At a reception a couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Gloria Steinem. I held back tears of awe. (The tears were also borne of peri-menopausal hormones.) All I could do was take a breath and say, “It’s an honor to meet you.” More, I could not muster. At seventy-eight, she remained a glowing presence of beauty, intellect, and empathy. That night, I foolishly tried to imagine how my life might have been different if I’d had wisdom from a woman like her as I was growing up, learning and deciding who I was.
When I was seven, my cousin Paula flew from California to Florida with her infant son to live with my mother, my two brothers, and me. Paula’s mother, Delores, had died the year before. Delores was my mother’s sister. After her mother died, Paula had gotten pregnant and married her boyfriend, who turned out to be physically abusive. Her stepfather bought her a plane ticket when she said she wanted to move to Florida and live with her aunt. My mother had divorced my father several months before. He was also physically abusive. So there we were in a little three-bedroom, one-bath concrete block house on Neuse Avenue, a dirt road in Orlando—my 27 year-old mother, my 8 year-old brother, 7 year-old me, my 5 year-old brother, my 17 year-old cousin, and her baby, Joey.
Paula was trying to find someone to help support herself and Joey. She’d gotten the quick divorce, and the ex did not care to travel across the country to see his son or even send a little money now and then. Back then, child support was an option.
I remember snippets of conversations that included Paula, “You should go out on a date with him anyway, Paula. You don’t have to like him. Let him buy you a good dinner!” My mother and her other sister, Rita, who lived the next street over, had similar voices. But maybe I heard one of them say it one time and another of them say it another time. “You better grab him up before some other gal does!” That was my Aunt Rita, no doubt about it. Paula dated several guys, with her aunts’ unbridled encouragement. Though she was only nine years older than me, it seemed to me back then that Paula was a grown-up like my mother and aunt and I was a child like Joey. He seemed like my little cousin. She seemed more like an aunt.
Paula settled on Dick, a hairstylist in his thirties. He was quiet, soft-spoken, never married, the dictionary definition of an introvert. He was stable. Paula and Joey would not go hungry. She would go to school and become a hairstylist, too, and work alongside Dick. And so she did. Paula and Dick got married. There was no wedding.
As a teenager, I was summoned to babysit for Paula again. She and Dick had a son, Brian, who was a toddler when I started babysitting. Paula stopped working for a while to be with him. She also had a ton of weight to lose, probably seventy pounds or more. After being the skinny California girl with the big brown eyes her whole life, she’d become a Richard Simmons devotee, a Pillsbury Doughboy-shaped housewife whose fridge was filled with stuff like a tall Tupperware container of celery submerged in icy water.
She worked, worked, worked those pounds off! I think accomplishing that really boosted her self-esteem. She didn’t have a high school diploma or a GED. Losing the weight happened at a time when she really picked up momentum on other fronts, as well. She began buying old furniture at garage sales and refinishing it, furnishing her house with some really beautiful little pieces. She planted flower beds outside her patio, even though they lived in an apartment complex. She sewed curtains. She went back to work and continued to keep a beautiful home. She dressed better (shopping at garage sales) and bought a sports car, a yellow Triumph TR7. She stayed slim.
She had an affair (or two)—with the knowledge of my mother, who was still single and who was still Paula’s sister-in-arms. The rationale went like this: Paula wasn’t ever really in love with Dick, she’d married him because she had to, because she couldn’t live with us forever, and she and Joey needed stability. (That was my mother trying to rationalize it to me years later when she mentioned it, shocking me.)
I was fifteen by the time I was needed to babysit Brian. He went to Miss Shaughnessy’s daycare during the week, which was closed on Saturdays. Saturdays were the busiest day of the week for hairstylists. Changing daycares was out of the question, because Dick had known Miss Shaughnessy for a long time and she was the only one he trusted with Brian. And on Saturdays, I was the only one Dick would trust with Brian. So if I couldn’t babysit, Paula lost out on a lot of money.
When one of Paula’s brothers got arrested (again) and then was caught with pot in jail (it wasn’t his), she worked at getting him an attorney. And when I say she worked at it, I mean she sold her Triumph to pay for his attorney. She also had been helping to raise his two young daughters. Paula became the matriarch. She also was never going to have a daughter, which I think she knew, because she didn’t really want more children of her own. Brian was more Dick’s child than he was hers. Dick hadn’t been in love with Paula either, and Brian was his ideal incarnation of someone to love—someone like himself, whom he could mold. As soon as they’d get home from work, Dick would scoop up Brian, hold him close, and head outside with him, chatting a mile a minute. And, of course, though they’d added Dick’s last name to Joey’s, they never did anything legally. So in word and in deed, Joey was Paula’s son. Paula and Dick got divorced, but I wasn’t surprised.
