Former Leonard Lake resident Emma Malec celebrates surprise 100th birthday
Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAILY.com
SCARBOROUGH — When you’re a century old, another birthday party shouldn’t surprise you.
Emma Malec’s 100th birthday did.
Not because the former Leonard Lake resident didn’t know it was coming — she did and she was looking very much to it.
After all, frankly, at that age there’s not a heck of a lot to look forward to living in a retirement home with a bunch of youngsters not much more than half her age.
Not unless you’ve got a large Polish and Hungarian family of your own with lots of cute little kids and babies to kiss and cuddle — and try to remember all their names and who belongs to who.
But Emma is no ordinary centenarian.
“She’s lucid and a great conversationalist,” bragged her god-daughter Jane Zathey.
“Emma would be thrilled to hear from you,” Zathey’s email said.
“I never thought I’d live this long,” Emma said this week, returning to her room from lunch at the Ina Grafton Gage Home in Scarborough.
Not with the nomadic life she lived.
But she was still surprised with the big family do of about 60 people who feted her last Saturday, Feb. 25.
Her late husband Stephan’s niece, Maria Malec, with whom Emma lived for a decade in her 90s — after she gave up her home — had already given her a small dinner party on her real birthday Feb. 22 at the long-term care home with a few family and home staff.
So when Emma learned she was going out to dinner again a few days later, never in her wildest dreams did she expect to be surprised by a room full of relatives with happy, smiling faces and singing “Happy Birthday” to her.
She certainly didn’t expect anything like the shiny, Helium-filled coloured balloons, fancy table decorations, beautifully-decorated cake with her name iced in large letters, and a befitting formal celebration in a banquet hall.
There were no candles for safety reasons — 100 could be real hazard.
“You should have seen her face,” said Maria, of her aunt who has been going through some expected age-related health issues.
“It gave her a boost,” said Maria.
Though she was born in outskirts of Philadelphia in 1917, Emma grew up in her family’s Hungarian homeland and in Germany.
Emma vividly remembers the family with six children — she was the oldest, with five brothers — travelled around in a wagon, like Gypsies.
Her mom was Hungarian, her dad Polish.
She said it was “awful in Hungary,” so they moved to Austria.
“People took care of us. My mom was looking after my dad.
“But there were too many snakes,” she recalls.
During the Second World War she met Stephan, a Polish man eight years her junior who she would wed.
“During the war you couldn’t get smokes … you were glad to have piece of bread.”
They ate a lot of “goulash.”
After somehow surviving the horror of the war on the go, they saw adverts that said Canada would pay to bring them here — and so they took a chance on a new life away from a Europe they no longer knew or understood.
“We (boarded) the first co-ed boat” to Canada she said in her still thick Hungarian accent. Before that the ships carried men alone.
The Malecs landed in Halifax and took the train up to Thornbury.
But the life for the immigrants in their adopted country, while still better, was still laborious.
They worked through the first years picking fruit near Collingwood on the shores of Georgian Bay, where they had to remain to earn enough money to pay back their transportation from overseas.
Eventually they moved down to Mississauga, where Stephan got job a Canada Packers where he “worked his whole life,” until retiring at 65.
Emma worked in a succession of jobs. They had no children, but a good marriage of some 66 years.
Zathey notes Emma and Stephan’s marriage “was a lifelong example of beautiful love and respect between two people.
“I’ve never seen two people happier together.
She adds, “A wonderful memory of mine is how Emma has always treasured gifts. For over 50 years she still has artwork from my childhood and many other children who were close to her.
“She would bring them out whenever I came to visit. She’s always had a way of making you feel really special.”
Emma “loves animals and they had a series of wonderful little dogs, the last of whom was Dusty, who passed just a few years ago.
“Sadly, she cannot have a dog where she lives now but loves to watch people walking their dogs outside.”
About 1989 they bought at cottage at Leonard Lake and for just over the next dozen or so years the couple retired to live between Bracebridge and Port Carling.
She still gets up to the family cottage as often as she can, thanks to Maria and her family.
Emma was even there last summer for a weekend visit.
Will she back this summer?
“If I can, I’d like to,” she replied enthusiastically.
She remembers Stephan fishing and hunting while she crocheted and gave it away.
But for now, she “wants it quiet.”
You’d never know it by her 100th birthday party.
She’s still talking about it, seeing family again and even a couple of friends from her early days coming to Canada.
There were messages of congratulations from the Queen, the prime minister and best wishes from a host of others.
Actually, it was little overwhelming, a tad tiring — yet one of the greatest, most memorable days of her long, satisfying and rewarding life.
A day she won’t soon forget and one she can add to a long list of similar, yet equally momentous events in century that now finds her into her second century and looking for more good days like this ahead.
If you’d like to call Emma and wish her happy birthday, she’d love to hear from you and chat. Call her in Scarborough at 416 269 0391.
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