Mother, Community Volunteer, Feminist and Storyteller Extraordinaire
Storytelling is a universal human trait and provides both human connection and healing. Needing a dose of healing myself, I decided to call one of my favorite people, Anne Fiyalka. Anyone who has ever met Anne knows that she has a penchant for the spoken word.
At 99 years old, Anne has many stories to tell, and she tells them quite well. Whenever I listen to one of her stories, I find myself hanging on to every word, transported to another time and place, where I imagine, laugh and sometimes cry.
Integrating her life stories with themes of faith, love, hope and inclusion, her favorite story is her flight with Amelia Earhart in 1936, while a sophomore at Warren Harding high school. Anne was among one of three students chosen to fly with Earhart because of her excellent grade point average. While they were up in the air soaring through the vast horizon, Amelia turned to Anne in the front passenger seat and said, “It is not only a man’s world. It’s a woman’s world, as well.”
Those words stuck with Anne throughout her life. Aside from being a wife and working mother to four children, she has always made it a point whenever the opportunity arises, to share her story about Earhart as a cornerstone for advocating women’s equality. She has given dozens of interviews and speeches, her most recent at a “Women in the Workplace” event last spring at Iona College.
An equally favorite story of Anne’s (and mine) is how she met her late husband, Albert: “Do you know how I met my husband? Well, I’ll tell you. You wouldn’t believe it, but when I graduated from high school, I played Mary Magdalene in a play called, ‘The Upper Room,’ put on by the pastor of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Bridgeport. Al was also in the play.
“One afternoon I was downtown at Lofts Restaurant, where you could get a lunch for 40 cents. A sandwich, coffee and dessert, all for 40 cents. Can you believe it? And so, I happened to be walking out as Albert was walking in, and he stopped and told me he was drafted to fight in the war. I asked him to write me a card while he was away. He wrote to me several times a week. In one of his letters, he asked me to marry him and told me to send my reply via telegram. I responded that I couldn’t say yes, but I couldn’t say no either, and that my response would follow in a letter.
“I didn’t eat for two days, thinking about my response, and I finally wrote to him and told him that I didn’t know him well enough to accept his marriage proposal and that we needed to get to know one another more when he got back. From that point on, every time he had a furlough, we would go out on a date. We got engaged on Easter Sunday and married on Sept. 14, 1946.”
Anne and Albert lived in Bridgeport where he was the assistant manager of the Social Security Office. They had their first three children, Arthur, Arlene and Arnold in Bridgeport. Albert was promoted to manager of the Social Security Office in Stamford, where they moved and had their fourth child, Arlene. Then, something unexpected happened that changed the course of Anne’s life. In 1973, Albert died of a heart attack, leaving her to raise the children. Her youngest child, Andrea was only twelve.
Anne took a full time job with an electrical contractor company and cared for her four children on her own. Her brother and sister and their families would come to visit Anne and spend the holidays at her house. One day, her brother approached her and asked her why she didn’t live closer to them. Anne agreed, but didn’t have time to look for a new place to live with her busy schedule. Her brother agreed to search for a house for Anne and her children and found one in Easton, where she has lived since 1975.
What do you like the most about living in Easton, I asked her? “That’s easy,” she replied. “The quiet solitude, which makes it easier to stay at home during this time.” Up until one month ago, Anne had an extremely active life. She read me her schedule:
“Mondays, I go see the free movie at the Easton Senior Center where I am also a volunteer coordinator. I leave Tuesdays open for important appointments. On Wednesdays, I go bowling with my bowling group. My son Albert calls me every Wednesday night to ask my score. On Thursdays, I take my friend who doesn’t drive anymore grocery shopping. I take a course in weaving at the senior center every Friday morning. at 9:30 where I made rugs for my grandsons out of their old jeans, rugs for my friends and a table runner for my daughter.
“On Saturdays I go shopping and to evening mass. And on Sundays, I’m a Eucharistic minister and reader at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church in Easton, where I received the St. Augustine’s medal for parishioners who do a great deal for the church. And since 1987, I volunteer at the polls every Election Day, as an official checker.”
Since she’s had to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Anne keeps busy reading, playing scrabble on the computer, assembling a 500-piece puzzle of a winter scene with horses pulling a coach, and checking in with her friends from the senior center, including her good friend Luella, who is 104 years old. She has also started to clean out some of her drawers. She’s reading, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book about World War II. On a nice day, Anne walks around her yard and sits out on her back deck. She listens to the Catholic mass every morning at 10 a.m. on Channel 24 out of Hartford, and on occasion, plays her favorite church hymn,” Here I am Lord,” on the organ as she sings along.
“My oldest son, Arthur, 70, who lives in New York, is so paranoid that I will catch the coronavirus,” says Anne, since her second son Arnold, who lives with her, has an essential job and must report to work. “I tell him, stop worrying. I’m not concerned about myself, I’m concerned about my family. I’ve had a blessed and long life. I’m not afraid of death.”
Anne is the oldest of three children. Her mother and father, her brother and sister, all of her cousins, and her daughter Arlene have died. Having such strong faith, she doesn’t have any trouble feeling positive that we will get through this pandemic. “Everyone needs to stay cool,” she tells me. “We can get through this, if we keep cool. For everything we face, God has a gentle reason.”
She assured me that her friends and neighbors check in with her often and offer to pick up groceries. Last week, her neighbor, Sarah Lehberger, called Anne and told her to look outside on her front steps. “You should see what she left me!” Anne said with delight. “There must have been over $100 worth of groceries!”
She ended our conversation with an invitation. “Come over one day, when this is all over, and I’ll play ‘Here I am Lord,’ for you on the organ. Then we can sit out on my back deck and listen to the birds sing. I might even let you read my proposal letter from Albert.”
“It’s a date!” I replied.
I felt much better after having spoken with Anne, who in her seasoned wisdom, reminded me that one has to be steadfast, strong and have a great deal of faith to make it through the unpredictable times in life.