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Irene Vanyo.

Stephen C Steffler/Courtesy of family

Irene Vanyo: Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Role Model. Born July 13, 1930 in Taber, Alta.; died Aug. 12, 2019 in Victoria, of heart failure; aged 89.

Irene was the first child of Polish immigrants Joseph and Jenny Samczyk. As her parents toiled cultivating sugar beets under the scorching summer skies, Irene slept nearby in an apple box. At night, Joseph hung the box from the rafters of their home to prevent field snakes crawling on his infant daughter.

Later that year, the family moved west to Coleman, Alta., where Joseph became a coal miner. Irene started school and quickly learned English, developing her lifelong love of reading (she often used her allowance to purchase books instead of treats). After school, Irene helped out by delivering the shirts her mother laundered for local miners and collecting payment. In 1944, the family moved to Calgary and bought a rooming house. Irene and her mother cleaned the rooms and washed laundry for up to a dozen tenants.

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Irene wanted to become a nurse, but her focus changed one fateful evening in 1949. She reluctantly accompanied a friend on a blind double date with two soldiers. Irene was smitten, but it wasn’t her date that captivated her – it was her friend’s date. She was soon engaged to Jim Vanyo and when he was sent to an army base – occasionally for months at a time – love letters kept their romance alive. They kept the letters, intending to reread them together one day, “When the time was right.”

When Jim left the army he became a shingle sawyer in British Columbia’s forest industry. The pay was excellent, but the work was sporadic. The couple moved 10 times. With each move, Irene packed up their children and the household, hoping it would be their last. In 1958, they finally settled in Victoria, where Jim found steady work, they bought their first house and raised five children.

Irene didn’t like to impose on others, so she asked for assistance by dropping hints. Seemingly innocuous statements such as, “It’ll be time to plant the geraniums soon," might mean, “May I get a ride to the garden centre?” In order to avoid confusion (and frustration!), her children had to become skilled at decoding her hints.

Irene and Jim’s home was always open to family and friends, and their table always set with an extra chair. Irene was non-judgmental and selfless. When her children were adults, she instinctively knew when to gently offer suggestions or simply bite her tongue, and she rarely gave advice, unless asked.

In her mid-50s, Irene joined an aerobics class at a nearby recreation centre, and her exercise community became a key part of her world. After class, Irene and her friends pumped weights in the adjoining gym three times a week. One of her greatest sources of pride was pumping 390 pounds with a leg press at the age of 70. When Irene broke her hip and arm at 87, she recovered and resumed classes with the help of her friends. She was their role model for aging well. “Motivation gets you here, but habit keeps you coming back," she’d say.

Irene cared for her parents in their final years of life, helped look after her terminally ill brother, and nursed Jim in their home through his long illness. When Jim died in 2011, Irene was heartbroken, but not defeated. She reread their love letters and relived their early romance – one that led to 61 years of marriage.

After a lifetime of nurturing others, Irene was cared for by her children and surrounded by family and friends in her declining months. Everyone knew they were special in Irene’s eyes.

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Shelley Forrester is Irene’s daughter.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com.

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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