Stella Johnson

Stella Johnson was one of the most influential people in my life.   Anyone with ears to hear and eyes to witness could gather wisdom from her to fill traveling bags for a lifetime’s journey.

Stella was a very elderly lady with a fascinating history you’d try to piece together from clues dropped during her dementia-induced episodes and odd conversation topics.  I was privileged to serve as one of her live-in caregivers toward the end of her life.  I believe she is whole now and probably looking down on me with a smile and laugh here and there.  I hope to see her again and get to know her as she was in her youth; vibrant, intense, and engaging.

Stella lived on a gorgeous property in South Seattle overlooking the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal with a postcard view of Vashon Island under the watchful eye of the Olympic Mountains.  I understand that her husband was high-ranking at the Department of Agriculture in Washington State during the 40s.  He planted a Rhododendron garden on their property.  By 1992 it had flourished into a Rhododendron jungle with plants ranging from as tall as me to heights such as the Dame Nelly Melba – an easy 30 feet or more to the top.  In fact, we would get visits from occasional strangers who were referred to her property from local arboretums.   Stella would snap out of any haze she might have been lost in, dutifully powder her face, don lipstick, and hold a smile for hours while she showed off her estate to people with jaws dropped open.  You have never seen anything like it; I guarantee it.

When you get as old as Stella was, your guards leave their posts.  You are an open book however cryptic you might seem to the reader.  She used to rock in her chair and in her bed, “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” a dread so apparent and real you swear it would swallow you too if you came too close.  On my first night she woke me while conversing in the middle of the night.  “Are you ok Stella?” I asked.  “We’re fine dear,” she smiled.  “We’re just talking and having a good time.”  I learned that she felt her dearly departed mother, father, and other relatives would visit her in the night.  Who’s to say they didn’t actually?  I certainly felt the shivers when I was near it.

Stella had her flaws.  They were deep and deeply intriguing for someone as flawed as I so I paid careful attention.  She would sit in agony some afternoons, “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” on and on until finally she would blurt very forcefully, “I never told them I loved them!” and pierce me with a look something between glaring and begging.  She was speaking of her parents.  Her regrets were an inseparable, dominant part of her existence and I was shocked to wonder what my old age would spill if I didn’t get my own shit together.  Pardon my language but, honestly, it felt that serious and raw to me.  From that time forward I did my best to let my parents know I loved them.

Stella had osteoporosis and was too weak to walk upstairs.  She had become a stranger in her own home because she could never walk upstairs to her bedroom.  She had a bad fall before I knew her and her bedroom was now the downstairs study, her bed a rented medical bed.  It felt foreign to her so she believed she was on a cruise ship and every morning she would get dressed, put on her makeup and stuff all of her belongings into her purse before we made our way to “the galley” for breakfast.  She couldn’t be sure if she was coming back to the same cabin that afternoon so she carried everything she could with her because it was all she could be sure of.  And, like all good women, her priorities were her powder and lipstick.

Every night I would make dinner for her and every night after dinner she would ask for coffee.  It was every-day Folgers made in an every-day drip coffee maker but to her it was the best moment of the day.  You see, “you can’t have coffee by itself ,” she would say, as if admonishing me – warning me of some error I might make in life that would rob me of all things beautiful and worthy of appreciation – or that I might actually suffer harm.  “You should always have something with your coffee,” she said, “like cake, pie, a pastry, or something like that.”   I would have something ready to go with her coffee every night.

To this day, I often order something with my coffee whether at Peets or Starbucks and give a little nod heavenward with a smile.  Live it up a little with your coffee.  If you can’t at least do that then what kind of life are you living anyway?

It was an honor and privilege to assist someone in their old age in dealing with the things that hinder them, real and imagined.  I hope someone will help me should I become the same kind of old one day.

I have more stories to tell about Stella and my connection with her, and I’m sure I will tell them, but until then remember this one slice of wise advice:

Always, always, always have something with your coffee.  You know…  like cake, pie, a pastry, or something like that.