How long did she lay there? It’s hard to tell, but according to the medical examiner’s office it was long enough that visual identification was not possible.
My apologies if that’s hard to read. It was difficult to write, particularly because Theresa Barraz wasn’t a stranger. She wasn’t just another face in the crowd.
Theresa was a member of the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society, a regular at our meetings, and we knew her.
But at the same time, we really didn’t know a lot about her. She could be a bit of a loner, generally sitting off at a table by herself. But she was friendly and sociable enough if you spoke to her.
She didn’t have very much money. She was living in a Section 8 apartment, a federal program that provides homes to those who are impoverished. She appreciated the fact that she didn’t need to pay anything to join our meetings and enjoy coffee and cake and the company of other people.
Though she was poor, she always found a way make sizable donations to local toy drives at Christmas. The toys were used but always clean. She picked them up at yard sales and rummage sales throughout the year and saved them.
She had no roots in our neighborhood. She lived in Manhattan for many years before being forced to move. It was just the luck of the draw that she ended up here in Woodhaven, getting an apartment that overlooked one of its most historic locations, the Wyckoff-Snedeker Cemetery on 96th Street.
She said that one of her favorite things to do was to look out her window and watch the morning birds in the cemetery.
She was in her early 80s, but she appeared to be pretty active, joining us on a few of our long walking tours of Woodhaven.
She may have been a loner, but perhaps she was just shy. She wasn’t a hermit or a shut-in, she was active and known to us. She got herself involved with the new community she found herself living in.
And yet she still fell through the cracks. She died and lay undiscovered and unmissed.
How many holidays and special days passed without anyone noticing that she wasn’t there? Easter? Valentine’s Day? Her birthday in January?
We last saw her at our holiday party in December. In fact, it was our flyer for that party in her apartment that led the police to call us, asking if we knew of any friends or relatives.
We didn’t have meetings in January or February and didn’t get alarmed when she didn’t show up at our March meeting. When we mailed out flyers in early April, Theresa’s came back to us, marked return to sender. And with that, we just assumed that she had passed away over the winter.
I pray that I’m wrong, but it sounds like she was in her apartment the whole time. And that raises a lot of difficult questions that need to be asked and answered.
In the meantime, authorities are struggling to make a positive ID and trying to find relatives. If anyone reading this knows any information that could lead to any relatives, please call either the 102nd Precinct or, if you prefer, call me at (718) 805-2002.
We’ve been in touch with the medical examiner’s office, and told them that if she remains unclaimed we would take care of her arrangements. We’ll have a small gathering and pass around the hat to help do the right and decent thing.
She is not ending up in the potter’s field on Hart Island.
One thing is certain: we really need to start doing better by one another. There are plenty of Theresa's in our midst, the people who sit off by themselves, just on the outskirts of any meeting or gathering; more apart from it than a part of it.
There’s a really fine line between being a loner and being lonely, and we’ve got to do better at telling the difference.