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Zita Kaulius: Matriarch. Refugee. Pierogi-maker. Bingo lover. Born Dec. 25, 1923, in Kartena, Lithuania; died Nov. 3, 2019, of heart failure, in Abbotsford, B.C.; aged 95.

In 1959, on her first day of the job, Zita Kaulius strode through the drugstore carrying a stack of Playboy magazines. Zita, 36, a staunch Catholic, had decided they were smut, so back to the stockroom they went. Zita lived life this way, always certain that God was on her side.

Zita was born in a tiny town in northern Lithuania. Her father fought for Lithuanian independence and a sword given to him by the country’s first president hung in her childhood home. The Soviet Union invaded Lithuania in 1940 when Zita was 17. Stalin’s secret police took Papa’s sword; later they took Papa.

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Zita should have been deported to the gulag – her name was on the list. But on the night the secret police banged on the door in 1941, she happened to be out. Newly married to Adam Kaulius and expecting their first child, the couple were visiting with friends. Neighbours warned them to stay away and they did, moving frequently over the next few years. During this time, Zita gave birth to two sons.

In 1944, Zita, Adam and the boys – now aged 1 and 3 – fled to Germany when the fighting reached their farm, which burned as they rode away in a hastily packed wagon. “The children of Israel escaped through the water,” Zita told her sons, “but we escaped through the fire.”

After the war, the family lived in a displaced persons camp for six years in Germany. Here Zita and Adam had a daughter. Three months after her birth, Zita’s friend died in childbirth. Zita knew she couldn’t leave the twin newborns – skinny and so jaundiced their skin looked like orange peels – in the drafty hospital cot. She carried them home (without asking permission), then sat in a chair and guided their mouths to a place close to her heart. After a few months, the girls were pink and plump and Zita returned them to their father.

Later, Zita caught diphtheria in the camp and the disease damaged her heart. The doctor warned her not carry her fourth child to term, saying the strain would kill her. She ignored him. Six months later she delivered a son.

The family came to Canada as refugees in the early 1950s, living first in the mining town of Bissett, Man., where they had two more children. Zita worked in the mine’s cafeteria, setting tables and washing dishes while she belted out Lithuanian hymns.

Eventually the family settled in Vancouver. Zita loved the snow-topped peaks of the North Shore mountains and choked up the first time she saw well-stocked supermarket shelves: After years of lining up for rations in a DP camp, it looked like paradise.

In 1958, Adam took a job on Vancouver Island, coming home only on weekends. To support her six, kids Zita worked as a store clerk; in the evenings she sewed for a garment factory and baked bread that her sons sold to neighbours. On Mondays, Zita would dump out her wallet on the kitchen table to show the kids how much money they had until payday. Once there was only $3. “God will provide,” she told them.

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In Vancouver, Zita took part in the Lithuanian community, leading folk dances clad in national costume she sewed herself and reciting her own poetry about the country she missed to a teary-eyed audience.

She reminded her children to speak Lithuanian so often, she sounded like a trained parrot. But when teaching her grandchildren about their roots, she chose a different tactic: pierogi-making.

Zita loved to tell stories of the hard times she had lived through. “My beautiful life,” she would say, sighing.

In her later years, Zita would take her grandchildren to play bingo. They would sit with her in smoke-filled rooms, her dabber arm a blur of movement. Zita believed the Lord was okay with this kind of gambling, which was confirmed when she won a $3,000 jackpot.

Brooke Kaulius is Zita’s granddaughter-in-law.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

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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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