It’s been said that a grandparent’s love is the nearest we’ll come to experiencing God’s love on earth. I have reason to believe that’s true. While I can’t yet know how God feels for us, I do know that my grandparents loved me in a way no other person has.
I had three grandparents in my life; my maternal grandparents, and my paternal grandmother. My paternal grandfather died when my father was a child and my paternal step grandfather died before I was born. While the idea of the Trinity is perplexing to me, having three grandparents on earth made it easier to understand. There were three people in my life who were separate and distinct, yet they were all part of one loving unit called grandparent.
I had the privilege of having all of my grandparents until I was 38 years old. My maternal grandmother, Mary Zipko was the first to die in 2005. Granny was a home maker. She had many jobs in her life: wrapping sticks of gum in the Wrigley’s gum factory in Chicago, she was a barmaid in Brooklyn, and a department store clerk in Cleveland. I’m sure she was good at all of those things, but from her I learned what home was. The smell of roast beef, the sound of potatoes boiling in a pot, and the dining room table set for a big Sunday dinner are all things that remind me of Granny.
My sister and I loved to go to Granny’s house. There were treats waiting for us that were unavailable at home. Coke a cola, chips and dip, and late night movies were some of the thrills of being at Granny’s. Nothing will ever be as comforting to me as being tucked in the bed in her guest room under a big quilt. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it really seemed to me that Granny loved having us around. She had a big smile when she saw us and there were always big hugs. She had a great laugh and at times she was known to laugh until she cried, which made her, and us, laugh even harder.
Granny died in her sleep. While we knew that each day with our grandparents was a gift, it was a shock to get the call that she had died.
Ninety days later my paternal grandmother Margaret Walsh died. While I learned what a home was from Granny I learned what strength and character was from Grandma. Grandma’s life was filled with challenges. Her prom date died at the prom picnic, she was held at knife point while a nursing student, her first husband died when she was 30-years-old leaving her with 3 children under the age of 6 to raise, her second husband died when she was 45 and had a 9-year-old to raise.
Despite these challenges she served others. Her vocation was nursing. She was a dedicated nurse in a Catholic hospital, she visited sick people in their homes, and she nursed in a steel factory. She cared for her ailing parents in her own home allowing them to die surrounded by family, I remember being with her at Church and the woman in front of us fainted. There was no question that she was up and out of her seat taking care of the woman.
Despite having a career that was life and death, her house was filled with life and joy. When her family was over there was singing, piano playing, chocolate, and fun. She encouraged her granddaughters to perform, play, and dream. Because of this there were many “shows” put on in front of the bay window of her living room.
I don’t remember ever seeing Grandma dressed down. She wore skirts and suits. I don’t think she ever wore pants.
I learned from Grandma to use the “good” china and crystal. If a guest wanted tea at her house, she brewed a pot in a good china tea pot and served it in a good tea cup. If her grandchildren wanted to pretend to drink high balls, they too got to drink out of the good crystal.
Papa, Stanley Zipko, lived an amazing life. A coal miner after he finished eighth grade, he worked in the mines until he was 30. At that point he developed “black lung” and there wasn’t much hope that he would live a long life with this condition. The condition kept him out of the military during World War II. He found himself in the shipyards of Cleveland building war ships, a job he said was his favorite because he could work as much as he wanted.
After the war he became a pipe fitter and worked hard putting his three daughters through Catholic school and college, despite being told educating girls was a waste of time.
By the time he entered his 60’s he was ready to retire. He embraced retirement learning how to reupholster furniture, bake bread, and make wine and beer. Despite living in an urban area his yard was filled with flowers and a large vegetable garden.
Papa was loud, liked beer, and horse racing and singing. He would sing to my sister and I “Who’s the cream in my coffee? Who’s the salt in my stew?” We knew we were.
This man who started life as an impoverished child of Lithuanian immigrants ended up traveling the world visiting the Holy Land, Rome, New Guinea, India, Portugal, and many parts of the United States.
Papa lived a full, long life and died in his home.
When Granny died we started finding dimes all over the place. My sister even found one in her bed that night. When Grandma died the dime was joined by a penny. So many times we would find a penny and a dime together; during happy moments like birthdays or as we stood watching my parents’ house burn to the ground. When Papa died my sister said quietly at the cemetery “Ok Papa’s sign to us will be the nickel.”
Sure enough we began finding the trio of coins. My sister got a call from one of Papa’s neighbors a few weeks after he died. The neighbor expressed how much she missed our grandfather and shared “I’m not sure what’s going on but ever since Stanley died we’ve been finding nickels everywhere.”
These three amazing people loved me and my cousins fiercely. They celebrated our triumphs and calmed our parents down each time we made mistakes. Thinking of them gives me an idea of what God must be like: celebrating with us, cheering us, and providing support to us in our darkest moments.