August 25, 1978

Stella Yando. It is not a name you hear every day, especially in Saratoga County. But, in Malone, in the 1970’s, it was a name to be reckoned with if you were having a party. And we were having a party.

It was the last Friday night of the Fair and looked to be very cold, down in the 50’s, maybe the 40’s. I had packed a sweatshirt or two before I left Albany a week earlier. Mitch had brought his ratty red hooded sweatshirt with him when he arrived the night before. We made a quick run down to the Fair on Thursday night to get some fried dough with maple cream and walnuts for my mom and grab a ride on the Ferris Wheel. The sky was cloudy, no stars were visible, even from the top of the wheel, but Malone spread out below us, small sparkling lights hidden in dark green, except for the well-lit, long asphalt strip that was Main Street (aka Route 11). We kissed at the top, we hadn’t seen each other in five days, and there would be no intimacy until Saturday night.

I had been cooking and cleaning for days at my parents’ house. The rehearsal dinner would be there on Friday night, even though the rehearsal was not to be until Saturday morning, at the Country Club. It would be my in-law’s first visit to Malone, a long drive and light years from Long Island. My brothers lived in Malone, two at my parents’ house. My sister lived nearby, but spent almost every waking moment at Mom and Dad’s. Most of the wedding party was from out of town, one of my matrons of honor, her husband, Mitch’s sister, and another bridesmaid were flying in that night to Montreal. I had serious misgivings about their ability to navigate the road from Dorval Airport to Malone. Brother Bob was enlisted to go find them if things went awry.

Friday morning was busy. Mom was making pies. I still had cheesecakes and macaroni and cheese to make. Mitch had to pick up his tuxedo at the Bridal Shoppe on Main Street, but first I put him to changing the linens on the beds in Jon’s and Bob’s rooms, in preparation for the arrival of assorted cousins and second cousins from Philadelphia. Mitch would be staying at the Gateway Motel with his mom, dad and sister. Bob, Jon and Billy would be bunking in the studio apartment attached to the garage.

My mom and I had lists and more lists of tasks, errands, recipes and menus. We would not have enough time to do everything ourselves. She wrapped her arthritic fingers around the arm of Mitchell, probably her second most favorite person in the world.

“Mitchell, I need you to run an errand.”

“Okay, Peg, anything for you.”

“I need you to drive out the Brainardsville Road to Stella Yando’s house and pick up the baked beans.”

He would have gone anywhere for my mother. The baked beans were just an added incentive; the man loved baked beans.

Off Mitch and Brother Bob went. I was mildly concerned about how long it would take; Brother Bob was known to wander off-course, sometimes to visit Cookie or Scott, sometimes to stop at the Snowy Owl for a beer. It took some time for them to return, a huge covered tray in Mitch’s hands, a huger smile lighting his handsome face. The sweet, spicy fragrance of the beans preceded them. We smelled them before we saw them.

We could tell they had already sampled Mrs. Yando’s prized recipe. Mitchell started singing: “Stella, Stella Yando, Queen of the Baked Bean Trail!” He giggled, Bob laughed.

Through the hectic hours of the afternoon and early evening, the arrival of friends and family, the dishing up, slicing and pouring, I would catch Mitchell, humming or singing his new tribute ballad.

The party was a success, a trip to the Fair after 10:00 got me a huge stuffed animal won by Henry, our law school friend, more fried dough and kisses on the carousel. The NYC travelers had yet to arrive when I went upstairs after 2:00 a.m. to sleep alone for the last time in my old bedroom.

But, Mitch saw them driving down Main Street as he headed up to the motel. He followed them back to my parents and served them the leftovers from the party, before he sheparded them back up Main Street to the Gateway. Blissfully unaware that there was a second party going on in the kitchen, I slept until 6:30 when my mom awakened me to go to 7:30 a.m. Mass at the Convent.

Later, after our rehearsal, during lunch at the Country Club, Jeff, my matron of honor’s husband, told me that they had gotten lost near someplace called Rouse’s Point and had almost turned around and gone back to Montreal.

“I’m glad we didn’t, though, for your sake. But, mostly because last night Mitch gave us these unbelievable baked beans!”

Mitch was grinning and then he began to softly sing,

“Stella, Stella Yando, Queen of the Baked Bean Trail.”

August 21

She was knitting baby clothes when the pains began. The painter was in the nursery, applying the final coat of paint. Her husband told her she was wrong, it was too early, but she insisted. Speeding down the highway, a cop pulled them over. One look at her prompted him to give them a police escort to the hospital in Brooklyn. A wheelchair was waiting for her when they pulled up to the Emergency Room entrance. It was 12:00 noon. Her doctor had been called but he was not at the hospital yet; he had car trouble. As a result, her baby was not born until 1:20 p.m.
As was the practice in those days, she had been anesthetized for the delivery. When she regained consciousness, her first question was not “How is my baby?” or “Did I have a boy or girl?”
She asked “Did the Yankees win?” A prophetic question on the birth day of Mitchell Laurence Hallow.
He became a huge Yankees fan. Named for a family member who had died in the war, he grew up in Brooklyn and on Long Island. Dark curly hair like his grandfather and mother, beautiful whiskey brown eyes and long, curly eyelashes, he had his paternal grandmother’s perfect nose and her husky build. Sweet-natured, witty, intelligent and a naturally athletic, he invariably stood for the hurt, weak, helpless and lost.
Self-effacing, graceful, and strong, he was the Scholar-Athlete and Good Sportsman in school. More Jewish in his ethnicity than his religious beliefs, he spent two years on a kibbutz in Israel and returned with a deep love of Judaism. He volunteered for VISTA, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps, in the year after college, to teach prison inmates how to read. A candidate for Law Review, he declined in order to focus on his studies and his part-time job. He continued his work at a small general practice in Mechanicville after graduation. He was a stalwart champion of the kids for whom he became law guardian and an understanding advocate for all who came to his office.
A good friend, great husband and unparalleled father, he was loved by all who knew him. Especially his children and me.
He would have been 60 years old today. When I called his mom this morning to wish her “Happy Birthday” on the birthday of her son, she reminisced about his early arrival. I then thanked her for the gift of him, the best gift in my life. She sighed softly and said,
“Well, you know, thank you for being such a great wife to him. You were the best gift he ever got.”
I had no words in reply. Just a lump in my throat.

