A Life's Story
December 03, 2022
A ferocious dedication to living
Anne Kostjuk, who often said, ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,’ practised what she preached
By: Mike Sawatzky
Anne Kostjuk was a rare person, and not merely because she was a member of a tiny demographic, the .03 per cent of the Canadian population to have lived into their second century.
When she died Aug. 1 at the age of 108, Kostjuk was celebrated as a devoted parent and grandparent, fiercely loyal friend and trusted confidante who had remained active and engaged in the world around her until her death.
“I would definitely say there was something special about grandma,” says Winnipegger Michele Hodge, one of Anne’s 23 grandchildren. “We often talked about it because she was unique in our family. We don’t have longevity running on her side of the family and we often used to say, ‘What’s different about grandma?’ She was such an outgoing, social person and I think that kept her young.
“She was still connecting with people and she did that her entire life. She just made friends wherever she went.”
Born and raised on a farm near Langenburg, Sask., Kostjuk (nee Styrvoky) had a challenging rural upbringing before marrying Peter Wiebe and relocating to the predominantly Mennonite village of Plum Coulee in southern Manitoba, where she learned the language and culture while raising five children.
The marriage ended in divorce and Anne soon moved to Winnipeg, where in time, she would meet the love of her life, Joe Kostjuk, at a Legion dance.
They would marry in 1971, blending a family of Anne’s five children and Joe’s two offspring.
“Anything she cooked was good,” recalls her stepdaughter, Vivian Leduchowski, from Arborg. “She made all homemade soups, which were great and, of course, from the Mennonite background, she did noodles and things like that…. She was well into her 70s and she was still in the garden telling me how to prune my tomatoes. She was a very smart lady.”
Hodge says her grandmother had an amazing ability to connect with young and old. She remembers as a 15 year old, stopping by at Kostjuk’s North End house after working a shift at a nearby pharmacy.
“She would sit down at her little kitchen table in that super-tiny kitchen and she would just give me her undivided attention three times a week,” says Hodge. “I would go there and she would make me a homemade meal or just a quick pizza in the toaster oven and she would talk to me.
“For a teenager, to have that kind of undivided attention from your grandma… it was priceless. None of my friends had that.”
Kostjuk worked regularly in the hotel industry as a housekeeper. For a time, she also stocked shelves at a neighbourhood grocery store to manage a tight budget.
Many attributed Anne’s longevity to a keen interest in physical activity.
Standing a commanding 5-9, which was tall for women of her generation, Kostjuk was an active curler until the physical demands became too much and she retired from the game in 1988. She soon found a competitive outlet at Billy Mosienko Lanes, taking up five-pin bowling and soon excelled at the sport.
In 2005, a 90-year-old Anne flirted with a perfect game, rolling nine strikes and a spare, for a score of 388.
“I don’t know how to keep score so I didn’t know what was going on,” Kostjuk told the Free Press at the time. “Then everyone — I mean everyone — cheered.”
Another granddaughter, Sherry Wiebe, said Anne knew instinctively that keeping an active mind and body was crucial to growing older gracefully. In her later years, she was keeping sharp by constantly engaging with fellow residents.
“She would say all the time, ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,’” says Wiebe. “And so, she was constantly doing things like that and also crosswords. She did crosswords well into her 100s, and then decided that she couldn’t quite do those anymore, and so she switched to word search and she did those voraciously. She always said that, ‘If I just sit here and watch TV, my brain is going to turn to mush.’”
Kostjuk loved to entertain and took hospitality seriously, hosting large throngs of relative and friends for Easter and Christmas gatherings. Food preparation, probably owing her farm upbringing, was serious business. She also crafted her own wine.
“I was thinking about why she lived such long time and I think it’s because as much as possible she cooked her food from scratch,” says her niece Lavern Hillier from Nanaimo, B.C.
“She was making food even when she moved into these long-term care facilities. And even the last one that we visited her on her 101st birthday, she still had a freezer in her unit and she was making borscht, cabbage rolls and all kinds of things.”
Success on the bowling lanes wasn’t Kostjuk’s only brush with notoriety.
In 1998, she was mugged and had her purse stolen near the front door of her Mountain Avenue apartment building after getting off the bus with her groceries.
Two passersby apprehended the suspect before he could escape and an injured 85-year-old Kostjuk — she needed five stitches and was treated for bruised knees in hospital — responded by clobbering her assailant with her cane.
“She never even spanked her children,” says Hodge. “I guess it was visceral for her because it wasn’t her normal mode of operating. She never raised a hand to any kids — never did any of that kind of stuff. She just was mad and she was scared. When they brought him back, she just started whacking him.”
Kostjuk needed time to overcome the trauma of the attack but never lost her affinity for connecting with people.
“I think that social interaction really kept her young but it was a natural curiosity,” says Hodge. “She worked at it as well.”
Kostjuk, oozing warmth, connected to people in person and on the phone in a magnetic way.
“She was always interested in what people were doing and she remembered your stories,” says Hillier. “So if you shared anything with her in a phone call or whatever she remembered, she would ask about that incident or that person. That always impressed me.”
An understated challenge for centenarians is so many of them outlive their friends and members of their family. Kostjuk wasn’t immune to that.
She was survived by her son Brian Wiebe and predeceased by children Roy Wiebe, Nancy Dumas, Violet Siemens, Jim Wiebe and stepson Harold Kostjuk. Her husband Joe died in 1978.
“As she got older she was losing friends and she understood it’s just the way life is,” says Sherry Wiebe. “And then she started to lose her children, as well, but all along the way she kept making new friends. There was this new activity, bowling, and she would get to know everyone and be friendly with everyone. And then there was always more of a closer connection with one, two or three people.”
Kostjuk bowled until physical limitations prompted her to retired from the game age 95. She remained sharp and involved when she moved into an assisted-living facility where she seemed to know everyone, delighting staff and residents with her wit.
“She liked fun, she loves to dance,” said Leduchowski. “And when my son got married, she was 97 and she was dancing at his wedding. It was a polka and she was just full of life.”
Kostjuk also befriended Cody Goodchild, who regularly visited his grandfather just down the hallway in the assisted-living facility. The two became closer after the grandfather’s death and Goodchild would often tap into Kostjuk’s wealth of knowledge.
“It’s hard to sum somebody up like that,” says Goodchild. “There are two things that always impressed me the most about her. I always used to describe her grace — the way that she could talk about difficult topics but it never had any judgment behind it.
“The other thing that impressed me the most was just hearing her tell stories of the things that she endured and how well she remembered everything.… The gleam in her eye is something that I’ll never forget.”