Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Sunday Memory Drawer - She Could Have Been My Aunt

Sadly, the person I was named after and his fiancee never got to play this scene on his return home from the front.

And the story continues.

Last week, you may remember that I had swallowed hard and called my late uncle's WWII fiancee to tell her about my dad's passing. 

Stella was elated to be talking to the namesake of her former beau.  I couldn't help but note the symmetry of life.  I thought our single conversation would be the first and the last.

It was not.  As she had done with my dad, Stella could not let go of the connection to our family.  And, for lack of anybody else, I was the handy choice at the moment.

Except I didn't really mind.  For the first time, I was getting a peak behind my family's curtain.  From the days long before me.

At first, Stella was a bit more intent on learning all about this "Lenny."  She wanted to get caught up all at once on my schooling, my career, and my friends.  And then some...

"Is there a girl that calls you her 'feller?'"


I told her yes, but spared her the really gory details.  Yes, at that moment, there was a girl calling me her "feller."  And, depending upon the day and time, she might have been calling me a myriad of other names as well.  It was that intense.  As comfortable as I felt with Stella, we didn't need to walk down that garden path.

I learned a lot about her years since World War II.  As I had heard from my grandmother, Stella did marry a man named Willie and had two sons who were around my age.  Yet, new information came when I learned that Stella had somehow kept flowers on my uncle's southern France grave all these years.  Had she done it with the full knowledge of her husband?  She was quite vague with her answer.  Or perhaps the non-answer really was my answer.

After my uncle had been killed in action, Stella had obsessed a bit on his final moments.  She told me of speaking with all his foxhole buddies and grabbing onto any information that was available.  Some of it was documented in a journal one of these other soldiers had kept.  She shared that with me.  I realized that I didn't know this man she was engaged to, even though he was a blood relative.  But I got to be acquainted just a little bit through her words.

I also got a compelling snapshot or two of my family during those years.  Apparently, there were gatherings and dinners almost every weekend.  Lots of love and good times.

Huh?  What had I seen?

Stella talked about my family showing up en masse to her wedding with Willie.  At the reception, Stella, or so she told me, was approached by my dad.  He was sobbing.

Huh?  My father?

As she stood there in her wedding dress, my father apparently poured out his heart to her.

"We really wanted to have you in our family."

I couldn't believe the depth of Dad's declaration.  These were not the emotions that were shown ever.  Except maybe for anger.  Not only was my uncle a mystery to me.  So, too, I guess was my own father.

Over time and phone conversations, I soon learned that Stella was, at last, making a long put-off pilgrimage.  To my uncle's grave in Paris.  At that time, I thought that no one in my family had ever done the same thing.  I very recently learned that my father's oldest brother had made the same journey several years prior.  No one knew because no one really talked anymore.  The sometimes inevitable tatters of a family fabric.

Stella was making this trip with one of her sons and I couldn't help but wonder what was going through this guy's mind.  He had recently lost his own father and now Mom was going to visit the final resting place of her first love.  I admired her courage and fortitude and, secondarily, the son's as well.  I pondered if I could have done the same thing.

When she returned from the trip, Stella shared with me dozens of photos and I experienced that bizarre Frank Capra moment of seeing my own name on a tombstone.  Naturally, it was a military cemetery and all the grave markers were identical.  But, the stories of each one of them were really as unique as snowflakes.  The visit seemed to give Stella some closure.  A tale that had remained slightly ajar for almost fifty years.

Stella and I stayed in touch regularly and frequently invited me to her own family get-togethers in Staten Island.  I begged off because of the distance, but probably was backing off for other reasons.  I thought about her own sons.  And, here I am, bearing the name of her first love.   When the invitations came, I was always conveniently "busy." 

Even after relocating to California, Stella was always a phone call or a holiday card away.  I stayed in touch as I could.  When we spoke on my birthday one February, she was almost blase with her news update.

"I have to go to the hospital tomorrow.  I have a little cancer."

When it comes to that word, it's never a little.  And always a lot. 

I wished her well and wanted to be updated regularly. 

But, as I would try to call her the rest of the year, I always got the answering machine.  Not having the phone numbers of her sons, I was stuck for new information. 

And maybe I didn't want to know.

When I didn't get the usual reciprocal Christmas card greeting, I decided to do a deeper dive on that Staten Island phone directory.

Except, right after New Year's, I got my answer.  A letter from her son, telling about his own mom's passing.

The words were heartfelt but measured.  Stella's son conveyed solace and appreciation of how I had kept his mom in my thoughts all these years.   And, yet, I could sense the uncomfortableness in his writing. 

Had this been a cloud over their household all these years?

I could have replied and asked the question.  One-on-one.  Son-to-son.

I didn't.  And my book closed as well.

Dinner last night:  Chicken teriyaki with string beans.

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