My Mom called around lunch time today. We’ve been catching up on Saturdays ever since she’s been working all week at the township building — she’s too tired to talk in the evenings. Hopefully her replacement will be trained soon as she officially retired December 31st!
Anyways, she called to let me know that Aunt Helen passed away this morning. She had been sick for about a month and about three weeks ago, she left the hospital to stay with her daughter, Nancy. Aunt Helen was my grandma’s youngest sister and the last of the Zombeck siblings — there were seven of them. She died at the age of 90. And my Mom was sad, but she was very happy that all of them were together again. She told me that Aunt Helen had been seeing things all week. Arlene (another one of Aunt Helen’s daughters) told my Mom that on Thursday evening she was calling out, “Laura, Laura, Laura…,” who was my grandma. She had passed peacefully with all of her children around her. And I know my grandma was there to greet her if not the angel that carried her to Heaven.
Aunt Helen was seven years younger than my grandma. What I remember most about her was that she was so beautiful. Even at age 80, she looked to be no older than 60, and her face was always so perfectly made up and wrinkle-free. Her hair was always blonde, and she never let it go to white like my grandma. I remember as a child when I learned she was my grandma’s sister that I couldn’t imagine it — she looked just so much younger — more like her daughter. She was polish through and through and spent Saturday evenings at the dance hall, dancing the polka all night long, drinking beer. Yes, the Zombeck women were beer-drinkers all the way. Aunt Helen always wore bright red lipstick every week to church. As she got older, the lipstick was not always on her lips — I guess she should have put her reading glasses on to apply her lipstick! She belonged to St. Rose of Lima, and we saw her often, sitting in the back on Saturday evenings.
My grandma and Aunt Helen looked the most alike, but you could tell that Aunt Annie was their sister too. Aunt Annie had passed in 1993, Aunt Celia in 1999, my grandma in 2008 and now today, Aunt Helen. They were all crazy little polish women with giggles that matched their somewhat broken English. It’s the way they emphasized their words… Pam would be spoken as Paaa-am, and Carol (my Mom) would be Kaaay-roll. They came from Poland and their parents were unable to speak English well, so the children had a limited vocabulary. The brothers were the same.
All of Zombecks were very superstitious. My grandma and her sisters would quote superstitions to us all the time, “don’t do this…oooooooo — Paaa-am, don’t do that…,” my grandma would say. My Dad called them “all the crazies,” but I was fascinated by it. To this day, I remember all those superstitions and “don’t do that, ever.” They could see spirits and talk to loved ones that had passed. There were always so many miracles in the family, and they shared them with all of us that believe — even miracles when Glenda passed away last year. A few of us have some of those gifts, more so than others. When I was younger, some things happened that scared me, and I learned how to block it out. And I truly believe that the Zombeck women were very gifted women and not “the crazies.” My cousin, Barbara, Aunt Annie’s daughter is one of those with the gift. When I see her at the funeral on Monday, I know she will have talked to Aunt Helen, even though she lives in Erie, PA, two hours away. She will have known that Aunt Helen passed before anyone called to tell her.
Aunt Helen was absolutely the caregiver of the family. When my grandma was in the nursing home, she visited her several days a week if not all seven. When her daughter, Glenda was sick with cancer and living in a more permanent hospice facility, she visited her every single day, even during bad weather for more than a year. When Glenda came home, Aunt Helen nursed her every day. When my Mom had her heart attack, she was the first one at the hospital and visited every day. And this was for all of the family — she was there for everyone. She gave of herself freely and her time, and her heart was full of love for all those she knew. She lived a humble life with simple, yet deep faith.
Tonight as Tom and I went to Communion, they played “On Eagles Wings,” and I smiled at Tom. For this song represents those of who have passed in our families. And I knew at that moment that Aunt Helen had made it safely to the other side, where she is dancing the polka with her sisters and drinking a freshly poured draft beer. For they are celebrating that they are all together for eternity.
On Eagle’s Wings
by Michael Joncas
You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life, say to the Lord: “My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!”
And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.
The snare of the fowler will never capture you, and famine will bring you no fear: under his wings your refuge, his faithfulness your shield. (REFRAIN)
For to his angels he’s given a command to guard you in all of your ways; upon their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. (REFRAIN)