The year was 1952 in Pittsburg, PA. My Grandma Korba—as we later came to know her—was 38 years old. Her given name was Stella but my Grandpa (Elmer) had nicknamed her Poofty back when he was young and suave—always with a comb in his back pocket ready to slick back his handsome, curly locks. Stella was married late in life for her time at 25 years old and had met Elmer at a tea house where she worked. He was a good, Catholic young man who attended mass regularly with his Hungarian parents who were less than thrilled with Stella’s Lithuanian descent. She was beautiful though—an equestrian at the time and a lover of all sports for as long as I knew her. Mysterious scars covered much of her abdomen. We knew they were from being left alone with matches as just a babe and that she had lived at times in foster homes. She never spoke of these struggles though except to occasionally mention her sister Josie who she referred to as a drifter and who was buried out in California at midlife. My Grandma—my Stella—must have shaken those early years off well for when I knew her she radiated a lightness about her. Her bright blue eyes twinkled, she exhibited a wry sense of humor and and easygoingness to be admired. I remember her once saying, “Oh, I could hang my hat any old place.” In the years that I knew her, she was always an early riser and when I was visiting her as a young girl, I remember coming into her kitchen before anyone else had awakened and finding her sitting at the table, pouring over her newspaper with a cup of very light colored coffee beside her—she too liked a little coffee with her cream. She would look up at me, eyes brightening. And it was always the same. Even when she was a very ripe 90 years old, she would look up at me and she would say, “what can I getcha?” In those final years I would lean over her sloped body and put my cheek next to hers and just take her in. I would experience the softness of her skin against mine. I would notice that she always, “had her lips on,” as I do now. I knew then that I wouldn’t have her forever and I missed her even before she was gone.
Back in 1952 though, I do not know how she was. I know that she had a 10 year old son, Regis, and a six year old daughter, Kathleen (my Mom) at home when she gave birth to her third child—a baby girl—in a local hospital. My Grandpa—Elmer—was a conductor on the Pennsylvania Rail Road. A fly on the wall back then, I would love to be. When my Aunt Eileen—that third precious baby—was born, my grandparents were not made aware at first that anything was different about her. They came home from the hospital on a cold February day, I imagine, feeling as happy and blessed as any parent of a new baby would feel. It isn’t clear how long it was before they were given the (then) very tragic news that their daughter was “a Mongoloid” as it was put to them. What the doctors meant was that our darling Aunt Eileen had Down Syndrome.
In the days that followed, my grandparents went to their priest for guidance. He told them that Eileen would never talk or walk or contribute to society in any way and advised that they put her in a home and forget about her. It was a decision that many, many people made at that time. My grandparents made a courageous choice instead and kept Eileen safe in their home and brought her up with the expectation that she speak and live and contribute in all of the ways that her brother and sister did. Eileen blossomed. She spoke beautifully, she danced with abandon, she was an excellent bowler and swimmer—eventually winning medals in the Special Olympics. She became the love of my Grandfather’s life. He called her “Dolly Babe” and she doted on him. As an aside, Elmer stopped going to church for 30 years because of his priest’s heartless recommendation and would often tell us that he was going instead to, “St. Mattress with Father Pillow officiating.” He had a way with words. When he died, there was an ornament symbolizing their love buried with him from his Dolly Babe. Eileen remained my Grandma’s companion, living with her and eventually helping her until she passed away at 92 years old. My uncle and my mother often refer to her as “Saint Stella” for her undying, life-long devotion to and love for Eileen. At my wedding, we made a special request of the band to play the song, “Come on Eileen” in her honor and to celebrate the special relationship I had with her throughout my life. Without missing a beat—and representing her parents who were both gone, Eileen—then 55 years old—came bounding to the front of the dance floor and led 200 people in an out-of-a-movie dance routine. Her contribution to this life has been nothing less than stellar.
When I began writing, I imagined that this post was going to be about the butterfly bush that I planted in Stella’s honor four years ago and needed to move this summer. I thought I was going to write about how attached my son Jonah had become to that plant and how each butterfly that fluttered by reminded me of her. I will leave that story for another time and let this post instead be about honoring Stella—a woman who lived with courage and was ahead of her time. A woman who allowed her daughter—who has Down Syndrome—to bloom at a time when there were no support services or support groups or even a proper name for this condition. This is a post about a woman—a mother—who I admire and will always hold near to my heart.