Virginia Constantine's father died when she was 11 at the start of the Great Depression, and her mother held her family of five together in their home on Greene Street in downtown Baltimore.
So it was not a foreign experience for Mrs. Constantine to do the same for her children after she lost her husband to cancer in 1977.
She still hosted Christmas. She hosted all the holidays. Every Sunday, her children were required to come to dinner, where she could mother over them and watch her grandchildren swim in the pool out back.
"She was the glue," her daughter, Valerie Rees, said.
Her parents, Stanley and Leona Pamfilis, had immigrated from the small Greek island of Icaria, whose residents are renowned for longevity. Mrs. Constantine's mother also lived into her 90s, Mrs. Rees said.
A widow at age 56, Mrs. Constantine saw a long life ahead of her and made herself busy at all times.
"It was almost as if she found her independence," Mrs. Rees said. "She was quite indomitable."
Mrs. Constantine's sister, Ann Graff, was also widowed, and together they stayed busy going on trips and cruises. They also worked together at the Jeppi Nut and Candy Co., currently based in Lutherville. They weighed candy and bagged it, saving a tad for their own personal consumption each day.
Later, Mrs. Constantine went to work for her son, Michael Constantine, who owns the Baltimore Coffee and Tea Co. Her sister joined her there as well, and the two sat in a back room on high stools at a long table, affixing labels to plastic bags filled with tea bags. They added a finishing touch by tying ribbons around the bags. They worked from 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m., taking lunch breaks at a table inside the coffee shop at the front of the store.
Mrs. Constantine worked, her daughter said, because she enjoyed the company.
"She loved being around people," Mrs. Rees said. "She felt like she was contributing in some way. She was making a difference. She was helping her son, and she was doing something that gave her pride. She used to say, 'I'm the fastest one. I work faster than anybody else back there.'"
It was true, Mrs. Rees said.
After her sister died in 2005, Mrs. Constantine continued working for the coffee company until September.
Nearly three weeks ago, the independent woman went into hospice care, Mrs. Rees said.
A Baltimore native, Mrs. Constantine had lived a rich and interesting life that included skipping two grades in public school, and befriending former Vice President Spiro Agnew and his wife, Judy, when Mrs. Constantine and her husband lived in Washington. Mrs. Constantine's husband, Gus Constantine, worked as a radio broadcaster on local stations under the pseudonym Russ Andrews; he worked in an era when ethnic names were seen as career roadblocks.
When her husband moved into advertising, Mrs. Constantine did secretarial work for him.
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She also kept busy in her church, the community and at home. She cut branches in the yard into her 80s, Mrs. Rees said. If Mrs. Constantine ever sat, she only did so with a book or crossword puzzle in front of her, her daughter said.
Inside her hospice room, Mrs. Constantine's family had placed a plaque on the wall that a granddaughter, Samantha, had given her one Christmas. It read "I love you more" — the saying Mrs. Constantine always shot back at family members when they told her of their love for her.
Mrs. Rees recalled that when her mother died, a sister-in-law noted how Mrs. Constantine had been a constant for decades, unifying a family that was branching out into new generations. She said to Mrs. Rees, "I hope that we stay close."
A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, 24 W. Preston St., in Baltimore.
Mrs. Constantine is survived by a brother, Manual Pamfilis, daughters Valerie Rees and Lynne Openshaw and sons Michael Constantine and Stanley Constantine, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by sisters Ann Graff and Betty White.