Family, Farming, Rural Living

Ave Atque Vale: Frank Zbozny, Rest in Peace

My husband, Frank Zbozny (see–I always told you I could win a game of Scrabble in one go, if only proper names were allowed), has died.  Many of you know of his decades-long struggle with dementia, and of the cardiac and other physical problems that began to sap his strength in 2012 or thereabouts.  But he was himself almost to the end.  The last intelligible word he spoke to me was two days ago, after I enabled what I believe was one of his last pleasant physical sensations on this earth (so I did it often), the deployment of a just-warmed-in-the-dryer comforter over the top of him.  He smiled.  I asked him how that felt.  He thought.  And over the course of about ten seconds, the courtly and rather old-fashioned gentleman I married, 39 years ago on July 24 of this year (I wrote about that marriage here), managed to get the word out:  “Deee–li–cious.”  

We started out our married life quite poor, at least in financial terms. I was a Teaching Assistant, and Frank was an Assistant Professor of English, at a time (early 1980s) when a liberal arts career path was beginning to be deprecated in favor of a business education, so he wasn’t terribly well paid. We lived at the very end of a dead-end street, in a run-down little house picturesquely situated just above the exhaust vents of Pittsburgh’s Liberty Tunnels. I was assaulted once, going home after work as I walked up the hill from the streetcar stop. I was fondled by the disgusting creep (kneed him in the crotch), and my purse was stolen. Our house was ransacked one evening when we were out, and the very few items of value, both real and sentimental, that we owned, were taken. (I remember, on both of those occasions, feeling utterly violated. It was three-and-a-half decades before I felt anything else as wrenching, or even remotely comparable in terms of being flayed alive in a public space.) One day, I drove home from work to find gangs of thugs in the middle of the street watching a couple of pit bulls fight in the back of a pickup truck. I had them arrested and carted off to jail. It required a bit more moxie than it might today, as this was well before the days when cell phones were in widespread use. So I parked my car in the middle of the street above them (so they couldn’t leave, because dead-end), walked through and past them, while they jeered and insulted me, walked up the steps of the house, and called the police. Frank’s comment? “You would have made a good United States Marine.” Made me proud then. Almost makes me proud now.

It was, to say the least, an interesting place to start off our married life. Still, we had a lovely garden (auto and diesel exhaust fumes must be an excellent fertilizer and growth stimulant), and with the exception of the wanna-be circus performer woman across the street (Kathy) who regularly threw knives at the bathroom door while her husband (Tom) cowered inside, and the fellow next door (Jimbo) who held raucous parties at all hours of the day and night before succumbing to a drug overdose at a very young age, most of the neighbors (elderly, long-term residents) were lovely.

Twenty years later, we were living on our little farm in Washington County, I was an IT manager at the local community hospital, Frank was a Full Professor of English (he always used to say, “never ask what it is that full professors are full of”) and I was making far more money than he was. That didn’t matter a scrap to either of us, except that I think it made him proud. One of the things that makes me proud is to think that we always delighted in each other’s strengths, and were always supportive and helpful in understanding, and covering for, each other’s weaknesses. (Isn’t that what it’s all about? Frankly (see what I did there), if you answer “no” to that question, I’m not sure I want to know you.)

In between those times, we lived modestly, loved each other, the kids, and the outdoors, and made it through a series of calamities that I’m not sure every marriage could have survived. Michael’s catastrophic head injury in 1981. Sam’s lifelong struggle with severe mental illness, which took such a toll on him and every member of his family, until he was assaulted in December of 2017 and after seven months in a coma, died of his head injuries in July of the following year. Coping for the first few years of our marriage with my father-in-law, a nasty, abusive, alcohol-and-brain-damaged drunk who regularly called me and Frank’s ex-wife with threats to burn the house down or to call the police on us for “scarring” the children. The death of Frank’s mother, an otherwise healthy 87-year old, in a nursing home where she was recuperating from heart surgery, but where she was given the drug cocktail intended for the woman in the next bed, with devastating results. The death of Frank’s former wife, who fell down the stairs and sustained a fatal head injury, in 2000. Michael’s death in an automobile accident in 2002. My brother’s near fatal motorcycle accident in 2006, and my mother’s long struggle with fronto-temporal dementia. My Dad’s death in 2007 not long after he broke his hip (I was still working at the time, and was glad that Frank helped me out, not long before Dad died, by spending six weeks in England with him, and that they had a chance to form a bond). My stepdaughter’s ugly and protracted divorce. My mother’s bitterness at our marriage, and the fact that it was twenty years after we married before before she and my husband finally met. And on and on. Still, we persevered. A good man and (oh, how I hope) a good woman, holding things together, doing their best, and making things work–together. As couples do.

