The woman who God forgot to take
Eufrozyna Kaminski celebrated her 109th birthday this week, and Ottawa’s oldest person is still bursting with vitality
She is dozing when we first enter the room. A shawl around her shoulders. Small red slippers on her feet. I notice her hands before I notice her face, long sinewy hands with the blood right below the surface. Old hands; the way hands look when the skin is starting to fade.
Her name is Eufrozyna Kaminski and she had a birthday this week. This past Wednesday, she turned 109.
There does not appear to be anyone in Ottawa older than Mrs. Kaminski and, to put her age in perspective, here are a few stats for you: She was born in the 19th century and was still tending a vegetable garden in Sandy Hill in the 21st century. At the end of the First World War, she was 20 years of age. In five years time, God willing, she could easily become the oldest person on the planet.
The room in St. Patrick’s Home is bright this morning, but it is bitterly cold outside, the windows tinged with frost and we are slow to take off our coats. In the room with Mrs. Kaminski is her niece, Nadia Kotarba, and a friend, Katarzywa Lorentz. The photographer takes out his equipment and Mrs. Kaminski stirs in her chair for the first time.
The woman who lives in this room has reached an age when curiosity sets in for anyone who meets her. How did you live to be so old? How did such a thing happen? And most importantly — the selfish question, the one I’m hoping you can help me with — what did you learn along the way?
Her eyes are open now. She does not speak English, and that is why so many people are in the room, to translate English to Polish — and back again — whenever she is asked questions about her age.
I throw my coat on a chair and take a seat. Mrs. Kaminski’s niece turns to me and asks: “ So, where would you like to begin?” I am told she has trouble seeing these days, but Mrs. Kaminski seems to look right at me while I consider the question. Yes indeed. Where to begin.
Eufrozyna Kaminski was born March 7, 1898 in the small village of Gwoznica, today in Belarus, six kilometres from the Polish border. She was one of six children, raised on a farm, like just about everyone else in Gwoznica.
Her son, Jan Kaminski, says she has always been a farmer. If you want to understand his mother, and what is important to her, you need to understand that: She was always a farmer. ( The family has photos of her, tending her vegetable garden when she was 102.)
She lived on the farm in Gwoznica, married Kasimier Kaminski, had three children, and there was little eventful in her life until 1939, when the Kaminski family, along with millions of other Poles, was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia.
“ We lived in the barracks until my dad built us a place that he dug out of the ground and put a roof over,” remembers Mr. Kaminski, who was four years old when he arrived at the camp. “ We were there for two years, and you just could not imagine the living conditions.”
In 1942, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviets and occupied Poland found themselves on the side of the Allies. Kasimier Kaminski was allowed to enlist in the Polish army and the family left the concentration camp. The trek out of Siberia eventually took them to Africa but, along the way, Mrs. Kaminski lost her eldest son to dysentery.
The family spent the rest of the war in a refugee camp in Tanzania. In 1949, they emigrated to Canada and arived in Ottawa in the spring of the following year. Mrs. Kaminski never learned to speak English, and her husband fared only marginally better, working at area farms, or in the kitchens of the Lord Elgin Hotel, for the rest of his working life.
Their son, however, adapted quite well. Jan Kaminski, the young boy who once lived in little more than an earthen cave, is today the head of Colonnade Developments.
“ From my parents, I learned the value of hard work,” says Mr. Kaminski.
“ In this world, if you work hard, things tend to work out for you. Ask my mother. She’ll tell you.”
The photographer is taking photos of a suddenly animated Mrs. Kaminski. Her birthday was the day before, at the age of 109, an event marked by cards from the premier of Ontario and the prime minister of Canada.
Currently, the oldest person in the world is Yone Minagawa, a woman in Fukuoka, Japan who is said to be 114 years of age. The oldest man, also from Japan, is a comparatively sprightly 111. Mrs. Kaminski, at 109, is not far off either age, and family lore holds that her grandfather lived to be 120.
She is in relatively good health and many who know her think Ottawa will one day be home to the oldest person in the world. Just last year, she had major surgery to repair her bladder ( ap- parently making her the oldest person to ever have an operation in Ottawa) and she can laugh about it today. Major surgery at 108. How tough is that?
I sit in my chair for many minutes, thinking about what question I will ask first.
Maybe something about the concentration camp, and the trek out of Siberia. Or maybe coming to Ottawa, in the early ’ 50s, with all that had gone before, and did it ever occur to you that not half your life had passed?
Or, what matters to you, after you have lived the fullest live imaginable; after you have lived through parts of three centuries; raised and lost children; left your home and built a new one; what matters at the end of all that?
Mrs. Kaminski continues to talk with her niece. She is hard of hearing and so her speech is loud when her answers finally come. Loud answers to loud questions, shouted in Polish, in this suddenly bright room at the St. Patrick’s Nursing Home.
Mrs. Kaminski is answering the question I finally asked of her. Her niece turns to me and says:
“ She can think of nothing special that she did. Her life was very difficult, and why it ended up being so long, it was not something she was expecting, certainly not after what she had already been through.
“ Some days, it is like God has forgotten about her.”
I stay in the room for nearly an hour, asking questions I have written down on a piece of paper, something I have not done before an interview in nearly 10 years.
What has she enjoyed most about life?
“ It was a difficult life, but I took joy in my family, in my garden,” she says. “ I loved to garden, and to cook. That is what gave me great joy over the ‘ Your health is always important. So is your family. Work, that is important, but every day will bring plenty of work. You should never worry about work because it will always find you.’
EUFROZYNA KAMINSKI years.”
What ended up being important to you?
“ Your health is always important. So is your family. Work, that is important, but every day will bring plenty of work. You should never worry about work because it will always find you.” How do you overcome adversity? “ By taking comfort in what God has left you.”
And then I asked the question I was saving for near the end of the interview. An almost trick question that I had been contemplating for months, ever since I read a story last summer about the death of the oldest person in the world at the time.
Her name was Maria Esther de Capovilla and she was 116. She lived in Ecuador and could trace her lineage to Spanish nobility. She lived in a home where, for years, she had been a famous person. She had attained what all others wanted, after reaching a certain age — one more year. One more year.
She passed away on a late summer day. According to her great- greatgranddaughter, one of the last things she said was: “ I wish I were younger.”
That story is still with me. It seemed ironic and futile to die with such a thought in your head; as though life had turned in on itself; as though after being given the greatest gift imaginable — a ridiculously long life — you still died wishing for something else.
If that was going to happen, what in the world was the point of aspiring to anything?
And so I asked Mrs. Kaminski my final question. “ What do you wish for these days?” She took a minute with that one. Her eyes, as pale as her skin, seemed to be looking right at me, although everyone assured me afterwards that this could not be the case.
Finally, speaking into the ear of her niece, she said:
“ I wish to be independent. I wish to be able to walk again. I wish to garden, when the spring comes this year.”
She wishes to continue living, in other words. Still wants that after all these years.
And there, if you ask me, you have a much better answer.