Katherine’s Children

Katherine Fusiak (1887-1943) and three of her eight children: Augusta Jean Chomiak (1913-1986), Theodore William Chomiak (1922-2013), and Lillian Elizabeth Chomiak (1915-2016).

It’s simply amazing what comes into the light when cousins start exploring family history, too. Several weeks ago I shared a picture one of my maternal cousins discovered and today I’m sharing a portrait found by one of my paternal cousins.

The woman is my grandmother, Katherine, who died long before I was born. I’ve always been curious about her because she is the one grandparent I never knew.

Катерина Фюшяк (Kateryna Fusiak ~ my Aunt Lil showed me how to write her name in Ukrainian) was born on 19 November 1887 in Luzok Horishni, Ukraine, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She died on 22 October 1943 at New London, Connecticut.

Katherine’s parents were land-owning farmers. When her husband William, the son of peasants, left for America, she was pregnant with her second child and they already had a small daughter, Mary. According to my aunt Mary, who grew up with her grandparents in Ukraine, Katherine’s father, Konrad, who did not approve of his daughter’s marriage, was furious about not hearing from William, and with great resentment sold a cow to buy passage to America for Katherine and her new nursing baby boy, Jon. At the tender age of 22, on 19 February 1910, Katherine and 5-month-old baby Jon sailed to America on the SS Finland from Antwerp, arriving in New York City on 4 March 1910. She had no ticket, but was in possession of $19 which she used to pay passage for herself and her son. She was 4’11” tall with a fair complexion. She was identified as a “Ruthenian” on the passenger arrival record, a term used to refer to a group of Ukrainians living in Ruthenia and eastern Czechoslovakia.

Mary stayed behind with her grandparents and so Katherine did not see her firstborn daughter again until Mary was 18, when she finally joined her family in America after World War I. By then, Katherine and William were living on a farm in Montville, Connecticut.

Katherine was a devoted mother who admonished her eight children to stick together no matter what, as she believed that family was all they would have in this difficult world. Her grandchildren called her “Baba.” Katherine died of a strangulated hernia at the age of 55. She lies buried with her husband in Comstock Cemetery in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Three of her children did not survive into adulthood. Jon Stephen died when he was 9 years old, of appendicitis. Augustine was about two when he got into some pills or something that poisoned him. Olga, a toddler, met her death by scalding when she pulled a pot of boiling water off the stove, a horrific accident that my aunt Lil was old enough to remember first hand.

In the portrait above, daughter Mary is missing because she was still living in Ukraine. Jon had already died. My Aunt Jean is on the left, my father is the little boy, and my Aunt Lil is on the right. My Aunt Em was not born yet.

Katherine had a very hard life as a farmer’s wife who made it through the Great Depression living off the land. Her husband was a harsh, bitter man, who regretted leaving Ukraine and apparently hated this country. I admire her courage and fortitude.

My father always spoke of his mother with great fondness and missed her dearly. Even during his last illness he asked for her. He had enlisted in the army during World War II on 4 February 1943. Sadly, only eight months later, on 22 October 1943, his mother died. Only 22 years old, he came home on leave for her funeral and then returned to duty. I am struck with a little synchronicity here because Katherine was 22 when she saw her mother for the last time, and my father was 22 when he saw his own mother for the last time.

My father often credited his mother with raising him to respect women and appreciate their strengths. As an example, he often told the story of her ability to drive a hard bargain. A butcher came down from Norwich to the farm in Montville three times trying to buy a calf for less than the price Katherine wanted to sell it for! But she got her original asking price, impressing her son, and the sale was finally made!

Farewell, Auntie Lil

Lillian Elizabeth (Chomiak) Rioux (1915-2016)

Last autumn we lost our aunt, who lived to be 101 years old. The various stories behind the above drawing presented a puzzle for us but after comparing memories we finally decided that the sketch was probably drawn on one of Auntie’s cruises. She kept it hanging above her bed for as long as I can remember, flanked on either side with the senior high school pictures of my sister and me.

Following is the obituary I wrote for the newspapers:

Lillian Elizabeth (Chomiak) Rioux, 101, of Storrs, Connecticut, died on October 27, 2016, at Mansfield Center for Nursing & Rehabilitation, after a short illness.

Lillian was born on January 30, 1915 in New York City, the daughter of the late William & Katherine (Fusiak) Chomiak, both immigrants from Ukraine. She married Leo Oscar Rioux on November 30, 1934 at Montville, Connecticut. Her husband died on June 5, 1957, leaving her a widow for 59 years. Lillian was predeceased by their two sons, Leo Adrian Rioux (1936-1984) and Lance William Rioux (1950-1979).

Lillian was also predeceased by six siblings, Mary Riback, Jon Stephen Chomiak, Augustine Chomiak, Augusta Jean Hereth, Olga Chomiak, and Theodore William Chomiak. She is survived by her sister, Ludmila Sabatiuk of West Virginia, her grandchildren, Leo Rioux, Jr. of Montville and Sarah James of Tennessee, seven nieces and nephews, four great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandson.