She learned auto detailing from her brother. Paula worked hard, and she worked long hours. Her once-manicured hands turned into a mess that you wouldn’t want the grocery cashier to look at when you handed her your money. Still, Paula smiled. She did not give up. Brian had stayed with Dick. Joey was giving her trouble. He was angry because he’d never known his father. He was angry when she told him his father had been abusive to her. He was angry that Dick had never really been his father and had abandoned him and enveloped Brian. Nothing Paula could say or do would help.
And finally, Paula with her shiny gold highlights (she didn’t do hairstyling anymore, except to keep her own hair looking tip-top) and big brown eyes and wide smile caught the eye of one of the wholesalers she would often see at car lots when she was doing detailing. He was from Georgia, very southern Christian-like gentleman with a touch of toughness.
When she and Jerry got married, she tried to do everything right. Their wedding was to be outdoors, but it rained, so they married at the reception site, a private club on the top floor of a building downtown. Jerry wore a top hat, the only way he could be taller than Paula, who wore heels. She was a beautiful bride, gorgeous hair, gorgeous smile (she’d always had far-spaced teeth, but had recently gotten her invisible braces off), trim waist. Their house was bigger than anyone in our family had ever owned—four bedrooms and a huge family room, where she threw a shower for Joey’s pregnant girlfriend. Paula had wallpapered the entire inside of the house herself, doing intricate border work and pattern-matching and all kinds of fancy stuff I would never have the patience to do. She’d restored several big pieces of furniture, too. And she could singlehandedly make any car look like brand-new. She still worked with Jerry, doing business side work and still doing detailing when it was called for.
Joey and his girlfriend, a quiet girl named Brandy, had a daughter. They named her Star Paula, after her grandmother. Paula, a grandmother.
Paula was sixteen when her mother died. Her mother was only forty. Delores left behind six children, ages 20, 18, 16, 14, 8, and 7. Paula and her older sister looked after their three younger brothers. That was the first time Paula took the role of mother. I am sure she did the best she could—which was considerable. When I think of how not having good role models might have affected her, I think not only of her losing her own mother and then having the desperate advice of my mother and aunt, but I also think of what must have come before her mother died. Her mother died of cirrhosis of the liver. “Delores was always so happy,” my mother chirped. “She would welcome anybody to her house. If they came in, she’d just add a little more egg to the potato salad. She’d make enough for everybody. Everybody loved Delores. She was so happy.” When her mother died, she became legend in our family. She walked on water. She absolutely did.
Something else clicked in my head, about “my favorite aunt,” Paula’s mother. “She was happy all the time?” I asked my mother, echoing her official comment about her sister.
“Yes! She was always so happy. She was always in a good mood! Even with all those kids.”
“Well, of course she was happy, Mom. No joke. She was drunk all the time. That’s why she was ‘happy.’”
“No, sir! She was happy, she was truly happy.”
“Mom, are you trying to tell me that someone drank herself to death at age forty and she was not drunk all the time?!” She could not admit to the truth, could not accept it. “Well, she drank sometimes, but I don’t think she was just…drunk.”
Time passed. Joey “got AIDS,” my Aunt Rita and mother said. In truth, he’d become HIV-positive, either from IV drug use, which my little brother said he’d known Joey had done and warned him away from, or unprotected sex. He was estranged from Brandy. I never got to see Star Paula. He was arrested several times. He bit people, trying to infect them with HIV. Paula and Jerry bought him a car, but he wouldn’t get a job. Jerry threw his hands in the air. Joey wasn’t Dick’s son, and he wasn’t Jerry’s son. He wasn’t even his birth father’s son. He was always and only ever going to be Paula’s son. I can imagine how hard it was for her to try to persuade Jerry that Joey was worth love, worth whatever she could try to give him, and how Paula felt when Jerry told her to cut Joey off from the money they floated his way.
The news that Jerry was divorcing Paula came as a surprise to me. I thought he’d hold on to her forever. She was a good wife, a great homemaker, an asset to the business. She had cut Joey off from the money, or most of it, but never from her love. Why would he divorce her? Because of what I didn’t know: like her mother, she drank. Enough that he couldn’t take it anymore. She went to rehab after the proceedings had started, and I think they dated again, but she drank again. At that point we all thought she was going to lose Joey to AIDS in a short time (we didn’t know much about AIDS; he was still “just” HIV-positive), and that made her reason for drinking kind of apparent. Also, Brian was all but a stranger to her, coming around only periodically to collect gifts. He was the codependent product of his father.
