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Guenter J Szczuka 1940 ~ 2017

July 27, 2017 8 comments

I had the honor of writing and delivering my Dad’s eulogy at his funeral this week and wanted to share it with those who knew him but were unable to attend.

my dad

My Dad was born in 1940.

Family en Szczuka

(R-L) Guenter, Papa, George, Irene, Mama, Christine

His early childhood was spent in war-torn Germany where he experienced firsthand the horrifying atrocities of war. He witnessed things no child  should ever have to see or suffer through.

At age 18, he left his parents, a sister and a brother to immigrate to this country. He followed in the footsteps of his older sister, my Tante Christine, in search of a better life.

For my Dad, that “better life” began when he met a beautiful, Irish-born woman who made my sister, myself and my brother, first generation Americans and to whom my Dad lovingly referred to as his Dah-ling.  Always.

They married in September, 1961 and while there were many things we didn’t understand about my Dad, there was never a doubt that he adored and cherished our mom. This year they would have celebrated 56 years of marriage.

kiss

My Dad had a strong work ethic, something he passed along to myself and my siblings.

He worked hard at everything he did, although work didn’t always come easy to him in the early years. Initially, he was a painter’s apprentice. My mom used to say it was “Feast or Famine” in the beginning of their marriage.

He was resourceful though and my mom would also, often, tell the story of how during one of those famine-years, when my older sister was first born, my Dad scoured the streets picking up discarded bottles in order to collect enough “return” money to  make sure there was a gift from Santa under the tree for her first Christmas.

young dad

Food was always a big part of my Dad’s life. I think because he had so little of it during the war.

He couldn’t bear to see it wasted.

He loved cooking and baking and was pretty good at it — most of the time. smile

treats
Special thanks to my niece Veronica for making “Opa’s -famous- Treats” in his honor for the luncheon after his funeral.

I have fond memories of my Dad making caramelized candy and fonder memories of him making donuts — real old-fashioned, delicious donuts in our kitchen.

The hardest part for us kids would be waiting for the dough to rise. It felt like forever but once it did, he would roll it out on the counter, flour the end of a drinking glass and drop the dough into hot oil. He’d sit us up on top of the refrigerator so we could watch the doughy-circle-molds expand into pure donut yummy-ness!

kds

My Dad loved chocolate, dressing up for masquerade parties, soccer and hockey. Pele was his man and the Islanders were his team. For most of our childhood, we lived on the 4th floor of an apartment building in New Rochelle and everyone, I mean EVERYONE in the building knew when the Islanders scored a goal.

He loved music. While other kids grew up listening to the Beatles, we grew up listening to the ever-popular, traditional volksmusik-singing-sensation & one man wonder — Heino.

Over 50-million records sold!smile

My Dad’s childhood left many scars on him. He was a complicated man.

As a teenager in High School I tried to make a connection with him. I would make his lunch every night for work the next day and leave a small note in his bag letting him know if I had a test, a game or if something special was happening that day. Sometimes I would just write “Have a good day!” but he never responded, acknowledged or mentioned them to me.

Many years later I found out that he had kept those notes, each and every one of them, in a box in his drawer.

He and I walked a similar path in some respects. We shared some of the same struggles. It was difficult for him to express his feelings — until recently.

What happened to my Dad changed him.

circle

I’ve come to view his recent stroke — as devastating as it was to all of us, especially him — as a blessing in a way.

He showed us again and again how strong he was at the core of his being.

After 3 weeks in the ICU, we were pretty much lead to believe that the chances of him ever speaking or walking again were slim to none. And although his dementia progressed during this time as well — so did his ability to let go of the chains of his past, allowing him to be the man I think he always wanted to be. He became oddly contented. He was more open and mellow. He was always happy to see us. He had a pleasant demeanor. He was clever and funny, full of playful humor, eager to engage in any way he could, be it a nod, lifting a hand, pointing a finger or sticking out his tongue.

tongue

He worked hard at his recovery. Not surprisingly, he DEFIED the odds.

