Phyllis Ziants {1925-2016}: I Remember Mama

PhyllisZiants1945PittsburghPa
Phyllis Dunkle Ziants (1925-2016), as a heart breaker Pitt nursing student, South Park, PA 1945

** originally written & published January 13th, 2016 **

I only ever got into one real fight in my life. You know, a real knock-down, drag-out fist fight. It was 1960s Shadyside, Ohio, I was the new kid in town and it was one of those classic ‘Your mama wears combat boots’, defending-your-mother’s-honor kind of fights.

Now, in 2016, this past Monday night, that same mother gave UP the fight.

Yeah, leave it to Mama Z to decide to drop her body and move on from this world at roughly the same time as the planet’s most notorious shape-shifter, rock icon David Bowie was doing the same an ocean away.

Bowie got all the headlines. Except here.

Born in the days before the Great Depression, in 1925 Johnstown, PA, Phyllis Ziants pursued a nursing degree at Pitt … and a certain young man from the neighboring coal town of Windber.

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The Ziants Clan – 2004 (L-R) John, Linda, Tom, Mike, Steve … and one proud mama

Who knew when Charlie & Phyllis went on that first date at the roller skating rink all those years ago what was to come? Oh, what a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to conceive.

Their union yielded five kids – Linda, John, Mike, Tom, and Steve.  

I’m sure we never crossed their minds as they skated around to the refrains of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” that night – it was their song – the one pop carried with him off to war —

                           “And now the purple dusk of twilight time
                            Steals across the meadows of my heart
                            High up in the sky the little stars climb
                            Always reminding me that we’re apart…”

TheZiantsFamilyClearwaterFlorida1960
The Ziants tribe, Clearwater, Florida 1960, Steve Ziants in mama Phyllis’ arms

Wars end, as wars sometimes do, Charlie returned to his Phyllis, they got married in 1947 and began the odyssey. 

Together with her husband, she moved the Tribe of Ziants countless times across state lines to new homes, new churches, new schools, new doctors, seemingly every other year.

Baby Micheal with Mama Ziants and brother John, New Castle, PA 1952
Baby Micheal with Mama Ziants and brother John, New Castle, PA 1952

From Pennsylvania to Florida, then on to Ohio, back to Pennsylvania, then back to Ohio, Phyllis kept a steady hand on the wheel, kept us all fed, and kept us all occupied (in the days before digital) with music lessons, ping-pong, and card games.

She loved “Kings On the Corner”.

Her nursing degree sure came in handy, as she tended to every wound life could inflict –  lost jobs, unemployment, hospitalizations, broken hearts, divorces – and was always there with advice, consolation and compassion. 

Charlie & Phyllis Ziants - Snowbirds awol from Ohio - Gulfport, MS, 1992
Charlie & Phyllis Ziants – Snowbirds awol from Ohio – Gulfport, MS, 1992

Don’t get me wrong, like all humans, she had her quirks … boy, could she talk (seemingly endlessly at times, even derailing her own train of thought), tended to fall asleep in front of the TV (narcolepsy?), and (no doubt a skill cultivated through years of corralling five rambunctious kids) could be quite the ‘control freak’.

Hey, it was all part of her unmistakable charm.

After pop’s passing in 1996, she sold the family home and downsized to her condo, then to the nursing home, and then this past week to hospice care … and now, there is no more ‘then’.

I once comforted my boy Ben-Jam after his first visit to a funeral home with the thought that the body after death is but a fingerprint that the soul leaves behind.

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One of my final pics with Mom, Waterbury Court, Lancaster, Ohio 2010

What a gal. What a fingerprint.

And from the coal mines of West Virginia and Ohio, to the newspaper at Pittsburgh, to the recording studios of N’awlins … this woman’s fingerprints are everywhere.

Now, it’s eternal.

Much love, kisses, prayers & peace, mother dear.

You’re still the first one I think of whenever I fall down and go boom.

And please tell Sister T. and Charlie Z. “Hi” for me.

“You wander down the lane and far away
          Leaving me a song that will not die
          Love is now the stardust of yesterday
          The music of the years gone by…”

~ Mom’s final Birthday Wish to her boy, Mikey * July 2015 ~

Phyllis' ashes - and her Charles - are now interred to the left of this headstone, Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Phyllis’ ashes – and those of her Charles – are now interred to the left of this headstone, Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown, Pennsylvania

14 thoughts on “Phyllis Ziants {1925-2016}: I Remember Mama”

  1. Mike, got the call from Mom on Tuesday about Aunt Phyl’s passing. My thoughts and prayers are with you and the rest of the family.
    Very beautiful and touching piece you wrote, it brought both the smile and the tear. She had a wonderfully unique and vivacious personality, with the charm of Grandma Blanche, and the twinkle in the eye of Grandpa Ben. Have to wonder about the conversation she must have had with “Major Tom” as they stood side by side there at St. Peter’s Gate…..;)

    1. Hey there, cousin. Been awhile, Bryan, since our last chat. Yes, the Pearly Gates dialogue between mama and the ‘Thin White Duke’ would have to be awesome, eh? I could almost hear her now, “And exactly how did you come about that name, Mr. Ziggy Stardust?” All the BEST to you & Aunt Nat, cuz.

  2. Brother,
    Such beautiful sentiments. So touching to read your comments and Steve’s. A tribute to a remarkable lady.

    1. Yes, sister dear, our mother will be sorely missed – by many. Much like her’s and pop’s song “Stardust”, they don’t write them – or make them – like that anymore.

  3. What wonderful memories! Glad I got to know her. Such a loving person, whose Faith sustained her and comforts those she now leaves behind.

    May God continue to bless you and your family, as has with all the love your mother has for you.

    1. Amen, John, and we folks of Faith have to stick together and circle the wagons in times like these. Mom certainly enjoyed your company, too, and relished getting to know yet another Pitt grad from the land of the ‘3 Rivers’.

    1. Thanks, Steve. And your Post-Gazette tribute was indeed stellar! We’re sure going to miss that gal. Much love to you & your Pittsburgh branch of the Ziants tree.

  4. Mike: I was very sorry to hear about your Mom and send my sympathy to you and all your family. Your Mom and mine were school pals at Southmont High School. Her name was Lois Virginia McClintock. Ben and Blanche Dunkle were good friends of my Grandparents, George and Mildred McClintock. I have been doing some family history and was curious to find out what happened to some friends of my Mom. I have a few pictures of your Mom from her school days at Southmont that I need to scan and if interested, would be happy to send them to you.

    1. Many thanks for your warm condolences, Craig. Much appreciated. You got to love those old Johnstown gals, eh? By all means, please send along any pics that you can. The family and I would be most appreciative. Much respect and thanks from NOLA. ~ Micheal Z

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