Written by: Eric Shanteau
It feels like just yesterday that I was sitting on a green couch watching World Championship Wrestling, while eating a plain buttered ham sandwich on white bread as it was cut compassionately into two perfect triangles. Pierogi dough and homemade pie crust were being rolled in the kitchen as I held my tiny hands over the floor vent for heat while the old floors from above squeaked in synchronism with the roar of the wind and the rhythm of a nearby cuckoo clock.
Such a rather simple memory out of the thousands I’ve experienced with my grandmother. I can’t tell you why this moment stands out. Perhaps simplicity is memorable to me, but I’d like to think that it was because I felt at ease; I felt safe and happy. During this moment, I was probably the ripe age of eight and I hated WCW and I thought buttering bread with cold cuts was odd, but my grandmother loved it and eventually I did and do as well. I loved her, I truly did. If I could only go back in time and tell myself that “playing with my friends” wouldn’t nearly be as important as being in her arms, helping her in the kitchen, or learning how to plant her beloved flowers, I would without hesitation. She was a no nonsense woman, who could cook and bake like no other. She took pride in what she did and no detail was ever disregarded. She was as blue collar as it gets and as independent as anyone could be. Stella was a breadwinner and a homemaker, she was one of the first reasons why I love and appreciate all women.
I miss my grandparents dearly. All of them. At my current age, grandparents hardly exist anymore and it’s a shame because with that title comes the most impartial, tolerant and open minded kind of love that will ever exist in this world. Luckily, my mother now holds this honor, and hopefully my sister will as well someday. It’s the rank of all ranks that stems from love and ends with unheralded accomplishment.
My grandmother worked at Tiedtke’s, and cared for two children. Later in life, after losing my grandfather at such an early age, she remarried Don Hoover, an animal caretaker for the Toledo Zoo and this is when (to me) my grandmother paved the way for generations to come.
Our zoo in Toledo, Ohio isn’t a place were millions of people come to just see animals, it’s a “factory” of memories that you hold on to forever. Underground tunnel walks to Merry-Go-Round rides. Red panda shirts to photos on the animal statues while your dad holds you up. Christmas lights to concerts under the stars. I could go on forever, but my greatest memories were not of any particular animal, they were made everywhere within these confines. These animals allowed me to create my memories in other ways I’d never dream imaginable.
My grandmother lived a block away from the Toledo Zoo and after she remarried Don, she was given the go ahead to nurture young animals within her home from the zoo. Most that were rejected from their mother. Times were different back then and although my grandmother had very little veterinarian experience, she could care for anything in this entire world with a heartbeat. To make a long story short, she was the woman behind these zoo walls. She was the woman that didn’t need a cage or steel bars to eventually make a difference in what a young child would astonishingly admire from afar. At different durations during her tenure with the zoo, she cared for pumas, lions, kangaroos, monkeys, and several other animals for many years; all within her living room and backyard. My father and uncle growing up were the luckiest kids in the world (in my opinion). In fact, my fathers first job was operating the Merry-Go-Round and it was the last job he did temporarily as retirement presented itself. Walking to and from the zoo, back to my grandmothers was something I could do blindfolded. The zoo ran in our souls and hearts. It’s a staple of history and a gateway to family entertainment in Toledo, Ohio for those before and after us.
My grandmother cared for one particular puma named Tarnish in 1958, that was to be given to Prince Rainier of Monaco, who many know from his marriage to the actress Grace Kelly. She once told me that her greatest joy (all voluntarily) was receiving a single letter from him for her upbringing of this one special young puma. Several years later, caring for animals in her home was obviously outlawed. Thankfully, we are currently blessed with boxes full of her image that transcend her care for the tiny animals that lived in our zoo or within her arms.
My story can’t measure her true duty and love for these animals over the years and the growth of the zoo and what it has become today. My one true dream is for the zoo to recognize this and although I’ve tried, I don’t think I’ll fully succeed until I can see my grandmothers photo or name grace a wall within these confines. If it never does, I’ll accept that fate, solely for the memories that she has left in my heart and every time I enter the gates at our beloved zoo. Without these animals she nurtured, my youth would be altered. Several of my memories, even after she passed, wouldn’t have ever been a notion.
What she did for the zoo or in life isn’t the be all – end all. I know this. If she didn’t pave history the way she did, I’d still love her all the same. As I have grown into the man I have, I just want her back for a day. I want to hear her stories on her porch as we sit upon her glider and share a cold beer together. I want to see her smile and I want to hug and hold her. I want her to know that even as a young boy, I appreciated her company and her unconditional love, but I can’t. Until I see her again in heaven, I’ll hold on to these photographs and I’ll know that she was a part of bringing memories to all children in Toledo and around the country as they enter the turnstile at 2 Hippo Way.
Thank you grandma, I love and miss you always. You’re a true Toledo legend in my mind. Your care for all shall never be forgotten.
In memory- Grandma Shanteau & Grandma Nelson.
Two amazing grandmothers and two incredible women.