Posted in Back to the Castle, Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

36 Hours at the Beach

On a later August morning, I woke before dawn, and took out my laptop to squeeze out a bit of deadline, while everyone else slept in the home that now only belonged to my husband’s mother, but moments later I closed my computer, and walked out the front door, and kept on walking, east, across the island, until my feet were in the sand, and the spray of sea against my face, and the sun streaming through the clouds in regal light.

I turned south then to trail the surf and passed under the fishing pier and kept on walking until I arrived at the beach of my childhood–set between the Pan Am & the Crusader hotels–and I noticed how the lifeguard stands bore the name of roads–all flowers and birds and plants (instead of numbers or men or cities) which is something I long dismissed as fluffy, and now receive, as grace.

At Cardinal, I turned away from the surf and trudged through the deep, soft sand, and into the dunes past the place where the prickers always found our ankles or shins, and past the beach hotels, across Atlantic Avenue, and down alongside the Little League field, with the dugout and the concession stand where Mrs. DelConte sold Reeses Cups; and then across Seaview, beside what remained of the beach cottages not yet turned into condos, until I came to a rose bush, on the corner of Pacific, just across the road from what had been my grandparents house, and then ours.

Only I didn’t pretend that I lived there, not this time, I just kept on walking. Past the Way’s house, which was the older sister house to ours (and the better-looking of the two elegant brick homes, having aged with love and continuity, instead of loss and abandonment), and paused a moment to nod on the diagonal toward the church across the avenue where I went to Sunday School and married my husband and buried my mother, and nodded too to the huge white house beside it, the mother house of these 3, all built by Philip Baker, who first settled the island in the late 1800s, and whose mansion became the home of my Aunt Sue, but was now a summer rental, for wealthy strangers.

I turned west past the Johnson’s and the DelConte’s and what had once been the Parsonage, until I came to the other end of the block which had been my entire world, my solo adventure, from the age of 4, a large cement rectangle, traversed barefoot, big toe bloodied by sidewalks shifting on sand, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” pennies in my pocket.

Which must be why, after a summertime at the shore, I was bold enough to abandon the first-grade, at the mid-day, crossing the streets of Center City Philadelphia, arriving home to our crowded high rise, unannounced, “Hi Mom, I’m home for lunch.”

Nothing left but memory.

Anderson’s Corner Shop, my penny-candy Mecca, now a Realty Office; the bakery with the jelly donuts, a parking lot; and the Polish Shoe guy’s repair shop where he still charged only a dollar to fix the pumps I wore as a first-year teacher, a Driving School. Sticky Fingers, across Cardinal, a surf shop, and Snuffy’s Hoagies, across Aster, where my grandfather opened a lunch account for me the summer I was 7, now the Jellyfish Cafe. (Jellyfish?)

I continued west, across New Jersey Avenue, past Phillip Baker School which is no longer there, where my mother enrolled me in the second grade for two weeks at the end of June, in between our move from Virginia to Colorado, because I begged and squealed with delight to have a desk beside Debbie DelConte, my very best friend of every summer, and then I continued up the road toward the bay, even though I told myself that there was no need to see the house that had last been my mother’s, especially with the sun rising higher in the sky, and the day growing warm, and only 36 hours in town, some of them sleeping, and yet my feet brought me there, and I stood still for just a moment and asked myself to feel into her presence.

And there she was.
On the porch.
In her wicker chair.
And wasn’t it the memory of her tomato plants beside the stairs
that brought my tears.

And here was her steady, contemplative presence, and those deep chestnut eyes (that live on in my first born) and her dark lustrous hair that she dyed lighter and lighter and lighter until it was lighter than mine which she had always admired/envied? like my light eyes.

“Hi, Kel,” she’d said, as she always did, having named me after her people, who lived only a few blocks away, on the Wildwood side of the street (the “other” side of town), instead of Wildwood Crest, home to her well to do husband’s family.

And then it was the morning of my wedding, just after Jackie fixed my curls and put on my veil, and so I stopped by before I left the island to be sure that she was okay, and awake, and I was relieved to find her sitting on her front stoop, almost sober, still in her night dress, hair matted with neglect (why hadn’t I thought to bring her with me to Jackie’s) and careful of my veil (married twice but never in a gown herself) she kissed me on the cheek, almost somberly, and stood to wave as I got in my car, leaving, beneath her, a puddle of blood, not knowing that it was that time of the month or that she hadn’t eaten for weeks.

And so, I turned and walked away, two blocks north back toward my sleeping family, and at the end of that day, I continued north, 300 miles, into the mountains, that have for 25 years, been my home.

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Posted in Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

Wishbone

I straddle September the 8th, like a wishbone, fearing I will break in two, holding both the celebration of life–my husband’s–and loss of life–my mother’s–inside.

I chide her for it.
All these years.
17 since she left on his 35th birthday.

With the sunrise came her last breaths, and by sunset, I was sitting at a table, eating cake.

Every year since I’m forced to celebrate.

Seriously Mom, what were you thinking!

And then, it occurs to me–perhaps she was protecting me. Still. Tempering loss with love, in the same way that her passing intertwined with the coming of my second son.

And if my husband dies first, think of how tidy it will be. “You can mourn us both on one day,” she says, “Rather than ruin two.”

