Today is the 123rd anniversary of my grandfather’s birth. If the world and Google knew him, like those of us who did, he’d for sure be written up in Wikipedia and there would be a wonderful doodle in his honor.
Since there are no Wiki- or Google-words, I’ve decided to write and share my own. What follows are memories and reflections of my grandpa, Joseph Szepieniec.
He was born in Rymanow, Poland on November 14, 1890. In 1907, he traveled by ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean to immigrate to America.
He married Anna Surman, my grandmother (we called her Granny), in 1917. They had seven children – 5 boys and 2 girls, and those children had 34 grandchildren, and those children had countless great grandchildren, and the numbers continue to grow to this day.
He was proud of his Polish ancestry, and also extremely proud to be an American.
He voted on every Election Day.
He respectfully displayed the American flag on every national and patriotic holiday.
He sponsored a number of family members, including my own mother from Ireland, and gave them the opportunity to come to America and later become American citizens.
One of his proudest non-family moments was when Cardinal Wojtyla from Poland, became Pope John Paul II.
He was 66 when I was born, so to me his hair and mustache were always white. And whenever he kissed me, it scratched. I never minded.
He sometimes smelled like horseradish and his kisses did too. Sometimes he smelled like the white peppermint or pink wintergreen candies he kept stashed in a kitchen drawer.
He had a wonderful Polish accent and pronounced my name, Zuzie.
He introduced himself as Joe.
He appreciated good food, and especially loved to eat pierogis, homemade chicken soup with homemade egg noodles, and kielbasa.
He and Granny both loved and cherished spending time with family.
He used to play a game with us grandkids where we would each take turns holding a finger out to his mouth and he’d attempt to bite it. We never seemed to tire of playing this game and neither did he. Lots of laughter and giggles always followed. Only on the rare occasion that he accidentally bit a finger, he’d be simply devastated and seemed to feel the pain much worse than we did.
He loved to play checkers with us; in fact, he taught me how to play. Now I wonder how many times he let us win.
He made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with his thumb whenever saying goodbye.
He would stand in the driveway, sometimes with Granny, sometimes alone, and wave goodbye until any visitors or cars were out of sight. I know, because sometimes I stood with him too.
He wore tie clips whenever he wore a tie, and he gave one of them to my husband who later passed it down to our son-in-law.
He wore glasses.
He wore a hearing aid and in my mind I can still hear the high pitched whistling humming sound it made as he attempted to adjust the hearing level.
He and my granny were great gardeners and they usually had fruit trees (mainly apple) growing in their yard. I remember they even knew how to pick wild mushrooms.
He would hang and air their bed pillows on the outside clothesline (weather permitting) and they (maybe Granny) made their bed every single day.
He loved and collected rocks and had a great collection of them (from his travels) displayed along a fence on their farm. I remember sometimes touching them as I walked by and being most in awe of the lava one.
He was brave. I don’t think he was afraid of anything. But if he was, he didn’t show it.
He was one of the strongest men I have ever met. I loved seeing him in the white muscle man t-shirts that he wore. I remember always feeling safe whenever he hugged me.
He was a sensitive man and would tear up over family and world events that touched his heart.
He told great stories because he had many great stories to tell. Here are snippets of only a few of them:
- While driving a team of horses through a thick forest in Poland, sometime around dusk and on his way home, he came across a sort of monkey man who used both his arms and legs to run alongside them…
- Coming to America, with basically the clothes on his back and seeing lamplighters wearing stilts to light the gas street lights.
- A dream he had while staying at a boarding house in Cleveland, Ohio, with a man who would later become his brother-in-law. The dream frightened him so much; he got dressed and left the house to seek out a priest in confession to talk through it with him.
- Working in Cudahy, Wisconsin at a meat packing plant with a guy named, Ladish. The guy wanted him to be involved in the company with him. Grandpa said he didn’t like the work and wanted to become a farmer instead.
- When he was a lumberjack in Northern Wisconsin and cutting down great white pines, trees so large they were almost the Midwest version of the California redwoods.
- His description of the lush and expansive poppy fields of Poland and stopping the wagon to pick and sniff a handful of the flowers. In my mind the distinctive red flowers stretched for miles and miles and I was sitting next to him in the wagon .
- Once while building a fence in Arizona, he saw a rattlesnake. He picked up one of the heavy wooden posts and smashed it down on top of the rattlesnake, splitting it in half. Out jumped a live frog. Imagine.
He wrote a letter to his parents in Poland sharing the news of becoming a father and included the words I’ll never forget, “I’m richer than any Rockefeller for I have a son.”
He was crazy about babies.
He had a special love and fondness for his mother.
He loved my hair and didn’t want me to cut it because it reminded him of his mother’s hair. He said when she tipped her head back, her long wavy hair touched the floor.
He was a farmer and with my grandmother, bought and cleared acres of rocky land in Lublin, Wisconsin. They made it their farm and their home for many years.
He was a carpenter and could build almost anything. He built a log cabin that became their first home on the farm, and that would be followed by countless other houses and buildings, he either built or helped build.
He gave me one of his old hammers and I think of him whenever I use it.
He worked as a blacksmith.
He knew and loved horses.
He loved candy and ice cream too.
He often gave his grandchildren silver dollars on special occasions and later $5 bills tucked in a card for birthdays.
His distinctive handwriting was a thing of beauty, with swirls and circles much like calligraphy. In fact, he addressed and sent all the letters and cards from Granny and Grandpa. Granny always said that compared to Grandpa, her handwriting was like chicken scratch.
He loved to read and kept up on current events. He read a Polish newspaper that he got weekly and magazines he received from his children, like US News and World Reports.
He could read and write and speak Polish and English, and he knew German and Russian too.
He always watched the evening news with my granny, and then they enjoyed watching Little House on the Prairie whenever it was it on.
He was a man of deep Catholic faith and I loved seeing him greet a priest or religious person, always with a respectful bow.
He knew how to work hard and his hands reflected the work that he did.
He believed the motto for life was ‘work and pray.’
He prayed and gave thanks before every meal and also at the end of each day.
He had a sweet tooth and liked real sugar the best, especially in his coffee.
He loved Polish music and dancing polkas. I learned to dance the polka while standing on his shoes and being swept around the dance floor at my sister’s wedding. I was 9.
He would sometimes sing a Polish song to me, but when he tried to translate it into English, always said the words were not as poetic or beautiful as they were in Polish.
He could be stubborn, only to his grandchildren he was anything but.
He drank Mogen David wine and it was his wine of choice for toasting and celebrating with family and friends. Even the youngest grandchild would get a taste as we all toasted each other in Polish ‘na zdrowie’ which translated to English means ‘to your health.’
He would never return to his homeland of Poland.
On May 2, 1982 he died in his home in Lublin. He was 91. My grandmother and my dad were with him.
He left behind a rich and lasting legacy…leaving us all richer than any Rockefellers.
Happy 123rd Birthday, Grandpa! You may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten.