Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Family Legends

Her name was Stella, and her portrait, with those dreamy eyes and one curved lock of black hair falling softly over her cheek, captured her at sixteen, and she remained sixteen, then, for all time, because shortly afterward, she died.  They called it sleeping sickness, but it must have been encephalitis, for family legend was that she would fall into a sleep so profound my grandmother could not waken her.  Family legend also had it that she was sweet and good and truly loved all her nine siblings, and they her.  She was the family favorite, which is often the case with one who dies young.   

My mother had originally promised to name her first girl child Mary for the Blessed Virgin, but I was born very shortly after Stella’s death, so mother chose instead the name Mary Stella for me.  Double names were common in those days.  I knew many Mary Anns, a few Mary Janes, even a Mary Rose or two, but Mary Stella was, well…unique.  I didn’t like it, but didn’t dare say so, because it would have been blasphemy.  There was an Italian poem, or maybe it was a prayer (I don’t remember which,) that began, “Maria, Stella del Mare” (which means Mary, Star of the Sea,) and about the only nice thing about my name was that my father would affectionately call me his little stella del mare. 

It was hard growing up in the shadow of Stella’s goodness.  I used to look up at that portrait, in its magnificently large and silver frame, on a wall of my grandparents’ home, and feel I somehow was letting my mother down.  She never gave me any indication that she thought so, but maybe it was Stella’s dreamy eyes looking down at me, or maybe it was just me, I don’t know.  What I do know, though, is that saints are a hard act to follow.  That’s why, after I went off to college and had an opportunity to invent myself anew, I decided to drop the frills and became just plain Mary.

After I was grown and married and had raised a family of my own, had lost my grandparents and buried my own dear parents, little by little events began to conspire to

make me see the Stella legend differently.  I didn’t recognize them as conspiring events at the time, but they kept building and I kept mellowing.  The first event of consequence was that my bachelor uncle Lou, who lived in the house that used to be my grandparents’, one fine day, out of the blue, offered me Stella’s portrait.

“After all,” he said, “you’re her namesake.  You even look like her.” 

 My mother’s family had often told me so, and I remember I used to stare at her picture and try to find something in that angelic face that I even remotely shared, but I never could.  Finally I concluded that my resemblance to Stella was just one more family legend, and one not to be taken lightly, so I accepted the portrait.  No way, though, could

I hang that large frame, in all its silver magnificence, on my modest walls, so (and thank goodness Lou never knew) I exiled it instead to the dark confines of my storage room.

The next little incident was that a dear friend of mine came to help me rearrange some of the accessories around my house and put others away in the storage room.  She came upon Stella’s picture and asked who she was, and upon learning, said, “Oh, Mary, how can you banish such beauty to such a lowly place!”  I felt immediate guilt, but managed to squelch it, turn out the light in the storage room, and shut the door.  “Too big,” was the only explanation I gave my friend, but later during that day, and even a time or two the next day, I thought of Stella in storage, her silver frame propped against an old trunk

Shortly thereafter, I visited my oldest uncle, Alex, and it was then that my heart did a complete turn around with regard to Stella.  I happened to mention to him, “Guess what, Alex -- remember that wonderful portrait of Stella?  Well, a couple years ago, Lou gave it to me.” 

“Yeah?” he asked.  “I always wondered what had happened to it.”  He paused a moment, looking off into the distance, then said, “I’ll never forget when Stella died.  I loved her so much.  I was only about eight, but I loved her so much.  We all did.  She was so good.”

I began to get the idea that family legends are often pure truth…or at least this family legend was.

“I remember that day clear as anything,” he went on.  “I was happy, walking home from school with some friends.  A neighbor woman called out to me from her window (people used to do that a lot) and asked me how my sister was doing.  I told her I had heard my mother tell my father just that morning that Stella seemed a little better today, and the woman said, yes, sick people often get better right before they die.”

“What an awful thing to say to the little brother!” I said.

Alex agreed.  “ I nearly died myself when I heard that,” he said.  “I knew Stella was sick, but I never thought she wouldn’t get well.  Kids didn’t die – at least none that I knew.  Was she really going to die? I wondered.  I ran all the way home, my heart beating like crazy.” 

He stopped a minute to get control.  I saw tears in his eyes, and couldn’t help thinking of him – that little boy – running home in anguish.

“As soon as I was inside the front door,” he continued, “I yelled, ‘Mamma, is Stella going to die?’  She told me it was true – that Stella was very sick and that the doctor said she was already dying.”

I know it sounds corny, but I said a prayer to Stella at this point.  Well, I guess it wasn’t really a prayer, because that’s not my style, but what I said inside my head was, “I’m sorry I was so flip about being your namesake, Stella, and I’m really sorry you died so young.”

 “You know,” my uncle was saying, “It took me a long time to forgive my mother.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For not telling me sooner that Stella was going to die.”

“Oh,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.  

There was silence. Then I heard him give out a great sigh. Then silence again.  Finally I said,  “You know what, Alex?  I think Stella’s picture really belongs with

 you, and I’m bringing it over tomorrow.”

“Yeah?” he asked.  “Gee, that’s really nice.”

And another really nice thing was how great Stella’s portrait, in its magnificent silver frame, looked on Alex’s dining room wall where we hung it the next day.