The Oldest Kuznicki

Aunt Rita is my grandfather’s aunt’s husband’s sister, but she’s always been a Kuznicki. Rita Loretta Niedbalski was born on February 20, 1925 in Dunkirk, New York to Frank and Mary (Umataoski) Niedbalski. Frank and Mary had three other children–Valentine  “Bill” (b. 1912), Anna (b. 1914) and Agatha (b. 1917)–and the family owned a small farm in Depression-era New York. After Rita’s brother, Bill, married Margaret Peterson during World War II, the Peterson sisters–Frances, Tilly, Birdie, Marg and Bea–welcomed her into the group. Rita, Margaret and my great-grandmother, Beatrice (Peterson) Kuznicki, were inseparable from the start.

Rita Niedbalski (fourth from the left) and the Peterson sisters
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From a young age, Rita and her siblings had to work hard to help keep the family farm afloat, and Rita’s always loved having a job. After finishing school, she answered an advertisement in the Dunkirk Evening Observer and worked as a server at Cease’s Commissary Restaurant downtown. Rita, Marg and Bea hung out on the weekends playing pinohcle, going dancing and hosting family picnics. Rita never married, and Marg and Bill never had any children, so they devoted all  of their time and support to helping Bea raise my grandfather while her husand was away in the Pacific–my grandfather grew up with a trio of strong women to look up to.

Rita’s just as selfless as she is hardworking. In addition to supporting my grandfather throughout his childhood, attending every game and witnessing every achievement, she also helped her older sister, Agatha, raise her children after her husband died in the war. Rita moved in with her parents and took care of them in their old age; she did the same for Bill and Marg, Agatha and, eventually, my great-grandmother as the years went by. And she only recently retired from working as an in-home aid in a local independent-living facility. Rita visits the family cemetery every weekend to leave flowers on our loved one’s graves, and she sends us cards and letters throughout the year to make us smile.

Rita Niedbalski (seated, middle of the row)

Rita turned 93 years old this year, but she’s still witty and sharp and just plain cool. She’d take my mom and aunt shopping on the weekends and would splurge on all of their favorite things; for their birthdays, she’d save up for a few dozen cupcakes from the Commissary to give to their classmates. Rita loved to drive, and she is known in the family for her road rage, always criticizing others for driving too slow. She enjoys teaching us girls card games and is always ready with a cheesy joke or two when we come to visit–and I miss the days when she’d slip us a few dollars when our parents weren’t looking. At 93, Aunt Rita is the oldest–and the coolest–Kuznicki by far, and we are all very lucky to have her around as a role model, an aunt and a best friend.

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Cease’s Commissary, 1942

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