Looking through the glass to keep in touch with the world outside, Acropolis Manor resident Rose Sawka is 91 years old. She tested negative for COVID-19 and was vaccinated on Jan 20 in the facility where 56 staff and residents have tested positive and 14 people have died as of Feb. 19. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Looking through the glass to keep in touch with the world outside, Acropolis Manor resident Rose Sawka is 91 years old. She tested negative for COVID-19 and was vaccinated on Jan 20 in the facility where 56 staff and residents have tested positive and 14 people have died as of Feb. 19. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Heart of our city – Rose Sawka

Looking through the glass

At 91-years-old Rose Sawka recently captivated The Northern View readers with a photo of her looking through the glass window to the world outside the Prince Rupert long-term care facility where she lives. Acropolis Manor is affected by a COVID-19 outbreak which has killed at least 14 out of 61 and infected more than 56 staff and residents as of Feb. 19.

Despite the viral impact of the pandemic around the globe, the north coast seniors’ home was untouched by the virus until Jan. 2021, almost a full year after it swept the planet and sent many into isolated lockdown. Having survived previous wars, the expression in Rose’s eyes tells the story of the viral war she faces alone inside her room.

The sweetly sad-looking image of her hand reaching to the outside world, where she, like many others in long-term care is kept inside to be ‘safe’ is reminiscent of her life — staying safe but always reaching forward.

Having lived on the border of Poland and Ukraine during World War Two, Rose came to Prince Rupert from the family farm in 1960 to start a new life — a world away from the ‘old country’ after Europe was ravaged some years before.

She came with her husband, and two sons Terry and John. Her own father had arrived years before on the promise of free land. He worked for years on 20 cents a day as a new immigrant to be able to sponsor his family to come to a new life.

After five years of slogging on someone else’s farm in Alberta, longingly 43-year-old Mike became a Canadian citizen, only to be conscripted into the army three months later. He was stationed in Prince Rupert while his wife and five daughters faced the war without him across the Atlantic.

During the war, the six women ran the farm. Then in 1945 the 15-year-old Rose and her sisters were warned by their mother to stay inside and not venture outside the house. Stay safe. Huddled inside as the Russians entered the village to beat back the German forces, inquisitiveness took hold of Rose’s older sister. She did venture outside leaving safety behind. Marisha became separated from the family and was not to be seen again.

Life continued on after the war while the women waited for immigration clearance. Rose started to train as a nurse but gave it up when she married an accountant, also named Mike. Frightened and under pressure to join the communist party in 1958 it was another year before their paperwork would come through to be able to travel. Finally, the day came to leave.

Being able to speak six languages, Rose gained employment at the Ocean View Hotel owned by a Polish couple, after the family arrived in Prince Rupert. Eventually working at various establishments as a chambermaid, Rose went to work at the newly built Prince Rupert Regional Hospital in 1972.

Her son Terry Sawka, who visits her every day at the seniors home, attached to the hospital where Rose retired from after working for 18 years, said Rose kept life at home traditionally Ukrainian. She would cook cabbage rolls, perogies, and potatoes. Thanksgiving and Christmas, she would do all of the cooking herself, Terry said, later teaching her daughter, son’s wives, and granddaughter the secrets of custom Ukrainian cooking.

Fears from the war and the pressures of their previous government to join the communist party remained with Rose and her husband Mike for years after coming to Canada, their son said.

“Until they got their Canadian papers, they walked on eggs shells,” Terry said. “It took years for their fears to dissipate for them to feel secure.”

“When we came to Canada the area we lived in was like Little Italy. That’s all the kids we had to play with, ” he said. “All the kids spoke Italian.”

Soon after starting school, the brothers had letters sent home from the nuns. Not yet being able to read English Rose was mortified at what the letter could contain. The letter said the boy’s English learning was being hindered by the advanced rate at which they were speaking Italian – which was not taught in the school.

At the ages of 10 and eight they tried to play with English-speaking children who went to a different school, but rivalries took over. Terry said fisticuffs would ensue. His mom’s fear of deportation increased. They needed to stay safe. It was a fear she couldn’t let go.

