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Together forever; Local couple's lives were intertwined with love, marriage, family and death

Josephine and Edward Olejniczak's lives were woven together from their childhoods on the same East Side street, through a war, the births of seven children, a move to the country and almost 63 years of marriage.

They were inseparable in life, and their children wondered how they could ever live without each other.

It turns out that they couldn't.

Less than an hour after her mother died in February, Judy Wasiuta was speaking with a doctor about her father's quickly deteriorating condition. He was near death.

She suddenly realized that she was going to lose both her parents. Grief was giving way to amazement.

"It got to the point where you were just in shock and thought, 'We have nothing to do with what's going on anymore. The story has been written. This is in God's hands,' " Wasiuta said.

Josephine Olejniczak died Feb. 23. Edward died Feb. 25.

People who have studied death and dying have a term for the phenomenon of one spouse dying immediately after the other: the widowhood effect. No one can say for sure why it happens, but it does.

Often the couple's survivors find themselves somewhat comforted by the knowledge that their parents will never have to endure the sadness of living out their days alone.

The Olejniczaks' children say that, for their entire married lives, their parents never spent even one day apart.

"Her face always gave away how proud she was as she looked around at her family. Not many people may have noticed this, but I can remember the smile as she looked around the room at everyone."

-- Grandson-in-law Nuccio LoCastro

The memories come quickly for "the kids," now ranging in age from late 40s to early 60s. On a chilly, gray morning, three of the seven and two spouses gathered in their parents' modest home in an Alden mobile home park to sort through a lifetime's worth of belongings.

"A lot of this stuff we're seeing for the first time," said daughter Nancy Olejniczak. "They never showed us anything, but they talked about it."

Mixed among the clothing, appliances and furniture were Christmas cards, trophies, photographs, letters, medals -- things treasured by their children, but of little monetary value. Their parents weren't rich.

They also weren't famous. In fact, their life story doesn't sound much different from those of many other couples their age from this area. They married young, had a large family, worked hard, and enjoyed simple pleasures and each other's company.

Their deaths were the culmination of a love story that started when they were barely teenagers.

"Dad had told me he used to sit on his porch and wait for her to come home from a date and see how long it took her to come out of the car. He was jealous. "

-- Daughter Susan Compise

Eddie Olejniczak was a year ahead of Joey Baron at St. John Kanty Elementary School. Josephine's father died when she was 14 and the family struggled to get by. They rented flats in the neighborhood before settling on Titus Avenue.

Eddie's father was a shoemaker and people in the neighborhood thought of the Olejniczaks as rich because they owned their house and they were the first family on the street to buy a television set.

The couple's children know Ed was smitten with Josephine early on.

"He said when he was younger, before they were dating, he would sit on his porch real low, watching other boys come over to court her," recalled son-in-law Paul Wasiuta. " 'All these guys are picking her up,' " he would recall, to the amusement of his listeners.

Edward joined the Army during World War II and in 1943, he became a member of the 346th Field Artillery Battalion, 91st Division. He sent Josephine a picture of him in a Jeep and, bragging a little, wrote on it: "Notice the mustache?"

They started dating when he came home. They were married at St. John Kanty on Feb. 4, 1948. They walked out of the church the way they would spend the next 63 years: together.

"I spent many of my younger years with them on North Parade It was the happiest place I ever was, so very peaceful, quiet, calm, comfortable and again, so very happy."

-- Granddaughter Cindy LoCastro.

Ed used to call his father "the mayor" when they lived on North Parade Avenue. He seemed to know everyone who passed and vice versa.

All seven children grew up in that house: Nancy, twins Larry and Judy, Susan, twins Marty and Jim, and Ed. Seven children in a family might not have been unusual, but two sets of twins were, and Josephine made no secret of how proud and blessed she felt to have them.

"Even as an adult we would run into a relative or someone she hadn't seen in a long time and she would say, 'Oh, this is one of the twins,' " recalled Judy.

"Not that she didn't like the singles," said Ed, to laughter.

The house was across the street from what was then called Humboldt Park. During the summer, their mother would take the children to the pool and watch them from a blanket on a hill. In the winter, they would ice skate on the frozen pool or on the artificial ice rink.

For decades, every important family gathering took place on North Parade.

"It was automatically over there," Ed said. "The big dinner. The big house. The big table."

Eventually, the house became a lot for Ed and Josephine to handle and there was an increase in crime in the neighborhood. Ed and his wife Kim lived in Alden, not far from a mobile home park called Bush Gardens, and suggested they take a look. Reluctantly, Edward and Josephine sold their house on North Parade in 1992 and moved out to the country.

"Every single year on my birthday, she always called and would place the phone by her stereo where she had the 'Happy Birthday' song all queued up on her cassette tape. Even if we weren't home, she would play it on the answering machine."

-- Granddaughter Jamie Olejniczak

It was not a bit surprising to their children that their parents transitioned nicely into the role of grandparents. Nancy and her twins lived with them on North Parade for a time. They also helped with their daughter Susan's two boys while she went to work.

"Mom and Dad were available to anyone who needed them," Judy said. "If you needed them to babysit, they were there. Mom and Dad were caregivers."

They came to love their new home in Alden partly because they could be so close to Ed and Kim and their three children, Zachary, and twins Meghan and Madison.

If Edward and Josephine loved being around their family, the feeling was mutual. After hearing Kim tell yet another story about a weekend spent with her in-laws, one of her co-workers wondered if they were her best friends.

Kim thought about this for a moment and answered: "You know what? I think they are."

Kim said she's not sure how she would have survived being the mother of twins without so much help from her mother-in-law, who was in her 80s but still came to the house every day to help. One day, Kim was holding a sleeping Madison while Josephine held Meghan. Kim dozed off and woke with a start, worried that she might have dropped her daughter.

She opened her eyes to see her mother-in-law with "the sweetest smile on her face." Josephine looked at her fellow mother of twins and said: "Don't worry; I was watching the whole time."

"You couldn't even think of them apart." -- Son Ed Olejniczak

In the past few years, Edward's memory began to fail. He was in the early stages of dementia.

"He used to say to me, 'I'm going crazy. Why can't I think?' He realized it, but " Judy said.

His wife became his primary caregiver, with help from the kids. They offered to hire a home health aide but she wouldn't hear of it. As his condition worsened, he would occasionally wander the house. The constant care and worry began to wear on her.

On Feb. 3, Josephine fell in their kitchen. Nancy found her there, unable to speak. It appeared that she had had a stroke and she was taken to Mercy Hospital.

Edward stayed in Alden, under the care of his children. He was confused about where his wife was, but seemed to be in good spirits. But within days, he developed a problem with his leg and was taken to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and then to the VA Respite Home in Batavia.

For the only time in their married lives, Edward and Josephine lived apart.

Josephine was in the hospital's intensive care unit for 14 days and a doctor told the family she would not recover. She was admitted to hospice and died Feb. 23.

Forty-five minutes after she was pronounced dead, the kids got a call that their father had developed a brain bleed and was being rushed to Millard Fillmore. A doctor came to Judy and began discussing with her what the options would be for his care.

" 'Now?' " she asked. "I was trying not to cry. I said, 'You don't understand. My mother just died.' "

Edward never woke up. Two days later, he was gone.

"Talking to Mom on the phone, I would always hear Dad whistling in the background. I could almost hear it now in my head. Sure gonna miss that sound."

-- Daughter Judy Wasiuta

A single Mass of Christian Burial was held March 3 in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Alden for the Olejniczaks. Edward and Josephine Olejniczak were cremated and their ashes placed in an urn. Their pictures are on it, side by side, with two words: Together Forever.

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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