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A faithful caretaker of the ‘faithful departed,’ Plainfield woman’s acts show she will never forget them

‘Just because they’re not here, they’re still in my heart,’ says Sandra Bartusiak, 79, who regularly pays tribute to the many she loved, still loves.

Sandra Bartusiak, 79, of Plainfield, at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park, tends the graves of her parents and those of her husband and in-laws twice a month.
Sandra Bartusiak, 79, of Plainfield, at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park, tends the graves of her parents and those of her husband and in-laws twice a month.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. — Traditional Catholic prayer

Jimmy Carter was president when Sandra Bartusiak started placing newspaper ads in memory of her lost loved ones in 1977.

For each ad, the 79-year-old Plainfield resident composes a short, poetic tribute, often ending with a simple “Love, Sandy.” The poems convey loss, longing and a devout belief she will one day be reunited with those the Catholic church calls “the faithful departed.”

If there were a faithful–still–present group, Bartusiak would very much be a member.

She doesn’t use a computer, so she types her tributes and calls them in to the classified advertising department. She used to send them to the Chicago Daily News until it folded in 1978, then she placed them in the Chicago Sun-Times.

No cheek to kiss, no hand to touch. It is 37 yrs now, Mama. I miss and love you so much. Love, Sandy

For 43 years now, Bartusiak has been placing these “in memoriam” ads.

She also remembers and pays tribute by tending the graves of multiple relatives she loved — still loves — very much. In good weather, she’s at the cemetery every other week.

“Just because they’re not here, they’re still in my heart,” she says. “This is my old-fashioned way of being close to them.”

Always my Daddy & now my angel too. For 35 yrs. I’ve been without you. Love, Sandy

Some people visit the cemetery on holidays or a birthday or a death anniversary. Some go to mark All Souls Day each Nov. 2 or for Día de los Muertos, the remembrance that encompasses All Souls Day and Nov. 1’s All Saints Day.

Others avoid cemeteries as much as they can, finding them places of unbearable sadness.

“They don’t feel well when they come here,” Bartusiak says. “Me, I’m very much at peace.”

She has been taking care of her husband’s and her father’s graves since 1976, her mom’s since 1979 and her boyfriend’s since 2010.

Sandra Bartusiak walks to her parents’ graves at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park. The Plainfield woman faithfully tends their graves and those of her husband and in-laws.
Sandra Bartusiak walks to her parents’ graves at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park. The Plainfield woman faithfully tends their graves and those of her husband and in-laws.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

A native of Back of the Yards on the South Side, she went to Gage Park High School. She met Ray Bartusiak at a church social at St. Sabina’s Church, 1210 W. 78th Pl.

“He was very fun-loving, very outgoing,” she says. “He got along with everybody. They called him ‘Smiley.’ He was always laughing.”

They got married in 1962 and raised their kids, Darlene and Ken, in Gage Park. Ray was a volunteer basketball coach at St. Mary’s Byzantine Church near 49th and Seeley and worked for National Tea Company and a marble slab business. He was at Sunday Mass when he had a fatal heart attack in 1976. He was just 36.

“He had a very, very long wake and funeral,” Bartusiak says. “You would have thought a dignitary died.”

A year after he died, she bought a small newspaper ad to honor his memory.

Dear Ray, it’s hard to say goodbye, even though one year has passed by. I still love and miss you, too, not really knowing what to do until I am reunited with you. Your loving wife, Sandy and Children, Darlene and Kenny

Darlene was 13. Ken was 8. Sandy raised her children with the help of her parents, Anne and John Budka, and in-laws Bernice and Stanley Bartusiak.

And she kept writing tributes for Ray.

Four years ago, today, you went to church to pray, but God must have wanted you to stay, for he took you home with him a lot sooner than anyone expected. Leaving your family alone and dejected, but there will be a time and there will be a day when the Three of us will say, Hello Daddy, Hello Ray.

After his death, she had to change shifts at her job at Heinemann’s Bakery to make sure she could be with her kids when her mom wasn’t watching them.

“I was the only woman [working] with the men, and some of the guys didn’t like it,” she says. “But I had to do it. I made pies and cookies. I was all over the bakery.”

The decades rolled by. And she kept composing her memorial ads for her husband:

  • 35 years we’ve been apart; that’s how many, but I always see you in Darlene and Kenny. Love–Sandy
  • 36 yrs is a short span of life, but 39 yrs later I still thank God for having been your wife. Love, Sandy
  • 44 yrs ago, you left me being wife & mom of 2. Now a grandma of 4 and great-grandma of 4. I love you even more. Sandy

After Ray died, she met Norb Mikolajczyk. She was shopping for a TV, and he noticed the salesman pressuring her. He made a joke. She turned to him and asked a Chicago kind of question: “I says, ‘Do you go polka dancing?’ And he says, ‘No, but my mom does.’ ’’

A week later, they ran into each other at Dominick’s, and he asked her out.

