From later & later nights to mornings languishing in bed, to lavish brunches and afternoon slumps lifted by sugar & flour & butter & caffeine, to evenings brightened with spirits & cheese, to hearts melted by music & magic & merry-making—to the lean wintry months ahead—Christmas, I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone—and still, it’s time for you to go, and in the hush of your departure, I’ll exhale, soberly facing the sparse, simplicity of beginning again.
From 7 acres on a backroad in the Green Mountains—north to the great sea of Lake Champlain in the big city of Burlington—south to the Berkshires in a the middle of snowstorm—and finally across the mighty Hudson and down to Exit Zero on the GSP at the southernmost tip of the Garden State where I was born.
There she is coming to meet me at the ferry in Lewes, Delaware, waving as I come down the stairs through the terminal.
When I was a girl, foot passengers walked right across the boat ramp as I did on the inaugural crossing in 1964 (in my grandmother’s arms.)
The Ferry & I turned 50 a handful of years back and now we’re headed toward 55.
I miss the smell of the old wood pilings and the faded hues of the old ships, but some things haven’t changed–like the way the Captain’s horn startles me and how a loved ones wave quickens inside and how the wind on my face at the bow welcomes me home as the world recedes from view.
I’m not one to find a loved one in a cemetery but sometimes my car goes there anyway rembering a well-worn path And once there my heart spills open so that I can love more fiercely again.
And still, I rise toward the sea and wait as morning painstakingly breaks over the Atlantic, seeping like lava through a dark bank of clouds that stretches north and south across the horizon.
This is what it is to stand in the center of one’s pain, grieving what has been lost and what has been taken and what may never be.
Will I turn away in the bitter winds or will I remain still until the orange light unfurls beneath the darkness, reaching like a hand across the icy waters toward the shore.
“Stay,” she says, and in so doing, the light now golden, rises above the illusion of a hardened sky meeting all that has been hardened inside.
This morning I noticed that the faucet in the hotel room shower reminded me of those cow skulls you see from places like Arizona.
“I’m afraid of places like that,” I say to myself, as water pours over me. “They’re too dry.”
The more I age, the more I need water nearby.
And then I think about the sea vs. lakes and streams, and I consider where I want to live at the end of my life and where I want to die.
My mind flashes to the space where my Mom lived out her last days–in a hospital bed in her living room, surrounded by windows, a block from the bay.
“I want to die there,” I think, which is absurd because I never lived in that house and my mother’s estranged husband lives there now–with his girlfriend and her kids. (I would call him my stepfather but we went to highschool together. He was my boyfriend’s best friend.)
“Do you mind if I die here, Dan?”
It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen in my family. My father, the surgeon, was the one to pronounce my mother dead in the livingroom of the home she shared with the man with whom she left him.
I left them all a quarter of a century ago for the mountains which is where I now live on a canopied road that runs alongside a brook.
My house sits above a pond belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception where I celebrated my 50th birthday 5 years ago next week.
A good friend from highschool came up from the shore for that weekend; it was her first time in Vermont; and last month, her husband came up with their oldest son to spread some of her ashes on the water here.
If I were to die like my mother, with time to consider such things, I suppose I’d welcome a view of the Atlantic. I was born beside that sea.
Mine was a December arrival, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is funny because my parents got pregnant out of wedlock like Mary and Joseph, and my father was a Jew (His grandfather was anyway) which is why the Catholic Church refused to marry them even though my mother was a Catholic born on Christmas Day.
Hate hides in so many places, fed by fear and superiority as if “All Men Are Created Equal” is not self-evident but something that has to be, in each generation, proven.
The Sisters of Mercy tended my mother’s labor at their hospital across from the beach in Sea Isle City so if not the beach, then maybe I could die in some house of Mary, like the one across the pond from me in the Green Mountains–the summer camp belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
Some find my absorption with death maudlin or worse—premature—as if there is the promise of tomorrow for any of us.
My sister died beside a pool. My grandmother on a bridge. My mother beside the bay windows. All in their 50’s. The first two by total surprise; the last with two months warning.
I suppose if I outlive the lot of them, I’ll be reborn. Last week I took the ferry across the Delaware Bay to visit my great-aunt ahead of her 92nd birthday.
Her mother, my great-grandmother lived into her nineties too.
“I’m ready to go,” she’d say when I’d come to sit beside her as she woke from her afternoon nap.
I massaged her legs under the blankets in a hospital near the sea in the days leading up to her death.
