I have been encouraged by some to publish this piece written about my cousin, Paula, her life and death and their meaning in my life. It is truly a rear view mirror story as she is among my earliest memories.
Inasmuch as posting this will automatically trigger its publication elsewhere, too, I have not mentioned living persons by name to preserve their privacy. You all know who you are and how Paula loved you. That gift is ours forever.
My Other “P”
In the time of Covid someone can slip away without being noticed. In a house. In a hospital. Long-term care facility. Who knows where. In the time of Covid.
Some have evaporated without a good-bye. Or even hello. So I am saying hello and good-bye to my cousin. Out loud. Where I can hear it.
She was my oldest and only girl cousin; it is because of Paula, partially, that I am a “P”. My parents decided not to give me a family name but an American one. Paula was the baby who made them an auntie and uncle. They adored her and showered her with affection during her early life. And they gave me a name to go with hers. Paula and Pamela. That’s where our story begins.
There was six years between us which made a huge difference when we were young. There were times we didn’t see each other at all. When we did she was on her way to teenage fun and I was in elementary school. I longed to go with her friends and her. Wanted to be in on her secrets. To make her laugh. Her lyrical laugh. A laugh like no other.
I was eight or nine when I found out, by accident, how babies are born. I snuck up on Paula and her girlfriends huddled and giggling over a big picture book, a big black and white photo of a newborn emerging from its mother. She snapped the book closed quickly. I ran horrified.
My uncle, my mom’s brother, was of modest means and irresponsible with the money he had. He was a dandy and his paycheck was gone before it ever hit the bank. Sometimes Paula’s home had power, and sometimes not. They didn’t live in a safe area. Paula had folded newspapers inside the bottoms of her shoes to protect her feet from the holes in the soles. When Paula had new shoes or clothing it was usually purchased by our grandparents, Fanny and Pete.
Her mother became ill when she was child and died when Paula was about 11. I was in kindergarten. I barely remember Marguerite but she was petite like Paula. I don’t remember her laughing. In memory I see a serious face, tight dark brown waves around her face. And very thick eyeglasses.
My parents considered adopting Paula and her brothers, adding to the three children they already had. I vaguely remember overhearing the discussions between them and my grandparents, whose financial help would have been needed and gladly given. Later I was told that it was my grandmother who stopped the conversation. She thought keeping his own children as a single parent would finally push my uncle into responsible adulthood. Certainly he would care for this three grieving children.
He did not.
He already had a girlfriend whom he’d been dating during his wife’s illness. He’d lost his job when his employer found out he was a blatant adulterer. Back in the day, a no-go. The 1950s. My parents had seen my uncle and his paramour at a movie theatre. My dad never warmed to my uncle after. I didn’t know why from earliest memory Dad was distant with Uncle Frank. Usually had a particular scowl.
My uncle quickly remarried after Marguerite’s death and Paula was in charge of her two younger brothers. She went to school, cooked and cleaned, did the laundry and shopping.
I found out much later that on her deathbed Marguerite secretly told Paula my uncle was not her father. She did not reveal who Paula’s father was, only that Marguerite’s older sister, Rose, knew him and would reveal him “one day”. Apparently my uncle was privy to this conversation which gave a self-centered man reason to be more so. It was easy to distance Paula, to make her the family maid.
By the time she reached high school, my uncle had Paula paying rent because along with her other duties she also had an after-school job. Her maternal grandmother had left money in trust for her college and Paula saved her wages to add to it, hoping one day to leave home and complete higher educations. Because my uncle demanded so much of her time, and then payment for a place to live, Paula moved to the home of a high school friend where she stayed until graduation. It was while planning for college that she found my uncle had spent her trust fund.
There are details about going to medical assistant school, our grandmother’s death, but the significant occurrence is that Paula fell in love and married at the age of 18 or 19. I was 12 or so and only remember the excitement. I met her fiance and he seemed nice enough. At my age, it was all very romantic. I mostly recall my parents being happy for her. There was no talk that she was too young and should wait. She’d seen so much. Been through so much. Everyone wanted her to be happy.
By then there were whispers that my uncle was not her father. Or perhaps it was then I became aware of them. I heard my grandfather and my mother talking. My dad and mom.
Paula was quickly pregnant and didn’t tell anyone that her husband beat her. Hit her often, pummeled her belly and when the boy was born he had seizures. Seizures so severe that they significantly affected his development. It wasn’t long before Paula left her husband, her ill baby boy in tow, to make their own way. She told my parents all that had happened.
Paula remarried within a year or two, a sweet man named Ray, and two more children were born. Girls. First, to much joy, baby Lisa, and then Tami. Lisa was perfect. Tami had a genetic defect that would keep her a child for life. Paula had two children with disabilities. Her boy was growing and growing violent, still seizing and now a danger to Paula and the little girls. An anguished Paula allowed him to become a ward of the state, to be cared for in a group setting where he and others would be safe, while she spent as much time as she could with Lisa, and much of her time caring for Tami. This while she helped at her husband’s restaurant and had a full-time job in banking. In the beginning she visited her son often but with her presence he became agitated and more inclined to violent episodes. Paula was asked to stay away.
