Years ago I knew a woman named Stella. She was big and brassy and spoke like a Joan Blondell character in a pre-Code film, only with a Polish accent. Stella was what is known in literature as "a character." I met her when I was Assistant Manager at a bookstore. Stella loved three things, her husband, Leo; her family; and romance novels. She would purchase all the series romances every month. Once I got to know her, I would put together a box with all the latest ones and she would always ask for me when she came in. Over time we got to be friends.
Occasionally Stella would join me on my break and we'd have coffee in the food court and she'd tell me about her latest adventures. She had a lot of them. At the time she was in her late 60s and was always doing wild and fun things. She tried surfing, scuba diving, karate and even roller blading. On the safer side she also took up yoga, Ikebana, and French cooking. She also told hilarious dirty jokes. I wish I could remember them, but I do remember hooting with rude laugher in front of the frozen yogurt shop.
Stella was a Holocaust survivor. She never talked about her time in the camp except once, in an offhanded way, as if it were no more a part of her life story than the guitar lessons she took for six months or the Vespa scooter she wanted for her birthday. I always wondered if her lust for life was due to her experiences with the Nazis. Perhaps losing her family and suffering so much herself made her appreciate life more; maybe feel the need to try everything so as to live life to the full.
I never asked her, though. There was always a "No Trespassing" sign around that time of her life. The fact that everything else was fair game made this silence all the more obvious. She told me about her sex life (great), her beloved dogs (the "angeldevils"), and about her sons, daughters-in-law and grandkids. But she never told me about her life before she came to the US.
Stella and Leo loved to travel and once she "adopted" you, you were bound to get some wonderfully tacky souvenir from her vacation. She brought me a snow globe from Hawaii, a dried pinto bean Rosary from Mexico, and a "can of flattened armadillo" from Texas. I gave her a hideous Halloween sweatshirt with a glow-in-the-dark pumpkin on it and she wore in in April. She also baked wonderful sugar cookies with little flowers stamped in them. They would literally melt in your mouth and whenever she came into the store with a batch work would pretty much stop while we all moaned in ecstasy.
A few years into our friendship, Stella and Leo moved to Phoenix to be closer to two of their sons and their families. I was happy for her, but sad to lose her from my life. We stayed in touch with cards and letters at first, but it was one of those friendships that was destined to fade from lack of face-to-face contact. She was, briefly, one of those "adopted family members" that come into my life now and then...given to me by fate to compensate for the emotional distance of my "real" family. She was an honorary grandmother for a while and then moved on. I have no doubt she adopted some other lucky people in her new home, bringing them cookies from her kitchen and ashtrays from Miami. I wish I knew what happened to her, I hope she's still alive, still happy. Maybe studying pottery or learning how to snowboard.
Stella, wherever you are, I hope you're doing well. Thanks for the memories. And I wish I could remember that joke about the nun and the cowboy.