Born a Jefferson, my great-grandmother’s people go back to the 1700s in Delaware and Virginia. I imagine she never questioned belonging, though being born female in 1898 meant she wasn’t considered equal in any way–not with regard to property, opportunity, representation or even bodily autonomy.
Some things haven’t changed.
Belonging seems essential to living and dying, doesn’t it?
I suppose no matter where I die, I’ll carry the sea with me inside.
My maternal grandmother, Loretta Frances Kelly, had a pile of books toppling at her bedside–on the night table, on the floor, on the bed itself–along with teacups and tissues, a blue bathrobe and laundry all strewn about the room. (We are Irish.)
Just now, Loretta says ”Hello,” from underneath the toppling pile on my desk; and even as I cringe at the chaos, I marvel at my growing capacity to work inside it; so long have I depended upon tidiness to sustain me. (I am English on my father’s side.)
My desk looks like this because of a multi-day power outage that came on the heels of 2 weeks away, while in the throes of getting 2 journeys for women underway (one local, one correspondence) while launching a third one online for the Season of Advent. (Do I need to mention Christmas shopping?)
I am preparing. I am emptying. I am readying. My heart.
I am polishing the first chapters of my book–to send to readers—a first—despite several years of work.
I AM DOING WHAT I LOVE.
It is no simple thing for me to make that claim.
It has been hard won.
“I can’t find my own pulse.”
A little more than a decade ago, I said these words to myself (in my journal) and then to my husband (letting him read my journal) and finally, I had the courage to speak them aloud–to a circle of women around a fire.
“I can’t find my own pulse.”
I pressed my fingertips against my wrist as if to illustrate.
It’s hard to imagine now that I’d lost touch with myself. I could blame it on motherhood, on giving up everything to offer what they needed most (and what I hadn’t had), but the truth is that I’d lost touch with myself long before that, and it was their passion that helped identify the absence of my own.
“You should do it, Mommy,” my young son said when I took him to sign up for art classes after we discovered that he was too young.
I’d had only done what I was good at. I have always done what I am good at. Even when it isn’t good for me. (I am Jewish on both sides of the family.)
Last month, I enacted a ritual, or should I say, I attached a ritual to suffering to ennoble it.
As I awaited the effects of a particularly strong single-dose antibiotic, I filled the empty medicine bottle with tiny strips of paper upon which I wrote all the ways I was ready to let go, namely all the ways I held on too tight as a girl after all the adults let go.
I’ve had my share.
My attention grew sharper and sharper so that others might have some semblance of a childhood, of continuity, of care. The truth is that caring for all of them was my anchor even as I was theirs, until finally, having gone on too long, it weighed us all down.
Did anyone wonder the toll it took on a girl, on a teenager, on a young adult, on a new mother to be there for everyone else? Did I wonder? Not until everything was righted around me, and I began to daydream of suicide. (I wasn’t righted inside.)
“I can’t find my own pulse.”
This week brings my personal New Year–on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. (I went to Catholic school like my mother and her sisters and my sisters.)
Each year, I worry that I won’t extract enough marrow from the occasion of my birth.
Last night, I worked until 1 in the morning (when typically I’m in bed before 10) so that I might have time to fit in ice skating today. (I couldn’t sleep anyway.)
As a girl, I once had an ice-skating birthday party. WIth foot-long peppermint sticks. And a pink, strawberry-chip cake.
Yesterday, I took my laptop to one of my favorite Christmastime cafes. 40-minutes away. Impracticality has always been hard for me. I grow food instead of flowers. (I am a first born. Born of two first-borns.)
Here I am, impractical, working too late, and writing in the center of MESS after ice-skating in the middle of the day.
I’ve been humming a lot lately too and singing to myself. I hadn’t noticed this until my Aunt and Uncle pointed it out over the Thanksgiving holiday when I stayed with them in Cape May.
“You must be happy to be home,” they said.
I remember when I stopped singing. After the miscarriages. (Our boys are in college now.)
“Are you happy?” I remember my first love asking each time I left him to travel abroad. I didn’t understand the question until he left me and I met Casey.
And now I realize that I was terrified of claiming happy. Have always been. I had been happy before and it had not ended well.
I AM HAPPY.
