I loved my father’s mother. She was the favorite granddaughter of a mildly prosperous German immigrant in Pittsburgh. He showered her with praise and attention he did not share with his other grandchildren. I suppose if you are the favored child and get to ride in grandfather’s carriage up and down Butler Street in Lawrenceville, you might tend to feel a bit special. She was always a bit formal and dare I say without malice, self-centered and self-important. I offer this, not to be critical but to provide context.
Her sister was my Aunt Mildred. Mildred was pure warmth and joy. She doted on her children, grandchildren and nephews as if they were without fault. My brother and I did not much care for family dinners… unless they were at Mildred Anderson’s house. Mildred and Bill, a mechanic for the City of Pittsburgh, lived without pretense in a house in Point Breeze near the cemetery. They lived beside their son and just down the street from the son’s in-laws. My cousins had it made. They had two grandmothers right next door! You could identify the Anderson’s house by the iron lawn dog that sat on guard on their porch steps.
When the entire Zinsser family was assembled at the Anderson’s, as was often the case at Easter, they filled the house. I mean they literally filled the house. There was hardly room to move. Somehow Mildred would offer some space for the five young ones to play. Always she showered everything with good humor. My brother and I, coming from my grandmother’s side of the family, were dressed to the nines. Bow ties, jackets, dress shoes. My cousins were dressed in Easterware when we arrived but were allowed to change later in the day into suitable play clothes. There was no need to be uncomfortable to impress anyone – not on Mildred’s side. Because Don and I had to stay dressed up we were denied a trip to the backyard to visit Sam, Bill’s dog. We might get dirty.
Dinner was centered around a big ham. German dishes such as sauerkraut, pickles, German potato salad and schmearkase were present. I never cared for regular potato salad, but I liked the German variety. I loved sauerkraut but passed on the others. After dinner the men would retreat to the basement for poker and smokes. Irish Uncle Pat always made sure that some Jamison’s was available downstairs to share with the Lutheran men to offer them what he called “Catholic Easter”. Women would play cards upstairs. I don’t know what game they played but they did play for small change. There were be board games for the kids.
One year, my mother (who often felt overwhelmed by the Zinsser clan) decided to hold Easter at our house in Butler. I can’t remember the dinner but do remember Mildred’s son Harvey bringing a gift of three baby ducks who had been dyed yellow and green. The odd aspect of the gift was the idea that a home with three Siamese cats would be a good place for ducklings. We spent the entire day chasing after the predators and quarry, sometimes making a last-minute rescue pulling a bird to safety. Dad took the ducks to a nearby farm the next day and provided them with the opportunity to grow old.