One day, she was talking about her late husband when he stopped the car: “He pulled the car over and he said, ‘Lefty.’ ’’

It was her husband’s nickname. “I used to work with him,” he said.

It turned out both men had once been employed by National Tea.

“It was like meant to be,” Bartusiak says.

Norb Mikolajczyk.
Norb Mikolajczyk (left) and Ray Bartusiak — the two great loves of Sandy Bartusiak’s life. Her husband died at 36. She later met Mikolajczyk, who became her polka-dancing partner.
Provided

They traveled together — and polka danced — for 24 years until his death in 2010.

Oh, what a life for 24 yrs we did share; to be continued when I get there. Love Always, Forever and A Day

Twenty-three years ago, her liver began to fail for unknown reasons. “I went into a coma on Thursday. I got my [new] liver on Friday,” she says. “It was a miracle.”

She wishes she could have thanked the family of the donor, a man in his 20s who died in a car accident. She wrote three or four letters to a transplant intermediary but never got a response.

“How I wished it,” she says. “But they say everybody heals at a different pace.

A memorial ad Sandy Bartusiak ran July 5, 1982, for her mother, Anne Budka.
A memorial ad Sandy Bartusiak ran July 5, 1982, for her mother, Anne Budka.

“I keep in touch with the doctor who did it. I send him a thank-you card every year.”

Sandy Bartusiak remains a busy woman who’d rather go for a walk than while away her days on the phone. “I was not a stay-at-home person,” she says.

Before the pandemic, she volunteered at St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet. She still likes to polka and go bowling.

And she goes to the cemetery.

At St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park one day a couple of weeks ago, she carefully edged the area around the headstones of her parents, her husband, his parents and his sister Sally Ann.

Sandra Bartusiak, 79, of Plainfield, uses an edger on the grass around the graves of her late husband and in-laws at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Sandra Bartusiak uses an edger on the grass around the graves of her late husband and in-laws at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Hi Daddy, it is now 43 yrs. since you went away. Love doesn’t stop, it just grows stronger every day. Sandy

Mama, you were mine for 38 yrs. God has you now for 41. I’ll see you again when my life is done. Love, Sandy

Her headstone is next to Ray’s. “I even take care of my own grave,” she says.

Sandra Bartusiak already has her headstone in place for the day when it’s needed, right next to her late husband Ray’s. It was engraved “WIFE-MOM,” and then, because she’s a grandmother, “I had NANA put on it,” she says. There wasn’t room to add it, but she’s now also a great-grandmother.
Sandra Bartusiak already has her headstone in place for the day when it’s needed, right next to her late husband Ray’s. It was engraved “WIFE-MOM,” and then, because she’s a grandmother, “I had NANA put on it,” she says. There wasn’t room to add it, but she’s now also a great-grandmother.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“I’ve got the edger. I’ve got the battery-operated grass clippers, and then I sweep,” she says.

Sometimes, she brings a hose, connects it to a spigot and drags it over to the graves to rinse off the headstones.

She puts wooden crosses on the graves and, when the weather turns cold, removes them.

“Come spring, I’m back with the crosses,” she says.

Sandra Bartusiak, 79, of Plainfield, with wooden crosses she removes in the fall from the family graves she tends at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Sandra Bartusiak holds the wooden crosses she removes in the fall from the family graves she tends at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

She visits Resurrection Cemetery in Justice to tend the grave of Mikolajczyk.

“My boyfriend, he loved his Miller Lite beer,” she says. “I leave a can on his grave.”

Over the years, she has placed ads for him, too:

  • It’s now 5 yrs since our last dance. Changes come and I make do, waiting for my next dance with you. Love, Sandy
  • It is now 8 yrs. since we’ve been on vacation and dancing and not to forget all of the romancing.
  • 9 yrs. have come and gone. Just wait for me and you will see us polka dancing thru eternity.

“He was divorced,” she says. “And when his [former] wife passed away, I also take care of her grave, too.”

Sandra Bartusiak, 79, of Plainfield, sweeps the graves of her late husband and in-laws at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Sandra Bartusiak sweeps the graves of her late husband and in-laws at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

She looks forward to one day again seeing Ray and Norb, the two loves of her life. In heaven, she says, three isn’t a crowd.

“They knew one another once. We’ll all be dancing together. We’ll be taking turns.”

Sandra Bartusiak, 79, of Plainfield, walks to tend her parents’ graves at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Sandra Bartusiak walks to tend her parents’ graves at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

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