Conversations with Stella Jane

In Pittsburgh, I ride down Ohio River Boulevard in the back seat of my aunt's car, trying to ignore the chatter of Stella Jane and Anna. "Aren't the factories beautiful?" exclaims my grandmother as orange black gray smoke belches out of the steel mill stacks and disperses against a cobalt sky.

Anna turns right on their favorite country road, driving slowly past elegant Victorian mansions in elite Sewickley, gabled houses in pastel paints, so big they could be boarding schools.  "Look at the property!" says Stella Jane."If you got hard up for money while you were living there, you could save yourself by selling half the lot."

"Norman should buy a house," Anna declares. "It's such a good investment. He could do it if he managed his money well."

"It wouldn't be so bad having him home again if he didn't bring that girl's clothes with him. They're everywhere. Under the his bed. In the cellar. They'll have moths. Moths in my house, in our things!" Stella Jane complains. "What's he doing with her?"

Anna and Stella Jane discuss the new/old morality. "It's better for guys," Anna observes. "They find some girl to keep house for them and wait on them like their mothers used to, and then kick the girl out whenever they want."
"Some women aren't playing that game," I venture. "Good for them," says Anna.

My grandmother tells me I'll be playing around with my life in New York when I'm 40, just like I am now.

—November, 1978

Stella Jane:  When are you going to marry, Susan? Settle down, get yourself a good man.  Then you could buy a house and we could give you some of the things around here to make it purty!

Susan: There aren't any good men. And marriage is an institution of slavery.

Stella Jane:  Not if you find the right man.

Susan: Like you did?

Stella Jane:  Well, now, Frank was just….

Anna:  You'll be too old to marry soon. (She married at age 39).

Susan:  Don't worry about it.

Anna:  She's too selfish to marry, Mom.

Susan:  Actually, I might marry in about five years. There's just one person I'd marry, and that's Victor. You know who he is, don't you? Remember?

Anna:  Ha! That's not going to be so good for you.

Susan: Oh, I don't know. Victor wants to marry me. We love each other very much. It's just not...well, it's not…

Anna: Physical.

Susan (pleased): Yeah, that's it. You got it.

Stella Jane:  Who's Victor?

Anna:  You know, mom. He's the one that likes boys. He's the one she moved to New York with.

Stella Jane:  Now what would she want to go marrying him for?

Anna: Who knows? She'll marry him and then he'll go off to see his boyfriends and Susie'll go to….(pause)...well, I don't know what Susie'll do.

Neither did I.

—February, 1980

A phone call from Stella Jane.

"I might get to New York yet. Have to go see my friend Miss Lillie. She's just the nicest person. Sent me a fruitcake for Christmas. You tasted it, didn't you? We sent her some small things. Some nice hankies Anna had, a change purse and something else—Anna, what was it?—Oh yes, a pretty pink necklace. She didn't write to tell me she got it. I don't know, maybe she thought it was junk.  Course I don't write myself. Can't spell the words. I got so I forget nearly everything these days. Have to leave blanks for the words I can't spell, and I almost have nothing wrote on the paper at all."

—February 1981

Yesterday, Anna, Stella Jane & I drove through the South Hills all the way to Library, PA, where I lived until I was 12, when we moved to Mt. Lebanon. The pharmacy was in the same place. Peter's Creek Baptist Church had grown into a complex, with a red, white and blue neon signboard on the corner, fitted with flashing arrows chasing the faithful to the church door. St. Joan of Arc Catholic School was still drilling the fear of the Lord into its politely petrified pupils; a notice on the front lawn announced registration for new students next Tuesday. No point in checking out the library, as the town never bothered to build one.

The Company Store for coal miners, a low yellow brick windowless building, situated itself in the middle of the empty parking lot like the remains of a meal on a dinner plate. The streetcar clacked through the center of the sleepy town, churning over the underpass just as we rumbled under it on our way up the hill to the old neighborhood.

Dormers have been added to most of the simple one-story Cape Cod-style wooden A-frames, including the house of my childhood, 164 Pleasant Street, which wasn't very.  A great number of houses were up for sale.

"I'm so tired," said Stella Jane. "My leg hurts. My eye hurts. I have heart problems. It never stops. I might as well die and get it over with."

"Oh, Mom, don't be ridiculous," said Anna. "You can still rest and watch television and I take you to Kaufmann's or Denny's for lunch."

Later, I said to Anna, "So grandma seems to be forgetting more than she was the last time I was home."

"Oh yes. Sometimes we'll get in the car to go to Lizzie's. We'll be driving along and she'll ask where we're going three or four times. Her circulation's not good.

Not enough oxygen to the brain. She'll sit and cry that she can't remember like she used to, but I tell her it's not important. I never could remember anything much. What's to remember except to get up, to eat, to sleep, and maybe the way home. If you can't remember that, you just stay home."

