Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

She's always on the job

Even at 83, Ukrainian immigrant won't stop earning her way each and every day

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Jaroslawa (Sylvia) Palamartchuk is 83 years old.

Her bent back is a testament to the years she spent washing floors, cleaning offices and straightening the homes of strangers.

She would work for five dollars a day as a house cleaner, come home, "take a piece of bread, a little meat" and then set out to scrub executive suites for 50 cents an hour.

She came to Canada in 1948 from Ukraine. In Montreal, she was handed a $20 bill by immigration officials and wished well. How her life turned out, whether she starved or succeeded, was up to her.

Palamartchuk, like so many immigrants before and after, succeeded. She did so by sheer dint of hard work, sacrifice and ambition. There was no social assistance or government medical system for her.

The newcomers worked hard. They had no choice.

She admits her age to shock people, smiling when it is declared an impossibility. She says she tries to stand up straight when young folks are around.

Even straight as an arrow she's still shy of five feet.

Today, she is the owner of Pinky's Laundromat, a warm and clean place in the heart of the inner city. Despite her age, despite the feet that hurt when she stands, despite the fact that this clever woman scrimped and saved until she could afford a magnificent home, she still works every day.

"Old people, they need to work," she says with a shrug. "They need to get blood flowing."

She and her husband Joe pulled together enough money to buy a corner store on Mountain Avenue and Sinclair Street, working long hours every day and night. Life was hard, but they managed.

Thirty-seven years ago, a neighbour told Palamartchuk she wanted to sell her laundromat. She needed a $1,000 deposit for the building and the washers and dryers.

Again, the couple squeezed together the money. She made $4,000 her first year.

"Big money for immigrant. Now whole thing worth $250,000," she says, laughing and waving her hand around her cramped office.

The shelves are filled with little boxes of detergent, jugs of bleach and Hilroy scribblers she uses to keep her meticulous records.

Her security camera has a picture of the Last Supper resting on top. She has a panic button that directly summons the police.

A battered couch with a distinct bow in the middle provides her a place to nap.

"I want to send big bouquet to Winnipeg police. I want to say I am very happy to live in Canada. People not appreciate it. Police not appreciated."

She grabs a stranger's knee and squeezes hard.

"I talk like old lady from boat. But I love this country."

She has been robbed seven times. Once, the crooks beat her so badly she ended up in hospital. That was four years ago and her two adult daughters begged her to sell the place.

"I say no. I face reality. I clean the blood, I start all over again. I say, 'Sylvia, pray to God and take whatever comes.' I never give up in my life. I escaped from Russia, from Communists. This doesn't scare me."

She doesn't need the money. She managed to buy the laundromat (the identity of the namesake Pinky is lost in the mists of time), the suites above and an adjacent building.

Then she and Joe moved into real estate, buying up apartment blocks. She'd sleep on the floor, paint the rooms and then go to work.

She now lives alone, a widow, in a grand riverside house on Roslyn Crescent. She never believed an immigrant could have such a beautiful house. She gets teary when she talks about her gardens.

"I say, 'My dear God, look how much you have given me.' "

But her life outside the laundromat holds no interest to her customers. Most of them are young moms with children. They ask the diminutive owner for change, boxes of soap, a cup of bleach.

She smiles at them all, speaks softly to the children.

"I give big bouquet to aboriginal people. They was 37 years my customers. I love them very much."

Palamartchuk has cut back on her hours to appease her daughters. Now she only works between noon and 8 p.m., seven days a week.

"I scrubbing floors, making change. What I do if I at home?"

Her final piece of advice, as she hobbles to a washing machine?

"Do your best. Work hard. No welfare, just work hard."

And then she counts out quarters for a pregnant teenager.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2009 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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