May 8th, 2014
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
The obituary said she died unexpectedly. She failed to arrive at her granddaughter’s birthday celebration, a gathering at the beach.
Her passing devastated her friends. Sadly, it did not surprise them. They’d known of her struggles for some time. They invited her to coffee. They asked her to lunch. They called to persuade her to accompany them on shopping excursions to Macy’s at the Northshore Mall. Invitations went unheeded, mostly. She slipped further and further away, like a nautilus receding into its shell.
Maria was in our constellation of family friends of my childhood, a close friend of my mother. She was the lilting soprano in our choir at St. Joseph’s Church. She picked us up in her Green Nova on hot summer days when my mother didn’t have a car to drive to the beach. I remember playing in the back seat with her son Timmy, who was my age. Timmy and I eventually became classmates at the parochial school we attended. He was the tallest boy in our class. I was the second tallest girl, after a freckled-faced girl named Lisa.
Maria, born to Polish immigrants, taught us kids the folk songs and folk dances of our Slavic ancestors, which we performed at church and community festivals. We rehearsed in the church hall, below the sanctuary. We children donned the embroidered and sequined vests, flowered skirts, and flowers in our hair in homage to our shared Cracovian roots. Maria was one of the few adults who actually wore a folk costume, singing along with us while other adults watched.
She married a Polish immigrant, an electrician who’d been imprisoned in labor camps in Germany as my father was during World War II. Stefan landed in our north of Boston town a refugee, as did my Dad. I remember his chiseled crew cuts and that he rarely attended Mass. This stood in sharp contrast to my father, who attended religiously, wearing his brown suit and serving as an usher at the 11 a.m. service. Maria came dutifully, bringing her sons, who became altar boys. This was a time before girls were allowed to serve at the altar.
Maria’s friends noticed something amiss in the family dynamic. Although she participated in choir and some school activities, her husband imposed tight constraints on how many external activities she could partake of. She had to bargain with him to let her out of the house.
When the church’s Ladies’ Guild or Holy Rosary societies beckoned with an invitation to an event, more often than not, she’d say, “I have to check with Stefan” or “Stefan doesn’t want me away from home too many evenings.”
She was forced to ration her social involvements per the will of her husband. I never knew because my mother didn’t discuss such matters in front of us children.
This was so contrary to the model with which I grew up. My mother was heavily engaged in community activities, which my father heartily supported. Dad indulged my mother’s extroverted personality. He gladly heated up dinner and did the grocery shopping so my mother could attend meetings. She assumed leadership roles in church and school organizations. Social involvements were and continue to be very important to my mother.
I was surprised and saddened when my mother called several years ago to say that Maria ended her life by her own hand. With her children grown and gone, she and Stefan inhabited an old Victorian on a busy street, similar to the one I’d grown up in. When she went missing for several hours, her husband began searching for her. He found her in the attic, suspended by a piece of rope.
Maria brought kindness and beauty to the world. Her spouse-imposed isolation—a form of abuse—likely exacerbated underlying depression. If only she’d reached out to a friend or a crisis-counseling hotline, maybe she would have realized that she had options. Leaving the house and seeking helps seems far better than leaving life altogether.
Women Helping Battered Women Hotline: 1-800-ABUSE95
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
Note: Names changed to protect confidentiality