Mary Magdalene's Legacy
Mary Magdalene’s death broke the hearts of a few. That much can be assumed, even though that was not covered in the local papers of the time. All the headlines read, “Hunlock Creek Infant Drowns in Rain Barrel,” or something to that effect. On July 11th, 1953, at 7:30 pm, Mary drowned in a washtub that her family kept beside the porch to collect rainwater for their vegetable garden. She was eighteen months old.
In the hours before her death, she and the rest of the Hassaj family--pronounced HASS-eye--spent the afternoon swimming at Moon Lake, near Lake Silkworth in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Upon returning home for the day, the family went inside to change into dry clothes. Soon, Mary’s mother, Mrs. Jacob Hassaj, realized that her baby was missing. After Mary did not come when called, the family began a search and found her unconscious body in the washtub.
They rushed to the nearby summer home of Dr. Rudolph Martin, but because he wasn’t home, Dr. Lewis B. Thomas was summoned from his neighboring house to treat the toddler. The doctor and two Lehman County police officers attempted to resuscitate the child but to no avail.
The county coroner ruled the cause of death as accidental drowning. The funeral was held the following Tuesday in Sacred Heart Slovak Catholic Church.
Aside from her parents, Mary Magdalene was survived by her paternal Grandmother, Mrs. Mary Hassaj, her maternal grandmother, Mrs. Helen Kovach, and her five older brothers and sisters: Rosemarie, Margaret, Jacob Jr., Helen, and Paul.
This is all the papers revealed of the tragedy, and many of the stories used the same phrasing to describe the events that transpired, as they were probably owned by the same parent company.
Some details were too complex to report. The papers didn’t have a follow-up story on the family’s mourning process or weekly installments detailing their stages of grief. They did no research on how trauma trickles down generations, warping timelines and worldviews--they showed no minds dented under a sudden blow, no renderings of the Hassaj family’s broken hearts.
The papers didn’t talk about how Mary Magdalene was the baby of blue-collar folks, a miner and a seamstress. Their families came to the states to escape the horrible economy of Eastern Europe, escape the small, rural villages rolled flat by wars and poverty.
My mother is a Hassaj--she even kept it as her middle name after marriage. She was born on the last day of August in 1959, six years after the drowning. She, too, was named Mary, like her mother, paternal grandmother, and her late older sister, baby Mary Magdalene.
Some of the other things that the papers didn’t cover: My mother says that her parents never talked of it, really. The drowning. And I wonder what their silence said about its effects--how Mary Magdalene's untimely death changed the workings of the Hassaj family, and how this pain seeped across decades, how this pain compacted with the cultural and generational trauma they knew from their immigrant parents.
My grandmother never brought it up unless pestered. She was a neat and stern woman who didn’t like to cry. My mom believes that she was the one who found Mary Magdalene. When asked, all my grandmother would comment was that “Mary was so big for her age. I remember that her coffin seemed so big.” And that was that, a big baby coffin. It also slipped out that Mary Magdalene died because when she fell off the porch, the weight of her little body crushed her windpipe. The details she did share seemed the most brutal like they couldn’t be contained. My grandmother also never talked about how her father had been crushed in a mining accident, at the fault of his bosses who told him to go into a dangerous area. And it took her a decade to cry after her husband died.
My grandmother never liked to talk about it, but she kept clippings from three different local papers. She neatly cut them out and pressed them into a photo album. No one ever tossed them. The clippings still exist nearly seven later, yellowed and thin.
I don’t know if I understand my grandmother, my Baba (from the Polish word for grandmother, babcia). She was devout as all hell, often had a rosary. She crocheted beautiful brown and orange blankets. She was a woman who was sometimes bitter: she once beat my mother with a cat-o-nine-tails as punishment for refusing to get on the school bus, leaving red welts on my mom’s legs, for all her classmates to see. But Baba was also loving, and never blamed my Aunt Helen for the death of Mary Magdalene, even though there were whispers that she was supposed to be watching her baby sister. My Baba died shortly before my younger brother was born.
My mother never asked her dad about it, and he never mentioned it. He drank a lot, but her parents fought about that privately. Never while my mother was in the room. The drinking still gave him ulcers.
Was it the immigrant culture?
That part of Pennsylvania was coal-mining country, full of blue-collar Eastern Europeans whose villages were sliced and diced during and in-between the Wars. They came here to escape violence, to make more money. But they carried trauma. Before he developed black lung, my grandfather was a coal miner. Then he made cabinets and continued to drink.
It was cultural, here, to have a church on every other corner with a bar in between. My grandfather frequented the bars, and gambled in them. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost: never much either way. My mom would sit with him at the bar, as a child, drinking soda and eating chips as he drank whiskey and played cards. Still, he was an always-mellow drunk. He enjoyed making wine and had no teeth. He made delicate crosses out of palm leaves on Palm Sunday to be tucked under your mattress for a year of safety.
He died in 1989 from a massive heart attack. Baba found him next to the bed after returning from walking the dog. Rosemarie called my mom in Manhattan, and my mother packed her stuff and headed home to bury her father. Her boss called a car service, and she tried to not cry behind dark sunglasses.
I’m confused about Mary Magdalene’s death. I’m struck by its significance and banality. Mary Magdalene was probably too young to have a proper consciousness, too young to know her namesake, just too young… But her death changed things; I am sure of it. I knew nothing before her death. Neither did my mother. But I wonder how they felt. I wonder about their pain and how it passed down.
I wonder who Mary Magdalene would’ve been. Would I be here if she was?
This Essay was originally featured in Spring 2019 issue of The Comma.