a lot, and was always doing something sweet for them. She and Macy had a mail correspondence for a while, mailing things back and forth. When it started, Macy was 3 and her mail consisted of scribbles on a piece of paper. Sophia was always getting stickers and note pads in the mail from charities she supported, and she loved to pass the “junk” as she called it onto Macy. In fact, Macy has a whole drawer in her desk full of Sophia’s “junk” and she treasures it. Every time we saw Sophia, she had a bag of “junk” for Macy.
Occasions like Halloween and Valentine’s Day were another opportunity for Sophia to stay connected with Payton and Macy. She always sent a card to them for these lesser holidays, along with a $5 bill.
She gave great gifts, and my kids always looked forward to opening their birthday or Christmas gifts from Aunt Sophia. I don’t remember exactly what this gift was, but as evidenced by the look on Pay’s face, his Aunt Sophia scored.What I love about this photo is not the intake of breath by Macy as she prepared to blow out her birthday candles, but the pair of hands on the right. Sophia’s hands. She had a font-row seat to Macy’s birthday fun.
Sophia loved to bake, and she made my kids an Easter cake each year. Being the thoughtful and overachieving person she was, she would make individual cakes.The decorations were always on the fancy side, and the cakes were always scrumptious.Nice smile, Pay. I’m guessing he was impatient to dig into that fantasticly-yummy-looking cake.After the Easter cakes were consumed, there would be an egg hunt, and Sophia bought the good candy. No jelly beans for her; she favored chocolate. And lots of it. Same for Halloween. She made individual goodie bags full of the good candy for the trick-or-treaters who rang her doorbell. Lucky kids.
My kids weren’t the only ones who loved her cakes. One year Payton requested her special chocolate cake (with tons of chocolate frosting) for his birthday, and our friends Laura and Russ celebrated with us. Russ fell head-over-heels for Sophia’s cake, and when his own birthday rolled around, he requested a chocolate cake from Sophia. Of course Sophia was happy to oblige.
Sophia was so generous. One time at her house, Macy mentioned that she liked a particular plant in Sophia’s yard. She insisted on giving Macy a cutting,and it wasn’t a small clipping. When we lived in Austin, before either Payton or Macy was born, she sent me several Hefty bags full of plants that had been dug up at her house. She knew that our new house in Austin had a huge yard, and instead of throwing the Monkey grass out, she passed it on to me. She did the same with her blue plumbago once we moved into our current house.
Glioblastoma is a particularly nasty form of cancer, and it just makes me sick that this is what Sophia got. It’s the most aggressive form of brain cancer, which is bad enough, and it’s very difficult to treat, for several reasons: it’s resistant to conventional therapies, the brain can be damaged by conventional therapies, the brain has limited capacity to repair itself, and it’s difficult for drugs to cross the blood-brain barrier and get to the tumor.
As if that’s not shitty enough, glioblastoma also affects the part of the brain that makes us who we are as individuals. Thus, when glioblastoma invades, its victim’s personality changes, and the person becomes quiet and no longer reacts as she has in the past. For someone like Sophia, who was very opinionated and passionate, this is a crying shame. Being in her presence without her talking, smiling, or asking questions was a hard thing to stomach. Our frontal lobes control so much, yet are the most vulnerable. Most of the TBIs involve damage to the frontal lobes. The fact that the frontal lobes make up so much of who we are as individuals, when something goes wonky with them, the result is overwhelmingly bad. I’ll never forget Sophia weeping at my mom’s funeral, 5 years ago. Just as many people will be doing for her on Tuesday. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Kahlil Gibran. I received a copy of his book The Prophet when my mom died, and it took me a long time to get to the point in which I was ready to read it. I’m so glad I did, though, because his words bring comfort in times of great sorrow:
“When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
Thea Sophia, you are indeed a delight, and will remain so forever in my heart. While I’m glad that your suffering is over, I know that mine is just beginning. We’ll never forget you.
Took me a long time to read this one as it got very, very dusty here. The world is diminished by her death yet all who she touched are enriched by having had the good fortune to spend time with Sophia. I grieve.
She loved you, too, Ed. You were always on the guest list for her pool parties, and not as an add-on.
Uncle Bill’s first wife Ann was my mother Helen’s sister. When my aunt died it left a large void for my mother, me and my brother. When Uncle Bill married Thea Sophie, that was God sent for everyone as she was there for my mom as a sister and friend and an aunt for me and my brother Nick.
She welcomed us with open arms and treated us like her own. When I was young I used to come to Houston to visit and she was so wonderful to me. When I was diagnosed with colon cancer she called me to check in. I was so blessed to have her as an aunt. I couldn’t have loved her more if she were my aunt.
I saw her in October when I came in for the United Dance Merchants Show in Houston and I was so glad to see her. I am glad to have spent that time with her. My heart is broken and I will miss her. I hate cancer too and it was a crappy deal for Thea Sophia to get it. She did not deserve it!