Frank got to be the good man he was through a circuitous route, perhaps starting with his earliest childhood memory (must have been about 1941), which he always said was one of his father giving his mother a black eye. When he was not-quite-eighteen years old and his father, a violent alcoholic, beat his mother senseless for the umpteenth time, Frank punched his father’s lights out, left home, and never went back. You see, insulting, demeaning, belittling, and traducing women simply wasn’t in his nature. And he wouldn’t put up with it when he saw it in others. (His mother subsequently divorced his father, went to school to learn how to be an Operating Room Technician, and enjoyed a long and rewarding career on her own. His father descended even further into drunken madness and his last years were very difficult and messy. I say this as the person who, largely, had to clean them up. It was an object lesson to me that, in many cases, virtue is its own reward and vice is its own punishment.)

Frank had done so well in high school (working class, private, Catholic, inner-city Pittsburgh, skipping a couple of grades) that he won several city-wide science prizes, and was awarded a helpful scholarship to Carnegie Tech. (I’ve told the story many times of his mother hocking her wedding ring to pay for the application fees.) But he couldn’t hack the math, and quickly dropped out of engineering school and joined the Marines. Thank you, Sgt E.J. Kritz. In a few short months, I think you had more influence on the development of Frank’s character than his own mother, no shrinking violet, herself. (You’ll have heard of at least one of Frank’s boot camp brothers, if the name LtGen Paul K. Van Riper rings any bells.)

Frank was proud, all his life, that he–a gangly, scrawny weakling from Pittsburgh’s South Side –had survived Parris Island boot camp, and he liked nothing better than to tell the story of how he shouldn’t even have made it to Day One.  (Another story I’ve bored you with before):

Many years ago, Mr. She walked into the Recruiting Office in Pittsburgh to enlist. I suppose the Sergeant must have liked what he saw, because there was a little problem when Mr. She took the eye test. In short, he failed it miserably. A couple of times.

“Son,” said the Sergeant, “I think I know what might be the problem. I think your eyes are just having trouble adjusting to the light in here. Do you think that could be it?”

“Yes, Sir, I think it could be,” said Mr. She.

“I’ll tell you what,” says the Sergeant, pointing to a chair across the room and about eighteen inches away from the eye chart. “You just go sit over there for a few minutes until your eyes adjust. Then we’ll try again.”

So Mr. She did. Sat right there. Eighteen inches away from the eye chart while his eyes adjusted.

After about ten minutes, and a few more eye tests for other young men, all of whom passed with flying colors, the Sergeant said, “Son, do you think your eyes have adjusted all right now?”

“Yes, Sir, I think they have,” said Mr. She, and he took the eye test again.

Aced it.

I know I’ve had occasion to comment on Frank’s service in the United States Marine Corps on several occasions here, and I think what I said in my post from a couple of years ago, United States Marines I have known and loved. And a couple of others,” is pretty reflective of most of them:

“The United States Marine to whom I committed my life on July 24, 1981 is, of course, Mr. She (pictured above). Not a career Marine. But my Marine. One who volunteered and did his bit. While in the Reserves, he attained his PhD in English Language and Linguistics, and served in a distinguished capacity as a university professor for the next several decades. As [a career USMC officer of my acquaintance] might say, “the world needs good university professors, and good [fill in the appropriate professional position–up to and including dentists] just as much as it needs good Marines.”

