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 babynine 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 planet.
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 visit.
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 like-minded.
If actually we weren’t, she never let on.
While I fancy myself as having a fairlydecent 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 woman.
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 knowthe childhadn’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 favored it.
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 robJulia 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 the end.
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.