The obituary, which ran in the local Fairfield County, Connecticut, newspapers, read as follows: "Martha R. Kostyra, age 93, of Weston, formerly of Nutley, New Jersey, devoted wife of the late Edward Kostyra, passed away peacefully while surrounded by her family in Norwalk Hospital on November 16, 2007."
It was, for me, as well as for my siblings, a very difficult 12 days, from the time Mother suffered a stroke, which left her immobilized on the left side of her body, until the last weakened breath passed her lips. As she drifted in and out of what seemed a troubled sleep, she made it very clear to all of us that she knew exactly what was going on -- she recognized every one of us, spoke to us in hushed tones about everything that had transpired each day, and inquired about our work and our travels and about our children and our friends. She remained acutely cognizant of the fact that she was in a hospital bed, weak and tired, ready to make her final journey. Yet the stream of well-wishers and visitors each day gave her, and us, hope that just possibly this difficult, final challenge would be met and conquered and that Big Martha would get up and continue as she had before -- a strong, vibrant, funny, very intelligent woman who had made an indelible impression on many thousands of people with her wit, her charm, her "normalness," and her delicious recipes.
A loss like this is always hard to assimilate into daily life, and each of Mother's six children will learn to cope with her dying in a different way. Personally, I will miss our weekly visits and our several-times-a-week phone calls -- and I will miss the thoughtful cards Mother sent every holiday and birthday, without fail. I will miss the cotton-flannel nightgowns she sewed for me almost every year -- nightgowns that were long enough to wrap my feet in while I slept, with sleeves long enough for my long arms.
Because she lived nearby, it was easy for her to come over for Sunday lunch or supper. It was fun to take her on a Kawasaki drive around the farm so she could see the progress of the various building projects and visit with the horses or the donkeys. After lunch, she would often have one of her favorite things: a therapeutic massage, which would enable her to have a wonderful nap. When she woke, refreshed and youthful, she'd be ready for a game of Gozo rummy, which she played stealthily and well.
And I will absolutely miss her as the historian of the Kostyra clan, for it was she who kept impeccable records of our lives together -- from the moment she met our father at a summer school course in upstate New York through the birth of her great-grandchild. When I asked Mother to share a recipe for one of my favorite Polish foods -- pierogi or stuffed cabbage -- or one of our family's favorites, such as roast pork or lemon meringue pie, she systematically created a recipe that was perfectly edited for publication. Trained as a teacher, Mother contributed to more than 40 segments of my television programs, and those made her a recognizable personality. She was always tickled when a stranger would approach her to discuss something she had done on television.
The outpouring of sympathy at my mother's funeral was astonishing. Every seat was filled, and the service was heartfelt and lovely -- one grandson, Christopher Herbert, sang; other grandchildren spoke of fond memories, of Mother's generosity of spirit.
That night, we gathered at my brother George's home and were each handed envelopes prepared by Mother. In mine were documents I had never before seen -- my birth certificate, my Baptism certificate and communion papers, my diphtheria and measles shot certifications, a $10,000 savings bond, and a note from the pediatrician saying I was fit for school. Only Mom, with her sense of organization, would have known that these would touch my heart like nothing else she could bestow upon me. Thank you, Mother.
A Tribute to Martha Kostyra
When I was 6 years old, my favorite book was called "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." One day, Grandma came to Ms. Chodaczek's first-grade class and read us the story of the tiny town of Chewandswallow, where food fell from the sky. In Chewandswallow, it rained soup and juice, and it snowed mashed potatoes and peas. The climate began to change, however, and the town was buried under a drift of pancakes, drowned by a flood of syrup, and scoured by a salt-and-pepper wind. The story ends with a couple of kids sledding down a hill covered in regular old snow, but the rising sun looks like a pat of butter, and they can almost smell the mashed potatoes.
I couldn't have known it at the time, but the story was a perfect one for her to tell. My memory of Grandma is indistinguishable from my memory of the food she made. I loved her hot, creamy mushroom soup and her cold, tangy borscht. I could never get enough of that salty kielbasa slathered with spicy horseradish. And it just wasn't a proper Christmas breakfast without a dense slice of stollen dusted with powdered sugar. Most of all, though, I loved her pierogi, those glutinous little dumplings drenched in melted butter.
I was home for the holidays a few years back, and Grandma had come down to Old Greenwich to pound out a few pierogi. Three hundred, to be exact -- 150 cabbage and 150 potato. I passed through the kitchen somewhere around number 70. It was getting pretty warm in there, what with the stove covered in bubbling stockpots and the bright autumn light filtering through the windows. Grandma was well into her 80s at the time, and her forehead was starting to glisten with the effort of kneading out the dough.
I stepped out to get a cup of coffee downtown, but I was totally unprepared for what I saw when I returned a half hour later. The kitchen was filled with billowing clouds of steam pierced by brilliant sunbeams, and in the middle of it all stood Grandma, who had stripped down to her bra and was sweating like a triathlete. Her one-woman pierogi assembly line beat out a steady rhythm, and her apron was covered with flour. When I asked what happened to her blouse, she just shrugged and said, "What? I got hot."
That's how I'll always remember her: A woman unbowed by age and unburdened of petty concerns, intent on feeding her family well. I was high up on a hill in Santa Barbara last week when I called her to say good-bye. After I hung up, I just sat there for a while and watched the fog roll in off the Pacific and smother the downtown. The warm, yellow California sun suffused the mist with a soft, buttery glow, and for a minute there, I could almost smell the pierogi.