We saw him walk AND heard him speak again — in English AND in German.

walk

Some might say that was a miracle. At a minimum, it was a gift.

And as difficult as this has been for our family — especially my brother who so gallantly & lovingly navigated my Dad’s care — we are blessed and feel grateful to have had this time with him.

Ihre arbeit ist getan Papa. Wir Lieben dich. Mögest du in Frieden ruhen.

all

Your work is done Daddy. We love you. May you rest in Peace.

Obituary

Photo Credits: ©2017 Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.TakingTheWorldOnWithASmile.com

 

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Full Circle

June 29, 2014 14 comments

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I work in a small, private, progressive school. We just celebrated our 50th Anniversary. Our philosophy begins with the premise that all kids are capable. From there, we pledge to nurture each child, every day in the hopes of fostering a love of learning that will last a lifetime.

Two weeks before the last day of school, she appeared in the doorway of our office. It was a Friday afternoon, only minutes before dismissal; the calm before the bus-boarding-storm. She was chattering a-mile-a-minute when I looked up from my desk and saw her standing there. She was an older woman, maybe in her early sixties, dressed more like she was in her thirties. She had long, wavy brown hair that was graying at the roots. There was something light even comical about her tone and her appearance. Her accessories jingled and jangled as she waved her hands to emphasize her words like a conductor would at a symphony. Barely stopping to breathe, she incessantly, repeated her name, asking if myself or my co-workers knew who she was , no — not her actually, but her daughter. Did we recognize her daughter’s name because her daughter went to this school, oh, about 30-years ago. Like a leaky faucet the words trickled out into a tale that finally ended with the keeping of a promise and a story that left a profound stirring inside me.

I did not know her, her daughter or recognize their name but our (interim) Director did, which didn’t surprise me. Before standing in as Director, while we searched for a replacement, Diane was a teacher for 34-years at our school. In fact, she was this woman’s daughter’s kindergarten teacher – oh, about 30-years ago and remembered them both well.

I was going through a very hard time back then, the woman told us. I had three children, no money and was in the middle of a divorce. Eric was running the school then and the tuition was $900.

Pause.

Eric was running the school then.

Eric, was Diane’s best friend for many, many years. He was also a teacher at our school for many, many years and although we didn’t actually have a director-by-title up until recently, by all accounts, Eric was the director here, for many, many years. Eric, was a very special person and much like Diane, beloved by hundreds if not thousands of students and parents. Eric passed away about 5-years ago from a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sometimes in our day-to-day dealings, when there’s a hard decision to make at school, I think to myself, what would Eric do? I know my co-worker, our office manager and Eric’s sister, does too. She said those exact words just the other day. I’d bet, Diane has thought them as well. Eric would always err on the side of compassion, trust and human kindness.

It wasn’t a surprise for the three of us to learn that Eric told this woman not to worry about the $900 tuition for kindergarten that year and to pay it when she could.

She was only in this school for one little year of her life the woman said but I credit that year and her experience here with the success that she is today and every time I pass this school in my aluminum foil car I think about that and promised myself I would repay that debt when I could.

And so she did, that day, two weeks before the last day of school. She gave us $1,000 and vowed to continue to make a small monthly donation to the school from that day forward. Indeed, she kept her promise, to herself, to Eric and to the perpetuation of the human spirit.

The encounter moved me. Profoundly. It awakened in me deep hope that in an unsuspecting, fleeting moment, faith in humankind can be restored. It’s a testament in particular to the power of an act of kindness and what happens to it long after the deed is done.

It comes full circle.

What’s Your Word?

January 12, 2014 12 comments

faith2

January is my birth-month and always evokes reflection for me, which in turn, starts the mind- ball rolling and inevitably lands atop a pile of things I think I should, could, need or want to do in the upcoming year. I suspect I’m not unique. January after all, is the start of every new year offering the promise of a new beginning and of course, the making of a million resolutions.

UGH!

