Tag Archives: The Tribe of Ziants

Phyllis Ziants {1925-2016}: I Remember Mama

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.

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…”

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.

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

Requiem For A Hero: Charlie Ziants (1925-1996)

My Pop – Charles Edwin Ziants – at his favorite place, the beach, enjoying his last year, 1995

Yesterday, March 17th, was St. Patrick’s Day 2015, tomorrow will be St. Joseph’s Day 2015, and today (as the old Temptations record out of Motown would extol) … “was the day my daddy died”.

Some of my earliest recollections as a child are of trying to fall asleep in New Castle, PA, while listening to his raucous  laughter from down the hallway, as he sat in front of a b/w TV  watching Jackie Gleason in ‘The Honeymooners’. I would later join him.

What a character! ‘Good time Charlie’ to the gang around the golf course or bowling alley, ‘Mr. Ziants’ to many around the power plants (coal, then later, nuclear), ‘Chuck’ to Phyllis, his wife of 40+ years  … and ‘Sir’ or ‘Pop’ to my brothers and me.

Chuck Ziants, who would later master the thing, at the accordion in 1935 Windber, PA, flanked by his Uncles Steve & Joe. And boy, could Charlie make that thing … sing!

Felled way before his time, at only 70, by Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, pop was otherwise healthy as a horse, as the expression goes. Extremely rare, CJD is often called the human equivalent of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) … in short, he ate something that didn’t agree with him.  CJD, named for the doctors that first discovered it, is incurable and invariably fatal.

Towards the end, he and I would joke about his going out like a Viking – sword in hand,  ship ablaze, on his way to Valhalla! What really happened was … they kept his brain for further study before the cremation.

The various faith traditions around the planet have different takes on the afterlife. Buddhist tradition holds that in the bardo (the in-between-world) the spirit gets to choose the parents into whom’s lives it will incarnate. If that’s true, thank God I picked this guy.

Charlie Ziants – in a pic he sent home from Europe to his sweetie Phyllis – trying to look all macho and all that. I’d say, for only 21, he pulled it off.

Courageous – a veteran of both World War II & Korea … Brilliant – Ohio State Buckeye Grad & accomplished engineer …. Trustworthy – he raised five kids … Loving – a pat on the back or kick in the butt when needed …. Gregarious & Fun – always there with a joke, laugh, and a cold adult beverage … Supportive – a treasure trove of sage advice & counsel … Resilient & Resourceful – never without a job or paycheck … Athletic – a true bowling & golf ace … Musical – you should have heard him on the accordion & piano …  and with a Sense of Humor, coupled with a Voice and a Laugh, that could fill a hall and really grab attention.

Rumi, the Persian mystic & poet once wrote, “When you are dead, seek for your final resting place … not in the dirt, but in the hearts of men”.  Charlie even pulled this feat off too!

Charlie Ziants quietly celebrating a rather good day on the golf course with his mates, Beaver Falls, PA, 1971

Have you ever been on the interstate and found yourself in between two big semi-trucks as you barreled down the highway, knowing that you were safe from state police radar because you were ‘in the cradle’, safe between these two big guys?

I would later comfort my mother, at both the funeral and today, that Charlie dropping his body on this date – the 18th of March, in between St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s day, on his way to the ‘other side’ – did exactly the same thing.

Pop, as the family today commemorates the 19th year of your passing , may God Bless You, sir. Many thanks for your service, both on foreign shores in the U.S. Army … and on these shores raising the tribe of Ziants.

Airlift Productions ~ Audio Alchemy from NOLA since 1984