“She was so worried we were going to be sent back to Poland because us two young boys were creating all kinds of problems. She was always scared the priests were going to come – especially if I beat someone up,” he said. “My aunt kept telling them, they were safe in Canada and they didn’t have to worry.”

Terry said the fears left over from the war and the communist pressures affected their lives and the decisions they made.

“It wasn’t until they got the Canadian papers that they calmed down. It took years for them to actually feel at home. But they were always cautious,” he said. “They were always telling us you can’t say this or you can’t say that. You’ve got to be careful because the government is always watching.”

Soon after, the family received another letter that affected their lives. Rose broke down in tears when the family read the Red Cross correspondence informing them her elder sister Marisha had been located in Germany and was alive. For 15 years the family had thought her dead. Rose’s father had never given up writing letters to aid agencies looking for the missing girl. The sisters finally met 25 years ago in Poland Terry said, and even though they have walked different paths in life they have been writing to each other ever since.

Rose has walked everywhere all of her life. Every day she would walk to buy fresh groceries ignoring that she could buy weekly at the grocery store. Her husband Mike bought the family’s first car when he was 55 and he learned to drive. It was sometime in the mid-1980s, Terry said. Rose wanted to learn to drive too. The response was “women don’t drive.”

After pointing out all of the women in town driving, and hounding her husband for quite some time, Terry said Rose was taken for a driving lesson on a Sunday afternoon in the Civic Centre parking lot.

“It didn’t sound like the lesson went very well,” Terry said. “Because they came home and they were just arguing.” Rose was upset with Mike saying he couldn’t teach her to drive because he didn’t know how to drive himself. Rose continued walking.

Rose went to live in Acropolis Manor two and half years ago after some health issues, but even to this day, she laments that she never learned to drive.

Prior to the pandemic and when residents in the home were allowed out, Terry would ask her every day if she needed a ride somewhere.

“She would respond, ‘If your dad showed me how to drive I would have my own car and I would drive myself and not have to rely on you.’ She still holds it that it was my dad’s fault she couldn’t drive because he didn’t know how,” Terry said. “I’ve been in the car with him. He was a terrible driver.”

“She’s very independent,” Terry said of Rose. “She doesn’t like relying on people. She’s very assertive. She doesn’t want to bother anybody. She’s always been like that.”

Rose has a lot of friends and was a ‘social butterfly’ before moving into the long-term care facility, Terry said. He will walk downtown and be stopped on the street by people asking about his mom.

With COVID-19 changing the world and changing the active life Rose once had inside Acropolis Manor to a much slower pace she’s alone in her room for many moments of the day. There are no longer the activities to occupy her like the choir visits, the music session, the crafts, socialization — or even going outside. She is desperate for human contact and she misses her family, she said.

Able-bodied and active Rose likes to help other residents in the home even helping to feed a friend, but has been asked to curtail her assistance due to the virus, she said. They need to stay safe.

Under current safety protocols, Terry said families are not allowed into the home to visit.

Rose told The Northern View that she lives for the daily visits when she can see her son. He taps on her window and waves to her from outside. They place their hands together on the glass as she reaches out. She loves the nightly phone calls from him.

With a Ukrainian accent and broken English, Rose said she didn’t like it when she couldn’t leave her room for two weeks when the senior’s home was put into isolation at the start of the January 19th outbreak.

She spent her time watching TV, and despite the pandemic, she’s happy they get good food in the manor. She said she is aware of what’s going on around her and knows what is happening.

“Two weeks ago a doctor came and gave me a needle,” she said of the COVID-19 vaccination that residents in the home received on Jan. 20. “Everything is good now. So far so good.”

Her voice caught in her throat and tears were in her eyes when she said that despite the vaccination the situation still scares her and she is very lonely.

“Terry told me to walk, so I walk around a lot and talk to people,” she said. “But, I don’t like to bother them. When I ask questions sometimes they don’t answer.”

Rose said she is looking forward to the day when she can go outside again to hug her son and for when she no longer has to stay ‘safe’ inside. For now, she said she is happy to see Terry each day looking through the glass to him on the outside.

K-J Millar | Journalist
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