Joseph Frank Makowski passed from this world on Friday, October 25th, following a short respiratory illness. He died at Brookdale Senior Living Center in Portage, Michigan, just two days before his official 93rd birthday, although his recently discovered baptismal certificate shows him to have been 95½ at the time of his passing. He is survived by his three sons, Joseph, John and David, his daughter, Christina, and his brother, John, 6 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. Henrietta, his wife of 46 years, preceded him in death in 2008. His peers – – – who are we kidding? Joseph was one of a kind.
Joseph was born in the in the village of Terebejno in pre-World War II eastern Poland, now part of Belarus. With the Soviet invasion of Poland in WWII, soldiers woke his family in the middle of the night and they were deported on cattle cars to a labor camp in Siberia. Out of the more than 1.5 million Poles captured and sent to Soviet labor camps, only 160,500 survived. Following the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski agreement, 6 foot 2-inch tall Joseph, weighing only 80 pounds, was one of the fortunate survivors to be released.
As a result of World War II, Joseph found himself in Uzbekistan, Palestine, India, Afghanistan, Africa, Italy, and France after Siberia. Christina, as a young child knowing nothing of war, would hear him talk of such exotic places and imagined her father had been an international man of mystery before choosing to marry and start a family.
Post-war, Joseph’s family were refugees without a country to return to. The family was offered resettlement to Australia, but his mother refused the offer believing it to be the “devil’s land” and the family chose Canada instead. Joseph moved to Western New York when he married his first wife, Eugenia Slowinska, the mother of his two older sons, Joseph and John.
Less than a decade later, Joseph was a young widower with two small children when he met Henrietta Drzymkowska on a blind date. Joseph and Henrietta were married in 1962 and raised their family of four children in rural Western New York. He was known to many local businesses as “Joe from Gowanda” as was his habit of identifying himself on the phone. Joseph has lived in Kalamazoo, MI near his daughter since 2006.
Joseph was a consummate napper, preferring to bask in the warmth of the sun or a fireplace. He was a teller of tall tales, frequently chastised by his wife for exaggerating. He often began conversations with “Can’t complain,” and then go right into complaining. But complaining was a sport for him and gave him the framework to build his tales. His frugality, no doubt a result of the deprivations of war and refugee camps, was legendary. When the well at the Kalamazoo house was replaced following a lightning strike, we were told that the total electric costs for running well water for 24 straight hours was only $1. Even with that knowledge, Joseph preferred to water the garden one plant at a time with the water collected from the downspouts in 55-gallon barrels using an empty cottage cheese container. It took a while. Henrietta, on the other hand, would wake up around 4:30 am so she could run the sprinklers in the garden for hours before Joseph awoke. His near deafness meant that he would sleep through the well pump noise and they had a very productive garden. Joseph never quite understood why the garden yielded so much less after Henrietta passed.
Joseph moved to Brookdale Assisted Living 5½ years ago. He could be stubborn – and complaining was one of his favorite pastimes – but Brookdale became home and the staff became family, nicknaming him “Papa Joe.” He would look for ways to connect with people, speaking a few words in Swahili or whatever language he had familiarity with when discovering background of caregivers.
Also caring for Joseph in the last year or so of his life was Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan. They were amazingly kind and caring, made him comfortable and were instantly responsive to his needs. Their music therapist learned several polka songs for him and his nurse, Matt, would massage lotion into his sore feet and calves and give him regular haircuts. Joseph looked forward to their visits and they were an important reason why Joseph was such a happy and loving person in the last year.
Despite difficult circumstances early in life, Joseph was generally a happy man always with a ready smile. He never spoke of his past with bitterness. He genuinely enjoyed life and he touched many lives.
A memorial mass will be held for him 11 am on November 22 at St Joseph Roman Catholic Church, Gowanda, NY. Those wishing to honor his memory may donate to Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan at https://www.hospiceswmi.org/give/