Even more surprising to me than her divorce from Jerry was the news that came a couple of years later: Paula had lung cancer. She was 47. She wasn’t going to lose Joey after all. Joey was going to lose her.
I’d like to report that her sons proved themselves to be loyal men who rushed to their mother’s side, but that didn’t happen. Joey, who was now thirty, got arrested again after she got sick. He was still very angry, but he had no reason to be angry at her. She had always loved him in word and in deed. I don’t know if he got out of jail before she died. But they weren’t with her, not even spoiled Brian, in his twenties, with no reason to be angry about anything.
Was it several months, her long waltz to death’s door? I can’t remember. I do remember the last few weeks. Jerry was with her. He was unable to be married to someone with her drinking problem, but he was there with her, loving her. Whenever I’d visit in the rehabilitation center next to the hospital, Jerry was there. I was away in law school, so I was only there a few times. I was married, in my late thirties, with children of my own. I wondered what Paula could have done that would cause her sons to stay away from her, even on Mother’s Day, which came just 15 days before she died. At that time, I hadn’t lived through enough of my own ambiguities and nuances and tangles to be able to see what wasn’t plainly black and white. I realize now that all of the things in her life worked together to form the muscular force that held her sons away from her. And it wasn’t her fault.
During the last two weeks, Paula was back in the hospital. Fluid filled her lungs and had to be drained so she wouldn’t drown. She smiled with Jerry, who clowned around and climbed up on top of her in her hospital bed, on all fours, to kiss her full on the lips. Then the day came that the fluid was pooling too quickly to drain the regular way. Her breathing was labored. Her doctor decided they needed to perform a procedure to drain it—a slit in her side, basically, and they had to do it in her room. She wouldn’t be given anesthesia. She couldn’t handle it in her condition. We were told to wait outside her room. Jerry stayed with her. During her illness, we always called him her husband, not her “ex-husband.” And he acted like a husband. We were grateful he was there for her. Maybe he didn’t feel so much like it, who knows? But he knew she needed him to be there with her, and he gave her that. He clowned and smiled and praised her. He lavished her with words of love. If she’d gotten well and survived, he would not have remarried her, but that didn’t matter. He filled her emptiness with love. The emptiness mattered.
Paula’s sister, a niece, a brother, and a sister-in-law arrived from out of state. Was it a day more that she lasted? She wore an oxygen mask to breathe. Her lungs were filling and there was no stopping it. Along with Jerry, there were eight of us family members visiting her. The nursing staff tossed out all the rules on her behalf. On that Monday night when she was struggling so hard to breathe, trying to pull the oxygen mask from her face, we tried to coax and calm her. “Paula, honey, you need that. It’s helping you.”
“No, honey, it’s helping. It’s giving you the oxygen you need.”
Turning away from her and forming a circle in the corner of that room, we faced the question, Are we doing what’s best for Paula, or are we doing what’s comfortable for us? She hadn’t lost weight, but she seemed to be shrinking. She was pulling into herself. She wanted the mask off. She wanted to breathe on her own. Paula worked hard at everything. She did her best. We decided to take the mask off and let her do it on her own.
In a couple of minutes, Jerry went out to get some fresh air, and most of the family went back to stand and talk quietly to one another in the corner. We were always careful not to say anything upsetting that she could hear. I sat on her bed next to her. “It’s okay, Paula. You can breathe now.” She curled up and looked, to me, like the baby bird I found in her back yard in California a few days before her mother’s funeral. Her hair was like wet, new feathers stuck to her head. Her arms, bent and drawn up like wings that could not fly, her legs tucked up to her chest.
“You guys, I think… I think…” I said, and Paula’s sister-in-law rushed over and sat on the other side of the bed and put her hand on Paula’s forehead. She whispered, “You’re okay, honey. We love you. We love you, Paula.” The rest had stepped closer, and then that was the end. Jerry might have had time enough to get back down to the first floor, walk through the automatic doors, and get his first deep breath of the clean night air. We had no idea it would be that fast.
At the funeral: no Joey, no Brian.
But now I understand: it wasn’t her, it was them.
And more than that, I have learned that we don’t all do everything right, and we don’t all get what we might deserve. Things got clearer as I got older. I have developed some strong traits I see in others, and I try to shed weak traits like sunburned skin. I didn’t have to have a Gloria Steinem in my life to learn what kind of woman I could be.
I think of Paula often. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I pump my fist in the air! Sometimes I can’t believe my luck in finding someone in my family who worked so hard and kept at it, a model to follow, even though she wasn’t perfect. I clean like she did. I am handy like she was. I make my home the best I can like she did. I love my children with all I have like she did. I laugh. I love. I don’t give up.
I’m sure she had regrets. I know I do. Nobody’s perfect.