My aunt can't remember to feel and my grandmother can't remember to live. You have to lower your expectations.

—August, 1982

I visit Pittsburgh after a seven-month absence. Stella Jane is looking her 86 years. She tires easily and has lost her strength. Her eyes have recessed further into her head, her skin is mottled, and I cannot see any eyelashes. She still looks round, standing at 4'10" and weighing 135, but she doesn't fill her skin. She wears her flesh a couple of sizes too big.

We are driving to the shopping center, as usual, my aunt at the wheel, my grandmother beside her, and I moodily watching the summer sun dust the air out of the back seat window. My grandmother suddenly starts crying, softly.

"Anna," she says. "Who is that in the back seat?"

"That's Susie, Mom," said Anna. "Your granddaughter. Frances' child." It was the gentlest I'd ever heard my Aunt sound.

Yes, Stella Jane, daughter of your daughter, the dead one, the good one, the one who went to heaven because we willed it, she willed it, Mary Frances, my mother, who neither of us can remember because I have been alive again as long as I knew her, because you have been alive long enough for death to become so familiar it loses its bite, and your dead are just misplaced like last year's Christmas presents or the quilt you swear you stored in that specific attic storage bag, or the jar of peach preserves you missed when you went to the cellar to count your stock of put-up foods one winter morning.

—June, 1983

A telephone call.

"Hi, grandma, how are you?"

"Fit as a fiddle and ready for love."

"Still hanging in there, huh?" Did I say that?

"The Lord don't want me and the devil ain't ready for me."

"I must say I agree with their decisions."

"I don't have much to talk about. My mind can't hold anything. Watch yourself in New York. I been thinking of coming there to visit. Oh, I got another friend there, in Yonkers. That's Miss Lillie. But I guess I aint gonna get there anytime soon. You behave and don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"You bet."

—December, 1983

My dearest grandmother weakens but is still up and about and she and my aunt go driving through country roads past the isolated estates of the Pittsburgh elite at 30 miles per hour, towards shopping malls where they lunch in department store resturaunts without leaving tips. Sometimes Stella Jane steals the silverware, wrapping it in her napkin and slipping it in her beige leather purse, where my aunt discovers it later. Anna buys me underwear and feeds my grandmother too many pills and in between my grandmother's words gapes at the chasm of her approaching death. What will she do without her mother, her constant companion, her fellow traveler, her argument with herself?

—August 1984
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Loving Myself Enough

I met Jeff just one day out of college and proceeded to circle my entire adult life around him. Our relationship was unsalvageable and I knew I needed to get out of the marriage to save my own life. However, in order to save my own life, metaphorically speaking, I would have to sacrifice a limb.  I would need to give up my right arm.  I could not imagine a life without that arm. I would be so different, so impaired, so needy. Nothing would ever be the same again. I would have to compensate with just the one arm. I would have to learn to do things differently. I wouldn’t be the same mother. I would look different. People would treat me different. I might feel ashamed, less than whole. I might struggle for awhile unable to keep up with the busy life we created. These two arms helped me balance the load. They carried the babies, the groceries, the towels, the bags, the diapers, the presents, the toys, the laundry. Could I manage my three children and all of our stuff with only one arm?

But my only other choice was to die.

I was not physically dying. But my spirit was dying. I could feel it fading fast. I was past the stage of unhappy and I was becoming apathetic. For a long time I was angry at the injustices in my marriage.  Raging energy was burned through my veins. Then one day I realized, I no longer felt anything.

No sense of hope for the future. No glory in achievements. No joy in raising my three sons.  I was not the person I wanted to be. I was not the mother I needed to be. The woman I wanted to be, for my children, was brave and honest, warm and funny. I didn’t feel warm and funny living with Jeff. I felt tight, guarded and defensive all the time.

I was scared of my own apathy, until a small voice in my head whispered, “This is your one life.”  “My one life,” I echoed back and repeated as my head hit the pillow that night and again in the shower the next morning, and later while driving home from work. This mantra began to settle into my bones. I thought about this truth, “this really is my only life and I won’t get a do-over.”  The words settled into my bones and I knew I was not being my best self anymore; I was incapable of being that self in this marriage and I alone, had to act.

I made the steadfast decision that the only way for me to continue living, was to cut off my right arm and get a divorce. There was much uncertainty in what my future would look like, but ultimately, I would live, would gain my strength back, I would find my way and regain my balance. I embraced my resolve and did not waiver from that day forward. I knew I could manage with one arm, however challenging it would be. I could survive and thrive without my husband.  I wanted to live!