Even though, relatively speaking, his years in the Reserves didn’t take up all that much of his life, Frank loved being a Marine, and never tired of talking about his boot camp experiences or his love for the Corps, even when his his memories of almost everything else that had happened in the last sixty years of his life had deserted him. (Yes, bless him, there were many times when I grew heartily sick of the stories, and wished he had another Marine to talk to about them. Still, in the best tradition of a woman’s contradictory nature, and right to change her mind, I expect that soon I’ll be wishing I could just hear those tales one more time–especially the one about the donuts, or the one about how he was left in charge one weekend and set a recalcitrant and disruptive grunt to shining the garbage cans until he could see his face in them.)  A small investment of his time, a commitment to fight for his country if the need arose, and memories for a lifetime.  Those memories never left him, long after others had.

Late in his life, Frank expressed some regret that he hadn’t stuck with it when he was offered the chance, and I know he’d have made a good officer had he taken the Corps up on it. But he wanted to teach, so he moved on. The Marine Corps’s loss, and academia’s gain.

Frank went back to school, eventually earning a PhD in Language and Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught Old and Middle English language and literature for decades at Pittsburgh’s neighboring Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost, and that’s where I first met him. As my teacher. After an uneventful first class (Chaucer, 1974–he always said I sat in the back, mostly silently, and knitted my way through it, then wrote the best paper he’d ever received from an undergraduate), we caught up with each other again in 1978 when he was recently divorced and I was a teaching assistant.

One of the dearest memories of my life will always be coming in to my first class of the day in Rockwell Hall and finding a little bunch of nasturtiums or other small and modest flowers, together with a sweet note, on my desk. I knew where they came from. The students never did. (When the news got out, we were the scandal of the year. Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose. If it happened today, he’d have been fired, for sure. Maybe I’d have sued him, and then written a book. Or had my own reality TV show. LOL out loud.)

On July 24, 1981, we got hitched in New Hampshire, on a camping trip with the kids (and our Ted Williams tent-trailer, which we bought used for $300.  We towed it with a tiny Datsun F10, the ugliest car in the world.  And certainly one that was incapable of towing anything, anywhere. The previous year, it had towed the same tent-trailer, and taken Frank and the kids all over the Western United States.)  Jenny was the flower girl, Sam was the best man, and Michael took the photos.  The bride wore shorts.  The groom looked like an escapee from a hippie commune.

Frank loved being a teacher, just as much as he had loved being a Marine. And I’m proud that we were invited to so many of his students’ weddings, and that some have kept in touch, even as their families have grown and as they’ve moved on with their own lives. There have been more than a few who’ve said that Frank was the best professor of their college experience, and even one who wrote him into one of his many published books.

Frank retired from Duquesne in 2003, saying that he didn’t feel he could teach effectively anymore, and that he didn’t trust himself to do a good job because he was forgetting too many things. We thought it was a side effect of the Lipitor he’d been prescribed, but perhaps it was simply a shot across his bow from the dementia setting in. As it is with many very intelligent people, its inroads were subtle, and I was slow to spot it. Looking back, I think it started much sooner than I realized. But, from his retirement in 2003 until about 2015, even with all the ups and downs life threw at us, we lived contentedly on our little farm, and even more so after I retired in 2010, mainly so the two of us could spend more time together, as I realized, even then, that the sixteen-year age difference between us might become more of a factor in our relationship as time went by.

He found great contentment and peace down here on the farm, even at the end, when he’d forgotten almost everything (except the blasted United States Marine Corps, and the aforementioned boot camp), and when he had such heartbreaking difficulty putting the simplest of thoughts into words.

About a month ago, I sat in our little sun room with Frank and Dixie, the physical therapy aide who’d somehow managed to inveigle him to take the short walk outside (his last walk outside, ever). The flowers had bloomed, the birds were singing, the sheep were in the field, God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world. I exclaimed at the loveliness of the farm we had made together.

“I was a teacher,” Frank haltingly explained to Dixie. And over the next couple of minutes, he framed the thought and got it out:

“But in my heart I was always a . . .”

“Oh, Lord.” I thought. “Here it comes. [Expletive] United States Marine Corps. It really will be the last thing to go.”

“In my heart . . . I . . . was . . always . . a . . . farmer.”

Godspeed, Frank.

My Teacher.

My Marine.

My Farmer.

My Friend.

Jenny’s Dad. Sam’s Dad.  Michael’s Dad.


Peachy’s beloved Grandpa.

Much love,

Your Wife


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