VILLA HILLS, Ky. – As a toddler, Maria Schaffstein beamed on the Christmas her aunt gave her the book about a little girl who loved lightning bugs.
Even at 3-years-old, Schaffstein knew her aunt had written the book about her - a girl who wanted nothing more than to glow like the lightning bugs outside her window.
It's that memory that her author aunt, Suzanne Fitzpatrick, wants to keep alive by publishing "A Wish Upon a Jar" in the hopes that other aunts and uncles, grandparents or parents will share the story with their children this holiday season.
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Publishing the book, which features photographs of Maria as a chubby-faced, bright-eyed toddler, is really a memorial to Schaffstein, who, at 17, was killed in a 2010 car accident on her way back from spring break. She was a senior at Notre Dame Academy.
“She would be so happy about this book,” said her mom, Eileen Schaffstein.
Maria Schaffstein in 2010.
“The one thing we’ve tried to is not dwell on everything we lost,” she said. “She loved holidays. She loved Thanksgiving. She loved Christmas.”
So they remember her, celebrate her, and bring her home for the holidays each year.
“[We] try to make sure she’s always kind of with us,” said her mom. “We reminisce about the goofy things she’d do at the holidays… and her laugh. Her beautiful, contagious laugh.”
It’s that laugh that Fitzpatrick, Eileen’ Schaffstein's sister, worked to capture in the book.
“Maria and I were very close,” Fitzpatrick said. “Although I live in Los Angeles, we kept in touch a lot and she would come visit with her family and we would do everything Hollywood and shop in Beverly Hills and soak up the beaches. We would email and text a lot. She was a star herself. In every way,” she said.
Maria and her aunt Suzanne, above, 21 years ago, were always close even thousands of miles away.
While Fitzpatrick, 46, grew up in Villa Hills, Ky., her achievements on the West Coast include writing for TV shows, “The Nanny” and “7th Heaven”.
She wrote the book 17 years ago, really intending it to be a one-time gift to her niece, who was fascinated by fireflies.
The story goes that the little girl catches lightning bugs in a jar so that she can see in the dark. But that’s only the beginning for the adventurous girl, who in the end learns a valuable lesson.
The story celebrates Maria’s life and “encourages children around the world to believe in the power of dreams,'' Fitzpatrick said. It had been Maria's wish that the book would be published and read to children in hospitals and be available at libraries and in schools.
The book features pictures of Maria from ages 1-3, and illustrator Eric Gothold drew images around her photos to make it look like Maria was in the scenes.
“It’s a gorgeous book,” said Fitzpatrick.
So, three years ago, when she was killed on an Alabama road, Fitzpatrick kept thinking: ‘How can I get this out into the world for her?’
The grieving aunt made it her mission to get her book published and raised more than $16,000 from 195 contributors on Kickstarter , an online funding platform.
“It’s everything she and I ever dreamed of, '' Fitzpatrick said. "She would be so thrilled.”
Every year, her parents Eileen and John, along with the community, have a fundraiser called ‘Smiles 4 Miles: Maria Schaffstein 5K , which raises money for The Maria Schaffstein Foundation. The foundation supports scholarships for Northern Kentucky schools. This year, part of the book sales’ proceeds will go to her foundation.
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com.