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100 years young: Mary Zaorski looks back on a century of life

On cusp of reaching a milestone birthday, Barrie woman with big heart and sharp wit has a few words of wisdom: 'Just hard work and sleep well'

Gracious, glamorous and sporting a sharp wit alongside a big heart. That’s how those who know Mary Zaorski best described the soon-to-be centenarian. 

“She’s always impeccably well-dressed. She was working, for years in the fashion industry, and you had to be presentable. The people coming in there were well-off people who wanted style, and Mary knew style. She knew it in London too,” said nephew Mike McClelland, adding his aunt was the one who sponsored him and his wife Margaret in the mid-70s to come to Canada. 

Over the years, the three have built a strong bond, he added.

“In the early days, it was always them inviting us over for supper. Then we got our house and they’d come over to see us,” he said. “She appreciated the family connection. She’d been over here on her own for a while, no relatives, and I was the first one to come, so we built that. She had a lot of Polish friends, but I was the first of the Irish family to come out. It’s been this way now for 47 years.”

As the closest family member they had at the time, Margaret McClelland told BarrieToday Mary served as a surrogate mother when she first arrived in Canada. 

“I was very homesick and Mary assured me that when she came she was phenomenally homesick too (but) that you do get over it. She was always there to help me adjust to the fact I wasn’t living in Ireland anymore,” she said.  “We were always very close. I just always thought she was so glamorous and (has) the best sense of humour.”

Born in County Armagh in Northern Ireland on Nov. 12, 1922, Mary — who is preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday next week — was one of 10 children who lived, worked and played on the small family farm in the countryside.

“We didn’t have a lot at that time. We went to school, we played. We helped a little. It was only a small farm, you can’t compare it to here, it was just food for the family,” said Zaorski, who has been a resident at Amica Little Lake in Barrie’s north end for the last four years. 

When Mary was only 16, she travelled more than 700 kilometres to join her sister in London, England.

“She’d just had a baby and I went there to be with her,” Mary recalled, noting not long after she arrived, the war began. 

Like all British women during the Second World War, Mary was required to begin what she called “war work” and got a job at a factory just outside of the city building airplanes. 

“As a young person, to me it was exciting, here in this big place, doing this thing where I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admitted. 

Even though the job could have its tedious moments, there was one day that was particularly exciting, and stands out quite prominently in her memory to this day.

“The King and Queen came and I was talking to them … George VI. We didn’t know they were coming. They came over to where we were working and I had to get up. The king wanted to pick something up and I said no to him. I pushed his hand away,” she said, adding she offered him her glove so that he wouldn’t burn his hand on the hot metal. “Then the queen was asking how we felt and how our hands were. I was so tall and she was so small. She was very nice.”

Living in London in wartime meant living amidst the sound of constant air raid sirens, Mary acknowledged.

“There were lots of bombs dropping around close to where we were. There was not much we could do if a building was hit,” she said, recalling one particular night around 11 p.m. just as she and two friends were about to start their shift. “There was a bomb that fell in front of the building. All of the houses around, all the windows were shattered but nobody was killed.”

It wasn’t all work and no play; she and her friends still managed to find ways to enjoy themselves.

“We’d go to the movies and we had very nice bands. Our bands were at least 10 or 12 players,” she said, adding she and her friends loved to dance. 

It was while at one of those dances that Mary met her future husband — a Polish soldier named Bogdan Zaorski, who was a member of the Tank Regiment attached to the British Army during the invasion of Sicily. 

“I met my husband at the Hammersmith Palais and were introduced to each other by someone else I knew at the dance hall,” she said, adding she couldn’t put into words what drew her to the man who would eventually become her husband of 45 years.

The couple married in 1950 and one year later, boarded a boat set for Canada. 

“I was sick all the way,” she said. “We arrived in the winter … That was a mistake! Then we took the train (to Toronto) and I thought it would never end,” she quipped.

Coming from London to Toronto was a bit of a culture shock for the then 29-year-old.

“I couldn’t believe it was such a small town,” she admitted, adding it didn’t take long for her and her husband to find their footing in their new city. “I used to work for a fur company in London and they had a store on Bloor Street — Squires and Wells — so I worked there for a little while.”

Mary didn’t spend long working at the uptown shop before leaving to have her first child — a daughter named Virginia — in 1952. A few years later, the couple welcomed their second child, Mark.  

Despite the ups and downs of starting fresh in a new country, Mary told BarrieToday she’s had a wonderful life on this side of the Atlantic.

“At first I didn’t like it at all because I was quite homesick. But it’s (been) a great life here. I am glad we came,” she said. “I am happy to be here except I lost my husband and he was only 68 (but) we met a lot of friends.

With her big milestone birthday just around the corner, Mary was hard pressed to think of any advice or secrets to longevity she could offer.

“Just hard work and sleep well.”