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Some people have asked me to post the remembrance I shared at the funeral. The service was held under a tent in the backyard, the place Mama sometimes called her church. Mama used to follow the shade, sitting in chairs strategically placed throughout the garden. Sometimes she would meditate to her mantra, the word “ocean.”

Krysia Bereday Burnham, the daughter of Mama’s brother George, officiated. It was perfect. Krysia wove together elements of the Christian rite with personal reflections, always sensitive to Mama’s unique form of faith. She wore her black robe and a green quilted stole she had been given when she was ordained last summer. “Green to match the garden,” she told me. You could feel the special bond she had with Mama. Krysia has told me that the same empathy that fueled Mama’s pursuit of psychology guided her own call to ministry.

My Aunt Maria at Hawk's Nest Point

At Hawk’s Nest Point, Fishers Island, visiting Krysia. Photo by Krysia Burnham.

My remembrance from the service:

I suspect that many of you here experienced a moment in your life when you were struggling emotionally, and my mama’s laser-like focus fell on you, and she seemed to know exactly what you were thinking and feeling, even before you did yourself. Maria had the gift of empathy. She knew how to listen uncritically, and she helped and healed many of us.

Maria was born in Warsaw, Poland on June 26, 1922 during the exciting but unsettled period between the world wars. In many ways she lived a charmed life in villas and manor houses, with nursemaids and tutors, and her own pony named Dolly. But she also felt the strains of her mother’s religious conversion and divorce that distanced her from some family. Raised on the literature of Polish romantic poets and the history of Poles’ struggle for independence, she became an ardent Polish patriot.

At the age of sixteen, she spent a year at a convent school in Belgium, and she was preparing to continue high school in Paris when World War II broke out. While finishing high school in Warsaw, she also joined the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation.

Although her teachers hoped she would study literature at University and develop her talents as a writer, Maria decided instead to pursue medicine. She wanted to become a psychiatrist so she could help people, particularly those experiencing psychological or emotional distress.

Maria was deeply involved in the resistance to free her country. As a courier, she delivered messages to the partisans hiding in the countryside. She took advantage of her appearance as an innocent, shy young woman with sad eyes, as well as her fluency in German, and traveled under the assumed name Elisabeth Hoffman. With papers claiming she had a German father, she could travel in the train cars reserved for German officers, listening to their conversations and even talking with them in an effort to learn more. When the Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944, Maria employed her medical training and served as a medic for the wounded. When the Old City was overrun, she escaped with her unit through the sewers to the City Center, where she continued to treat the injured until the end of the Uprising. Maria received a Cross of Bravery for her service.

After the war, the family started to rebuild their life in the ruins of Warsaw, but it quickly became clear that Soviet powers were determined to maintain their hold on Poland, and there was no place for business owners and former resistance fighters in the new communist system. Taking advantage of a medical visa to treat her wartime injuries, Maria and her mother left Poland for good in December 1946.

In the US, Maria began what she called her second life. Initially, she continued her medical studies as a resident under the mentorship of Dr. Stanley Cobb at Massachusetts General Hospital, but then shifted her focus from psychiatry to psychology. While studying for her master’s degree in developmental psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, she met her mother’s neighbor Wiley Galbraith. Intrigued that such an intelligent and good-looking man could be so shy, they started dating and eventually married. Together, they established a home on Long Island where they raised their four children.

Being a wife and mother satisfied Mama’s most essential life goals. She placed the needs of her family above her own, making sure we were safe, happy, and free to determine our own paths in life. But she was always drawn to the life of the mind and the work of helping others. When the four of us grew more independent, she returned to her studies at Teachers College, traveling by train weekly to take one course at a time. Her steady persistence paid off when in 1983 she completed her Ed.M. in Counseling Psychology, her third graduate degree.

Though she was uneasy around strangers, Mama was fiercely loyal to the people she knew and loved. She counseled many in their time of need, including many of my brothers’ and my friends when they were struggling with the inevitable challenges of growing up. Everybody touched by her uncritical empathy loved Maria back. Even after we left home, our friends continued to visit her.

Being Maria’s child, especially her daughter, wasn’t always easy. But no one had a stronger influence on shaping the person I am than she did. Mama had her way of urging me to pursue my education, to be a good person, and not to give up on myself. I remember calling her once at a particularly difficult moment in graduate school to tell her “I want to quit.” She didn’t try to persuade me otherwise. All she said was, “Oh…” But that was enough to make clear that she wanted me to persist, she believed I could do it, and she loved me no matter what.

With all of us kids finally out of the house, my parents renewed their common interests in classical music, gardening, and the arts. They enjoyed visiting us, and we had memorable, noisy, and sometimes contentious family reunions in LA, Austin, Alabama, and even Poland.

Mama spent her final years living quietly at home, under the loving care of Chris and Shih Han, and her inexhaustible companion Krystyna. As the grip of life’s traumas finally slipped away, she became quiet, radiating love toward her many visitors. Part of a bustling and growing household, she took special joy in the visits of her grandchildren. Her room was Bessie and Charlie’s favorite place to play, or to just sit a while. And she always lit up when she saw her other grandsons.

These are the traits that defined her: she was resilient yet fragile, forceful yet timid. She was generous and devoted to her friends and family. She was so emotionally attuned that there was no way of hiding anything from her, even when we tried.

Mama had just about convinced us all she was immortal when she slipped away quietly and peacefully, within sight of her beloved garden. She was deeply loved and will be missed by all of us who were touched by her goodness and comforted by her sensitive guidance.

Go in peace, Mamusiu. We’ll remember you every time we walk in this garden—your sanctuary, every time we’re transported by a work of art, and every time we look into your grandchildren’s eyes.

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