This Saturday, I turn 55 which ushers in a potent time frame in my extended family, when many members exited the show–my paternal grandmother Lila Jane Burrows (whose loss gave rise to my current work of memoir), my mother Loretta Cecilia Kelly, aka “Bonnie” (a Christmas baby and a kindred soul who is planting the seed for my next memoir while I say, Please, no), my older sister Sandy Brennan Clark (who I didn’t know existed until I was grown and who I only met once for a few brief moments and whose name I’ve never written publically before), my mother’s younger sister Trish (who was just a few years older than me and with whom I once traveled to Key West) and their brother Bill (a gentle soul, named after his father), and finally their mother, my maternal grandmother, with the pile of toppling books, who outlived them all, making it to 61.
Should I die like them, too young, as only the good do (they would say), I will die in peace, in the sweet embrace of joy, reclaimed and released.
My mother was 17, the same age as my son, when she went door to door with her younger sister. “The Kelly girls,” the neighbors called them. It was their mother Loretta who sent them out to canvass the neighborhood for Kennedy.
When I think of the unbearable grief that I felt on 9/11 & 11/9 and on the December day when children were shot inside their first-grade classroom, I wonder that today is not my birthday.
And I wonder, what my young mother felt in those last two weeks with me inside.
And I wonder if the sweet sensitivity of my own son is in part due to the grief I held as he came into the world and she left it.
This will be the first of 7 gatherings, one for each month/each chakra, carrying us through winter and depositing us deep into spring.
With 1st chakra meditational music playing in the background, I fetch a photo from my desk to add to the altar, but in my doing, I am suddenly stilled by the face of my mother, my hand drawn to my heart, her gaze so compelling.
Didn’t this heart of mine first beat inside hers? Wasn’t it the sound of her heart that I first heard?
In the tiny photo, I can almost make out a dimple in her chin, like the one at the center of mine, which I’d always assumed came from my father, everyone saying, “You look just like him. You are just like him.”
And yes, I had his smile, his walk, his confidence and authority; but it was my mother who taught me to steep in the Mystery, to listen beneath the surface, to commune with the soul.
It was her gentleness that was my greatest teacher.
To all those who came before me, those who brought me joy or pain or both. To all those lives passed before mine.
~All Souls Eve, 2018
It’s Sunday night and the house is empty again. Aidan has returned to school, and our weekend guests have headed south toward Philly.
The hush. The still. The simplicity. Tonight, the empty house is a friend.
In this spaciousness, I am brought to tears. Not once, but several times, consecutively.
“We buried my friend today,” I want to say, but that’s not true. It was only her ashes we released over the Whetstone Brook because she was drawn toward it when she visited 5 years ago.
“I love that creek near your house,” she’d say.
“It’s a brook,” I’d tell her.
That trip was her first and only one to Vermont, and she came in the winter, and she hates winter, and she was very sick then too. But it was my 50th birthday, and I had planned a women’s weekend, and she wanted to be here, much like she wanted to make it to London during my semester abroad when we were 20.
Despite her fragile state (though fragile is never a word that could be used to describe my friend), she traveled alone ahead of her husband and our friends so that she could have an extra day before the festivities.
The sky grew dark by the time her train pulled in, and a light snow began to fall.
She and I walked up the hill to the Co-op to meet my family, and we took it slow, stopping often. “It’s okay, Kel,” she said, “I’ll be okay.”
We were wild together once—dancing, laughing, gallivanting—in London, in Philly, at the Jersey shore.
Now all her wild was inside.
We got together again a couple years after my 50th for a long weekend in Cape May. We celebrated her birthday. She was doing really well that time. She loved the sea. Even in February.
No one knew it would be her last.
If you’ve followed me on Facebook ahead of the election in 2016, you may have recognized our friendship by our fierce arguments.
You may or may not have noticed the ways we “liked” each other’s family photos and celebrated each other’s milestones. You wouldn’t have known that behind the scenes, we checked in on each other’s kids and talked about her treatments and made plans to meet up when we could.
Laura talked a lot about making it back to Vermont in the summertime, admiring as she did all the photos I posted of the pond.
“My son Cameron has to get there too,” she’d say, “He thinks like you do.” (They’d argued fiercely too.)
On the day after the election, I posted an image of myself. It was reminiscent of the photo I knew as a child: the weeping chief looking over the littered land.
Laura messaged me immediately: “Maybe women will really rise up now,” she said, encouraging me, with deep compassion, even while celebrating her candidate’s shocking victory.
I missed the Women’s March. Laura was hospitalized that week, and died on the eve of the inauguration.
It’s funny that she’s come to Vermont again just ahead of the mid-terms. Her son Cameron and I talked politics all weekend, doing our part to bend the arc of history toward justice.
As we took a pinch of her ashes and let them go over the rushing waters of the Whetstone Brook, it began to snow.