As Glenn wrote.....Mom was the fourth oldest in a family of seven children, the “middle child,” all born to Stanley and Katherine (nee, Maisiak) Grzelak, who immigrated to the US from Poland around 1920, along with millions of other Europeans coming through Ellis Island in NY. Mom was one of two girls, along with her best girlfriend in life, her younger sister, Lottie, who passed in 2013. Her younger brother Ray passed in 2016. Years before that, Mom lost her oldest brother, Bruno, in 1968, and two older brothers, John and Kazmierz, in 1945, at ages 20 and 21, only one month apart, killed in WWII as members of the US Army, one in the War in Europe and the other in the War in the Pacific. (It chills me to think how her mother must have felt with government agents knocking on her door with a “We regret to inform you…” message only weeks apart, losing one son after the other). Mom also lost a brother, Joseph, born after her, who died as a baby in 1929. (Clearly, the Grzelak family had its share of devastation as did many families of that time. Dad lost his own father at 15 and both brothers who died as kids, “Babe” who passed at 7 and Rafal at 16. After his father died, it was just Dad at 15 taking care of his mother and 17-year-old sister.) Mom would have her “Pa,” until 1956 and her “Ma” until 1965, as she called them. Mom married Dad on Aug 18, 1946, and they saw 72.5 years together before he passed at almost 98 on Mar 2, 2019. They met before he went to the war, him whistling at who he said was a very pretty girl walking by, who was Mary Grzelak. (Another sidenote: Every one of these funerals went through Pomierski’s and St. Mary’s. I always said, those two institutions, along with Pulaski Bank down the street, all three on the same short block, are a tripod in Bridgeport. The Hi-Spot tavern across the street from Pomierski's was a fourth leg for generations until it closed some years ago.
Mom mourned Lottie’s passing ever since it happened. She said many times in the years after, “I really miss Lottie,” or “I miss my sister.” They would talk and laugh on the phone often during the week. When those calls stopped, it hit Mom very hard. They were both too good to be partners in crime. They each liked good times and a lot of laughs, so “partners in good times” is a better descriptor. Somehow along the way, they picked up the nickname, “The Dolly Sisters,” and would just laugh and say they didn’t know, when asked where that name came from. I think they knew.
Mom and Dad built their family first with Kathleen, then Ted, Jr. (late Janet), Diane (Frank) LaPorta, and Glenn (me). Mom would become the dear grandmother of Gina (Andy) Adamik and Lisa (Nick) Fic; great-grandmother of Gianna and Sophia Adamik and Nicholas and Natalia Fic.
I nicknamed her Matka (“maht-kah”) many years ago after learning it to be a Polish name for Mom. My siblings and I called her that ever since, and she relished it. Uncle Ray laughed every time we said it.
Mom loved her faith and spoke freely and sincerely about Jesus and God. Mass at St. Mary of Perpetual Help every Sunday and on all Holy Days was a given to which she always looked forward. She was a professional home maker who relished her role. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, organizing, were not tasks to her; they were blessings that allowed her to give herself to her family. After she lost the physical ability for keeping her house, a social worker asked in a visit what activities she enjoyed most. “None,” was her answer because she said she was very disappointed she couldn’t housekeep any more since that was her favorite activity.
Mom adored her Chicago White Sox, often referring to players by their first names as if she knew them personally. She would watch games with a set of “good luck” White Sox beads from New Orleans, and on more than one occasion threw them into her chair out of frustration if the team (“the boys,” as she called them) blew a game in the last inning. "Beautiful," was what she said after the final out of the 2005 World Series left the Chicago White Sox world champions. Mom was also pretty accomplished in sports herself as a teen in the 1940s. She was one of the top 16-inch softball pitchers in the neighborhood, very hard to hit against. She was also so good in ping pong that she played in city championships. I still remember her kicking my butt in ping pong when she was in her 60s and me not being all that amused by it.
Mom greatly enjoyed Polish music and watching Wheel of Fortune, “spooky movies,” and shows about “ghosts” and the paranormal. Shirley Temple was favorite as a little girl. She loved playing family poker games, casino slot machines, lottery tickets, 500 Rummy card games, Scrabble, and other board games, crossword puzzles, and word searches. If it was a game of any kind, Mom wanted in. She thrived first on the socialization, with the competition being secondary.
Mom loved all Polish Food, a good cup of coffee, and Daisy Brand minced ham and prasky lunchmeats. She liked any kind of chicken or fish, especially fried chicken which was her absolute favorite meal, and she really, really, loved her sweets—cake, cookies, and candy, anything chocolate, but especially dark chocolate—and snacks, especially Jay’s potato chips that she said were the best chips. She always said Wonder Bread was the best bread. Pink was her favorite color, Chanel No. 5 her favorite perfume. And she liked a glass of wine and a can of beer or two every now and then. Weddings were a different story. Mom was old school Bridgeport. There, it was Seven-Sevens, or “High Balls,” as people of her era called them. She loved to dance, especially polkas, the Jitterbug, and all the fun wedding dances, like the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance; she never missed a single opportunity when the music started. We went to dinner at Chef Klaus’ Die Bier Stube in Frankfort, IL (excellent German restaurant) for her and Dad’s 52nd wedding anniversary, and she and Dad were Jitterbugging to the music of the live band. She was spinning Dad around so fast, one of the singers said, “Mary, take it easy with that guy. You’re going to wreck him!”
Mom loved to sing. Driving home on Christmas Eve from Aunt Lottie's and Uncle Mickey's had her singing every carol on the radio all the way home. If during the week a song came on the radio or TV that she liked, she sang right along with it. Eddie Karosa, Jr. brought his accordian and catalog of polkas to the nursing facility where Dad was staying on a rehab stint and we all went to see the show. Mom sang Eddie's songs back along to him as he played, causing him to marvel after the show, " That lady knew all the songs!"
