Ladies and Gentlemen – Your Rose Lady!
by Chris Hibbard
originally published on http://www.labeat.ca
There is always much more around us than meets the eye. The Lethbridge nightlife scene is a dynamic one, with new clubs and pubs seeming to open every other weekend, only to close their doors months later. Within this changing climate however, one element has stayed the same for almost twenty years. A quiet, inconspicuous little woman weaves between us late at night, tempting us with her wares. She is our history, our neighbour, and our friend. She is our Rose Lady.
You may not call her by this name, and for the most part, you probably pay her little mind, but one way or the other, you likely know of whom I write. This short woman walks among you in the wee hours of the evening; selling individually wrapped roses to aspiring individuals, courting couples and blissfully married husbands and wives. Yet few of us stop to consider that she has been a familiar fixture (albeit a fleeting one), at our late night establishments since many of us were still in high school.
Known throughout both Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, our Rose Lady’s full name is Donna Danuta Polak Saunders. Donna was born four years after the end of WWII, in the city of Hamburg, Germany. Her father was a Polish P.O.W. who was captured by the Germans but survived the holocaust after being liberated by the Americans. Donna and her mother fled Germany to escape the country as the Polish people were facing death in gas chambers in the later months of the war. Crossing the Atlantic at the age of five via an old battleship, Donna and the passengers were evacuated into life rafts as the ship was taking on water. They were finally met in Canada by Catholic nuns, still clad in black habits, after safely landing in Quebec. The two international refugees were given money by the Catholic Immigration Fund for a railroad trip across Canada in boxcars. Their journey took them to the small hamlet of Redcliff, Alberta, where Donna began Grade 1.
Now married to the same man for over 37 years, Donna the Rose Lady is the proud mother of two adult children and the grandmother of three young ones, whom she cherishes dearly. She met her husband at the U of C and married in 1973. They were both first year teachers seeking employment. Sharing the same profession, they have taught in many different places in Alberta, finally moving from the Carseland area to Lethbridge in 1987.
It was in 1990, while Donna was teaching part-time in Cardston, that she responded to an advertisement in the Lethbridge Herald for a flower seller. Thinking it was a retail flower shop position, she responded and was hired. It was a shock to find out what was really expected of her, she recalled. Initially receiving 99 cents per flower sold, she found it to be brave new world where one had to be bold – quite the opposite of both her personal beliefs and professional training. Nevertheless, the money was needed, so she threw herself into the game. “I started selling roses at these once thriving bars, ” she said, “like the Cactus Club, Alley Oops, Cook County, and the Old York, just to name a few.” In so doing, she became witness to years of young people loving life, laughing and dating, singing and dancing, drinking and feasting.
When she decided in 1992 to get her Master’s in Education, she ran into the owner of the rose business at the U of L. Finding out that the business was lying idle, she asked to have it as her own. After receiving initial mentorship and advice, Donna established her own rose selling business, while still maintaining other work; including real estate and life insurance sales.
By 1995, after a young enterprising woman started to move in on her business, Donna moved her flower sales business to Medicine Hat, where she was the working nights as the ‘rose girl’ in over 30 locations. In the process, she had discovered she was making more money selling roses than she did as a substitute teacher. “But family life was something I had to give up, “she said.”Often I would have to sneak in very quietly at 2 or 3 am; but my kids were smart and capable, and my husband was always helpful.”
Roses are the lifeblood of the business, Donna is quick to admit. At first, the flowers were grown in Guatemala, arriving from Calgary to Lethbridge by bus. However, as the wholesalers she purchased from “did not guarantee Greyhound shipments from Calgary to Lethbridge, in the winter all of the roses would arrive dead and frozen. Now the roses come from Costco and can be returned the same day if unsatisfactory. She follows a few rules of thumb: keep fresh stock, never over-supply, record nightly sales volumes, incomes, expenditures and taxes, and budget for gas. She now uses computer software to keep records and cuts down on her overhead by cutting her own cellophane wrap and doing the legwork herself. While most bars and clubs get commissions, not all are open and accepting, Donna said. “I don’t take it personally, though. I know that nothing is set in stone. I just keep looking for new bars. In my business, there have been many owners who have gone bankrupt and shut their doors. In a way, I always feel like I have lost a part of myself too when that happens. ”
A resourceful woman, Donna sews all of her own clothes, shops garage sales and is a true animal lover. Her dearest friend has four legs – Thomas Saunders, the cat. While learning how to be street-smart from the years of ‘walking the beat’, she also understands four languages, majored it Kinesiology at the U of C, and can play many different instruments. Presently she is learning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a local choral group; Vox Musica. In her spare time, she also does genealogical research and hopes to trace her own Polish roots to Jacob Polak, the first Jewish Rabbi of Poland, circa 1503.
With the money she makes, she diligently pays weekly tithes at her church, and supports the Canadian Kidney Foundation, Canadian Bible Society, and buys treats for the local homeless shelter when she can afford to. She said that because of her origins in Canada as an international refugee and other life experience, she can relate to the homeless and destitute of Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Our Rose Lady has a very simple motto. “Try to love and be loved by all and remember, it is not so much what you choose to do in life that matters, but rather how well you do it that really makes life worthwhile.”