Going Out with Style

For Libby Yocco, preparing for death included a postmortem coiffure by a loving granddaughter

Lisa Bonstell-Harris finishes her last client, round-brushing the woman's hair with a blow-dryer, tousling it with her fingers. She tames an unruly curl with a spritz of hair spray and snips a renegade strand, gradually working her magic and putting it all into place so that the result is perfect. Lisa dusts the client off, removes the cape. With the air of a goddess, the woman traipses to the cashier. It has been a good day at the salon, Façade Ltd., across from the St. Louis Galleria. Lisa's book is heavy this day: 15 heads cut and styled. Some receive a blow-dry -- that's extra. She doesn't do coloring, facials, waxing, manicures or massage. Those are all done in different departments; the salon is specialized. Lisa is strictly a hairdresser and has been for 14 of her 32 years, longer if you count the high-school years when she did hair for friends and family before going to beauty school.

At 5:30 p.m., she leaves her station and packs her things, and she's gone. The 27-mile commute gives her time to switch modes, from the chatty milieu of the upscale salon to the semirural setting of her home in St. Peters, quiet except for the excited cries of the two little boys as she walks in the door, "Mommy! Mommy!" Husband Ryan, who picked up the kids from daycare and arrived home an hour earlier, already has dinner on the table.

Thursday, her day off, Lisa drives a few miles down Highway 94 to Harvester Road. She makes a left turn and soon pulls into one of those condo villages with the pastoral-sounding names. She grabs the two boys, Kaelin and Tysen, from the minivan and raps on a door. A woman, 30-ish, her sister, lets them in. Off the living room, in a cheery room with one window looking out into a backyard, the old woman lies bedridden. She's dying, the congestive heart failure and colon cancer gradually sapping the life from her. With the help of two kinds of morphine, she patiently waits. She has the vocal talents of Engelbert Humperdinck, Natalie Cole and Placido Domingo to keep her company, the TV to watch. She has her bell to summon family members from elsewhere in the home, her condo in which she once moved freely but now lies captive. Feeding tubes, oxygen tubes and a catheter assist bodily functions, protract existence. At 81, her mind is sharp, but her body is brittle and consumed. Any time now, any time. "It's been a full life," Nana whispers. "I've enjoyed it. God's been good to me. I'm ready anytime He wants to call me. I hope it's sometime soon."

Libby and Joe Yocco
Libby and Joe Yocco

The last time Libby Yocco left the prison of her bed was February 1999, when she took a turn for the worse and the family called 911. The doctors said her condition was too delicate for any invasive procedures. After a brief stay in the hospital, she returned home to languish. The last time she went out when she actually wanted to go somewhere was October 1998, to attend granddaughter Suzanne's wedding. At that time, family members began dropping in daily, spending daylight hours with Nana. Since the 911 call in February, the family, by shifts, has been physically present around the clock. The primary caregivers are Roseann and Paula, Libby's only two daughters. Their older brother and his wife help out on weekends, the six grandchildren occasionally -- in all, some 10 people have banded together to support the woman who has been the center and the guiding light of the family, la capitana.

"I really appreciate my family," says Nana from under the covers. "I feel like they are sacrificing so much for me. Not many families would do this."

Sitting bedside, granddaughter Lisa pooh-poohs this comment: "Oh Nana, as if you never nursed any one of us through colds and flu, measles and chickenpox. So go on with you."

Long ago and not so far away, Libby Cusumano enjoyed walking through the aisles of the downtown Famous-Barr, checking out the latest styles, imagining herself in a new dress with her set of friends at the band concert in Fairgrounds Park, perhaps, or the theater. That was a swell time, the live stage shows at the Ambassador and Loew's State theaters. For a 25-cent admission, you could see some great shows -- Eddie Peabody, the comedic banjo player, might be there or, better yet, that cute Ginger Rogers. Libby's girlfriends were fun, but she really liked the company of Joe Yocco. It was no secret she was sweet on Joe, who had always lived across from her in the mostly Italian neighborhood just north of downtown, on Eighth Street between Cass Avenue and O'Fallon Street. They went to Patrick Henry grade school together and later attended O'Fallon High, though Libby dropped out after one year to work at Max Scholer's, a factory that made women's belts. Later, she would move on to Haaf Olive to work as an olive packer. Her family needed the extra income, and she was glad to do her part.

It was the Depression. Money was scarce, but at least Joe had a job as a driver with the old St. Louis Star-Times newspaper. Libby and Joe and others from the neighborhood enjoyed recreations that were easy on the pocketbook. Old pictures show them on picnics, swimming. In 1941, the young couple got married. The war looming, Libby got a job at a munitions plant in the converted Continental Can factory on Kingshighway. By the time Joe was drafted, they had a child on the way. In the Army, Joe drove a half-track, and he saw action on Normandy Beach during the D-Day invasion. With a Purple Heart and other medals, he came home to a grateful wife and a 4-year-old son who had learned to walk and talk while he was off fighting the Germans. Joe got back into the life, landing a job as a manager for St. John's Liquor -- "He sold it," says Libby proudly, "but he didn't drink it" -- and Libby could finally settle into the role of housewife.

Next Page »