Falls Church artist recovers after tragic accident that killed her 103-year-old mother


Susan Gawarecki shows the artwork of her mother, Carolyn Gawarecki, at her mother’s home in Falls Church, Va. Carolyn Gawarecki, 82, was driving with her 103-year-old mother, Katie Grosse, as a passenger when they had a traffic accident. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)
December 27, 2013

Carolyn Gawarecki used to talk to her mother by phone every day and visit twice a week. Each Sunday, they went to church together. One October afternoon, they were headed to get their hair done in McLean, an appointment they’d looked forward to for a long time.

The crash happened in an instant.

Gawarecki, 82, was driving and somehow lost control. Her 103-year-old mother, Katie Grossé, was in the passenger seat. The Toyota van struck two other vehicles.

For weeks, Gawarecki said, she could not bring herself to acknowledge that her mother had died.

“When I woke up in the hospital, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it,” she said from her Falls Church home. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. I thought she would go in her sleep. You don’t ever expect it to happen like this.”


Katie Grosse is seen at the age of 101 in this two-year-old photo. (Family photo)

Gawarecki was treated for a concussion and has been using heavy painkillers at times for back and rib injuries. She’s had a tough time remembering details of the accident. Other times, the reality is just too painful.

“She feels depressed about it and wonders, ‘What if?’ ” said her husband, Stephen Gawarecki, 84. “But we keep telling her it wasn’t her fault. There isn’t anything she could have done differently.”

Her family reminds Gawarecki how much their regular outings meant to her mother, who was determined to stay active. Gawarecki took her mother shopping and to doctor’s appointments. They’d stop for lunch at one of their favorite spots — Outback Steakhouse, the McLean Family Restaurant or IHOP, where Grossé liked the Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce. They chatted about everything from world politics and the stock market to the reality show “The Bachelorette.”

On Saturday, the family plans to honor Grossé at a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Fairfax County, where she was a longtime member.

“She was always independent,” said her daughter, an accomplished watercolor artist. “She had a lot of gumption.”

Remembering her life

Gawarecki said she takes some comfort in the fact that her mother still had so much of her spirit and wit about her, even into her 100s. Grossé played pinochle with others at her retirement home in McLean — often letting them win so they wouldn’t feel bad.

She kept her mind sharp — reading her Bible daily, along with books on history and animals, and paperback romance novels. She even drove her 1984 Volvo until she was 99. When she finally sold the car, she handled the transaction herself.

Born Katie Lederle in Mannheim, Germany, Grossé immigrated to the United States at age 2 in 1912 with her parents on the steamship Noordam.

As a young girl, Grosséworked in her father’s garage in New Jersey, helping pump gas. In 1930, she married Charles Grossé, a bakery truck driver who was 19 years her senior.

During World War II, Grossé worked for National Pneumatic in Rahway, N.J., drafting blueprints for bullet-manufacturing machinery. She later became a saleswoman for Bamberger’s, a Macy’s-affiliated department store, selling vacuums and toys. She spent almost six years at Hahne & Co., an upscale department store in Newark, where she eventually became a floor manager.

In the 1970s, she spent a few years as a manager of the Broadway department store in Anaheim, Calif., before retiring.

Gawarecki, the couple’s only daughter, had a knack for painting, and Grossé was proud when a grade school teacher suggested that she sign her up for art lessons.

But always frugal, she sold her daughter’s artwork to buy her daughter more art supplies.

“My mother wanted equal value for what she spent on lessons, so she sold my paintings to relatives and friends,” Gawarecki said. “She wasn’t going to lose a penny.”

Gawarecki went on to become an award-winning watercolorist and raised two children of her own. She and her husband, a retired geologist and now a part-time professional photographer, settled in Northern Virginia.

At age 83, Grossé moved to the Lewinsville Retirement Residence in McLean to be closer to her daughter. She began to help manage her daughter’s art exhibits. Even in her 90s, she balanced the Gawareckis’ checkbook and found errors of less than $1.

“They were inconsequential, but she would find them down to the penny,” Gawarecki said.

Grossé’s health began to decline in the past few years, making it harder for her to venture out alone. Gawarecki would visit the retirement home, where her award-winning artwork hung on the walls of her mother’s apartment.

Gawarecki encouraged her mother to move into an assisted-living facility — a move Grossé was adamantly against.

“She wanted to stay where she was for as long as possible,” said Grossé’s granddaughter, Susan.

The last time their favorite beautician had done Grossé’s hair was before Snowmageddon in 2010. The two were supposed to go to the Hair Cuttery that day, but they had to cancel because of the snow. For a time, Grossé went to a salon at the retirement home instead.

On Oct. 28, they were scheduled to return to the Hair Cuttery. Stylist Kim McElwain was looking forward to seeing them and became worried when the pair didn’t show up for their 3 p.m. appointment, noting they were never late.

“Seeing them together was going to be a nice surprise,” McElwain said. “When I heard what happened, it was so sad. Such a horrible, tragic accident. [Gawarecki] doted on her mother. They were quite the pair.”

The drivers of the other two cars were not injured, and no charges have been filed.

Gawarecki said she still thinks about calling her mother every day. She misses their lunches and their visits, when she would bring her mother chocolate-covered cherries and shortbread cookies.

To remind her of her mother’s voice, she still keeps a message Grossé had left on her family’s answering machine asking where to find the TV channel that showed old Western movies she liked.

“When you have a minute, call me,” the message ends.

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.
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