As soon as I heard Jane’s voice say my name on the phone this morning, I knew it was bad news, and what I knew was true: Maura had died Monday evening just after brushing her teeth. I sat on my bed and stared at the blankets for a long time. In these posts, I tend to praise life’s mystery, surprise and imagination, but at moments like this, I felt those qualities drained out of reality. You see, Maura was herself such an embodiment of praise, mystery, surprise and imagination.
Born in Ireland about 78 years ago, when Maura called out your name — and she usually did it repeatedly with great wonder in her voice — you felt like you were the precious gem of the universe. Both larger than life and fully aware of life’s struggles, she brought to every environment where I saw her sparkle and music. Maybe part of it was the Irish lilt, but most of it came surely from her open heart. She also makes you feel like you’ve always known her, which is why I can’t remember when exactly I did meet her, only that whenever I would meet her at the Merc, Hanukkah parties at my house or downtown for Cuban sandwiches, we would simply continue the long conversation we were having.
In the past four years, I’ve gotten to know Maura a different way. From writing Needle in the Bone, the book I’ve been working on about her husband, Jarek, a Polish resistance fighter, and his long friendship with Lou Frydman, a Holocaust survivor, I’ve been given the gift of holding some of her story too. I’ve gotten to sit at her dining room table and hear how, when she was a child during WWII, her father would lead her and her brother in praying for the Jews and the Poles (he would say, according to Maura, “Poor Poland. She suffers again”). When she was older, she threw herself into the adventure of nursing although she was most drawn to tropical health — “I was fascinated in bugs and creepy crawlers,” she told me.
In fact, she loved and was fascinated by many things (and not all of it creepy crawlers), most of all, her family and the large circle of friends she made after settling in Lawrence. For years I’ve heard extraordinary Maura stories from people: how she went to any length for people suffering heartbreak or depression, to encourage someone in the arts, or just to celebrate an ordinary moment in an extraordinary way. While those stories belong to the recipients of Maura’s attentions, my stories with her are a tad quieter: how she showed up for dinner at my house once with an elegantly wrapped assortment of chocolate truffles because she knew I didn’t drink, and she wanted me to have a treat; how, when I told her I needed to reschedule an interview with Jarek because of a little headache, she called out to him, “Jarek, Caryn has a terrible migraine!,” making us both laugh; how we delighted in good meals, serendipitous meetings, the wonders of latkes, and lamented the Kansas winters, the Kansas summers, ailments and sadnesses, and friends who died too young.
Now she is a friend who died too young, not just because of her age, but because of her vital voice, passion and passions, and outrageously interesting ways of seeing the world. I’m missing her already, but my heart goes out most to her family — her two children and six grandchildren, and especially her husband, Jarek, who she told me was “my first and only great love.”