Lil was a graduate of Norwich Free Academy and was a seamstress employed at Hendel Manufacturing Company in New London for many years. She was a long time resident of Montville and later moved to Juniper Hill Village in Storrs to live closer to her brother. An avid traveler, beach bum and shell collector, she loved to sew, cook, grow orchids, do jigsaw puzzles and work with her hands.

A memorial gathering will be planned for next spring. Memorial donations can be made to Mansfield Town Senior Center, 303 Maple Rd, Storrs, CT 06268.

We had our memorial gathering for her on May 6, spreading her ashes on the graves of her parents and her husband and two sons, as she had directed. My Aunt Em read to us her memories of Aunt Lil’s earlier years.

Grave of Aunt Lil’s parents, William Chomiak (1882-1965) & Katherine Fusiak (1887-1943), Comstock Cemetery, Montville, Connecticut

Every year on Memorial Day, my father would drive Aunt Lil to these two adjacent cemeteries, so she could plant geraniums in front of the headstones, each one a different shade of red or pink. When my father could no longer drive, my sister and brother-in-law stepped in to take her. As he has been doing for years now, John once again planted the geraniums that meant so much to her, this time with family spreading ashes and telling stories.

Grave of Aunt Lil’s older son, Leo Adrian Rioux (1936-1984), St. Patrick Cemetery, Montville, Connecticut.

The story Auntie told me was that it was not permitted for her to be buried in the Catholic cemetery with her husband and sons because she never converted to Catholicism. But she married a Catholic and had her sons baptized in the church. It was her wish to join them in the cemetery by spreading her ashes on their graves.

Grave of Aunt Lil’s husband, Leo Oscar Rioux (1913-1957), and their younger son, Lance William Rioux (1950-1979), St. Patrick Cemetery, Montville, Connecticut.

At the last grave Tim read a poem my sister Beverly wrote in memory of Auntie for the occasion.

They were worker’s hands, never soft, never still.
It took me fifty years to catch them, hold them, keep them safe and warm.
A thousand times I watched them go:
knit and purl
peel and chop
turn the pages
stir the pot.

If hands could talk what would they say?
It took me fifty years to hear them, know them, find out how they spoke.
A thousand times I felt their love:
show and tell
hug and pat
acts of kindness
pet the cat.

I’d come to love her knobby hands
that always showed me what to do.
How those hands have touched my life!
They’ve one more job before they’re through:
stitch and mend
my broken heart.

~ Beverly Chomiak
(Her Hands)

Then we all went to eat at one of her favorite restaurants, Old Tymes in Norwich, finishing the meal with dishes of Auntie’s favorite black raspberry ice cream. ❤

helping hand

RenoufHelpingHand
“The Helping Hand” by Émile Renouf

The first time I ever saw a print of this painting was at an estate sale, not long after my father died on September 19th in 2013. The expression on the man’s face reminded me of my father and the little girl reminded me of myself so I bought it. It’s not in the greatest condition and the coloring is way off. Perhaps the coloring on this digital copy is off, too. Some day I may replace it with a better copy.

He’s been gone for three years now and I still miss him, my favorite teacher. Papa taught me how to wash my hair, how to cross the street, how to trust my own instincts, how to treat animals, how to be compassionate and kind, how to swim, how to ice skate, how to paddle a canoe, how to chop an onion, how to look up words in a dictionary, how to do research, how to enjoy bird-watching, how to garden, how to walk (and play) in the woods — the list goes on. I think of him every time I do any of those things.

It’s almost autumn and I will be eating as many Macoun apples as I can while the season lasts. They were his favorites. He often told me the following story when I was growing up. (It first appeared almost 6 years ago on my blog!)

When my father was a boy growing up on a New England farm during the Great Depression, his family picked as many apples as they could and stored some of them in a barrel in the root cellar. Of course he ate as many as he could while picking them, but his parents had a rule about the ones in the barrel he found exasperating. If anyone wanted an apple later in the fall or winter, he was required to take one that was the least fresh. By the time they got to the fresher ones they had also become much less fresh! So all winter he was having to make do with eating not-so-great apples. If only he had known he might have called on Iduna to keep the apples fresher longer!
~ Barbara Rodgers
(Iduna: Keeper of Apples)

But perhaps I miss him the most whenever I hear a story on the news about a threat from a new virus or other infectious agent. Dad was a microbiologist and was utterly fascinated with microorganisms — viruses, bacteria, spirochetes, amoebas, fungi, parasites. He would never tire of explaining things about them to me and correcting any misinformation the media might be passing along to his fellow citizens. And I never tired of listening. I find myself wondering what he would have had to say about the Zika virus. It’s not easy finding someone so interested in this subject!

I didn’t notice it at first, but my father died on his older brother’s birthday. Jon Stephen was born on September 19th in 1909 in Ukraine. My father, Theodore William, never knew his older brother because Jon died of a ruptured appendix on March 15th in 1919 in New York, when he was only 9 years old. Papa was born three years later on March 13th in 1922. A little bit of synchronicity there I think.

Still missing you, my dear old Papa!