Converse All-Stars

I went off to law school with a pair of low-cut blue suede Converse All-Stars. They were so cool and made me feel like an athlete. I wore them to my first game on Donnie Zee’s volleyball team. It was also my last game. I might have felt athletic but my feelings did not translate into actual prowess and Donnie kicked me off the team after a ball dropped at my feet. Short-lived was my career as a server.
Not so for Mitchell, my new-found lover. He actually was athletic. He had won not only the Scholar-Athlete Award at Woodmere Academy but the Good Sportsmanship Award as well. He was such a good sport that he did not outright laugh at my abrupt banishment to the sidelines; he merely snickered. He, too, wore Converse All-Stars as he ran back and forth on the varnished wood of the Law School Gym/Auditorium. But, he pointed out to me, his sneakers were not just Converse All-Stars, they were Chuck Taylor, red suede high-top All-Stars. They saw him through three years of volleyball and pick-up basketball games and into our marriage. He wore them on the courts at our first apartment complex in Watervliet, our townhouse in Mechanicville and finally, his cherished concrete driveway where he could take shot after shot into his own basketball hoop. He had installed it himself on a warm spring day, pouring too much concrete into a too-deep hole to anchor the pole upon which he fastened the backboard and hung the net. We all scratched our names into the concrete to memorialize one of his few successful home handyman efforts.
He wore the sneakers for only a short time after that. One of our cats, Merlin, the one his mother had given us, peed on the sneakers in a fit of pique after the birth of our son. The sneakers ended up in the trash and the cat at the vet. I still believe that it was the cat’s desecration of the red suede treasures that earned his demise, not the snarling and hissing at our newborn son.
No more high-tops for Mitchell. Until August 9, 1988.
He had just been transferred from Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital to Ellis Hospital. He had traded his fancy, nylon-coated, rotating, compartmentalized bed in Plattsburgh for a regular hospital bed in the Neuro ICU in Schenectady. During my late-night consultation with his new doctors on August 8, they informed me that he would need a pair of high-top sneakers to wear in bed to keep his feet from flopping forward, shortening the muscles and tendons in his legs. I sent my father-in-law out to get them for me and he, unknowingly, chose white Converse All-Stars high-tops. I brought them to the hospital on August 9.
Mitch looked tired. I attributed it to the long journey the day before. But he smiled when I showed him the sneakers and mouthed the question “no red suede?”
“When you get out,” I promised him, with an answering smile.
He died before he could wear the sneakers.
When they brought me to him that last time, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the room where he lay silent and unmoving, was the stark white of the high-tops, sitting on a shelf near his bed.
I threw them in the trash.

Summer

I don’t do well in summer. Father’s Day usually starts my doldrums. My son was born on July 4, 1985.  My husband broke his neck three years later on July 8, 1988 and died 32 days later on August 10, 1988. His birthday was August 21, and our wedding anniversary was August 26.

I don’t start coming out of my horrible mood until after Labor Day and then the Jewish holidays, followed by the regular holidays, all centering on family, pretty much kick my ass until New Year’s, which is a bitch to spend alone. Valentine’s Day, my birthday in April and Mother’s Day in May are not good either. I’d say my one really good month is March; I don’t tend to get into much trouble in March except on St. Patrick’s Day, when Jameson’s and Harp can put me in a tailspin.

But July and August are definitely the worst months. I can still remember what happened each day in 1988. On this day, his heart stopped, on that day, they opened up his lungs and so on and so on until August 10. Then it is the myriad memories of funerals, eulogies, family and friends, and sitting shiva, during the hot, dry days of August.

This summer is particularly difficult. During my daughter’s cleaning frenzy on Mother’s Day in my house, in my room, I came across the notes and letters that I wrote to my husband while I was staying with him in the hospital. I thought they were locked away in a  box in the closet t that had not been opened in 24 years but I found them in my nightstand drawer wrapped in a poem eulogizing my husband, written by one of our dearest friends. I should have put them aside but having glanced at them, I knew I must read every one after my daughter left. That was a rough night but I did not put the notes away.

I don’t know what made me decide to write about those 32 days, to use the notes as the spine of the story of Mitch’s injury, hospitalization and death. Maybe it’s because next year will be 25 years since he died, two and a half times the number of years we were married. Maybe I need to finally face those memories and put them to rest. Maybe because I sometimes get a little crazy in the summer. Maybe it’s because I am a writer and you have to write what you know. And I know his story must be told.

So, today I am writing that 24 years ago I was fighting with the administrators at Albany Medical Center, the regional trauma center, about transferring my paralyzed husband from Plattsburgh to their hospital, to the neurologists and orthopedists who were waiting to treat him. AMC was putting me off with excuses about lack of nurses and lack of beds. I was tired and starting to lose hope but my husband had slept through the night and that was enough for me to write that I thought the end of our trials might be near.

What was I thinking?

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