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Sean Kirst: For selfless mothers, even monuments can't say enough

Despite a gray May morning too chilly for his liking, Arthur C. Herdzik treated a walk Friday through St. Stanislaus cemetery as a kind of stroll through a well-loved neighborhood.

Every year, just before Mother's Day, Herdzik and his two grown "boys" – Arthur A., 67, and Alan, 59 – get to work at that Cheektowaga graveyard, mulching, trimming and digging.

At 93, moving with familiar confidence, the father pointed out the tombstones of multiple friends and relatives, including his parents, John and Bertha, and his wife, Lottie, who died of heart problems in 2001.

Herdzik, who retired from the Buffalo Fire Department as a deputy commissioner, met Lottie 77 years ago, when they were both 16. He remembered how she wrote to him every day while he served on a submarine during World War II.

He survived to come home through the old Central Terminal – "a lot of guys who went out that way never came back," Herdzik said – where Lottie was waiting when he stepped off the train.

They went straight to his parents' home on Townsend Street. Herdzik sat at the kitchen table and asked his mother how she got through it with four sons off fighting in World War II, never sure if all of them would be coming home.

"We worried and we prayed," she replied. More than 70 years later, at the cemetery, Herdzik closed his eyes and heard those words.

Alan Herdzik, right, and Arthur A. Herdzik, in back, care for their mother’s grave at St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Cheektowaga. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

His sons had their own vivid memories of Lottie. They spoke of how she quietly shouldered many day-to-day household responsibilities while their dad worked long weeks with the fire department.

Money was often tight. Their mother bent over backwards to make life easier. "We had a lot of fried baloney and Queen-O," said Arthur A., recalling an especially cheap variety of pop.

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Alan remembered how Lottie would load up the car with his buddies, inner tubes strapped to the roof on hot summer days. She would drop them at Buffalo Creek and then wait patiently at Harlem Road, sometimes for hours, until the boys came bobbing into sight.

The other night, Alan had a little reunion with a group of old friends, guys in their 50s he had not seen in a long time. They said to him:

"Your mom would do anything for us."

While it was much the same for Mike Getz, 60, his graveyard situation is considerably different. His mother Phyllis, at 86, is going strong, golfing and driving and still doing whatever she can to help her family.

Getz is a truck driver. As a gesture of thanks, a way of taking another family task off her shoulders, he goes to Mount Calvary cemetery before Mother's Day to care for the graves of his father and his sister Lisa, who died in 2014.

When Getz was 14, his dad, a former Marine, choked to death on a piece of meat. Everything, at that point, was up to Phyllis. She devoted her life to Lisa, who had childhood diabetes – Mike Getz eventually donated a kidney to his sister – and to the well-being of her two sons.

"Without her, I'm not here today," Getz said.

Nancy Fredrickson, spokesperson for the Mount Calvary Cemetery Group, said Mother's Day is rivaled only by Memorial Day for total visitors. Every year, Fredrickson said, Mount Calvary draws a big crowd for its 10 a.m. Mother's Day service.

Rev. Robert Beiter, 79, a retired Catholic priest, shows up regularly at the old Buffalo Cemetery, within the sprawling complex. He might be there as often as three or four times a week to care for the graves of his great-grandparents, his parents and his brother Roger, who died during the Vietnam War.

Over the years, his grandfather's stone had been lost beneath the soil. Beiter unearthed it and returned it to the sunlight, honoring a fitting tale for Mother's Day.

The great flu epidemic of the 1910s, he said, claimed his grandfather's life. That left Beiter's grandmother to raise five children. Somehow, amid struggle, she found the resilience to strengthen the family for cascading generations.

Years later, buoyed by this sacrifice long before his birth, her grandson lived out a dream and became a Catholic priest.

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Every family, at some point, has such moments. Beiter spends hours on hands and knees with a trowel at the graveyard, his quiet way of expressing gratitude.

"I think about it all," he said, "and it distracts me from the world."

Sunnie Lamarr and Molly Amigone at the grave site of their "bonus mother." (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

That appreciation is not always based on blood. At St. Stanislaus, near the endless rumble of the Kensington Expressway, Sunnie Lamarr, 65, and Molly Amigone, 56, paid tribute to Jeanette Esposito, the woman they described as their "bonus mother."

"Everyone knew her on the West Side, and she loved everyone," Amigone said of Jeanette, who died in 2012.

Lamarr and Amigone are close to Cyrene Esposito, Jeanette's daughter, now of New York City. Throughout their adult lives, they said, Jeanette treated them like her own children.

Every spring, before Mother's Day, they visit her grave. This year, Lamarr - an artist  since childhood - left a small water color painting of a flower, above the words:

You are loved.

Cyrene Esposito (right) with her mother, Jeanette. (Photo courtesy Cyrene Esposito)

From New York, by telephone, Cyrene recalled how her mother overcame monumental hurdles.  As a teenager, after running away from a tumultuous home, she was raised by a caring aunt and uncle. Jeanette later became a single mother, at a time when it still carried a sense of isolation.

While Jeanette never had much money, Cyrene and her friends said she turned into a neighborhood legend by affecting countless lives, by sharing whatever she had, even with strangers.

"I miss her terribly," Cyrene said. "She was my everything."

As for the Herdziks, this 93-year-old dad and two grown sons, they worked and argued and laughed in noisy rhythm by the family graves. Arthur A., the eldest child and the village attorney in Lancaster, did his best to offer justice to the joyous, curious nature of his mother.

Herdzik and Lottie never had a daughter. In the way these things go, Arthur A. and his wife Jean raised four girls. To Lottie, that was a gift, a never-ending Christmas.

There were times, in the long winters, when Arthur A. talked wistfully about moving to the Sun Belt. He reconsidered when he saw the way Lottie embraced every possible moment with her granddaughters, how she loved to play "beauty parlor" with the girls, how she bought them clothes for every special occasion.

She embraced their presence as a treasure, as a capstone to her life, a warmth more intense than anything they would ever find in Florida.

Lottie's white-haired husband, hearing that, leaned on his shovel and smiled.

For Queen-O pop and fried baloney and selflessness without complaint, he knew exactly where he needed to be, for Mother's Day.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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