I thought I knew Maura Piekalkiewicz (1933-2011) fairly well, but at the service held at Lawrence Chapel Oaks on January 29 in her memory, I found out a great deal more about her activism for civil rights and social justice from personal stories shared by her son Andrew; her daughter Ellen; her friends Laura Gassen Templet, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, and Tony Backus.
Everyone laughed when Tony said that, as a couple, Maura and Jarek Piekalkiewicz functioned beautifully together, but were incompetent when one was without the other. After the laughter subsided, it hit home that Jarek, of course, was now without his Maura, so Tony urged us all to fill in the void not just in days and weeks but also in the months and years yet to come.
For me, the most moving part at Maura’s memorial service, beyond all the wonderful stories which were told about her, was the moment when everyone was asked to read out loud a poem which Maura had herself written. Her family found the poem in one of her journals, and they wanted to share it with everyone. Here’s Maura’s poem:
“O Heavenly Father,
O Great Spirit,
O Mary, Our Blessed Mother,
We thank you for food and
Remember the hungry.
We thank you for health and
Remember the sick.
We thank you for friends and
Remember the friendless.
We thank you for freedom and
Remember those who are not free.
May your gifts to us
Be put in the service of others.”
At the service, everyone talked about how Maura loved all the arts—poetry, fiction, theatre, music, dance—but the one art which no one mentioned, the one she and I shared passionately, was the cinema. Not surprisingly, her taste in movies was catholic, both with a small “c” and a Capital “C.” And of all the movies we talked about, the one we returned to over and over, was Luchino Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard.
Maura loved the movie, all 183 minutes of it. She was rhapsodic about the long ballroom sequence at the end of the film, when the elderly Prince (played magnificently by Burt Lancaster), in poor health but keeping up a fine facade for the sake of those closest to him, wanders from room to room at the festive palace, looking at all the partying guests, bemoaning the passing of the old aristocracy but, at the same time, celebrating the birth of a new middle class. At the conclusion of the evening, the weary Prince finally wanders out into the night, alone, where he sees a priest and some acolytes hurrying into a church, as he himself disappears into the darkness.
In life, Maura Piekalkiewicz lit up whatever room she was in, and for those among us who were fortunate to know this wonderful woman, her memory continues to light up all the rooms in our minds. She may have now wandered into the night, but she is not disappearing into the darkness.