Helen Rose Zgoda made it clear to everyone in her family that she didn’t want any presents for Mother’s Day.
After all, she has the greatest gift of all–her family.
At 89 years old, the lifelong Wyandotte resident said she has everything she needs. She has seen much, experienced plenty and has great memories to show for it. She remembers all of the ups, downs and in-betweens, and she enjoys the life she has lived.
Zgoda fondly remembers her late husband Frank, who died 25 years ago.
“He retired at age 65,” she said. “He was retired nine months and he dropped dead right in my arms.”
The couple had seven children and were proud as all of them went on to college and/or great careers. These days, she loves spending time with her 19 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. And they seem to love spending time with “Granny.”
“I love my grandmother for who she is and who she encouraged me to be,” granddaughter Theresa Crnkovich of Wyandotte wrote in an online contest leading up to Mother’s Day 2011. “A member of the greatest generation, she is a proud American who taught me many lessons about being successful in life.
“She advised me to speak up for myself, know my own mind, make dinner for my family every night, vote and be politically informed, read, sew and to 'pay yourself first' by saving money. At 89, she still feeds anyone who shows up at her house and can discuss the Tigers at length. I have been blessed to know such an amazing woman.”
Indeed, Zgoda was reading the newest book about the late Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson, presented as a re-gift by grandson Nathan Brown, a teacher in Illinois who told his grandmother that he received two of the books for Christmas and wanted her to have one of them.
Zgoda said there is too much going on around us to be bored. She reads “anything” she can get her hands on, including several newspapers page by page. She’s not much of a television watcher, but she does watch the news. If a Tigers game is on TV, that takes precedence.
She said she gets up every day and does what needs to be done, including pay her bills. She doesn’t have a computer, but said her children and grandchildren are “computer wise." She ends every night doing the Jumble puzzle, which helps clear her head before heading to bed.
And, of course, there are the visits from the grandchildren, who often stop by for dinner and fun with Granny after they get out of school until a parent comes by to pick them up. The grandchildren range in age from 40 to 11. The great-grandchildren are as young as 5 months old.
“I cannot complain,” Zgoda said. “I’ve had a good life. I have great grandkids. They can talk to me any time they want.”
Born in her parents’ house in Wyandotte, Zgoda is the daughter of Anthony and Cecilia Grabowski. Her dad was from Poland. Her paternal grandparents were Rose and Frank Bickman, who were longtime members of . Her dad’s parents were Felix and Florence Grabowski.
Zgoda said her father stressed the need to read and write. An excellent student, she graduated from and continues to attend there. She went on to the Detroit Business Institute (now the Detroit College of Business), taking the bus there every day.
Along the way, she met and dated Frank Zgoda. They became engaged to be married prior to Frank joining the Navy and served in the construction battalion during World War II. Her three brothers–Andrew, Anthony and John–also served in the military during the war.
“They all got drafted,” Zgoda remembered. “I was the only girl. I had all boy cousins. I learned how to cope. All you had to do is go to work. Now I know if I don’t get up and do it, it won’t get done.”
Helen and Frank were married in 1946. She worked at Soss Manufacturing, which made invisible hinges for sewing machines and other devices. When Soss moved from Detroit to Warren, she took a job at Detroit Trust Company.
Frank was a precision grinder at Whitman and Barnes, making drills first in Detroit and later in Plymouth. Then he worked another 15 years at Grand Hardware in Southgate.
Helen worked eight years, even as she raised her first two children, Bernadette and Rita. She also is proud of her years as a financial secretary at the Polish National Alliance (Dom Polski).
She said their home was paid for before any of her children reached first grade, which had been their goal.
Then, Zgoda decided to become a stay-at-home mom while pregnant with her third child, Frances. She raised her children in their four-bedroom home, cut the lawn, tended to the garden, cooked from scratch and washed the clothes and hung them on the line outside to dry.
