Marta Sirko

Marta Sirko was born on October 12, 1935 to Yaroslav and Kateryna Sirko, who were Ukranian immigrants to Brazil.  They fled Europe in the early 1930’s to avoid the war they felt sure would soon erupt.  In Brazil, they were able to buy a small farm and eek out a meager existence, eventually having nine children.

Like most of her siblings, Marta attended elementary school, but according to her older sister, Zoya, “nothing would stay” for poor Marta.   Though she was obviously never officially diagnosed with a learning disorder, Marta found school very difficult and often failed. Zoya attempted to help Marta, but Marta would say that the teacher’s words “go right through me.” She eventually gave up and stayed on the farm to help her mother with the eight other children.

As a young woman, Marta decided that she wanted to go live on her own in town, which happened to be 75 miles from the farm. Her parents agreed, and she tried it for about three months before she got too homesick and dejectedly returned to the family. Marta went back, then, and stayed on the farm, watching as her siblings left, one by one, to either get married or immigrate to the United States.  When she was about 27 years old, she again voiced her desire to leave.  One of her brother’s, Josef, had immigrated to Philadelphia, and Marta proposed to go and live with him there.  Her parents agreed and sent Zoya with her, hoping it would be a better life for both of them. Both Marta and Zoya were able to get a job in a factory, where they remained for over fifteen years.  Zoya eventually married and moved out of her brother’s house, but Marta stayed, as she had nowhere else to go.  She was not a very social person, Zoya says,  and had a difficult time learning the language.  When she wasn’t working, she spent much of her time watching Josef and his wife’s four children.

One night, however, when Marta was in her early forties, a friend persuaded her to go to a party.  Marta was reluctant to go, but finally agreed and was introduced to several people, one of them being a man by the name of Nicolau Honchar, who was also Ukranian.  According to several people at the party, Nicolau was merely cordial to Marta that night, but somehow she developed an extreme crush on him and believed the two of them to be in love.  Though she never saw Nicolau again, Marta dreamed of marrying him and spoke of little else for weeks.  When Marta’s friend finally told her that Nicolau was not interested in her and was in fact dating someone else, Marta suffered a sort of breakdown.

According to Zoya, Marta was always a very nervous, anxious person who worried constantly and could not navigate the normal ups and downs of life.  The episode with Nicolau, she says, seemed to push Marta over the edge.  She spiraled into a depression and would frequently chastise herself, calling herself stupid and an idiot.  “What is wrong with me?” she would frequently ask, depressed that not only did no one want to marry her, but that she hadn’t been unable to learn at school, to live alone, to learn to drive, or to speak English.

Shortly after this breakdown, Zoya says that Marta went through “the change of life,” which made everything worse.  Her only pleasure in life was apparently getting her hair done.  As a young woman, she also loved to do embroidery work, but lost interest in later years as her depression grew worse.  In 1981, Zoya decided to take her sister to a hospital, where she was admitted for depression.

Worried, another brother, Ivan, who had immigrated to Chicago, showed up and suggested that he take Marta to Chicago for a change of scenery.  Zoya and Josef eagerly agreed with this plan, and so Marta moved in with Ivan and his wife, Anna.  Unfortunately, however, Marta remained depressed and was hospitalized another four times, once for trying to slit her wrists.  Recently, Ivan and Anna made the decision for Marta to be admitted to a nursing home as they are feeling increasingly unable to care for her, especially as Marta’s anxiety is increasing.  She refuses to sit down at home at all and constantly paces.  Also, she has begun to pick at her skin, which is now infected in several places.

Marta is not making the best transition to her new home.  She constantly walks the hallways and says little, even with the help of an interpreter.  Frequently, she “zones out” when people speak to her, looking straight ahead as if she doesn’t hear or see the person trying to address her. She is not interested in meeting other residents or joining in the home’s activities at this time.

(Originally written: August 1996)

If you liked this story, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series: