January 15, 2020 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Miscellaneous 

On January 15, 1921, a baby girl was born to Rosa (nee Lukacs) and Louis Kish (Lajos Kis). Elizabeth Kish was the sixth child produced by the Hungarian immigrants since their marriage in 1908. Her birth certificate, issued by the province of Saskatchewan, states that her birthplace was “Sec.2, Tp.27A, Rge14, W.2, Sask.”, the quarter section claimed by her father in 1905. During her life, she was known as Erzsebet, Elizabeth, Lizzie, Liz, Aunty (or Aunt) Liz and even, Betty.

We don’t have the historical data to prove it but I think it’s safe to assume that it was cold on the Kish farm and in the little log house that day but little Elizabeth survived the frigid winters, the summer heat, the hardships, the toil, and family drama for 98 years, 11 months. For the last 58 years, she led a singular and solitary life, relying on no one but herself. She was an outlier, particularly among her peers and women of her age. Elizabeth’s character was forged by hard work, the family, and the land of course but two events in her life, more than any others I think, shaped the woman she became.

The first was the Great Depression and the Dustbowl years, starting in 1929/30 when she was only 9 years old. Elizabeth retained the frugality she learned as a youngster for the rest of her life. Nothing was wasted in her house. Not a single carrot or potato from her garden. Not a piece of cheese or a heel of bread was thrown out. Her deep freeze and basement were always amply stocked with fruit and vegetables from her garden, baking and canned goods. If conserve and preserve wasn’t her actual motto, it certainly was the credo by which she lived. When she started receiving modest CPP and Old Age Security payments at the age of 65, it was as if a lottery ticket has paid off and she had no trouble saving money every month. During the Depression, the Kish family was better off than some of their neighbours and other homesteaders in the province, it was still a very tough period. There were shortages of everything; water, food, livestock forage, money, and as the years went on…maybe even hope. This may have had something to do with the second thing that affected her profoundly.

Elizabeth couldn’t remember the first time her father beat up his wife but, as often happens with this type of behaviour, it may have started with a single slap early in the marriage. It became progressively worse over the years and throughout the tough years. After one brutal episode, young Elizabeth cried uncontrollably until her mother admonished her, “Don’t cry now, daughter, you’ll have lots of time for that when it’s your turn.” Elizabeth’s response was, “I am never getting married. I will never put up with that.”, and she never did. One day in the late 1930s, after coming home drunk from an afternoon with some cronies, Louis nearly killed Rosa with a kitchen chair. The doctor who treated her in Lestock SK was so alarmed by her condition that he reported the incident to the RCMP. They investigated and charged Louis Kish with domestic assault. He was tried, convicted and did a short term in a provincial jail.

When he got out, Louis’ status in the community was greatly diminished and a man who’d been held in some esteem by his cronies and neighbours for his ability to farm and manage money was humbled and ashamed. He had been known as The Banker by some and took great pride in being in a position to lend money. They often needed help but didn’t always appreciate being asked to pay it back. As one neighbour, who had borrowed funds for a tractor, told Louis, “I can’t pay it back and it’s your fault for lending me the money n the first place.”

After jail, Louis went back to the farm for a while but at some point before 1940, he sold a large portion of the wheat harvest, pocketed the money, and caught a train west to British Columbia, leaving Elizabeth, her mother, and any brothers and sisters willing and able to help, to manage the farm on their own. The family heard that he was in Abbotsford for a while before surfacing in the Okanagan Valley. This act, as despicable as it seems, set in motion a series of events that led Liz to Kelowna in 1950 with my mother, which was just fine for 18-year-old Margaret whos aspirations didn’t include marrying “some farmer” in Saskatchewan.

In Kelowna, Elizabeth, Margaret and their mother, Rosa, made a home in the house on Fuller Avenue left behind by Louis who died of Hodgkins in 1949. Rosa had travelled to BC when she heard that he was sick and possibly dying. I don’t know whether her motivation was loyalty to her husband or simply protecting whatever assets he was about to leave behind. I suspect more of the latter than the former but they were still married, and partners for life in her eyes, despite everything he’d done before leaving the farm and the 10 years they’d lived apart. Rosa arrived in Kelowna only to discover that Louis had been moved to Vancouver General Hospital. She travelled to Vancouver but he died before she could reach him. Rosa returned to Kelowna and tried to find out if there was any money left. She found very little cash and lots of rumours of loans Louis had made to various friends and acquaintances but no records and no hope of collecting on any delinquent amounts. She was left with the Fuller Avenue house, which was unfinished, and two other small rental houses.

After settling into their new life in BC, Margaret enrolled in a secretarial school in Kelowna while Elizabeth searched for work, in orchards, fields, a bakery, and the cannery – wherever labour, mostly seasonal, was required. At home, Rosa planted vegetables and tended to the plum, apricot and cherry trees in the yard. And so, along with a little income from the rental houses, they made ends meet. After finishing her course, Margaret was offered a job at the Summerland Experimental Farm, between Kelowna and Penticton. This ultimately led (through new friendships) to her move to Prince George in 1952 or 1953, leaving Elizabeth and her mother to make a life for themselves. Rosa connected with the small Hungarian community in the Okanagan Valley while Elizabeth made friends with women from her various jobs. A confirmed spinster by this time, constantly rebuffing the efforts and pleas of her mother to get married, Elizabeth refused all offers and attention from men holding firm to her teenage declaration that no husband was ever going to use her as a punching bag. Rosa considered this an embarrassing travesty and a personal failure as a mother.

1956 was a memorable year for the Kishes of British Columbia – Margaret married Mel Young in Prince George in April and Rosa accepted or invited, four Hungarian refugees to board in their house, against the protests of Elizabeth. The quartet was a close group of friends, young men who had escaped the Russian crackdown on Hungarian dissenters and protesters. The four shared the two bedrooms upstairs while they started new lives in a new country. As she knew they would, the new house-guests added to Elizabeth’s already substantial workload and she wasn’t too happy about it at first. At the end of 1956, Margaret and her new husband welcomed their first child (the writer), adding to Rosa Kish’s growing list of grandchildren.

In December of 1961, Rosa’s brother died on the original Lukacs homestead, north of Cupar. She travelled back to Saskatchewan to attend the funeral but she died suddenly in bed on the night December 19 of a probable heart attack. The brother and sister were buried in separate cemeteries, St. Elizabeth’s and St. Joseph’s respectively, a couple of days apart.

From that moment, Elizabeth lived her life, her way – self-sufficient and self-reliant. She did that while maintaining the hospitality for which her family and culture are known. No one visited Elizabeth Kish and left hungry or empty-handed unless it was their choice and they had the will to resist her insistence to “eat something”. Friends and family, and even the odd stray, came to the back door of 771 Fuller (only strangers, salespeople, and the unaware knocked on the front door) to visit for an afternoon, a weekend, or a week. I was one year old the first time my parents presented me to Grandma Kish and Aunty Liz, and I have many memories of the weeks spent there every summer throughout my childhood. I maintained that tradition with my own family, as did my brothers. My daughter has taken her kids to see Aunty Liz since they were babies. A summer without a pilgrimage to Kelowna was rare in our family.

The focus of all activity in Liz’s house was the kitchen, of course. I spent countless hours at that blue and chrome table watching Liz cook or bake, eating great meals, playing Yahtzee, and most of all, listening to her stories, complaints, and opinions, and marvelling at her knowledge of the family. My primary connection to the Kishes and Bulkas was Liz. She knew every niece and nephew, their current marital status, and their spouses and children. Information on all of us was filed away in the recesses of her brain. She may not have had kids of her own but we were her family and she kept track of us from afar like a mother hen. Even into her nineties, she remembered things about me that I had long forgotten. She was sharp, smart, and a little caustic until the end but, if you listened, there was much wisdom dispensed from her end of that old blue table.

We were so lucky to know her and thankfully I did listen to her stories about the Kish family. I made some notes over the years and one day I hope to put compile and publish them in some fashion, as a lasting memory of a memorable woman.

Ron Young