I’m not not very good at resolutions. My intentions are always good but, well, you know what they say about where the road that’s paved with good intentions goes. I’d love to be able to say I’m going to do X, Y and Z this year, do them and be thrilled with myself come the following December. I’d even be okay if I were able to get X and only part of Y done and somehow WASN’T disappointed in myself the next December when I realized I never completed Z.

But I can’t. I  am who I am and resolutions just don’t really work for me.

I do however like the idea of being able to start over. In fact, I wake-up every morning with the notion that it’s an opportunity to do better than yesterday. Begin again. I also like the idea of having a concentration; something I can work on or toward without the pressure of having a deadline to complete it. That’s why I love this idea and recent posting on a blog I follow about the concept of using a single word as a focal point to giving yourself direction and purpose.

The blog is Leadership Freak and the post was Don’t Make a Resolution; Find a Word“.

Whether your work is in a leadership capacity or not, or whether you’re a parent or not, or if you’re just interested in another interesting perspective on how to move forward in life, I highly recommend following this blog.

Dan Rockwell, invites you to look inward and think about what you need, what’s in your way and what needs to go” to help find your word. Actually, he suggests letting your word find you, without stressing about it by finding a quiet place to think about it. Let it come to you. Finally, he recommends that you live out your word where-ever you go. Keep it at the forefront of your mind. Apply it to everyday living.

This, I thought, I can do.

So  I did.

FAITH

That’s.  My.  Word.

This year for me, it’s about FAITH.

FAITH that “things” will always turn out the way they are supposed to.

Because they do.

FAITH that I can.

And I will.

Because I do.

FAITH that all things are possible.

Because they are.

Wordle: faith

Think about it and then come back and tell me.

WHAT’S YOUR WORD?

Photo Credit #1:  Google Images

Photo Credit #2: Wordle created by Karen Szczuka Teich

The Child Whisperer

March 11, 2012 25 comments

The flip-side of last week’s post thankfully, is that there are many amazing teachers that devote their whole lives to educating children. These people influence who we are in the most positive of ways, for life. Children do not forget who they are. They too are remembered and cherished forever.

In the Spring of 2001, curiosity got the better of me. My quest to find the right preschool for my overly active, precocious, almost 3-year-old son, finally provided the opportunity for me to see what was really going on in the mysterious looking Victorian house that sits majestically upon a hill overlooking the busy-ness of Route 9D. Little did I know as I walked into the hallway that echoed with song and laughter, that in-between the walls of this house that was a school, magic happened.

We were met by the cheerful smile of a woman who greeted us in the same friendly way you might be greeted by a favorite aunt. She introduced herself as Diane. We later found out that she was actually the Head Teacher of the Downstairs Program and an Administrator. The Downstairs portion of the house belongs to the 3, 4 and 5-year old learners. Immediately after introducing herself, she turned her attention to her real interest; the fidgety, inquisitive, little person clutching my leg with one hand and squeezing my arm with the other. She positioned herself on bended-knee to meet my boy; to see him, face-to-face, and as soon as I witnessed this act of immense respect from an adult educator to a 3-year-old child, I knew we had just walked into a very, very special place.

There is something about looking a person in the eye when you speak to them that makes them feel like you are sincerely interested in who they are and what they have to say and she was. He could tell.

You can’t fool children. Instinctively, they know sincerity.

My Noah, thrilled to be standing on the back of a hay truck during a visit to the farm with Diane. Preschool 2001

Diane wasn’t my son’s group teacher until two years later, but being the head of the Downstairs team, her influences and interactions were intertwined with all of the children. In his second year there, at age 4, having no trouble expressing himself verbally or physically among his peers, Diane “shadowed” Noah on the playground. Being the Child Whisperer* that she is, she followed him in his play, gently helping him choose kinder words and actions when he mingled with his friends.

Friends. That’s what Diane calls all of her students.

Okay, friends, it’s time to clean up the block room or Okay friends, we are going to get ready for lunchtime circle now.  

Diane and Hannah playing with the play-dough she brought to our house.

