At my Grandma Zimmermann’s dinner table, saying grace before and after the meal formed a book-end of thanks to God and remembrance of the faithful departed, which hits home for me now in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, and in this month of All Souls, my first since Dad died in January.
Grandma Zimmermann’s Catholic faith was woven into the fabric of her life, evidenced by how she faithfully prayed the rosary every day in between watching her two favorite soap operas, “All My Children” and “General Hospital.”
Nowadays many of us rush from the dinner table, but for Marguerite Zimmermann, the meal always ended with a mouthful, not of food but of prayers: “We give thee thanks, almighty God, for all of the benefits which we have received from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
But the prayer wasn’t over yet. Then she would say: “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
And then, “Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.”
With that faith, she inspired her husband and my grandpa, Julius Zimmermann, to become Catholic, and with that faith, they raised five children in St. Louis during the Depression and World War II years. Grandpa and Grandma Zimmermann later moved to a home in the woods in Barnhart, Missouri, where my dad lived as a high school senior and later built a home for his own family next door, where I grew up.
This January, my dad, Wesley Joseph Zimmermann, died on Jan. 10 at the age of 83, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. His survivors include his wife of 62 years, my mother Mary; my older brother David and his family; the family of my older sister Becky, who died of colon cancer five years ago; my younger brother Jim and his family; my younger sister Julie and her family; and my family here in Maryland.
My dad was the middle son of five children, as am I, and this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for what he taught me, by his example, about being a man devoted to God and his family. When he moved to the country, he met a neighbor girl who came to their home selling eggs. Mary Faith McCain later become his wife and the love of his life.
After graduating at the top of his Catholic high school class, my Dad could have gone to college on a scholarship, but he took up the tools of his family trade, becoming a sheet metal worker, a union tradesman and member of Local 36 in St. Louis, like his father and his three brothers did.
My grandpa Julius headed Local 36, as my uncles Gene and Mel later did, and my brother David has for many years served as its president and business manager. Several of my cousins also became “tinners.” Once I attended a centennial exhibit for the sheet metal workers union at the National Building Museum in Washington, and saw how the trade evolved over the years from colonial-era craftsmen building weather vanes to modern-day tinners contributing metalwork to the Apollo spacecraft and to national monuments like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Today sheet metal workers fabricate and install heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems for businesses and residences.
Dad, a math whiz, was known for his skilled draftsmanship on sheet metal projects, and used a pencil to do his math and geometric calculations years before the advent of workplace computers. He was also the handyman at home, fixing whatever he could and keeping our cars and lawnmowers running. When he had the car hood up and would try to explain to me how part of the engine worked, it always sounded to me like another language, like the adults speaking in the Charlie Brown cartoons, so I never became a tinner, and instead became a journalist, building sentences and paragraphs. If I had ever tried to install ductwork in a ceiling, it would have come crashing down on people’s heads.
Dad showed the importance of hard work and sacrifice in support of his wife and children, getting up early each morning, eating breakfast and then heading to his job when it was dark. When he retired after four decades as a sheet metal worker, I asked him what he was going to do next, and he said, “I think I might stay up past 9 o’clock at night now!”
In his retirement, Dad loved reading long thriller novels. He had never traveled or bought material things for himself while he was taking care of his wife and children, but he later told me that reading a good book was like taking a journey to another place.
Dad also taught me the importance of living my Catholic faith. I’ll never forget the sight of my dad, a tough construction worker, kneeling beside his bed to pray each night. Dad made sure we never missed Sunday Mass, and he sent all five of his children to Catholic elementary and high school. He also volunteered on weeknights at bingos in the church basement, and on weekends at parish picnics, or helping to renovate the sisters’ convent. Our parish, St. Joseph in Kimmswick, Missouri, did an odd thing of printing an annual list of the most generous contributors to the collection basket, and Dad and Grandpa Zimmermann often topped the list. Dad was also an usher for many years, smiling and greeting people and helping them find a pew at our country church.
When Dad came home from work, he liked to sit on our front porch, relax and read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But many times, we asked him to play badminton or ping-pong with us, and he was never too tired to join in a game, still wearing his work boots. On weekends, he also competed with his kids in Frisbee golf and croquet, with a lot of good-natured ribbing going on along with the spirited competition.
Another favorite family pastime came on Sunday afternoons, when aunts and uncles and cousins visiting Grandpa and Grandma Zimmermann would walk to the Mississippi River about a mile away, joined by members of our household. The walk wound over the country road past a pond and man-made caves left by a quarry, to the river where he skipped stones on the water. On the walk back along the road, my Dad and uncles would invariably give the younger children rides on their shoulders as we climbed two big hills on the way back to grandma and grandpa’s house.
Like all of us, my father was not perfect. After his oldest daughter – my sister Becky – divorced, Dad never forgave her, even as she was dying. This heart-rending episode in our family, and others since, have taught me the importance of forgiveness, which mirror God’s love and mercy to all of us, especially the Prodigal Son – or daughter, whom we have in our own families.
Three years ago, I came back home for a visit and took another walk along the country road with Dad, but this time I helped tie his shoes and button up his coat. By then he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and that walk I took with him that day was like old times, enjoying the beauty of the woods as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground, and making small talk.
Mom cared for Dad at home for about three years as his disease progressed, until she no longer could, and he spent the last nine months of his life in a nursing home, a sad time for him and all of us. His gravestone at our parish cemetery in Missouri has his name and mom’s, and the interlocking tools forming the symbol of the Sheet Metal Workers Union. It’s located not far from the markers for my Grandma and Grandpa Zimmermann. In death as in life, they are neighbors.
After Dad died, I returned home to Maryland and bought a pair of Red Wing work boots made in the United States, to remind me of him. As this issue of the Catholic Standard is being mailed, I’ll be driving to Missouri with my oldest son Joe, to visit Mom and offer prayers of thanks at Dad’s grave. And I’ll lace up those boots and take a walk down the country road with my son, and I’ll tell stories about his Grandpa and what he taught me.