The last time I saw Mary Smolenski, she asked me to bring her mail up from the Senior Citizens’ apartment complex in New Jersey, where she resided. As usual, Mary gave me envelopes to be sent out. She barely made ends meet on her Social Security check, but there was always money for her favorite children’s charities.
A communicant of the Roman Catholic parish of Saint John Paul II, she looked forward to the monthly visits from the parish priest or extraordinary Eucharistic minister. Her faith was an inspiration. The elderly woman never failed to watch the Sunday Mass on the local TV station and made regular donations to its ministry to the homebound. She prayed the rosary, and no doubt meditating on its mysteries helped her get through the lonely days and nights as she “offered up” her sufferings for the Church.
Mary never married, not that she didn’t have the opportunity. “One fella was sweet on me,” she used to say, “but I had to care for Mama and Adam,” who was her mentally challenged brother. They refused to put him in an institution. So Mary was the breadwinner, working as a clerk at various stationery stores in town, while a younger sister looked after her mother and brother.
Talking to Mary was always fascinating because she was a living history book. At 100 years of age, but not looking a day over 70, she remembered her hometown’s horse and wagon milk trucks vividly and the “modern” trolleys. There was swimming and crabbing in Raritan Bay and she said that people were friendlier.
“Families were close in those days,” Miss Smolenski said as she spoke with rapture of summers spent on an aunt’s farm in New York teeming with young cousins. The kids would sleep on quilts laid down on the floor, but not without a lot of giggling and ghost story telling before they nodded off. Then, in the morning, they would go blueberry picking, eating as many on the way home as what would later be used for pies.
The neighborhood people called her “the cat woman” because she fed the strays who wanted a cup of milk or a bite to nibble on. She used to tell the man who was chasing birds away, “Hey, Mister, they got a right to be here, too!” And, of course, Mary had bread crumbs for them.
She recalled with sadness the death of her father when she was only ten years old and remembered Wigilia, the Polish Christmas Eve supper when he was alive. The family gathered around the table to feast on delicacies of potato pierogi, herring, and mushrooms and onions sautéed in butter which were prepared days in advance from scratch. For dessert, they devoured delicious butter cookies, which Adam helped his mother bake. The family members complimented him on his expertise as a chef, which always made the boy smile. Then everyone broke the Christmas wafer, the oplatek, while exchanging hugs and kisses.
Mary’s birthday was on the Fourth of July, and she proudly wore a brooch of the American flag. Her favorite TV show was watching reruns of Lawrence Welk. They reminded her of the “good old days” when she was surrounded by loved ones, her closest family members. She has now returned to them, lonely no more.