She Called Me Saschenka

Maria Deckner—A Healing Force

Sandy with Maria Deckner, May 1977, at a party celebrating my graduation from SUNY Fredonia. Photos from family archives

I heard once that you can tell what you mean to someone by the way they say your name. I have found that to be true in life. Once I knew a woman who called me Saschenka, which was Sandy in her native Estonian language. She said it like this, SAH shenk ah. It was beautifully syllabated. This woman, Maria Deckner, a refugee and emigre from Russia at the end of World War II, was a special person who changed my life and did the same for my mother. Maria Deckner spoke my name in a unique and powerful way. It made me feel special. It made me feel special in the world. She was my champion.

Maria was a strong and colorful Russian woman with a big voice and heart. She commanded rooms with her big personality. She worked hard and believed in hard work, a trait that resonated with me and my Swedish family values. But she was uniquely gifted herself with a piercing intelligence that shone from her eyes. Maria walked tall.

In 1966, my parents divorced and we– my sister Vicky, my mother and I–ended up back in Chautauqua County. Somehow we survived those awful years and returned to New York state where we moved into a little rented house in Maple Springs where mom and Vicky shared a bedroom because there were only two. Mom had to find a job. Our lives were poorer and darker. Mom was lucky to find a good job at the General Hospital in Jamestown, working in Central Supply. She worked the 7- 3 shift. Five days a week from then on for many years, she got up before dawn and left in the cold darkness.

But as happens in life’s odd serendipities, there in the Central Supply, my mother re-found herself step by step. She worked with fine people. Her boss was Peg Smith, a registered nurse, a dark-haired, no-nonsense woman with smiling eyes. My mother admired her so much. One woman she worked with, Bea Liddie, would become her sister in law in years to come. Another was Maria Deckner. Maria took mother under her wing from day one, showing her the ropes and making mother feel special and confident again. Maria visited our house often and would bring a bottle of white German wine. Her voice was resonant with northern European vowels and syllables and a strong Russian accent, which I found exotic and fascinating. I loved her voice and her stories. Her eyes shone. She hugged us so tight we couldn’t speak.

She and mother would have a glass of sweet white wine called Liebfraumilch at the kitchen table. Maria would tell us stories of the war in Europe and of her husband Herbert. Her lovely home in Estonia was lost to Russian soldiers. Maria and her husband Herbert escaped the want and tyranny by moving to America. Herbert found a good job. They bought a nice house on the top part of the hill on Windsor Street where Maria grew a garden of roses, with gorgeous blooms in all colors. I think she liked yellow best. It is bold and vibrant just like she was.

Maria and her husband, Herbert. Photo by George Deckner

A few years later, I was a young wife and mother, living in an upstairs apartment on Thayer Street. I had nothing. No college degree. No training. No hopes or plans for the future. I had a young husband who spent nights out with friends, whose meanness came on him like a chronic disease, a man who specialized in making me feel stupid and alone. I couldn’t remember what happiness or self-worth felt like.

But Maria, for some reason, saw a scholar in me. She saw a future for me. Like a loving Godmother, she started planning my course of action. JCC, she insisted, that’s where you going, Saschenka! Then you making your mark and moving on to Fredonia, where you get the bachelor’s. Do you see it? That’s how it’s done! She was larger than life, my mother often said–loud and proud and without fear. She radiated good will and light. She loved “the God” as she would say, I loving the God in my heart every day! Her English laced with Russian verb tenses was uniquely her own.

My dreams of college or a future at all had long ago been wiped out by grief and loss. I loved my little boys and found joy in each day with them, rocking them in the sunshine, walking them in the carriage, but a future for me? I hadn’t even thought of it. She persisted. And she taught me to persist. It was like she opened the door to life, swung it open and all the sunshine flooded back in. I could once again see my way. I could find my path.

And I did. I graduated JCC in 1975. I graduated SUNY Fredonia 1977, summa cum laude. Maria clapped louder than anybody when I got my degrees, shouting out Saschenka! Good for you, Saschenka! She hugged me to her like a lost child finally found. I went on from there to get a master’s degree and ultimately a Ph.D. too, but it all began with Maria’s faith in me.

Herbert, her husband, died in 1972 in an accident. Maria lived on alone for more than two decades, swimming every day at the YMCA before dawn, even during her chemotherapy weeks when she fought cancer. Her son Georgie, whose name she articulated with such love as something like YeeORgie, graduated college and went on to professional success. I met him once. He was tall and dark and scholarly, an apt son for this woman who loved God and education. I thought, how fortunate he was to have such an extraordinary mother.

When Maria left this earth, it created an open grief in our lives. But she would have said nonsense to that. She would have said to me: Saschenka, you must be living your life! Life is from the Got!

Now and then, if we are lucky, we meet people who change our lives for the better, literally change the course of our lives. Someone comes along who believes in us, who for whatever blessed reason sees the best in us maybe even gifts our own parents or loved ones cannot see. They shine that light on us, and we bloom under it like roses in a well-tended garden.

We see ourselves in a finer light. We believe in ourselves because they believe in us. We forget to thank those people because life moves so fast, or we fail to thank them enough or let me know how important they are and were. But they remain with us, a part of us, always, our champions.