Originally posted Feb. 6, 2008
Like many new parents of my generation, once the brief flurry of
grandparent-visits subsided, I had no family around
after the birth of my first baby nine years ago. But I
had Julia. She was nearly fifty years my senior, but Julia
Saia, my Pittsburgh neighbor, was this new mom's mentor.
Not in a buy-these-diapers, use-this-remedy,
read-this-parenting-book sort of way, mind you. No,
she was not an advice dispenser. She was better. Though
do I recall her once advising that I "sleep when the baby sleeps,"
it was her presence and her way of being in the world that had a
tremendous impact on me.
Julia was the one who rang our doorbell and welcomed us to the
neighborhood two years before Noah's birth. At the time, I
had no idea how rare that was for her. She wasn't a chatty
Cathy or do-gooder. She was one of my favorite people on the
I could tell you all about the fabulous educator and counselor
she once was, and about her devotion to her family and community,
but I didn't know Julia "back in the day." That's not to say
I didn't learn a thing or two from her or benefit from her
counsel. For me, she was the benevolent presence across the
street that could be counted on to always reassure me that I was a
good mother and that I was doing the right thing, whatever it
was. We spoke on the phone every few days, and about once a
week Noah and I made make the short trip across the street for a
Julia never failed to somehow buoy my tired, new mommy spirit
with affirmations - not namby-pamby platitudes, mind you. She
possessed that rare ability to juggle eloquence and candor
simultaneously and diplomatically. I once regaled her with a
tale about how baby Noah puked into my nursing bra while also
having a major blow-out well beyond the boundaries of his diaper -
which resulted in my standing with him in the shower as we took
turns laughing and crying . Without missing a beat, Julia
responded good-naturedly about how "marvelously" I handled the
debacle. When I told her about trying my hand at making my
own baby food, or about a circumstance where I needed to nurse in
public, she never responded with an ounce of criticism or censure
in her words or tone. In fact, she called me "wholesome." Her
never-wavering, quiet support of me gave me the impression we were
If actually we weren't, she never let on.
While I fancy myself as having a fairly decent vocabulary,
Julia's was exceptional. I almost never left her home without
a new word under my belt. The one that comes to mind now,
lugubrious, means "mournful."
An Irishwoman to her core, Julia wasn't lugubrious, in
spite of the various adversities she faced and overcame throughout
her life. Though in contrast it's a rather benign example, I
remember sitting on her couch and learning a little something about
perspective. She shared the story of how, during World War II
when rationing was the rule, her sister shared part of her own
butter ration as an anniversary gift to Julia and her husband,
Ben. The week I heard this story, my husband and I, having
long-since happily decided that I wouldn't return to work after we
started our family, watched as one of our two cars drove off into
the sunset - without us. The money left in its wake made the
next mortgage payment possible. But butter? Now that's
something. How often have you wondered whether you'll be able
to do something as basic as butter your bread?
Julia was so much more than a kindly neighbor with
spirit-raising stories to tell. She was a real
In her day, before it was fashionable, she could be seen
strolling down the middle of our then brick-paved street wearing a
man's shirt on her bird-like frame and walking her enormous
dog. She loved the symphony and always hung her flag when
someone died. She shared an enduring marriage of 54 years,
and never once spoke a disparaging word to me about her
husband. She raised six children, at times under trying
circumstances. When I asked how she managed, she related one
of her strategies. Invariably, one of her six active kids
needed a bath. If Julia had to step out of the bathroom to
tend to another child, she'd tell the bather to sing a song so she
would know the child hadn't drowned. Julia had a
fabulous, dry wit, was smart as a whip and shot from the hip.
She always wore red lipstick, and would even partake of a beer
every now and then. Zima. Remember the brand?
They don't make it anymore, but I remember being amused that she
It's a pity that I never got around to sharing one with her.
Our connection didn't wane after my family and I moved
away. An avid correspondent, Julia wrote lovely letters,
always on museum stationery featuring the work of classical
painters, with handwriting that was just as pleasing to the
eye. She caught me up on all of the neighborhood news, always
asked about my Mom, and never failed to express that while she
missed us, she knew that Todd and I were doing the right thing for
our family. She always signed her letters "Cheers,
Julia." I read her letters to Noah, an active toddler by
then. He really took a shine to the whole "Cheers" thing. I
recall that he once took two glass Christmas ornaments and
"Cheers'd" them to bits. Whenever I vacuumed, he "Cheers'd"
my big vacuum with his toy one. He once even lifted up his
shirt, stuck out his belly and "Cheers'd" with my very pregnant
one. Yes, we both enjoyed Julia's letters.
Julia often enclosed a flurry of neatly clipped diaper coupons
in the envelopes. Seven weeks after Holly's birth, however,
the batch of coupons contained a little something extra: a $1
coupon for L'eggs Sheer Energy Pantyhose.
"Gotta get me some o' those!" I howled, laughing so hard tears
streamed down my face, which was chronically puffy from sleep
deprivation. By then the mother of two, I could no longer
"sleep while the baby slept." It wasn't because the coupon
wasn't likely to see the light of day that I laughed, though I'd
long before sworn off those nylon deathtraps unless someone was
getting married or buried. No, I was simply struck by the
sheer absurdity that one could derive energy from a pair of
stockings. If I'd really thought they'd put a little spring
in my step, I'd have stumbled out and bought a pair.
Spotting a handwritten letter from Julia in the mailbox always
felt a little bit like Christmas. Sadly, her letters
eventually stopped coming.
Julia died last spring, of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral
Sclerosis). More commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's
disease, it's a fatal neurological condition that, among other
things, robbed her of the ability to move, swallow, and, of all
things, speak. But it didn't rob Julia of her
priorities. In the months before her death, she managed to
enjoy the nightly ritual of letting one small piece of chocolate
melt in her mouth. Learning about this simple pleasure, made
possible by her loving daughter Julie McCarthy (who cared for Julia
in Julia's home until the time of her death), made me smile through
my tears. How cool is that? I admired Julia's pluck, right to
Though I couldn't make it back to Pittsburgh for Julia's
funeral, I made sure to remind her daughter to hang the flag.
"Oh!" Julie exclaimed, "That was her job …" Indeed, no one can
replace her. She was one-of-a-kind, a real class act.
I'm sorry that Julia is no longer in the world as I know it, but
I am not lugubrious. She is beyond suffering, and I am a
better woman and mother for having known her. In her memory,
I'm passing the gift of her peace, perspective and amazing grace
along to other moms and dads. Life is a team sport,
folks. Go team!
As for the pantyhose coupon, I never did use it. I think
Julia would approve.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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