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Grandparents Weren’t Around Long But Their Impact On My Life Was Profound

From my love of the Chicago Cubs and fishing, my grandparents changed me in innumerable ways.

I feel like I got cheated in life, but the memories are shared with my grandparents made up for our short time together.

I’m jealous when I see friends and others who’ve known their grandparents for decades and had them alive at some of the biggest moments of their lives. I wasn’t so fortunate.

My mom’s grandparents didn’t have her until her mom was about 50.

Since I was born in 1962 and they died five years later in their 70s, my memories of them are feint. I recall their Slovak accents and how sweet they were to me but I never shared any special moments with them that touch you and never let you forget.

Fortunately, because my mom’s sisters and brother were so much older than her, they took care of her as a child and almost where like her parents. So what I lost from not having those grandparents I gained by having aunts and an uncle who were more like grandparents.

Their visits to the house or visits to their homes in Joliet, IL were etched in my mind and memory. My aunt Faye and uncle Eddie were die-hard Chicago Cubs fans who always had the baseball game on when they come to Streator or we went there. I’m a Cubs fan today because of them and owe several memorable moments to them.

My first Cubs game to watch on television was in August 1969 when Chicago was in first place and made their historic run for their first pennant since 1969. Ken Holtzman pitched a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves and Hank Aaron hit an apparent home run over the wall, only to have it come back into the park by a strong wind.

I was hooked as a Cubs fan from that day forward—and since they haven’t won since 1908—I have them to blame. The memories outweigh that pain however. The Cubs threw four no-hitters between 1969 and 1972. I saw three of them with my aunt and uncle. When Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter for the Cubs in 2008, my thoughts were on how I watched those games with them.

The lesson I learned from them on being a Cubs fan is perseverance, never give up hope and always believe—definitely valuable attributes for life.

On the other side of the family, I’ve had many special moments with my dad’s parents, although they died fairly young in my life as well. My grandfather died when I was a teenager in high school in the late 1970s and my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, died a few years later.

It doesn’t require grandparents to do anything special but just spending time with them was always fun. I recall my grandparents being something akin to having “fun” parents. They never got mad at me or disciplined me, just showed me extraordinary kindness and love

It started for me when I was in kindergarten. At the age of five, I walked home from Sherman Elementary School in Streator every day and the path home led through my grandparents’ yard. If I was hungry—and who isn’t at that age?—I could always stop by and get a sandwich and a bowl of soup. The kitchen was always open with grandma, and she loved catering to her lucky grandson.

She was the epitome of the sweet grandma who cooked and had furniture covered with plastic, as if her grandkids were going to spill something on it. What was it with grandmas and sofa covers back then? It was never comfortable to sit on, especially on a hot day.

I’ll never forget sitting down with grandma to learn how to play the piano. I was never very good, but for someone whose emphasis was on sports, it was nice to know I could learn to play if I wanted to, and she was happy to teach me. No one played the theme music from the film Doctor Zhivago quite like grandma.

Unlike grandma, grandpa was kind, but old school. He was good to me and would do anything for me, but I had to work to keep up with him. A factory worker who saved every penny he ever made, grandpa was an inventor who seemed to have patents on everything, including a garbage can holder.

By earning your keep with grandpa meant coming by his house to help him with the yard work. When I was young, that meant cutting grass with the old-fashioned non-motorized lawn cutter with a spinning blade. It’s safe for a youngster but not easy to push if the grass got too high.

As I got a little older and a chance to graduate to a motorized mower, grandpa was definitely efficient. No gasoline mower for him. His lawn mower was a plug in. I never questioned grandpa’s wisdom at the time but I feared what would happen if I ran over that cord while I was pushing the mower.

Grandpa always seemed to know what’s best, and you listened. For my hard work, the gift was money he would put into a plastic savings and loan bank that would go into a savings account he set up in my name. A penny saved was a penny earned for grandpa, and you didn’t go through life by spending all you made was his logic.

Grandpa taught me reliance. He even grew his own grapes in his backyard. My sister and I would help him pick the grapes that he would take into his cellar and promptly smash with his feet for his homemade wine.

A holiday wouldn’t pass without a glass of grandpa’s wine, no matter your age. Don’t worry. My parents said the wine was so weak that you couldn’t get drunk by it. Grandpa was always about handing down life’s lesson. He planted a garden in our back yard, but he would show me how to take care of it.

Grandpa, not my dad, taught me how to fish. Fishing was one of the most enjoyable things I ever saw him do and he liked that he was passing on that experience to me. I regret lying to grandpa one time when he asked if I had thrown rocks into the creek when he saw some ripples. “No, I said, the fish are jumping grandpa.”

The one drawback with going fishing with grandpa was that he drove. Now, I was pretty young at the time and didn’t know how to drive. But I’m sure I could have done a better job than grandpa in his Dodge Dart. Neither my siblings nor I had ever ridden with him without getting carsick. What is it about grandpas and brakes?

The days of fishing with grandpa, however, would be numbered. He had diabetes and wound up losing both of his legs to amputation because of the disease. You wouldn’t have known that by grandpa’s disposition. He never showed any anger or directed any hate towards anyone about his predicament of being in a wheelchair. Instead, grandpa tried to teach us a lesson. Diabetes is something that runs in the family, he would say, and can be avoided. Whenever the grandkids were over the house, grandpa would bring out a hand-held electric vibrating device that he would massage your feet and fingers to help with your circulation so you didn’t end up like him.

Because of him, I always track my blood sugar and kept diabetes at the forefront of my mind. It’s what eventually killed him when he had a stroke, diabetes led to the premature death of my dad at 51.

So there weren’t any earthshattering moments with my grandparents, but it doesn’t take that for children to remember that experiences and lessons long into their adult lives.

I still have pictures of myself when I was in the hospital getting surgery at the age of five. It was one of about dozen I would undergo in my life to deal with ear infections and hearing loss. One was a picture was of my smiling grandfather pulling me along in a wagon in a Chicago hospital—typical of grandpa always to lead the way. I just wished I had more memories than I did, but the ones I have lasted a lifetime.

If he was still alive today, I could have given grandpa a lesson as well. It’s the only thing in life I ever discovered that he was mistaken.

“No grandpa, the eye doctor told me that sitting too close to the color TV doesn’t make you go blind.”

Not sure if he would have believed me anyway.

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