It takes a certain degree of assurance, not to mention flexibility, to teach a teenage granddaughter how to do the splits when you’re 62 years old.
And it takes great elan to adorn yourself in your 80s with leopard and zebra prints and wear lots of jewelry, red lips, arched eyebrows and a good spritz or two of Calvin Klein’s Obsession.
Janina Chwiedor was both fashionable and fearless.
As a hungry 8-year-old in World War II Poland, she kept her nerve. Relatives said she often talked about how she’d walk up to Nazi occupiers and ask for something to eat. Once, they gave her a whole chicken and loaf of bread. Sometimes, she’d bring the soldiers a bottle of found wine and come away with blankets, which her mother sewed into pants.
In her 40s, a time when many settle for familiar routines, she left Poland to create a new life for herself and her daughter in America.
Ms. Chwiedor died Wednesday at 85 at her Lemont home.
“She was very gutsy,” said daughter Elizabeth Sfondeles.
Her mother helped her and her husband George raise three daughters. Ms. Chwiedor was always available to babysit, “drive them to school, ballet classes,” she said.
She’d ask her granddaughters about boys and work and worries.
“She was the hip grandma,” said Tina Sfondeles, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter. “She always wanted to help us or listen to us.”
When her granddaughters got up to leave, their babcia, who prayed the rosary daily, would bless them, Sfondeles said.
“Every time she saw me, she would push my bangs to the side and do the sign of the cross on my forehead,” she said.
“Everybody that met her, even at this age, would talk about how glamorous she was,” said another granddaughter, Joanne Sfondeles. “People would say they thought she was my mom’s sister, which would make my grandma preen. Her shoulders would come up like, ‘Of course.’ ’’
Starting in the 1970s, Ms. Chwiedor helped invigorate her son-in-law’s service station at Belmont and Milwaukee by stocking it with paczki, pickled herring and Polish magazines, drawing new customers and construction workers and day laborers who used the station as a meeting point for jobs.
“It really led to the success of the gas station because it brought in so many people,” said Kathy Sfondeles, another granddaughter. “In the morning, we’d have hundreds of people there. They’d buy a sweet roll, coffee, a Polish newspaper, Polish soda.”
Young Janina grew up in the Polish town of Augustow. As a child during World War II, she sometimes took refuge in churches as the Nazis took over private homes and looted them, Kathy Sfondeles said.
As a young woman, she was fascinated by all things American. In communist Poland, she’d scour flea markets for American fashions. One of her uncles, who’d immigrated to the United States, “had a big beautiful car, so my mother thought everybody’s rich here,” her daughter said.
In the 1970s, she arrived in Chicago. Ms. Chwiedor worked at a lock company, but the hours were long and breaks were few. After she brought her daughter to America, Elizabeth went to work at George Sfondeles’ service station. Once they were married, he hired his mother-in-law. Her gregarious personality and push for Polish goods helped him operate it successfully for three decades. He died in 2013.
In her prime, Ms. Chwiedor grew a bountiful garden of carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, basil, mint and strawberries.
Until a few months ago, despite a bout of melanoma and 16 leg operations to ease peripheral artery disease, “She always wanted to go everywhere and see everything,” Tina Sfondeles said.
After her surgeries, “As soon as she woke up, she’d say, ‘Give me my makeup.’ She’d bring a mirror, [get] everything done, even the eyebrows,” said Kathy Sfondeles.
She kept up with news in Europe via Polish satellite TV. Her life was “Poland, church and family,” said Joanne Sfondeles.
Ms. Chwiedor journeyed to Rome and Jerusalem with tour groups from SS. Cyril & Methodius parish in Lemont.
“Her proudest moment was meeting Pope John Paul II,” said Joanne Sfondeles. “The only thing higher than that for a Polish Catholic is meeting God.”
Visitation is set for 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Markiewicz Funeral Home in Lemont. A funeral Mass is planned for 10 a.m. Monday at SS. Cyril & Methodius Church in Lemont, with burial at Resurrection Cemetery.