Ode to Phyllis

I fall after Scott and before Chris and, well, obviously, little Markie. I also came after my own mother lost two babies who would have been my own brothers. And after she, Dorothy Elizabeth Rosina Myers-Cooksey soon-to-be Chesher, had been born in England during one World War and fled after living through a second, after her first husband, an RAF pilot, died in a crash, and after the country and people she knew no longer existed. She arrived in the U.S. in 1948, lost, alone, devastated.

When I watch and listen to the news on Ukraine, I hear my mother’s stories replayed, stories I never thought I’d hear again from Europe, and I think of all the pain yet to come.

Obviously, my mother met my father also a veteran of that second world war. They built a house on Jakeway and a second life together, they lost children, and they had me. And they met Lawrence and Phyllis. Thank the powers that be.

In my growing up, I only remember my mother having one real friend: Phyllis, even though Phyllis was 20 years younger than my mother. I don’t think many women of that time understood my damaged, foreign mother. I would only discover much, much later that Phyllis had weathered her own pain. Phyllis was certainly the only friend who would get down on my mother’s living room floor and exercise with her to TV’s Jack Lalanne; who would help her put on American birthday parties for me and bring her kids, who rapidly became my sister and brothers.

Phyllis taught me, and as importantly, my mother, so much by never teaching us anything. She simply was. The embodiment of calm, strength, clarity. Always there, always the same. Without her, I think the chaos of my own home would have overwhelmed us all.

To this day, I often dream of dinner at Schneider’s, around a dinner table that seemed to hold multitudes, all the kids, adults, Phyllis and her big dinners, complete with dessert. If there was contention and strife around that table, and I’m sure there was, I never felt it. What I felt was abundance, love, laughter, belonging.

Phyllis presiding at the dinner table, 1961, and Pudge looking in the screen door

I hope, now, in times of strife and loss, I carry that with me and can offer it to those who need it, that clear-eyed, loving calm consistently modeled for me so long ago, and can bring it forth like Phyllis did when Chris and I were once again jumping on the forbidden, rusted, old, naked, box spring in the next door abandoned field and one of our feet, I can’t remember who’s, finally when through the springs. Bloody and smeared with rust, Chris and I guiltily drug ourselves home to be cleaned and bandaged by Phyllis with the simple admonishment, “now you kids…”. In my own home I would have been welcomed by yelling and a spanking first, bandages second, grounding third.

Chris tells me it was Phyllis too, who picked me up one day. I had made it a block or two down Jakeway, three years old or so, a bandana filled with my worldly possessions tied stick-end and carried over my shoulder like I must have seen in a book. “Where you going?” Phyllis asked. “I’m running away from home.” “Well, why don’t you come over to our house?” I guess I thought it over and accepted the opened door. I also recall being lovingly welcomed late one night for a sudden sleepover when I was perhaps five–how fun–Phyllis never letting on that my father was taking my mother away somewhere for care after the first, or perhaps just the most serious to date, of untold suicide attempts.

My home life wasn’t easy, nor did it get easier. My mother, lost in that unknowable country of mental illness, grief, and the horror of war, had too far a journey to come home. But every day, after school, while my mother worked, I went home to the Schneider’s, to the home Phyllis made. My mother and I had a calm, solid, friend in Phyllis standing at our sides. We did nothing to deserve such a gift. And I thank the powers that be Phyllis came to us, without strings and unbidden.

Phyllis and I, 1999

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