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Senior Spotlight: A reflection on decades of caregiving

in Community

By Jill Olson

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series highlighting the lives of seniors living in the Wausau area. To nominate a senior for a future spotlight feature, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com.

Wanda Strugalla, a resident at Benedictine Living Community, answered our questions about her life and memories. With multiple health issues, Wanda said her heart has stopped three times. one of those times, she saw a figure all in white standing in the room, just before her heart started to beat again on its own.

When asked if she was raised to believe in God, she answered, “Oh, yes.”

At 86, she has many years of hard work behind her.  She’s loved and lost and overcome, and she’s not afraid of what comes next.

Where were you born and raised?

I lived in Radisson and then Couderay, Wisconsin, until I was seven, when my family moved to Wausau.

What was your first job?

When I was three, it was my job to rock my sister’s cradle so she wouldn’t cry while my parents were out milking. I am the oldest, with one brother and four sisters. I had my first paid babysitting job at 13.

From the time I could remember, I’ve worked all the time. My father was an alcoholic, and my childhood was hard.

Right out of high school, I moved to Chicago and worked for three years at the Olson Rug Factory.

Any children or grandchildren?

Three children: Ronda, 52, Diane, 55, and Steven, 65, and five grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. They are all in the Wausau area.

What are some of your past employment experiences?

Cradle rocker, babysitter, house cleaner, office worker at Olson Rug Company, head cashier at Winkelman’s Department Store in Wausau, and five years at the Health Care Center. When my husband died at 54, I worked two jobs, cleaning hotels and working at restaurants, including Abby’s Café.

I loved cooking and baking. I was pretty well known, they called me The Pie Lady.

Slipping on a snowy sidewalk on the way to work at 4 a.m., I broke my ankle so badly my toes were where my heel should have been. I crawled to the nearest house and was off a year recovering, but afterward was never able to do all the things I used to. Later, I worked at Bill’s Fine Foods.

John and Wanda Strugalla’s wedding photo, courtesy of Wanda Strugalla

What are some of your early dreams?

I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. I like to deal with people, and I can judge them just by talking with them. That’s why everybody always calls me and ask what I think of this person or that person.

Share an early memory about your life.

Our farm had no school bus that came by, so I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was so strict, he made me learn everything in Polish before I went to school. On the first day, I spoke Polish and the teacher didn’t know what I was saying. I had to go to the bathroom real bad, and I tried to tell her in Polish. She wouldn’t let me go, so I peed my pants. I’ll never forget that. The teacher felt so bad; she told my grandpa ‘I couldn’t understand what she was saying!’

Favorite food:

Shrimp.

Least favorite food:

Liver. I can’t stand liver.

One person you really admire:

My youngest daughter, she really does so much for me.

How do you feel about social media and changing technology?

I don’t even know how to use a computer…. My grandson wants to get me one so bad, but I tell him, ‘I’ll never use it!’”

What was the most difficult thing about being a mother?

I don’t think there was anything hard about it…. My kids were my whole life.

[But there was one difficult season, followed by a beautiful turnaround.]

When my husband died in his early 50s, my youngest daughter was still in high school.

She was so close to her dad. Oh, she really took it bad. She was a straight A student before her dad passed away, then her grades were going down. Her teacher called me and was wondering what was wrong, so I told her…. She didn’t want to go to school, she didn’t want to do anything…. Um…And um… I cry sometimes when I talk about this…. Anyway, one morning…she was sitting at the table eating breakfast, getting ready for school, it was the middle of the winter. All the sudden, she screamed so loud. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ She said, ‘A butterfly, a Monarch butterfly sitting at my plate!’ I went in there, and said, ‘What are you, dreaming?’…. [But] it was sitting there.

I took the Monarch gently from my daughter’s plate, opened a window and he flew away.

My husband had built a flower garden off our patio, where we would sit often. We were out there one day when he said, “When I die, I’m going to come back as a butterfly.”

After that, our daughter was changed. The butterfly was my husband letting us know things were okay, he was at peace.

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