“When I depart/ bring me to a place/of summer days/where flowers bloom/and friends hold my hands.//Then my heart will rejoice.” Carmen Ziolkowski*
When the news of Carmen Ziolkowski’s departure arrived in late December, a wintry chill settled on Sarnia-Lambton’s literary community. It left me and others numb but five months later, flowers did indeed bloom during her Celebration of Life held May 26, 2019 at the Sarnia Riding Club.
With the club house windows overlooking Lake Huron and a large vase of carnations greeting family and friends at the door, the love for this inspirational woman filled the room.
As a writer, Carmen often wrote about flowers; she left a bountiful bouquet, a legacy of literary buds and blooms for her readers to admire and cherish. Trilliums, dancing cherry blossoms, forsythia, periwinkle, wisteria, bleeding hearts, and even bright dandelions scented her work. Her poetry sang with birdsong, the chirp of a sparrow, the tweet of a robin, the boisterous vocals of geese, cardinals, and eagles as they swooped and soared across the pages. The sun and the moon also played vital roles in her seasonal portraits.
Norma West Linder, one of her long-time colleagues and friends, emphasized this floral theme in her tribute poem to Carmen:
Parsons Street Poet**
by Norma West Linder
Carmen was drawn to flowers
as flies to cookie crumbs
or hikers’ feet to nature trails
She was always first to spot
Jack-in-the-Pulpit’s green spear
through the forest floor
So it was only fitting
that of all the cherry trees
lining her street
the one facing her house
each year was first to burst
into pink blossoms
She revelled in the riches
of every scented blossom
the way a true gourmet
savours a meal
the way a mother sees
her firstborn’s smile
Another one of her colleagues and long-time friends Lynn Tait stated that she was honoured that the first poetry book review she ever wrote was for and requested by Carmen. She also touched on Carmen’s interest in nature.
“Carmen’s nature haiku never just sat on the page,” said Tait, “they were seldom static. I loved them. Many of her haiku and nature poems featured cherry trees.”
Below is Tait’s tribute poem:
by Lynn Tait
Little cherry tree,
leaves all a-giggle
your flower petals drift
towards the earth,
too slow in your opinion,
glistening – tears
for friends loved,
whose flowers fell
Although, I didn’t know Carmen as long or as well as some of her long-time friends, she still reminded me of an exotic rose, her red hair aflame, her determination like a wandering but thorny vine climbing up trellises and terraces indicative of her Italian heritage.
Feisty and flamboyant even in her mid-nineties, even with a cane or a walker, she continued to swim and remained determined to climb the flight of stairs to her home, more flights of stairs to her second floor office, slow and steady, as though she was hiking up Mount Everest.
She loved travelling, kept a travel journal, shared her daring stories about her world adventures, and even expressed an interest in flying to Madagascar only a year ago.
Former Business Trends editor Heather Rath mentioned Carmen’s travelogues in a tribute letter shared during the celebration:
“Because of your travelling spirit, you influenced me to do likewise, Carmen. Your rich imagery captured my imagination. In the 1980’s, in one of your many travel articles for Business Trends, you wrote: “I was 12 when I first heard of the Ligurian Riviera, the coast where flowers grow every day of the year. A handsome young man was telling my older sister about Loano, a small town there and he said: …. ‘Genoa, Allassio, San Remo and Monte Carlo are not very far’. Those exotic names tantalized my adventurous nature like a mirage.”
You inhaled Scotland with equal wonder and I quote: “This is a place where lambs graze on lavender and rabbits eat thyme, where primroses bloom red, purple, and yellow from April on. The hillsides are splashed with the many colours of rhododendrons…their bright colours among seas of green give this northern land a haunting enchantment.”…
…These excerpts from your travel writing bear witness to your talent, curiosity, empathy, and beauty, all written in English. How remarkable, Carmen, since your first language is Italian.”
Carmen often wove her Italian heritage into her writing and community life. She started her writing career as a playwright, writing and staging plays for the Italian community. And when she was challenged to write in English, she still enjoyed sharing her Italian language by slipping in a word or two to enhance the familial settings. She was a long-time member of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW). She never lost that Italian accent that made her special.
“…these [Italian] immigrants, mostly of peasant background, didn’t know what to make of this strong-minded, liberated woman,” shared her close Italian writer/friend and editor Delia DeSantis. “Some Italian men were even afraid she would corrupt their wives, but most of all, their daughters, for Carmen was always advising young girls to “go to university… travel… don’t be afraid to explore the world….
…Meeting Carmen was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was brought up in a strict immigrant family, and she became my ‘life’ mentor. She encouraged me to think for myself and to follow my dreams. The first time I attended a conference by the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, it was Carmen who encouraged me to go. She was already a member of the AICW, and she said that meeting other Italian Canadian writers would be good for me.***”
According to Anne Beachey, one of Carmen’s closest friends, Carmen had a rebellious but also a humourous side to her. “She often read books that were banned or were not supposed to be read.”
