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Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten column: Teaching my son about his grandpa

"It’s important to me that my son knows who my dad was — the things I loved about him and the things that drove me crazy."

John Zettel
John Zettel, shown here on Dec. 7, 2015, the day he finished radiation for glioblastoma.
Contributed / Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten
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Father’s Day hits different for me.

This will be my fifth without my dad. John Zettel died in 2017 of glioblastoma (brain cancer). He was 54 years old.

I’m not sure why Father’s Day cuts so deep. It makes me sadder than his birthday or the anniversary of his death.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten, left, with her dad, John Zettel, and brother, Robert Zettel
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten, left, with her dad, John Zettel, and brother, Robert Zettel, in the family orchard.
Contributed / Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten

Maybe it’s because of the timing. My dad owned and operated a cherry orchard in Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. By mid-June, we were ramping up work in the orchard, caring for the trees and the fruit, looking toward harvest. We spent so much time together in the orchard during the summer, and those are some of my favorite memories.

Whatever the reason, the past two Father’s Days have changed my perspective now that I celebrate my husband, too; we welcomed our son in spring 2021.


It’s important to me that my son knows who my dad was — the things I loved about him and the things that drove me crazy.

My paternal grandparents died before I was born, and I know very little about them. Dad didn’t really talk about them. Mom shared what she could, as have other relatives over the years.

But it never felt like enough to me, especially when I was blessed to know my maternal grandparents. Grandma Jean died a few months after my dad, in fact. I was a full-fledged adult by then.

Isaac Vandenhouten, 1, laughs
Isaac Vandenhouten, 1, laughs while being pushed on his tricycle by his dad, Dan Vandenhouten, in May.
Contributed / Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten

Over the years, I want Isaac to learn about the habits I got from Dad. Like when I’m doing the dishes, then suddenly remember something else I have to do. I will abandon the dishes to take care of that other thing only to come back to the dishes three hours later — Dad was the same way with his chores.

He’ll learn that Uncle Bob puts away tools and equipment in his shop because the mess in Grandpa John’s shop bothered him.

He’ll learn that Grandpa John’s hands were stained with grease from a lifetime repairing small engines and other equipment.

He’ll learn that every time I fill the car up with gas, the scent makes me think of Grandpa John filling up my snowmobile before we went out for a ride.

A college acquaintance wrote a children’s book after she lost her mom and her brother. “Angels in the Sky” is about signs loved ones send after they pass. If you don’t believe in that kind of thing, I get it. I was skeptical, too, until my dad died.


On the first anniversary of Dad’s death, it snowed. My dad loved winter. He rode snowmobiles his whole life and taught my brother and I how to ride as toddlers. He fixed machines and helped maintain the local snowmobile trails for years. Snow was one of his things.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

OK, but he died in March, it’s not unusual for it to snow in March.

Then it snowed on my wedding day. Oct. 20, 2018. Big, fat snowflakes.

The night I gave birth to my son, it snowed, too.

It seems like every time I need a boost, a lift, to know that he’s with me, it snows or something about snow crosses my mind.

So we read “Angels in the Sky,” and we talk about the snow Grandpa John sends us. Hopefully, one day, Isaac will feel like he knows his grandpa.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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