Thursday, May 23, 2013

“Baby Juanita”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

For this writer, childhood meant frequent moves from one state to another. After beginning in Columbus, Ohio, my family wandered across the map. Our household mobility meant that none of us had a true sense of being from anywhere. I looked at life like a journey by train, with stops along the way for rest and refreshment. In the summer of 1975, this rail-ride found us in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Our neighborhood by the three rivers was populated with a curious variety of everyday folk. It was an immigrant community, colorful and diverse. Each family seemingly had strong roots somewhere else. Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, Croatia or dozens of other faraway nations. Kids in my junior-high class included one of Syrian descent, and another who was Lebanese.
We had come to the area after a year in Kentucky and five years in central Virginia. So almost immediately, local residents observed that we “talked funny.”  
America itself was in the midst of a great personal reassessment in those days. We had survived the Oil Embargo, Watergate and Vietnam. And the collapse of “hippie” culture into disco.
One of our neighbors was a kind, older woman, recently widowed. She lived next door in a rented yellow house that looked out of place, because it was one of the oldest in our neighborhood.
Mrs. Zeiler carried herself with the rough dignity of a blue-collar angel. Her cigarettes were ever-present. She made me think of stories about “Rosie the Riveter” from the era of World War II. Her son was nicknamed “Primo.” I often wondered if this was after the Hawaiian beer available in those days. He had a variety of jobs and seemed to drift from career to career. In October of that year, her daughter Sandy gave birth to a girl. They named her Juanita.
Health issues for the young mom followed, and Mrs. Zeiler ended up caring for the baby as Sandy struggled to recover. She was in and out of the hospital.
In my neighbor’s tiny household, a fragrance of baby powder joined tobacco smoke that hung in the air. We all became used to that odd combination.
Eventually, my own mother and sister began to help. Juanita grew quickly. She was cute and outgoing. Very bright for her age. A bubbly child with dark hair and bright eyes. We taught her to sing songs and tell stories. She went to church with us, in the neighborhood. Soon, it was like I had a second sister.
In 1978, the family train ride resumed. We moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Juanita was almost three years old. She came to stay with us in the Empire State, briefly. We actually thought of asking to adopt her into the Ice family. It would have balanced our generation, with two boys and two girls. Her name echoed that of my aunt from Gallia County. So everything about her was perfect for our brood.
But after sharing the holidays with us, she went home.
I visited Pittsburgh again, in the summer of 1980. Juanita had continued to grow. She was nearly five years old. Mrs. Zeiler welcomed my visit. We shared stories of the recent past and she made a picnic meal of zesty hamburgers.
Strangely, it was the last time I saw either of them in person.
My sister kept in touch as the years progressed. But I fell out of contact. With the train ride taking us to Chardon, in 1983, we were one more station-stop away from Juanita and her grandmother.
Years passed, and new memories were made. The capitol city of Geauga became our “hometown” in a way I had never experienced, before.
Once, when visiting the old neighborhood in Pittsburgh, I noticed that her yellow abode had been torn down by the landlord. She moved to the nearby community of Springdale. But I couldn’t find her address. Then, a few months ago, my sister mentioned discovering an obituary on the Internet. She was searching for old friends, and found the following entry with great sadness as a result:

Martin, Juanita
Springdale Township

Juanita D. Martin, 34, of Springdale Township, died Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010, in her home. She was born Oct. 18, 1975, in New Kensington, to Sandra E. Zeiler Martin, of Grove City, and the late Harold Martin. She had worked as a bookkeeper for Coral Ridge Estates in Butler. Juanita was of the Protestant faith and enjoyed sports, including football, basketball, billiards, bowling and especially enjoyed caring for her cats. Besides her mother, she is survived by her grandmother, Eileen Zeiler, with whom she made her home; a brother, Brian Martin, of Vandergrift; several nieces and nephews; and her longtime companion, Don Mikesell. Besides her father, she was preceded in death by her grandfather, Benjamin Zeiler. FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS HAVE BEEN CHANGED. Friends will be received from 11 a.m. Saturday until services at 1 p.m. in the RUSIEWICZ OF LOWER BURRELL FUNERAL HOME, 3124 Leechburg Road at Alder Street, Lower Burrell, with the Rev. Harold Mele. Burial will follow in Greenwood Cemetery, Lower Burrell.

Postscript: Our erstwhile neighbor, Eileen Zeiler, passed away on February 10, 2013 at the age of 89. But her memory, and that of her grandchild, will endure in our family, forever.

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