Below is a limerick that Beachey wrote on demand and read at the Writers’ in Transition (WIT) 1981 Christmas party. According to Beachey: “I didn’t think there was much else to say about Carmen but she was BUGGING THE HELL out of me to write another – about HER of course. It is a bit raunchy but she loved it.”
Limerick for Carmen**
by Anne Kavanagh Beachey
Dear Carmen, you know that it’s true
I’ve written five poems ’bout you,
And I’ve scratched my poor head;
But I think it’s all said
And there really is nothing that’s new.
After New Year I strongly suggest
You perform – with your usual zest.
Do something dramatic.
Do not remain static.
And give us your absolute best.
Perhaps you could have an affair
And get caught in Society’s glare.
Commit a great sin,
Drink a bottle of gin
And ride in the buff on a mare.
Or pose for a men’s magazine
In a posture that’s truly obscene.
To set the tongues wagging
And all the wives nagging
And Bruno creating a scene!
He`d probably chop you in bits
For so lewdly exposing your tits
And that sacred spot
Which God did allot,
But oh, you`d bring fame to the WITs!
So don`t let my paper stay blank.
You know I`d effusively thank
You for lurid material
I could write a serial
And cry all the way to the bank!
Carmen, who often worked on her needlework at Thursday night workshop meetings, seemed invincible. She was a survivor of diphtheria, the war, heart surgery, and faced death on numerous other occasions. At the age of 94, so close to 95, she felt it was time and embraced death when it arrived.
Tait reflected, “Carmen was very heart-broken when Adele [Kearns Thomas], Peggy [Fletcher], and especially Venera [Fazio] passed away. She wanted God to take her instead. Two days before her death she was still giggling and complaining her passing was taking too long.”
Bob McCarthy, a historical fiction writer and organizer of a Monday afternoon workshop that Carmen often attended, had this to say:
“Carmen was as colourful as a multi-hued garden of roses, helping each of us to appreciate the beauty of everyday life.
Her poetry and prose helped each us to see both the present and the past through the eyes of her experiences and her candor.
Whether she was trying to tell us about the days immediately after the war in Europe or simply expressing her thoughts about the birds and the flowers all around us here in Sarnia, her captivating words allowed us to imagine and become a part of whatever she was writing about.”
Through Carmen’s eyes and her words, we could appreciate more the wonders of life all around us. With her help, we were better able to express on paper our own thoughts. She always saw the simple pleasures of each new day.”
She touched so many people. London writer Ryan Gibbs reminisced and wrote a poem about having lunch with Carmen. A local politician Margaret Bird wrote an article about this writer’s involvement in the literary community for the local newspaper and also expressed a few words. Other guests like Sam and Najah Shuqair shared memories and/or read work written by Carmen.
As De Santis concluded,
“She went to her rest with her beautiful head of white with a youthful swatch of purple at the front. She will be always be remembered by those who knew her for her strong resilience, her distinctive character, and her talents.”
I agree. Carmen was vibrant, an everlasting bloom, pulling us into her garden of words.
This New Spring****
by Carmen Ziolkowski
The spring air
has turned warmer now.
I take my friends
into the woods
to see the trilliums in bloom.
CARMEN ZIOLKOWSKI – was born in Italy and following World War II, lived in England where she worked as a registered nurse and later a midwife. In 1955, she immigrated to Canada and enrolled in the Port Huron Junior College, where she studied Journalism, finishing the course at Wayne State University. She has won several prizes for her poetry and in 1988 Ziolkowski received a special award for her contribution to Canadian and Italian literature from the Italian Vice Consul to Canada. Her first book of poems, Roses Bloom at Dusk, was translated into Italian and Japanese.
Ziolkowski had taught creative writing at Lambton College. She was a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, the Canadian Authors Association, the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, Pen International, Writers in Transition, and The Ontario Poetry Society.
Ziolkowski’s first novel, House of Four Winds, was published in 1987, her second book of poetry, World of Dreams, was published in 1995, her chapbook, Moments to Treasure, was published in 2008, and her latest work, The Moon Before the Sun, was published in 2009. At the time of her death, Ziolkowski was working on her diary of life on La Monaca, where she was born, in Italy. One of her last featured readings was at a Sarnia-Lambton’s 2017 National Poetry Month Celebration (April 18, 2017); she also shared work during a local open mic on November 11, 2017.
She passed away on December 26, 2018.
A question and answer interview with Carmen appears here. It was conducted by Lambton County writer Gloria Pearson-Vasey and posted on her blog. September 23, 2015.