My spouse knew that our relationship was in serious disrepair and had been for awhile, but when I said with all finality that I wanted to divorce him, he went into a fury that lasted several weeks. He hated me and fought with me. His concern was over our three young boys. We both loved them very much and we rightly predicted this would be heart-breaking for them.  I had thought through different scenarios but still had so many unanswered questions. There would be no guaranteed outcomes. I could not say, one hundred percent, that we would stay in our house or that the boys would stay in the same schools.  I had a long list of things I did not know. 
What I did know was that I needed to take control of this life that was slipping away from me and divorce was now the only option.  Once I made the actual decision, I began to feel empowered. I summoned strength from my bones. I willed my body to support me. I pushed through some hard discussions with Jeff and when he said, “I can’t believe you would do this to the kids,” I without hesitation said, “I am not doing this to the kids, I am doing this for the kids.” And I believed my words, heart and soul as I said them. Despite the challenges that would inevitably come, I was ready to be a strong, graceful and protective mother for my children.

My children needed a mother who would love herself enough to leave a bad situation. I could see that my young boys had strength to carry out their own convictions.  Hadn’t they gotten that from me?  I needed to be true to myself in order to be true to them. I did not want them to move through adolescence in a home watching their parents belittle each other with biting words over dinner, alternating with evenings of silence.  I did not want them to witness me dragging my heavy heart behind me as I begrudgingly engaged in chores or activities.  During this time I loved these boys more than I loved myself. I knew I needed to lift myself up for them.

Separating proved to be as difficult as I expected. It was a good thing that I had really prepared my heart and my thoughts for this challenge. A symbolic last ditch effort at counseling further clarified that divorce was the right decision. During the session, my husband flat out stated that he would not change and was unwilling to try.  In hindsight I am grateful for his honesty.

During the summer months, I slept on the couch, but at the end of August, I ordered a bed and had it set up in the playroom. I pleaded with my husband to move out.  We battled back and forth and he sent me horrible, hateful emails. My gut hurt on the inside. I begged Jeff to be reasonable when we spoke to the kids about our decision to split up.  I wanted to deliver the news in a respectful, careful, loving way. He wanted me to do it without him or he threatened to tell the kids it was all my fault- that, “Mommy wants the divorce.” I was worrying quite a bit about this moment.

Jeff came around to my side and eventually, we sat the three guys down and said, “We have something we need to talk to you about. Well, Daddy and I love you all very much. But Daddy and I are not able to live together anymore.  We need to separate from each other.  It is not anything you did. It is just about us.”

“It’s a divorce?” asked my oldest son who was about to begin eighth grade.

“Well. It’s a separation.”

“I always knew you would get a divorce,” he yelled through tears. One of the twins came over to me and I hugged him. His twin brother, headed right to his father and Jeff embraced him. Devon turned his face into the pillow and cried.

I found my voice and said the words I had rehearsed, “We are always going to be here for you guys.  We are always going to love you.”

School started up and the autumn months dragged; Jeff had no plan to leave the house. It was unbearable.  I was seeing a gifted core-energy therapist and at her office I would allow myself to feel the overwhelming sense of loss and would unleash a river of tears.  After the session, I would get into the car, wipe off my smudged mascara, inhale big breaths and tell myself to be strong, then drive away with thoughts immediately shifting to what I had in the kitchen that could be scrounged up for dinner for the kids.  We kept the routines running, except that often Jeff would come home very late, or not come home at all. It was a strain on both of us.  His sustained anger was wearing me out.  My sleep was suffering; it was hard to go to work.
Abruptly, a couple days before Christmas, Jeff announced he had secured a studio apartment in the city.  On New Year’s Eve, three suitcases, a guitar and an amplifier appeared in the foyer.  And then they were gone and so was Jeff. That marked the official end of the end.

A few weeks later on a bitter cold Friday night, my three guys and I stepped out the doors of Grand Central Station and headed south down Lex, toward their father’s new apartment. Devon sailed a few feet ahead of us on his skateboard with his backpack slung over his shoulders, and the twins skipped along, excited to spend the weekend with Jeff.  I held Scott’s pillow under my arm and as we approached the curb, Nolan grabbed my hand. As Scott started to step off the edge; I lunged forward to reach around his shoulders with my free arm. Catching him, I traipsed with one twin on each arm and my skater boy leading the way across the bustling street.  My children were resilient and I realized that I was still intact, after all. The metaphor of losing a limb may just be too strong, perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be a “bad break” that if properly set can heal.
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How to Put On Red Lipstick

How to put on red lipstick
Now, Sugar, she said, you don’t have to make it so difficult or be so intimidated by the color. You own that color, it does not own you, she said, as if one could or would be intimidated by a shiny three-inch tube of creamy scarlet pigment. You hold your mouth like this—pouting—or like this—pursing—or like this—smiling a gargoyle’s smile, lips stretched taut over a line of Chiclet teeth. Personally, she said, I think that a relaxed mouth is a receptive mouth, and wearing red lip lacquer demands a receptive frame of mind. Red is not for the shy ones—and nether is ruby, or crimson, or cherry, she said, so it is important to take ownership of that tube like you mean it. You know that phrase, “Go hard, or go home?” That’s how it is with saturated color—you have to commit.