Paula was tiny like her mom. I always called her little cousin which made her laugh because she was the elder. “Some respect! Show some respect!” Tami grew bigger than Paula. No longer could Paula lift her into the bathtub and dress her. Lisa, an adolescent, had begun to bridle at the time her mother was unavailable due to her sister’s disability and again Paula made the excruciating decision to put a child into a group home. She and Ray kept Tami nearby and brought her home on weekends when they together could manage her care.
I was in high school and college as this played out, unaware of the mounting sadness, pressure, sheer adversity each day brought Paula. Unaware that the whispers were now a roar as Paula searched for her father in a time before DNA testing was available. She asked questions. Who did her mother know? Who did she work for? Did our grandparents notice anyone around? What did my mom see? And Aunt Rose. Would she tell Paula as her mother promised? An old man showed up at Ray’s Café one day. He asked for Paula and left without leaving a name or contact information when Ray said she wasn’t there. Was it her father? Would he come again?
Aunt Rose stalled. Gave reasons not to tell Paula who the man in the café might have been. Paula loved Aunt Rose as her only living blood relation from birth, and rather than allow a wedge between them, Paula backed off. Elderly Aunt Rose promised to write the name in a journal which Paula could have but said Paula would need to wait until her death to see it. Paula didn’t push.
Though the background music of Paula’s life contained two themes, tragedy and search for answers about her father, the Paula we all knew was funny, a prankster, talented, quick-witted, hardworking and devoted to the family she created. Rarely did she let her past spill into her present such that it overtook her mood, when I was looking anyway. She plodded forward with the belief she had purpose and giving into sorrow would impede it. If she complained it would be about hot weather, the high price of goods, working too much, husbandly messes, getting gray hair and wrinkles, squirrels messing about in her vegetable garden, and finding pants for someone so short. There was no complaining or massaging significant issues.
Her melody was sweet and lighthearted; the undertones bass violin.
The intervening years I believe were her happiest. Lisa married and had three children of her own. Paula and her husband lived on a huge property in the country where Paula plied all the gardening knowledge she’d learned from our Italian grandfather. She grew fruits and vegetables, canned and cooked and shared it all. Tami still came home on weekends and loved the country home. Paula often had the grandchildren there and enjoyed them immensely. She achieved success in her profession managing a credit union branch. She worked with people she loved and respected who remained her life-long friends. Life had leveled out into a hum of satisfaction and pleasant ordinariness Paula had never known.
Loss intervened. Our grandfather died. Her husband died. She left the country house alone for something small and manageable in town.
Her Aunt Rose died. Rose’s son George gave Paula the promised journal. In the midst of losses there would be one gain to be found in Aunt Rose’s notes. Instead there was nothing. Page after page blank. Empty. Not one entry. Her aunt took the name of Paula’s father with her.
As we aged, Paula and I in our 40s and 50s, the six years between us no longer had meaning. We were both widowed, me with a teenager, her children settled into adulthood. We kept in close touch and I was there for the surrendering of the empty journal. The sadness. Disappointment. Reconciling the likelihood she would never know who her father was.
Paula’s one healthy, beautiful child had divorced. Lisa had a secret, too; she tried to keep it from her children, and her mother. Her ex-husband knew but in his love for Paula, his mother-in-law who never became an “ex”, he kept it until he could no more. Lisa was a drug addict. A drug addict with many arrests; her ex-husband filed suit for sole custody of his children. He hoped this would be enough to shake Lisa out of her situation but if it was not, he was prepared and willing to take total responsibility for his children along with his new wife.
Paula was stunned at the news. She did all she could to help her daughter who pleaded and promised she’d do better. On occasion Lisa was able to gain sobriety but she couldn’t maintain it. Paula pledged her support to the man she held as her son and took his side in the custody issue. The bitterness Paula withstood from her daughter was as painful as the losses she’d already endured. She watched her daughter devolve into drugs, steal to pay for them, and engage in behaviors to ensure continued access.
Paula’s life soundtrack now became the white noise of constant worry for the well-being of her grandchildren who missed their mother and the knowledge that the phone could ring any moment with news of Lisa’s death. Most of the time Paula was unsure of her daughter’s whereabouts.
Lisa died from a treatable cancer left untreated secondary to her addiction and life on the streets. Though mother and daughter were reconciled in the last weeks of Lisa’s life and Paula spent many days with her at the hospital, Paula never shook the guilt of having distanced Lisa in order to both self-preserve and refrain from enabling. Of all that Paula had experienced, this pain was her greatest.
Simultaneously Paula was treated for breast cancer with a grueling course of chemotherapy. Her beloved son-in-law and his wife walked with her through it all. They lived close by and made themselves unflaggingly available to her. Even his new wife called Paula her mother-in-law. Paula adored them both and felt grateful to have such love and devotion in her life. Rarely had she known it though she gave of it freely.