I will always have my memories of her and she will always be in my heart and I will always remember her kindness, humor and dedication to her friends and family. I love you Aunt Sophie! My condolences to the Katopodis family my thoughts and prayers are with them. God bless you for such an outstanding ovation to her and your brave approach to cancer. I have never met you but I applaud you.
Connie, I saw Sophia the day after you’d been in Houston for the show, and she talked and talked about how nice it was, and how y’all stayed up late chatting. She enjoyed your visit so much, and it was obvious from the way she talked about you that you are very special to her. Best of luck to you in your cancer battle.
absolutely perfect nancy….
thanks, girl. that means a lot coming from you since your writing is always so spot-on and full of good things.
I’m sorry for your loss, Nancy. She sounds like a remarkable woman, who was a wonderful example of strength. No wonder you faced your cancer battle so courageously….with role models like your mom and aunt in your life. Hugs to your family.
Susan, I never thought about the role models I had for my cancer battle — that’s how good they were! My mom & my aunt were definitely the types to tuck their heads and get it done without complaint or fanfare. Thanks for pointing that out. Miss you, sweet friend! So glad we can stay connected online.
Nancy – sorry to hear of your loss. Truly sorry. Cancer does suck in so many varieties. I started a vegetable garden yesterday – and I will always think of your Aunt Sophia while I tend to it.
What a sweet thought, Paul. Sophia would like knowing she was a part of your garden. Let me know what you grow. Tomatoes, yellow squash, and eggplant have already grown and been eaten around here. No garden this year at my house but I’m a beggar at my friends’.
Beautifully written! Such a celebration of her life!!
Thanks, Janet. You’re very kind to read and comment — but I always knew you were that kind of girl! xo
What an enormous loss for you & your kids. She sounds like a treasure. I lost a friend to glioblastoma & it is utterly brutal in taking away the person that you love. This has been a season of loss & pain for you, Nance. I know better days are to come.
I certainly hope there are better days to come! It’s been a bit uneven around here of late.
She was obviously a remarkable lady who will continue to be admired and appreciated by all who knew her.
You said it, Wendy! You & Amy & your Mama would have loved her. I can picture all of us sitting around the kitchen table, drinking coffee or putting up corn.
What wonderful memories of someone so special. Thank you for sharing your Thea Sophia with us. I’m so sorry for your loss.
Thanks, Barb. She certainly was special, and as the shock of the news from yesterday sinks in, I’m realizing just how much I’m missing her. I sure appreciate your kindness.
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Aunt Sophie will be sorely missed…. and definitely the BEST chocolate cake ever baked- I am convinced it is her special ingredient- the TLC!
I had the pleasure of meeting Aunt Sophia and even though we didn’t know each other very long, she treated me like family. I remember being struck by what a sweet woman she was. And I did LOVE her chocolate cake! No exaggeration, it was truly the best cake I had ever tasted. I was thrilled to get my very own “Cake by Sophia” for my birthday. When my wife Laura told me she was ill and that we were going to lose her soon, it made me very sad. What an amazing woman that so many people could miss her even when some of them only knew her for a short time! I’m sorry for your loss Nancy. But I can say this; Aunt Sophia made this world a better place! I’m very grateful for the opportunity to meet her… and now, to have her as a happy memory of my own. God Bless Aunt Sophia! I will definitely remember her for the rest of my life.
Russ, that is so nice. You articulated what was so special about her.
I am sorry for your loss! You put together so many great memories.
Thanks, Mandi. Hope you’re healing quickly. Been thinking about you. 🙂
I was so touched reading your many memories of my mother and recall so many of the occasions you mentioned, as I too was present. I truly believe Sophia was a gift from God (and my mother) to our family. She impacted my life growing up, and into adulthood, in countless ways. She was a friend to all, in word and deed, and selflessly gave of herself and her talents.
Nancy, although we have never met, I feel as if I know you because Thia Sophie spoke so fondly of you. It is apparent that you and she had a special relationship and you captured so eloquently the very special person that she was. She has been so wonderful to our family when my husband Bill’s mother, Amanda Andrew, was dying from liver failure and Thia Sophie traveled often from Houston to stay with her and share in her care. And then she was a mom away from home for our oldest daugher, Katie, who had her first job in Houston and lived with Thia Sophie. Yes, to say that she was giving is such an understatement. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to her. I hope to meet you one day and we can share more stories of this wonderful woman! May her memory be eternal!
[…] I realized I would need dress clothes for Payton for Sophia’s funeral (he wears NOTHING but t-shirts & Nike shorts), Amy, who has 3 boys, brought over a pile of […]
I am so sorry for your loss. Your aunt Sophia was an amazing woman! Don’t you just love those great cooks from our pasts? And raising those children, incredible! What an amazing role model she was. I absolutely love the quote you closed with and it’s so true.
[…] I prepared for Aunt Sophia’s funeral yesterday, thoughts of her sluiced through my brain, like the edge of the ocean lapping at my bare […]
Just catching up with the blogs you wrote while we were at sea, and I was so touched by this one. Even though we met Sophia only a few brief times, we knew she was special, and I’m so appreciative of this tribute, as I learned a lot more about why she was so special.