A tribute to my mother by Adina Zaiontz.
My Mom, Lucy Zaiontz, passed away at the age of 62 after a difficult battle with Liposarcoma cancer. My mom spent her life trying to lift us up to a better one. Her example and hard work still helps and inspires us now and will continue always.
My mom was born, Lucy (“Lusia”) Shusterman in Moscow, USSR, during a snowstorm on a cold winter night on April 14, 1952. The oldest of three kids, Lucy’s mom, Klara Balabir was a prominent surgeon and her father, Joseph Shusterman was a Soviet war hero and army officer who helped defeat Nazis in WW2. As the eldest daughter with a busy doctor mom, Lucy often had to be the caretaker and the responsible one, looking after her younger siblings, Maya and Eli. As a child, her family moved to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Joseph’s elderly grandparents lived.
In 1966 there was very powerful earthquake in Tashkent. The family home was destroyed, and Lucy had vivid memories into adulthood of the walls crumbling and closing in on her as a child. Homeless and needing to rebuild their life, the Shustermans moved to Lithuania, as part of a Soviet government relocation of earthquake survivors. Klara chose Druskininkai, a spa town in Lithuania, as the place to settle, because she hoped, as a doctor, she could find a job there. The family established themselves there, where Klara embarked on a successful career as a surgeon and local hospital administrator, and Joseph continued as a senior officer in the military. After high school, Lucy later enrolled in the nearby republic of Minsk, studying sciences at Belarus State University.
For most of post WW2 years, there was much anti Semitism in the Soviet Union. My mom remembers being ridiculed at school where “zhid” (dirty Jew) was a common epithet. But for most of Sovient history in the post war years, emigration was not an option for Jews living there. In the 1970’s the USSR lifted the “Iron Curtain” to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel for the first time. Almost 2 million Soviet Jews chose to leave, with my parents’ families among them. Lucy’s family decided the time was right to leave and start a new life in Israel. Her family immigrated to Israel in 1974, forcing Lucy to interrupt her studies, to join her family’s journey, or else remain alone in the Soviet Union.
Soon after arriving in Israel, Lucy met my Dad, Jeff Zaiontz, who was studying engineering and was also a recent Soviet emigre from the Ukraine. During this immigration, Lusia (Lucy’s Russian name) became “Leah”, (as most new immigrants were encouraged to use Hebrew name instead of their Russian name). Her family lived in a trailer when they first arrived, and attended an “ulpan”, where immigrants to Israel learn to speak Hebrew. She essentially had to begin her life again: learning a new language, Hebrew and re-starting her university studies. Despite these challenges, Lucy’s academic proficiency gained her admission to Israel’s renown Technion, a globally prominent university for polytechnic and sciences. During this time, she always told us of being hungry, and feeling great insecurity and instability due to all the changes. Her family was trying to establish themselves. Her mom opened up a doctor’s clinic in their new apartment in the Israeli town of Or Akiva and started seeing patients in the neighborhood. My mom had to figure out this new Israeli life on her own. Jeff, who had been in Israel a few more years, was happy to “show the ropes” to Lucy. A handsome and a sociable young “jock around campus” at Technion with many friends, a job and an athletic career as a wrestler, Jeff remembers at first being attracted to Lucy’s beauty and then discovering a deep intelligence, fire and drive to succeed. With Jeff, My mom found a street smart, driven immigrant like herself, who was ready to build a family and take on a future together, in a world full of unknowns.
In 1975, Lucy and Jeff married and soon had two children, Adina, in 1975 and Keren in 1980. They settled in the town of Miqdal Ha Emek (in the Valley) where my mom enjoyed being a mom, but always yearned to complete her studies and build her own identity and successful career. In 1982, Jeff proposed they make the move to Canada for a better life and opportunities. My mom cautiously agreed. In immigrating a second time in her life to Canada, Leah became “Lucy”, and set out to begin yet again, learning English, getting a job to support her family and also having a new baby, her youngest son Daniel in 1985. Starting from scratch as new immigrants once again, Lucy and Jeff were never afraid to work difficult and humble jobs. Despite their university education in two countries, upon coming to Canada, Lucy worked in hotel kitchens and Jeff delivered pizzas. Jeff eventually found work as an aerospace and mechanical engineer, working on the Canadarm. Lucy learned computers and accounting and became head of Accounts Receivable at a Film and Video company. All the while she found time on the weekends to teach her children to cook, clean, support their artistic and academic talents and provide advice for living life bravely.
One dream always remained for Lucy. She had always wanted to become a doctor, like her accomplished mom. In her 40s Lucy was not afraid to go back to school and re-invent herself to pursue the medical career she always wanted. She decided to go into nursing and was accepted to Seneca College in the Registered Nursing program. As kids, we watched our mom study in a small laundry room closet that she converted into her study space. One of my best memories of my mom is going with her to her graduation ceremony. She was the oldest graduate there, and received a hearty applause when she stepped up to get her diploma. After completing the Seneca College nursing program, she climbed the ranks to eventually manage the Neuro Step down nursing unit at Toronto Western Hospital at the University Health Network. She was proud of her work and was well loved by doctors, patients and fellow nurses, who called her “Mama Lucy”.
My mom taught me a lot about bravery in the way she lived her life and fought her Liposarcoma cancer. Every treatment option was explored. In her life she was a fighter and an underdog and was never afraid to start over, confront injustice and stand up for herself and her three kids. She loved us and was fiercely proud of us. Today, her husband Jeff and her surviving children, Adina and husband Michael with Lucy’s grandchildren Sophia and Nathan, Daniel and his wife Rebecca with Lucy’s grandaughter Samantha, and Keren and her husband Dylan, as well as our extended family in Israel and South Africa still love and miss her every day.