Matilda Novak was small in stature — she stood well shorter than 5 feet — but had a giant heart, said her daughters.
“She was always walking around and giving people hugs. She was always so happy to be giving people food, whether it was at home or at the restaurant,” said daughter Karen Novak.
“Mama” Novak, who died at age 84 on Tuesday, was the matriarch of the immigrant family that owns and operates Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant in downtown Albany.
Her life revolved around family, faith and food.
On Sunday, she continued her tradition of making chicken soup for people who were sick.
On Monday morning, two hours before she collapsed from a stroke, she baked cookies for her great-grandchildren, her daughters said.
She died peacefully nearly 24 hours later.
“There was no pain and suffering. She was here and then she was gone. You’re here and then you’re in heaven,” Karen Novak said.
“Mama” Novak attended Neighborhood Church in Albany and read the Bible every day, her daughters said.
The past year-and-a-half has been rough for the Novak family. “Papa” Joseph Novak, husband to “Mama” Novak, died in January 2018.
The two escaped the communist revolution in Hungary in 1957. “They were involved in an anti-communist uprising and had to run for their lives,” said daughter Matilda Novak.
The two settled in the United States, initially in California, and “Mama” Novak brought along her tried-and-true family recipes such as chicken paprikas.
“She and Pop were super proud to be American citizens,” Karen Novak said.
The restaurant, which opened in 1984, has been closed since February due to smoke damage from a fire. “Mama” Novak was eager to see the business reopen, but equipment problems pushed that back to October at the earliest.
“We walked through last week and she had tears in her eyes,” Karen Novak said. “She wanted Pop to see it. Who knows? Maybe he can.”
The fire and the restaurant’s closure was a blessing in disguise, she added.
“It allowed us to have so much more time with my mom. We had Mother’s Day together for the first time in 35 years,” Karen Novak said.
On Saturday, Karen Novak and her partner Kit Vodrup went to the coast with “Mama” Novak, stopping by Garland’s Nursery on the way there to look at flowers, going whale watching and having lunch.
Daughter Matilda Novak said that her mother was always trying to give to others and always busy. If she sat down, she’d be knitting or crocheting blankets or other items for the great-grandkids.
But food was her favorite way to provide for others.
Before the restaurant opened, “Mama” Novak baked thousands of cinnamon rolls over the years for an annual Easter sunrise service.
For decades, Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant served more than 400 free Thanksgiving meals each meal.
“Mama” Novak put just as much effort into pastries comfort casseroles and more that she cooked for family and friends in her home kitchen.
“They were so beautiful and delicious. I’d take pictures of them,” Matilda Novak said.
“Mama” Novak happened to mention on Monday morning that her family had gotten to know so many people, and met so many good friends through their restaurant, Karen Novak said.
“Loving people through food. The Novaks, that’s us,” she added.
"Mama" Novak is survived by her daughters, twins Karen and Matilda, and Kaymarie, sons Ed and Joe, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A culinary arts scholarship is being established in her name at Linn-Benton Community College.
Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.