A Christmas Story

By Jeffrey Page
Twenty-six Christmases later and they still haven’t figured out who Mama was.

Little is known. Her real name might have been Mary, though some people knew her as Erika. She was about 55 years old when she died cold, sick and alone in midtown. She spoke with an Eastern European accent. She was one of the homeless people of New York at a time when the city was growing more impatient by the hour with aggressive street people demanding handouts.

Actually, Mama didn’t accost anyone. Rather, she sat on a box outside Grand Central Terminal and kept a bowl in her lap for handouts. Sometimes she’d try to cadge a cigarette from commuters rushing to work or to catch an evening train to the suburbs.

She had spent three consecutive winters trying to keep warm at Grand Central. Not long after midnight on the brutally cold Christmas of 1985, she sat huddled in the waiting room. A cop told her to move on. She went outside. The temperature was about 19 degrees. Later, she returned to the terminal. And a while after that, she slumped over on a bench, dead from pneumonia and emphysema, the medical examiner said later.

No one came forward to claim her remains or effects, or to identify her. Mama had been just another New Yorker in ratty clothes and toting a shopping bag. Her very existence irritated the sensibilities of the affluent. The city would ship her to Hart Island in the East River, where New York maintains its potter’s field.

But not everyone was ready to pretend that Mama never existed. Her miserable death on the day of Jesus’ birth was reported in the papers and on television. Jeanne Murphy of the Bronx, happy with the time of year and yet morose over the Alzheimer’s that was stealing her own mother from her, stepped forward. Mama, she said, would be buried with dignity and not just a serial number.

“I feel a connection to this woman, especially at this time of year when she suffered,” Murphy said.

She arranged a burial at a cemetery in Queens. She and a priest she knew managed to buy a casket, a burial plot and a grave marker, all at cost. She spent $1,500. The little funeral ceremony at Maple Grove Cemetery was attended mostly by reporters and cemetery workers. Some grave diggers donated their time and labor. They took the wilting flowers they routinely remove from graves and left them on Mama’s grave for the rest of the day.

“It’s a lousy way to die, but at least she’s getting a decent burial. We wanted to help out,” one of the Maple Grove workers said.

No one knew if Mama professed a particular faith. But in the event she was Jewish, a synagogue scheduled a memorial service for her. In case she was Catholic, Murphy’s friend, the late Father William Guido, prayed for her and then spoke words often attributed to Stephen Grellet, the French Catholic missionary who became a Quaker in the late 18th century: “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

The words seemed most appropriate for Murphy and individuals and organizations who can’t allow the memory of someone like Mama to just vanish in a wisp. In fact, there are legions of Mamas in New York today. The Coalition for the Homeless reports there are about 41,200 homeless people – 17,000 of them are children – living in public shelters. Thousands more live in the streets. The Coalition, which is always looking for the funds to supply food, blankets and shelter to people with no homes, is at 129 Fulton St., New York 10038. It has received a four-star (highest) rating from Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog organization



4 Responses to “A Christmas Story”

  1. Michael F. Sweeney Says:

    Powerful ! How much does this country spend on war ? How many more homeless will pass into eternity because of neglect ? How many of our veterans are among them ? The United States of America turning its shoulder those most in need. Makes me feel more than a twinge of sadness and regret.

  2. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    Beautiful story. I agree with Mr. Sweeney’s remarks and would add that the homeless problem worsened simultaneously with a state edict to empty mental institutions. Money was “supposed” to come to the city and elsewhere to fund local clinics. Money never came; homeless population grew and Mama’s died!

  3. Jeffrey Page Says:

    Thanks, Michael Sweeney. I seem to recall that no matter how much we spend on war, we invariably find ourselves a little short in the pocket when it comes to providing quality medical care to the people who do the fighting. Wars always seem to produce a new generation of homeless people. I’m sure this one will as well.


  4. Jeffrey Page Says:

    Jo, If I’m not mistaken, the order to lower the population at state mental hospitals goes all the way back to the Hugh Carey administration in Albany. But am I correct in thinking that there were plenty of homeless people living in the streets long before Carey’s order?


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