Part of the school’s tradition was for the Downstairs’ teachers to make home visits to the children in their groups before school began in September. Twice we’ve been thrilled to welcome Diane into our home; once when my son was in her kindergarten group and again, before the start of my daughter’s first year at the Randolph School. Diane was her preschool teacher. She came bearing soft, freshly made play-dough to an unbelievably excited three-year-old fairy.

      Talk about leaving a lasting impression!

This amazing teacher does not limit her generous nature to the children in her group. My daughter was struggling with writing in the second grade while in the Upstairs portion of this glorious house that is a school and where the older kids, first through fifth graders claim their domain. After asking me how Hannah was doing one day, I mentioned this to Diane who then took it upon herself to become her pen-pal that summer. Each envelope that arrived in our mailbox contained a hand written note and then some. Sparkly-feathery, sticker-y, lovely, glittery things would come pouring out before the letter.

The smallest act of kindness has the power to leave a very big, positive impact on a person’s life.

When my son was in kindergarten and told Diane he was playing the lottery for the first time, she told him to call her at home that night to let her know if he won. Had he won, no doubt, his reaction would have paled in comparison to the excitement he was overcome with when it came time to call Diane at her house and tell her he didn’t win.

Another time my son was scheduled to be in After-school but was the only child enrolled that afternoon. After bringing that to my attention the After-school teacher asked me if it would be okay to cancel. Since I only put him in because he wanted to stay at school, I agreed. This news was a huge disappointment to my little first grader and he through a massive fit on the porch of the school. That evening after speaking with him and hearing how much he was looking forward to being in After-school, I realized I had made a grave mistake by so willingly accepting the cancellation, simply because he was the only child enrolled. The next day, I sought Diane out and explained what happened. I asked her what the school’s policy was if there was only one child enrolled in the After-school program. Her response was swift and clear.

If one child wants to come to After-school, we have After-school.  Now, she said, there’s one thing left for us to do.

With that, she called over the After-school teacher. The two of them went Upstairs, retrieved my son from class, apologized to him, hugged him and invited him to stay in After-school that day.

Truly extraordinary.

Diane seining in the Hudson River with another amazing teacher and their preschoolers. Noah, first in line, is like a sponge, soaking up everything they do and say.

Whether it’s a tender heart that needs mending, a river that begs seining or a rocket that needs launching, Diane has been soothing little souls, helping them to feel capable and confident in who they are, what they can do and who they might become since 1978 at the Randolph School.

 Don’t get your liver in a quiver she’ll tell them when they begin to fret.

5-year-old Hannah launching her rocket with Diane.

A person who can consistently touch the lives of the people she comes in contact with, both big and small and make each one of them, myself included, feel special nearly every time she interacts with them has an EXTRAORDINARY gift. Truly.

That is Diane.

My children are better people for having been taught by Diane. I’m a better person for knowing her and having the honor of “over-hearing” how she speaks with and teaches children for the past six years while I quietly work across the hall from the Great Room where she spends much of her time with her friends.

A few months ago Diane announced that this will be her last year teaching in the big house that is a school and as inevitable as it was, the news has surely saddened many. No matter where Diane goes however, her influence, kindness and ability to make everyone she meets feel special will live on in our hearts, always. She is the teacher, the colleague, the friend that changes your life in the most positive of ways.

It is befitting that this weekend, Diane is presenting a workshop with a former student, who is now her young colleague and who is also bursting with similar magical qualities, at a conference in New York City entitled, In Defense of Childhood: Keeping the Joy of Learning Alive!

She’s been doing exactly that for nearly 34-years.

As my soon to be 11-year-old fairy who’s been receiving birthday and Christmas surprises from this teacher every year for almost as long as she’s been at this school would say so matter-of-factly…

 “Mom. She’s Diane!”

Is there a Diane that has positively impacted your life?

Photo Credit #1 The Randolph School

Photo Credit #2-6 Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.takingtheworldonwithasmile.com

Title Credit: *Child Whisperer Thank you, Nicole for letting me borrow this description of Diane from you!

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