“We didn’t have cars in the early 1940s,” she said. “I didn’t learn to drive until I was 50. We had one car and he (Frank) took it to work. I stayed home and took care of the kids. We always had enough sleeping room. My husband built me a kitchen in the basement. It had a nice stove.”
Zgoda said her husband “was a stickler for family meals.” She remembers the first cake recipe she saw and still believes the microwave oven was one of the greatest inventions.
“I’ll never forget when cake mixes got invented,” she said. “My mother-in-law bought them from the Wrigley Market and tried them. It was a godsend. She kept baking these cakes and would say ‘come and get them.’ I had to frost them. We had nine people at the table.”
The decision to stay home turned out to be one she would never regret. She encouraged Bernadette, Rita, Frances and their siblings Cecelia, Dominic, Helen and Mary to study hard in school, go on to college if possible, work hard at their jobs and raise their children right.
Bernadette Hurd, who lives next door to her mother to this day, just retired after careers at Michigan Bell and Kohl’s. At one time, she had three jobs at once.
Rita Kozma graduated from Eastern Michigan University and has been a teacher for more than 30 years in Lincoln Park.
Cecilia Brown has become a computer expert and lives in Illinois.
Only son Dominic Zgoda–Helen still gets a kick that he was born on April Fools' Day–graduated with a degree in business administration from the University of Michigan and works for Superior Foods.
Helen Consiglio–“I thought I deserved one with my name”–graduated with a nursing degree from Madonna University and works at Oakwood Medical Center.
Youngest daughter Mary Cerulla also graduated from Madonna, with a degree in business, and worked for Michigan Consolidate Gas Co. She currently works at Mount Carmel and drives her mother to Mass.
Daughter Frances Laskos graduated from Providence Nursing School, which was affiliated with the University of Detroit, and was a nurse at Grace Hospital. Sadly, “Frannie” died of a heart ailment at age 38, leaving two children.
Each of Zgoda's children has two or three children of their own, totaling 19 grandchildren.
During her life, Zgoda said, she has become very opinionated. She is disappointed with all the negativity and crime in the world.
“Aren’t we put in this world to be kind and help people?” she asked. “We all helped people. If a man went and helped another man, he didn’t charge him or rob him. He just helped him. All neighbors were neighbors. You could count on them.”
She wishes everyone would just get along.
“I don’t believe in fighting,” she said. “Shut your mouth. I don’t go around spreading rumors. Just keep your nose to the grindstone. That’s all I know. You’ve got to do what you have to do. Be kind to everybody.”
Despite working and encouraging her children to have careers, Zgoda believes a mother’s place is in the home–knowing full well that isn’t always possible.
“With the economy the way it is, you have to work,” she said. “You have to have two cars. Houses are expensive. I understand you have to work. Everything is sky high.”
The soon-to-be 90-year-old celebrates the big day on Oct. 13. She said health is “good” and her mind and memory are strong.
“I give her full credit for my strength, optimism, values and pluck,” said granddaughter Theresa Crnkovich. “She set a wonderful example for me and the whole family. The very best thing about her is that, as extraordinary as she is, she does hold herself up as an ideal. She just works hard and does the best she can with a smile on her face. And it is her attitude that everyone should just do the same.”
Zgoda looks back on her life and smiles.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said. “It was a hard life, but it was good. Nobody beat me. I had food. The bills were paid. And we lived with three square meals a day and a roof over our head.”
“I have good, such good, people around me," she said. "They’re just great.”
So on Mother’s Day, Zgoda had just one wish of her family: Don’t buy me anything!
“I told them, 'Don’t spend any money on me,’” she said. “But my daughter came from Illinois and left three packages here. I’ve got more stuff. I said, ‘Please, I don’t need anything.’ Take me to church. Take me to the store if I need something. Take me to the doctor. That’s enough. I’ve got my family. The grandchildren are here all the time. I’m lucky that way. To me, that is what Mother’s Day is all about."