Before we begin to tear our lives apart as adults, we are children, and maybe the best of us lives there a little. At least, this is mostly true for my cousin, Stella, who ran a red light and plowed into a semi truck going over sixty miles per hour and died almost immediately. Hopefully there is a bit of us that lives there, and we remember the sweet hugs and skipped rocks and Halloween costumes.
This is how I want to remember my cousin, Stella. She was five years older than me and not much interested in playing with me. She had my older brother to pal around with, he was a lot more fun. And when she wasn't being bounced back and forth between rageaholic and alcoholic parents, she had a few sweet moments playing at her grandmother's house in Georgia.
And that is where I remember her best. She was around seven when her mother left her father, in the middle of the day, her youngest brother, a baby, sleeping in his crib and her next youngest brother, a toddler himself, only maybe three at time when her mother just walked out the door and left them alone. Walked out carrying her suitcase, walked out without her children, I can only wonder at how she could have allowed herself to do it. Somehow, Stella managed to hold down the fort until her father got home from work hours later.
My grandmother drove up overnight from Georgia to New Jersey to be with the children so that my uncle could go to work the next day.
Somehow, her mother was forgiven this indiscretion and was allowed custody of this young girl, but she let the boys go.
My first clear memory of this cousin, Stella who I heard about often but knew little about was the summer she came to visit Georgia as a teen, the same time we were there. I must have been about eight myself which would make her around 13. The boys lived for a time with my grandmother so I knew them much better. Stella was a mystery to me but I was excited at the prospect of having a girl around. I was surrounded by boys. I had no sisters and the boy cousins were fun and all but it would be nice to have another girl around.
Except, she didn't want to play with me. This happened a lot when my older brother Geoffrey was around. The girl cousins all had crushes on him, so I routinely got pushed out of the way so they could cast adoring looks on him. I hated it but I was used to it.
And after all, she was a teen who didn't want to be hanging around some little kid. My brother was far more interesting. On this particular lazy summer afternoon, they announced they were going 'uptown' to get some candy. In this small town, uptown was around four or five blocks. A ten minute walk to the five and dime store, right past my uncle's feed and seed storefront.
I wanted to go with them and they teased me with the possibility.
"First," my brother said. "You have to prove that you can be a good lookout."
Then they talked me into keeping an eye out for my mother or grandmother so they could safely sneak dollars out of my mother's purse.
My brother tried to tell me it was perfectly okay, that Ma let him do it all the time, I just shouldn't tell anyway.
Stella giggled as they went into the room together. I didn't get to go uptown with them but I didn't tell on them either. Something about the shame of being tricked like that made me keep my mouth shut. Besides, my mother would have wanted to know why I hadn't even tried to stop them. She would have been disappointed in me, and I knew it was stealing.
Maybe I witnessed the first time Stella was involved in theft from my mother. It wasn't the last.
The girl with the easy smile and the golden hair grew up needing and wanting something I don't think she ever found. The last time I saw her she was married and had two little girls and she seemed stable and happy. This was right before she started smoking crack cocaine.
Soon after that she was finding ways to impersonate my mother and stealing from her dead father's estate. Money that would have belonged to her in a number of years but was to be split between her and her brothers. It wasn't hard for her to impersonate my mother, they had the same name, after all. They were both named Stella and she had my mother's maiden name. What followed were two more divorces and a boy child born addicted who she lost custody of to her sister in law. I don't know how many times she was in rehab. She called me up one time a long time ago looking for comfort and solace.
That was the last time I talked to her. I heard a desperate woman who didn't really want to quit using and didn't know a way out of her pain. And she continued to try to embezzle and until she rammed into that truck, I think she remained a lost child in a grown woman's body.
She was a lost child, a girl who could have turned out different, but didn't. And was loved in spite of everything. I wish she could have finally filled that empty place inside her. We all have it. All of us.