So, she said, you uncap the gold tube, and check your color—very important, make sure your mood and your mouth are in accord with one another. Harmony is the goal here. Once you are satisfied that the lipstick is the right shade exactly and therefore your friend, you twist the bottom potion to expose the creamy stick—don’t twist too much now, or that lipstick will snap right off and drop on the cleanest thing in the surrounding environment, which will forever tell the tale of you mishandling your lipstick, which is quite a trial. No, just a half inch—no more, I mean it—will do.

Now, she said, as we approach application, a steady hand is imperative, because women with a smear—no, a slash—of crimson across their faces look cheap and disorganized. No, precision is key, so if you have had too much coffee and have the shakes or if you are freezing and have the shivers, adjust yourself accordingly. Let me show you, she said, bending her arm at the elbow and bracing it on the tabletop. See? Steady, solid as Gibraltar’s Rock, not going anywhere but where you exactly want it to go. Begin with your lower lip—decide here, commit, and remember if you are going left to right or right to left, and make sure you do it the exact same way every time, because that is the only way to get really good at it. Personally, I like to work from the outer corner of my lower lip—more pouting—to the central meridian of my mouth, thus covering half a lip at a time. This, she said, makes for more control and precision than a single line of application, especially because lipsticks tend to be somewhat straight of form, and if you have that kind of lips, straight, you know, you look kind of mean. Last thing you want your lipstick to be is uninviting—I mean what is the point? Why bother, if your lips don’t say, “Come hither. Now.”

Once you have lightly pressed your crimson or ruby or scarlet to your lower lip— and we will talk about the critical elements of perfect color selection, blue-red or orange undertones, another time—back up a little from the mirror and make sure you are coloring within the lines. If you’re good, smack those lips together to deposit some of the bottom lip’s crimson on the top lip, giving you a more balanced appearance while warming up to the real thing, additional color deposits on both the bottom and the top lip. Be careful when you smack those lips of yours that you don’t get them spit wet, because your lipstick will not glide—trust me on this—smoothly over a watery surface. In fact, spit repels lipstick, and that is, after all, counterproductive.

Now you have laid the foundation, she said, and you are ready to build upon it. Go big and hard, and push that scarlet spike against those lips—top and bottom, one more time, being very careful, again, to color within the lines. Eventually you’ll get good at this, when you’ve grown up some, perhaps when you are my age.  

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I have decided that my dead mother
lives in another place
called Timbuktu.  I write her personal
letters on lacy stationery telling
her how her hometown has changed.

Every storefront is occupied.  There is a Vietnamese
restaurant next to the newly furbished hotel.
When they lived there, Mom and Dad, they couldn’t
even find a pizza place.  Dad had to hang out
in the tractor store to hear some manly banter.

No Lowes, no Home Depot. They did not exist.
No tattoo parlor, nail salon or micro-dermal
piercing palace, puncturing wherever you want.

Would mom have fancied a naval ring?
Would she have ordered pho?
Or would she have put her foot down,
yeah, Mom. Turned her back on
“Try Yoga, first time free.”

Would she have sounded off
to the street corner guru,
asked for Sugar Pebbles at the Whole
Food Store?  “Dear Mom”, I write,
“remember Gerty’s Grocery?  How we
laughed because it only carried
one brand of beer, soda, soap.”
But we got used to it. No
decisions, no stress.

Mom, Gerty sold out to Taco Bell.  

Who is minding the store?
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A Woman's Litany

I need the world.

    This divine creation
    of light separated from darkness,
    dry land separated from eternal waters
    to test my spirit and
    temper my soul.

I need the world.

    This bright, shining blue marble
    cast against the infinite blackness
    to overwhelm my imagination
    with its grandeur and

I need the world.

    This solid rock
    upon which I stand
    to anchor my dreams and aspirations.

I need the world.

    This vessel of converging waters
    to flow life
    from rivers to seas
    through semen into wombs
    out birthing canals.

I need the world.

    This pulsing blue-green organism
    coursing through with vegetation
    and sweet flowing streams
    to feed my hunger and quench my thirst.

I need the world.

    This living sanctuary
    home to creatures
    great and small,
    wild and tame,
    familiar and strange.

I need the world.

   This human garden
    where both good and evil reside
    to cradle my innocence and
    nurture my wisdom.

I need the world.

    This secure haven
    shared with my love who
    wipes my tears and salves my wounds
    hears my voice, listens to my stories,
    laughs loud and long, strokes my hair,
    massages my back, tickles my feet,
    kisses my lips, arouses my moist vital place.

At my end, I need the world.

    This great fertile womb
    engorged with transforming juices
    to accept these tired bones
    from one life all used up
    and to create once again.
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