“Jesus Has Always Been With Me”

Celina Abelli was born on August 18, 1898 in a small Polish village to Wera Pakulski and Olek Zuraw.  Celina says the family lived on a farm with beautiful fruit trees.  Besides farming, Olek worked as a carpenter and even built the house they lived in.  In addition, he cut and sold logs from a nearby forest and helped cut hay on local farms for extra money.  Wera, meanwhile, cared for their six children: Zygfryd, Waldemar, Kaja, Helena, Teodor and Celina.  Wera had a total of nine children, but three died of typhus fever before Celina was born: Konrad, who was seven when he died, and Lew and Marek, who were twin baby boys.

When Celina was just four and a half, Olek died at age forty-four of pneumonia.  Celina has just one memory of him, which was of him lifting her up into the fruit trees to pick a piece of fruit for herself.  After Olek’s death, all of the children had to find work, except Teodor and Celina who were too young.  Both of them continued at school for a few years and then also quit.  Celina found work sewing or doing “any little thing that came along.”

The siblings all worked hard, and occassionally Wera allowed them to go into town to attend dances in the evenings.  It was at one such dance that Celina’s sister, Kaja, met a young man by the name of Emil Brzezicki.  Unfortunately, however, Emil only had eyes for Celina, who for some reason instantly hated him.  Emil wouldn’t give up, however, and began following Celina everywhere she went, even bringing her flowers on many occasions, much to Celina’s embarrassment and Kaja’s despair.  Celina won’t say exactly why she didn’t initially like Emil, nor has she ever said why she eventually agreed to marry him.  No one in the family can shed any light on why Celina changed her mind, though her daughters suspect that something dark may have happened.  When asked if she grew to love Emil, Celina says, “I didn’t hate him, but I didn’t love him, either.  It was something in between.  We got by.”

After they were married, Celina and Emil lived with Wera before eventually moving to a neighboring town a year later.  Together, they had eight children, but two died when they were small.  Celina doesn’t have much to say about their life in Poland during the 1930s and ’40s, or how they survived the war, just that after it was over, the whole family moved to America around 1950.  One of their sons, Simon, was delayed in Poland for a time, but he eventually joined the family in Chicago, which is where they eventually settled.  He left again almost immediately, however, to join the American army.

In Chicago, Emil found work in a furniture factory, but he had to quit after only four years because he was diagnosed with emphysema.  Realizing that Emil’s prognosis was not good, Celina knew she had to find some sort of employment and managed to buy a little corner grocery shop.  She ran the store and nursed Emil, who eventually died seven years later in 1961.  Celina kept the store running even after Emil died, but she says it was hard because it was the era when big chain grocery stores were buying up all the little neighborhood shops.  After two years, she gave in as well and sold it.  After that, she found work as a nurse’s aide.

In 1970, Celina married again—this time to a quiet, mild-mannered Italian man, Stefano Abelli, who was eight years her senior.  She says she loved Stefano, but when asked about their relationship, she says, “Well, it wasn’t sweet 16!”  Celina and Stefano’s relationship was short-lived, however, as Stefano died of cancer after only a year and a half of marriage.  Following his death, Celina lived alone for many years.  Two of her daughters died—one of a heart attack at age fifty-five and one of cancer in her forties.  Her other four children are scattered in other parts of the country, so that as her health has begun to decline, Celina has been relying more and more on her grandchildren who still live in the area.

In just the last couple of years, Celina has had a stroke and fractured her spine, among other things, which has caused her to have to live with various grandchildren.  When she needed an operation on her leg, however, she was hospitalized and from there sent to a nursing home to recuperate.  She wishes she could go home to one of her grandchildren’s houses, but she realizes this is unrealistic.  She is not making a smooth adjustment, however, and says she is in a lot of pain, calling out frequently because of it.  However, if anyone sits and talks with her at length, even for an hour or longer, she never once complains of pain or cries out.

Celina says that she has no hobbies because she never had time for fun; she was always working.  Occasionally she would go to a movie or listen to music, but her biggest interest was probably the church.  She says that she can recite the whole mass in Polish without one mistake.  Celina relates that she has always prayed from the time she was a little child and has gotten a lot of strength from prayer over the years.  She says that “Jesus has always been with me,” and that “I’m very religious.  Very deep.  But I lost a lot of faith when I came here because it’s hard to stay religious in a country like this.”  Indeed, she says that when she remembers how life used to be in Poland “I am bitter” and “I want to die.”  She cries easily and seems particularly fixated on the 1986 space shuttle explosion.

Attempts have been made to involve her children in her care, but they are all older themselves and have their own health problems.  One son recently sent her twenty dollars in a card, which Celina was thrilled with and proudly showed to all of the staff.  Overall, however, Celina remains depressed and despondent, reluctant to start life over yet again.

(Originally written: April 1996)

If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:


Showing 5 comments
  • Jolyn Crawford

    If she is still alive, that’s incredible!

    • Michelle

      Yes, Celina has long since passed. I wrote a version of this story in the late ’90’s, and at that time Celina was still alive. When I rewrote it for the blog, I wanted to keep the story intact as is. But thanks for commenting! Hope you enjoyed reading about this wonderful lady.

  • Jeanne Voelker

    Celina will celebrate her 118th birthday next week and she’s “reluctant to make a new life for herself” in the nursing home? Or was this interview conducted some years ago?

  • Pam Carmichael

    Wow Michelle I don’t know how they all did it in those days, very hard work and so many children, I know she is now happy in Heaven, thanks as always for these wonderful stories!!

    • Michelle

      I don’t know how they did it, either, Pam! Thanks for taking the time to read Celina’s story. It’s one way to keep a part of her alive!

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