It’s funny how fast and how hard life can come at you sometimes. A month ago, my parents and I were planning for when my Poppy and Grandy would fly over to visit us. That same weekend, my Grandy was admitted into the hospital. She died three days later from respiratory failure.
Joan Therese “Ducky” Dolinar was born June 25, 1936, in Chicago, IL to her parents John and Evelyn Cepek. She had three siblings: her brothers Phil and Jack and her sister Jeanette. She also had four of her own children, one of which was my mother. But even with a large family, she always had room to fit someone else into her inner circle. Whenever she met somebody new, she never hesitated to strike up a conversation and listen to other people’s stories. If she knew you long enough, she would bake you some kolaches or jelly cookies, maybe even sew a quilt or a blanket for you. Everybody was family to Grandy.
I can’t recall my earliest memory of her. They all blur together like a flurry of wonderful emotions rather than a series of sequential events. One of the earliest memories I remember was when I played on her Super Nintendo when I was a kid (yes, she was that cool of a grandma). I was playing the SNES version of Pinocchio when I ran into a flock of geese and they beat me up into a cloud of smoke. I couldn’t stop laughing at it, and I purposefully kept running back into the flock over and over again. Grandy would keep getting flustered at me for purposefully losing the game, and her frustration just made me laugh harder each time. I remember her throwing her hands up in the air, exhaling a deep sigh, and remarking to my mother “I don’t know what on Earth that boy is doing.”
That wasn’t my only memory of her. I would often play in her basement with her toys, most often with “Sesame Street” characters such as Burt, Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster. I would also watch old cartoons down there as well, anything ranging between “Spongebob” and “Ed, Edd n Eddy.” She had a sewing machine down there that she would often use while I was playing, sewing another beautiful quilt, blanket, pillow, or anything else she felt like making. I didn’t realize this back then, but I felt like she would go down there to watch over me while she was quilting.
“Grandy” was by no means the only name I called her. Whenever I was five years old, we started watching those old Land Before Time movies that told the story of Littlefoot and his dinosaur friends. One character named Ducky had a huge affinity for a pterodactyl named Petrie and would often say his name in a joyful, high-pitched squeal. Grandy would mimic the same speech and giggle gleefully afterward. Eventually, we nicknamed her “Ducky” because of her cute imitation of the giddy character. We would often buy her joke gifts sans her nickname, such as plush ducks that quaked when you squeezed it and duck-themed gift cards. Ducky sometimes seemed mildly annoyed by it, but she eventually embraced the name as playfully as we did.
The rest of my time with her growing up went by in a flash. I remember small snippets of memories, like whenever we would play an old game called “Chicken Legs” where we had to match numbers together on domino tiles. I remembered when we traveled out to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and spent a week in the condo during the summer and would swim, play on the boat, and eat delicious BBQ together. I remember when we would go out for ice cream and she would have to wipe my chin off, calling me a “messy boy.” I also remembered whenever we would watch classic movies together like Winnie the Pooh, Micky Mouse, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and several others while she sat on her couch, quietly and contentedly needling or reading.
One of my favorite memories of her was when we would play Farkel together. It was a game where you rolled six dice and tried to get patterns from ones, fives and three of a kind. Three sixes would get the most points, so we would often compete to see who would get the most sixes. Grandy would always plead with the dice to get her “her sixes,” and more often than not I would roll them before she would. She would often spread her arms out and lay her head down across the table, crying out “Noooo, my sixes! How could you do this to me???” Our games would often end up with one of us rolling on our seat in laughter.
One of the things I think I looked past in my childhood was how masterful Ducky Schwartz was in her sewing craft. I always knew she was a skilled seamstress. If any of my favorite shirts ripped or if my dog Dusty chewed a hole into one of my toys, she was prompt and reliable enough to sew it back together in one piece. Still, as I grew older I was mesmerized at how talented she really was. She would often make quilts unique to each member of her family and was extra special to them in one way or another.
My Poppy, for instance, is a big fan of the Chicago Blackhawks, and when they won their first Stanley Cup in four decades in 2010, she celebrated by sewing him a Chicago Blackhawks quilt made from various Blackhawks merchandise. Before I graduated high school, Grandy made my parents and I our own family quilt made from photos of some of our favorite trips together. Wherever she went, Grandy made sure that others experienced the same joys of quilting as she did. She was as good at making people smile as she was stitching a thread.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much my Ducky Schwartz meant to me – to my entire family and to the many families outside of our own. When I went to her funeral service, I was proud but not surprised to find that over a hundred people came to support Grandy and Poppy, and they shared stories and memories of Grandy and her little laugh-filled adventures with them. As I looked around the room of the funeral home, I can’t tell you how astounded I was to see all the people in there, all the lives she touched, and all the families she made despite not being related to them by blood. That was the person she was. Whether she knew you for a day or several years, your happiness mattered to her. I think that’s a quality more people need to learn to possess.
I don’t know how to describe the feelings I’ve felt since burying my Grandy several weeks ago. At times, it feels like she hasn’t left at all and I can feel her as if she’s standing right next to me. Other times, there’s a deep, gaping hole in my heart that feels like I could cry all the tears in the world and it still wouldn’t encapsulate how much I miss Grandy. But the one thing I’ve felt most through all of the ups and downs of mourning her is gratefulness. I’m so grateful to have had not just her, but all four of my grandparents for the past 26 years. I’m grateful to have experienced so much with her, to have loved her and to have shared a part of our lives with each other. I’m grateful that out of all of her flurry of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I got to be one small piece of that giant and colorful puzzle. I’m grateful to have known her in her beautiful life because she’s given me something to aspire to, just like everyone else in our sprawling and loving little family.
I love you Ducky Schwartz. I’ll see you on Friday for Farkel.
Joan “Ducky” Dolinar
1936 – 2019
Hello, I found your story about your Grandy. I knew her. And what you said was true. Back in Chicago in early 70’s. I was in high school. My first real job after school we met. She always said I was family. I spent time at her home with Tony and children. She was very special to me. I have found memories and stories also. Thanks.