Tuesday, January 22, 2008

For my cousin, Darlene

I can't find a photo to post here. She'd be smiling about that. She never liked to be the one in the picture, the focus on her. She was usually the one taking the photo, the one behind the scene. The observer. The quiet presence. The audience of one. She never knew that about herself but it was a hidden grace. She was a humble person. My cousin, my sister, my friend.

We grew up together under the same roof. Her dad was my dad's younger brother. We lived in a duplex and she was only a couple years younger - both of us, only children. We were the product of a tightly knit Polish-American family, kind of The Waltons of Nicetown. Our grandparents arrived and settled in Philadelphia; supposedly the family farm and three-story home was a prime location and our grandfather wealthy enough to purchase the land which may have originally been deeded to the family of Mother Katherine Drexel. There were horses and eight siblings born to the clan; they then married and produced our generation of cousins. There was all the drama of living in a large homogeneous circle of blue-collar relatives. Aunts and uncles lived on three floors of the original house and, later, across the driveway, in my father's duplex. Many newly married kin got their start in these apartments. There were feuds, fun, and plenty of live music.

Through all the family drama, Darlene and I were playmates. That was a constant. She was always my sidekick, the Tonto to my Lone Ranger. Our bikes were our horses. I can still remember racing up that driveway with her and around the large back graveled yard, surrounded by my dad's garages. This was our playground. We had large Schwinn bikes, lots of glittering chrome and bright colors. Hers was maroon; mine, blue. Translation: she rode the black horse and I always rode the white horse. She never seemed to mind. Again, it was a role that was comfortable. Sidekick. Pal. Companion.

We both took music lessons from her dad. He had a music studio in the front of the duplex. Now that I think of it, her accordion was black; mine was white ... still riding those horses. She played the keyboard well but she always praised my talent.

When we were teenagers, she would often come upstairs and we would hang out, sharing Elvis records or sitting in the front living room, reading Nancy Drew mysteries, side by side.

When I was getting married, I asked her to be in my bridal party. She was at my side on my wedding day, along with other cousins. I have that photo somewhere, one in which she had to pose but, even then, she was looking at the bride and not looking directly at the camera.

Years later, after we had both married and raised kids of our own, she stood by me as I went through a divorce. Afterwards, she was right there to offer a hand in helping me pack for a new life, for my very first apartment. She did a lot of heavy lifting.

She repeated this task twice more; nothing was too much to ask. The second time around, she backed my decision to move upstairs after a noisy neighbor kept me awake and, finally, less than two years ago, she helped me pack for my relocation to the Berkshires.

By then, she was dying of cancer. She knew what the odds were. She was living with a tracheotomy tube in her throat already for over a year; the cancer caught her at a very vulnerable time, shortly after she had lost her mom to Alzheimers. I would go with her to the nursing home and watch as my aunt faded. Darlene, once again, was at her mother's side, doing what she could, doing it quietly, not calling attention to herself.

She came to my apartment twice the weekend of my Berkshires move, that hot August weekend which would be the last time we'd see each other. We drove to find more U-Haul boxes and packing material because I under estimated. She wasn't surprised - she knew me and my foibles. She couldn't talk but her eyes held the amusement and teasing she would have delivered. I got the message.

When I made my very first move, she agreed to help me put together two barrister bookcases (which she and I struggled to fit into her car trunk) and she also helped me "build" a computer desk and a bedroom bureau. She was the handyman at my side when we took on the huge task of hanging multiple pictures, prints, and bamboo "art". God, what fun we had! Two take-charge women with one Sears variable-torque power drill and a level. I couldn't have done it without her.

She flew to Portland Maine with me when Jenn was in a regional theatre production. We shared a hotel room; she took me and Jenn to dinner and insisted on picking up the tab - lobster yet. She sat next to me for two performances and, of course, she thought that Jenn was just the best thing ever! When I played my NYC gig in the NuYorican Cafe, Darlene took the train up and brought a camera to take my picture and capture that special occasion. She took a photo of everyone who came to see me in the show but bowed out of the picture once again.

She loved live theatre. When things got her down, she would take the train to NYC and treat herself to a really good show. Alone. She didn't need the world at her feet. She was a trooper. I think of the courage she showed after the cancer had ravaged her. She continued to travel into Philadelphia to keep working as a bookkeeper. Only a couple months before her death, after multiple surgeries and the hole in her throat, she bought herself a ticket to Barbra Streisand's Philly performance. She went alone, sitting at the top of the arena. I was in the Berkshires; I would have gone with her if I had known. But it wasn't Darlene's style to ask for something. She knew what she needed that final autumn. And I'd like to picture her up there in the rafters, getting an early taste of heaven from Streisand's concert. Streisand and Liza Minnelli, her favorites. A few years ago, she treated me to fantastic seats for Elaine Stritch when she came to town. That was a fun time, a time free of Alzheimers and cancer.

I always over packed. She knew that about me and would tease me mercilessly about the baggage I carried. She was as generous with her money as with her time. I know that she treated my own two children to many small gifts and then little gifts to their children. She was so happy to see me as a grandmother.

I miss her so much. She raised a darn good kid, a son who did her proud by staying at her side through her final journey with cancer. I know where he got that from. He was faithful to his mom just as she was so faithful to me.

Another cousin sent me this link tonight which prompted my thoughts about Darlene.

This tribute was long overdue. No photo to post but I will always carry a snapshot of her in my heart. She did not live long, but she lived well.

Her favorite saint was Therese of Lisieux, the Saint of the Little Way. That seems so right.


Katie said...

Such a wonderful post, Elaine. I love my memories of adventures with you and Darlene. Darlene could always be counted on to help me tease you... :)

It still makes me laugh out loud to think that I saw "Eyes Wide Shut" with you two! How crazy is that?!


The Mater said...

Thanks, DIL. Omigosh, I forgot about that movie - what a dud! And I went with Mary and Darlene to see "Polish Wedding", another dud. Did we ever laugh!

I'm glad you remember our time together.

Birchsprite said...

a touching memorial!

Terry said...

Lovely remembrance. The people we have throughout our lives, from childhood on, are rare gems. You have lost a part of yourself. She was part of your history as much as a pal and a sidekick and loyal friend/cousin. I am so sorry for your loss. Take care.

geogirl said...

What a beautiful and touching post. I'm so sorry for your loss.

slouching mom said...

I'm so sorry, Mater. But you did her proud here.

Chet Jr. said...

Godmom Mater, the last email address I had for you has changed. How about sending your Godson from Pittsburgh your current email address.

BOSSY said...

This is such an amazing tribute -- and in the end that's all we have. It speaks volumes about a person to be remembered so thoughtfully.

Jenn said...

I hope that someday someone will recall me with such love and affection.

What a beautiful tribute.

Amy said...

She sounds like a beautiful soul. A live well lived, although too short. I can only hope I am half the woman she was when my time comes.