Mom was a great conversationalist and loved to laugh and could be very easily amused. She was always the center of attention at family gatherings, a role Dad seemed fine with her having because he wasn’t an in-the-spotlight kind of guy. People who got to know Mom became smitten with her. She was openly adored by nurses and aides in hospital and skilled nursing facility stays. One of her therapists told her she was cute as a button and another told her she wanted to put Mom in her pocket and take her home with her. I asked Mom why it is that people take to her so well as they do, and she said it’s because she doesn’t give them a hard time or ask for much. Absolutely true.
I was Mom's (and Dad's) home physical and occupational therapist, leading them through the daily walking and exercise routines we learned from their licensed therapists. I told them both an untold number of times how much I appreciated that they so willingly participated in the routines, even though they could be tiring, boring, and monotonous. I could count on one hand the number of times each said "not today", and declined participation, and it was due in each of those limited times to them either being unusually tired or it being too late in the day. Their home therapists said the same, that their willingness made the therapists' job easier and more enjoyable because too many of their other patients were the opposite and didn't want to do the work. One said he had just gotten an earful from his prior appointment when the lady got hostile with him and said he was only there because her daughter made him. Mom often said when I would compliment her willingness, "Well, I want to get better." So admirable, especially in the face of difficult and very limiting physical conditions.
Life got very, very hard for Mom over the past 18 months when a series of medical setbacks in that timeframe took so much enjoyment and quality of life from her. It first began August 24, 2016 when a moderate stroke impaired her balance and especially her vision, leaving her unable to walk without a walker and assistance. Despite that event, she was still able to enjoy most of her everyday life; she just needed some help which we lovingly and gladly gave 24x7. Beginning February 2020, however, multiple medical events took more and more from her. The biggest one was her second stroke May 19, 2021, one day after we celebrated what would have been Dad’s 100th birthday since his passing March 2, 2019. This second stroke weakened her extremities considerably and, most significantly, jumbled her speech and left her void of normal conversation. “The Lord moves in mysterious ways,” the saying goes. And it’s true. A number of events we believe to be Divine intervention blessed Mom to return home 9 days before her passing from 3+ months away at a skilled nursing facility and pass peacefully and without suffering at home in her own bed, in the arms and tears of her loved ones. She also got to witness the 75th anniversary of her wedding to Dad on August 18, 1946 at St. Mary of Perpetual Help Church in Bridgeport, her home to her final day.
Mom knew the end was getting near. I noticed her looking very down a few weeks before her second stroke on May 19th, and I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I feel like my time is running out, and I don’t want to go.” I told her, “Then, don’t go. Hold on as long as you can.” But, our earthly bodies are mortal and not built to last forever. Hers, at 93, wore out 74 days before her 94th birthday, very similar to how Dad’s, at 97, wore out 77 days before his 98th birthday. Both were blessed by God with long lives, aided in large part by four children who gave so much of ourselves to caring for them in pretty much every way. Dad’s stroke in 2014 is what kicked off everything in the downhill direction with their health, with Mom’s first stroke to follow in 2016. Dad had a great sense of humor. In one of my visits to him in rehab soon after his stroke, I told him not to worry, that we as his children would care for him in whatever he needed, that real family—like ours—is a two-way street, not one-way, that we as his children could never pay back what he and Mom did for us. I told him the best we could do is help them now in their older years however we could. His answer, being Mr. Funny: “If I’d known that years ago, I would have had 10 kids!”
So, Mom sensed that the time to pass on to the next world was approaching. I had some sudden inspiration four days before her passing to call Fr. Thomas at St. Mary’s and ask him to come by with the Eucharist for Mom and to say some prayers for her. He came the next day, did prayers of Reconciliation, gave her the Eucharist, and spent a nice time talking with us. After Mom passed on Tuesday, August 31st, one of my calls was to Fr. Thomas to let him know, and he very calmly said he wasn’t surprised. He said he could sense the end was near because he could tell she was ready and that she seemed at peace. I’m sure Fr. Thomas knows, being very experienced in these situations. He said to take comfort, that the prayers he gave removed any past instances of sin, and that we are to feel assured she is with our Lord in Heaven.
So, we take great comfort that she’s now with Dad and her loved ones she hasn’t seen in many years, like her parents, brothers, and dear sister. That, and the end to physical suffering she had to endure here in a mortal human body that had just plain wore out. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said that we as humans here on earth are citizens on the road to Eternity. That while our bodies are mortal, our spirits that inhabit them are not; they are immortal. We are not tied to this earth. The entire road is Eternity. And we’re on it now for this very short portion on earth, but will all at some point all move through the veil ahead of us where the road continues forever on the other side. English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said, “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves at home here on earth.”
Mom was truly one of a kind. She will be greatly missed every day forward by all of us who loved her so deeply and dearly. That’s what happens when such a loved one passes. They take a part of us with them. And it hurts, feeling a piece of our very being ripped from us. Just a few years before he passed, Dad was talking about his mother who died in 1954, and a sudden floodgate of his tears opened as if she had just passed now. I felt blessed to see that, Dad weeping so powerfully, such an overwhelm of sincere, raw emotion. He talked about how he still missed her so much. I thought it to be about the most beautiful and impressive thing I’d ever seen, that his love for his mother who had been gone for over 60 years could be that strong to elicit that powerful of a response now. It gave me chills and a hope for loving relationships that I knew then I’ll carry with me forever.
Rest in peace, my little Matka, with Dad, your parents, sister, brothers, and so many loved ones who have gone before you and welcomed you to the other side with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I miss you and love you forever. And you, Dad. I’ll see you again, down “the road.”
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