Through it all Tami continued to spend some weekends with her mother. Though Paula’s chemo had weakened her and she couldn’t take Tami on the same schedule, she called Tami her “ray of sunshine” and drove to pick her up as often as she had strength. Tami was then 45 years old. A year after Lisa’s death, Tami, who had long outlived her life expectancy – who had a joyful life at her group home and equally so with her mother, died unexpectedly of an aneurysm. Paula had been prepared to lose Tami much earlier, but once Tami lived into her 40s all of us had forgotten this could happen. It was a shock.
The state was Tami’s conservator yet as any mother would, Paula wondered how Tami would fare if Paula predeceased her. What would she think if her mama didn’t come to get her on the weekends? Now Paula’s reason for being was gone.
Tami died on Paula’s 72nd birthday, the Saturday before Easter Sunday, two years ago. It was the end for Paula.
Paula cried in my arms when I came to visit, usually right after I entered her home in the midst of our hello hug. She was tiny and I so much bigger would wrap myself around her. After a few minutes allocated to tears, she’d push away, blow her nose, wipe her eyes and say, “Let’s go to lunch.”
She always ordered a patty melt. Me, too.
She rarely revisited these events in conversation and certainly didn’t dwell on them. She believed that one puts a foot in front of the other and marches into the future expecting the best, prepared for the worst. That’s what she always did.
Paula lived for two years after Tami’s death but was markedly different. Her health failed and she didn’t put up a fight to save it. She took her medications and participated in physician conferences but her commitment to seeing her future dissolved.
During our last few years together 23andMe came into being and confirmed what Paula’s mother had told her more than a half century earlier, what our family had whispered about, my uncle was not her father. Paula and I were not related. Paula wasn’t one cell Italian though every meal she made reflected our Italian upbringing, the flavor of our childhoods.
A half-sister bubbled to the top of genetic relations and they made contact. The sister didn’t know her father either. They couldn’t help each other. Apparently Paula’s father had gotten around… She would never know who he was.
Paula said it didn’t bother her that we weren’t really cousins but our Italian grandparents, Sunday dinners at their house, being chased in their vegetable garden and orchard, pasta al fresco in the summer lath house – these were the seeds of our memories together. Our grandparents were no longer “ours”. I asked if she needed anything from me. If she still felt like my cousin. Cousin to my brothers. If we were okay. If she was okay. It was different seeing it in black and white, she replied. She had wondered why her mother had taken her past from her with the confession. But seeing the test result, a future Marguerite could not have imagined so many years before, Paula was glad it hadn’t come as a shock. Merely a confirmation.
Nothing had changed for me. She was my other P. Paula to my Pamela.
We both said we were the same, and it was true. Mostly. In the months that followed she bundled the items that came from my family and one by one gave them back to me. Our grandmother’s gold signet ring from Italy was first.
Paula gave her granddaughter some family heirlooms and I loved that she did. I loved that our family’s heart held in the tangible was more important than blood. Dishes from Italy, wedding gifts to our grandparents moved along with Paula’s history to someone she loved and fiercely protected.
Every bit of this story is true as I know it, but some of the memories are over a half century old and that of a child. There are details of sorrow and loss I haven’t included because truly, no screenwriter could’ve imagined sadder. Betrayals and deaths, some similar to what most of us experience, others too much to absorb. I omitted them because this is enough, too much.
One cannot say a proper good-bye to Paula without understanding to whom hello was said. That her smile and laugh, generosity and devotion – all real, never a façade – emanated from the deep belief that we create our lives. That nothing can stop us from building a satisfying one, from being good and loving people generating joyful opportunities. Only we stop ourselves from doing that.
When she couldn’t live by her own tenets, she asked to be put in hospice care, to have life-saving meds withdrawn, to maintain only comfort care, to quietly say good-bye. She thanked those she loved, each of us in a different way. Then she slipped away from us leaving the sound of her laughter, that special laugh, echoing in memory, and her example of backbone. A commitment to live and love, to stand tall no matter one’s physical stature.
I haven’t been able to shake the anger that permeates my sadness. In the time of Covid there was no formal good-bye. No memorial as she had asked for. With the “people and food I love most” as she had written into her will. She was buried alone, tucked into eternity next to her husband, Ray. We who loved her texted, called, emailed and Facebooked our grief at having to go on without her.
I have lost my other P who was cheated in life and then in death. She asked for a lemon meringue pie which I so gladly made for her while alive and would do so again for her friends, fulfilling a last request. She asked for simplicity. Nothing grand yet even that was denied.
I couldn’t go another day without chronicling the stamina of spirit I witnessed in one small being who built her life by herself from such a young age. She was buoyed by those who loved her and whom she greatly loved. She cherished lunches with friends, art classes, Mexican Train afternoons, [patty melts] and her family. Her “son and daughter-in-law” and her grandchildren. Many of us don’t distinguish between close friends and family. Paula did as only someone could who spent a lifetime seeking the people from whom she came.
She appreciated every little goodness in life. It’s small wonder she could so clearly see them in contrast to their opposite. It is however a miracle she could celebrate each as she did.
In the time of Covid, we wait. We wait until there’s a time when we can celebrate her as she deserves. Until then, I try to emulate her and walk into my future, creating as I go. Like my other P.