A Life's Story
September 30, 2023
A complete wonder
Mary Lewyc faced adversity but appreciated the beautiful every single day
By: Janine LeGal
Though the number of centenarians in Canada continues to rise, those who reach 100 comprise only about 0.03 per cent of our population, according to Statistics Canada. Celebrating this milestone, worthy of greetings from royalty, is significant.
Mary Lewyc got to do just that and live one more year on top of it.
“She was amazed that she reached that age,” said her daughter, Pat Lewyc. “At the time, the personal care home she was in was still in semi-lockdown and the beloved rooftop garden that we had Sunday dinner in every week was still closed. At the very last minute, they gave us access and had ten people show up for mom’s party.”
The 100th birthday festivities included the usual refreshments and, of course, bananas, one of Mary’s favourite foods. “Everyone should eat a banana every day,” Mary would say.
“We had a fantastic party. She was overjoyed at the celebration and of course the beautiful vocals of Donna and Gordie Mendres singing Mnohaya Lita (Happy Birthday),” remembers Pat, acknowledging the popular musicians from the local Ukrainian community.
Mary passed away on January 15, 2023. Though she battled incredible adversity, she had an ease with which she took in the beautiful parts of everyday life. She had witnessed and endured traumatic events that haunted her, but somehow managed not only to survive, but to thrive.
Born in the village of Lipovka, Mary spent her childhood in Krasnye Polanyi, Mordovia, in the U.S.S.R. She remembered her childhood fondly, but had various ordeals, including the removal of her father who was sent to prison camps in Siberia.
With no idea of his exact whereabouts and without maps, Mary, her sister and mother eventually journeyed in search of her missing father. They chatted with people at every train stop and, with the help of their large extended family, were able to locate him in a Siberian work camp. It would be one of Mary’s countless stories that enthralled listeners over the years.
During the Second World War, Mary was a second officer in training of a transport ship tasked with picking up stranded civilians and conveying them to safety. This led to her capture and becoming a prisoner of war in several prison camps and ultimately a work camp with forced labour, separated from her family for many years.
While living in a displacement camp in Goslar, Germany, Mary, who was now married to Alec, had their first son, Walter. A time came for her to choose between taking the train back home or staying in Germany to start a new life with her husband. She chose to stay.
When Walter was two, however, they received immigration approval from Canada and wound up in a logging camp in northern Alberta. The family spent time in Windsor before settling in Winnipeg, where children Robert and Patricia were born and where Mary worked in the garment industry for 30 years.
Fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, English and German, Mary loved reading about history and world events and had a lifelong passion for learning. The avid reader made the downtown Millennium Library her second home for many years.
“She was funny, strong, so energetic and full of life,” said Pat. “I often wonder if she had been born in a less sexist time period what she would be today, who she would be today. She really took the absolute most out of life, whichever way it took her.”
Despite the generational and cultural gap between them, Pat always recognized the sacrifices her mother made to give her a good life.
“Mom was amazing. She worked full-time, kept a spotless house, did all the grocery shopping, sewed, knitted and crocheted clothes, took her daughter to dance class and cultural school, tended to the garden and family, cooked three square meals a day and still had time to read books every night, go to the ballet, participate in church activities and spend time with her friends. And she learned English after she arrived to Canada. The woman was a complete wonder to me.
“She didn’t have it easy with her husband. As soon as the laws changed in Manitoba, Mom and I packed up and left. She was able to start to rebuild her life in Canada the way she’d always wanted. There were tea and dinner parties, she joined a walking club, there was bowling, gardening and sewing. A remarkable woman, she was.”
Long-time family friend Megan La Touche first met Mary when she started seeing her son Walter about 40 years ago. La Touche was always welcomed in the Lewyc family home, even long after she and Walter went their separate ways. She recalls Mary sharing her life experiences.
“As a prisoner of war, she was being marched around the Black Sea. At the end of the war when she was freed, she was so skinny she could put her hands around her own waist. I find it astonishing that she had such strength.
“Mary was a great seamstress and, besides making her own clothing, she also worked for a number of companies. I discovered what a strong feminist she was, a trait she definitely passed along to Pat, when she would talk about the mistreatment of the workers in the garment industry.”
Alexey Eliseev, a family relative living in Russia, is one of many people forever changed by Mary’s influence.
“I remember the stories about how many times she was on the verge of death in those distant years of the Second World War and every time her intuition rescued her from trouble,” Eliseev said. “I learned from her to listen to myself, my inner voice, my intuition. I learned from her that, despite the distances between relatives, we were always in touch, with warm feelings for relatives. She set an example for all of us.”
“Towards the end she was having a lot of nightmares, screaming; a lot of it was coming back,” said Pat. “Anyone who has been touched by Mom would have heard some of her stories, been fascinated by them. She removed her personal affectation, it was more like teaching,” Pat explained.
Even when running from her village, looking for places to hide from the shooting, Mary relied on her instincts to survive and persevered through all of it.
“You gotta let things go in order to move forward,” Pat said. “That’s certainly what she did.”
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