One of the big tasks at my job during the month of December is helping homeowners file their applications for property tax exemptions. Senior citizens and folks with disabilities can get up to a 50% break on their tax bills, depending on their income. This is a sad year, the first time since starting at my job that I will not visit the Ladies on Lynhurst.
Stella lived at the top of the block, near S. Salina. Cora lived at the dead end of the street. They were so different, they were so similar. They both passed away recently and I will miss them both.
Stella was born near Niagara Falls, but moved to Poland with her parents when she was three. She hightailed it back to the States as soon as she hit eighteen. When I met her, she was widowed and retired from the last of many jobs that she held in her life, working at the cafeteria up at Syracuse U. Her husband had been very sick during the final years of his life. She had two sons, both of whom work outside Syracuse. She had a 2 family home, half of which hadn’t been rented out in decades.
Like many seniors, she had the television on all the time for company. Unlike many seniors, Stella tuned into C-SPAN and CNN. Stella was a devout Democrat and wondered aloud why people persecuted Bill Clinton and why Republicans didn’t care about working folks. Her house was neat as a pin, despite the fact that she seemingly saved every utility bill, letter and receipt she ever came across. All of them were neatly stacked, kept in date order and kept together with rubber bands. Stella saved some amazing things. I was particularly intrigued by her pay stubs from Lipe-Rollway Bearings during WWII. She worked in the factory when it shifted from gear shifts for cars to bomber parts for war production.
Cora was born into a sharecropping family in Florida. Her parents both died when she was young and she was raised by her grandmother, a woman who was apparently quite strict and not shy about using a switch for discipline. She came to Syracuse in the great diaspora of African-Americans from the South in the 1950’s, lured by the plentiful jobs in the North. Cora worked several jobs during her lifetime, often two at a time. She worked in hospitals and as a domestic for rich families in the suburbs. When I met her she was recuperating from knee replacement surgery and in terrible pain. She finally had a second procedure and ended an entire year of agony.
Cora’s home was also scrupulously clean, but overflowing with lamps, china, glassware and other houseware. She had several more households neatly packed into her basement. Many of the pieces had been given to her by the various families she had worked for as a domestic. Cora also had one of the largest gardens in Syracuse, an entire building lot next to her house, right at the end of the dead-end street. She always said that Mayor Lee Alexander promised her she could keep the lot, as long as she would take care of it and plant her garden.
Two woman, both of whom who lived into their eighties. One African-American, one Polish-American. Cora and Stella lived on the same one-block dead end street for over 30 years, most of that time living alone in houses filled with memories. The only reason they ever met was because they both belonged to our neighborhood organization. When they were younger, both of them would come out to public meetings. I even saw a picture of Cora at one of our protests in the early 1980’s, looking really sharp in a wide-brimmed hat. At the end of their lives, I was their only common connection. Neither woman got out much, so they both asked me how the older woman at the other end of the street was doing.