Christmas is the same. I curse her because it’s her birthday, and it’s so hard to be all Christmas-happy when your belly is full of grief. But then again, Christmas always invites thoughts of lost loved ones, increasingly as we age, and so once again, she was economical on our behalf.

So perhaps it is my thinking that it is most at fault–seeing loss and love as opposites instead of one.

What if I softened my pelvis to hold both.

Or am I meant to break apart
and if so,
what might I birth
in two?

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

17 Years~From the Other Side

For 17 years, I’ve loved my mother.
From the other side.
She had a kind heart.
Fastened, shut.
A noble mind.
Rarely cruel.
She loved me with tenderness
And maybe envy
though I never sensed it.
She hid so well.
Her deepest desires couldn’t find her.
She tended others
and took little herself, and then
Everything.
Gentle was her soul
And sharp as stone.
A beacon and a martyr.
Her consciousness vast
Fed daily by study and contemplation and conversation.
Her compassion instructive
Large enough to include those who sought to injure us,
Forbearant to a fault.
She was an alcoholic.
She abandoned her children.
She had 10 years sober.
She made amends.
Some too late.
Some just right.
Just home from rehab, she apologized to me over lunch at an Italian restaurant.
I immediately vacated my body, terrified of what it would mean–to both of us–to accept.
She came to me when I lost the baby.
Sat beside me on my couch.
Let me fall into her body.
Set her arms around me, as I sobbed.
But the flesh of her presence was a mirage.
Just a bag of bony angles.
Protecting her grief, denied…
Perhaps the baby that came before me, or the men who forsaked her, or the fall out with her sisters, or all those mysterious years before she was wife or Mother.
“Kelly, Why are you crying,” she once asked, when my best friend’s father died in his sleep.
“Kelly, Why do you need those,” she asked, when that same friend and I split a pack of pads between us.
“Kelly, Not now,” she said, when I asked her to tell me about her life just before she orphaned 8 children–two still at home, another few barely flown, some mothers to grandchildren who hardly knew her and later those who never would.
I sat with my mother as they zipped her into a bag.
I watched as that bag was stowed in the back of a station wagon, much like the one that she drove around town to t-ball games and the wicker store and Wawa for milk & eggs & butter & bread–and always some sugary treat–Bridge Mix, Circus Peanuts, Jellied Nougats, Maple Nut Chews, Milk Maid Royals and endless boxes of Entemanns–soberly sweetening all that had soured around her.
17 years later and she is still making the rounds.
She comes as Muse, as companion, as witness.
She admires my courage.
Champions my boundaries.
Kisses my forehead.
Loves me still.
Bows to the awesome depth of my presence.
Delights that it still includes her.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

Cricket Song

the windows open on the first warm June night–humid and occupied–with the sound of crickets–serves as a time machine

Like the hour of the night in which I wake to write,
I was 11 going on 12,
which is to say, what I knew, I knew
through the body.

So that even after my mother came back,
and I relaxed again in her steady presence,
I did so at a loss to her.

Not the loss of the bottle.
But the word: NO.
Her sense of self, beyond role.
A small bit of wild seeking space to take hold.

Barely in her thirties.
A mother of 4.
I should have let her go.

But we needed her.
I needed her.
And so she stayed.

Until she was a mother of 6.
Until she disappeared,
little by little,
from the inside.

Until the flame,
left unattended,
burned like wild fire
through our lives.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

my mother’s table

The house is silent.
The children asleep.
The kitchen empty.

The light above the stove welcomes me home,
even here, in this new house, still a stranger.

My mother’s bedroom
with the man who was first my classmate
is upstairs, with dark sheets,
overlooking the bay.

The kitchen counters, the floors, even the table
are empty
of crumbs
tonight
Whispering to me
at 19
and later at 27
and before at 13 and 11
and even now at 52
in my own hushed and tidied kitchen
sixteen years after we slept in the space where her table stood
on the night she took her last breaths…

All is well.
Rest easy.
She is sober.
Today.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers

We could have said — no

“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no.
But somehow we missed it.”
Tom Stoppard

maia-flore-1
Maia Flore

That quote, or one very much like it, was tacked above my desk in the apartment where I lived during my senior year at the University.

I wrote it down on one of my study cards because of Carol’s brother Dave.

He fell asleep at the wheel.

Dave was just a year ahead of us in school, and we had been at a party together the week before.

The enormity of the fragility of life, at an age when we were supposed to be immortal, shook me, and put me into an early depression at a time when I was meant to be living high.

This quote returns to me now, 30 years later, when I visit another college friend. After another accident.

I sit off to the side in the crowded sanctuary with her profile in view. Her hair, once tight and curly, dark as night, is now silver like the moon, straight and streaming.

My mind flashes back on other times together long ago. On silent walks across the campus in the snow. On late nights that forced us out into the hallway outside our dorm rooms to whisper about life and love and what to do about both. A train across Europe. A ferry boat. The streets of London.

While her teenage children grieve the loss of their father, I think back to when she and I belonged to ourselves.

If we knew then what lie ahead, could we have taken another step forward?

We would have said — no.

And yet, if we could go back, knowing what we know now, I wonder if we’d change a thing.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

the worst cake ever

1 8oz cream cheese
1 stick softened butter (unsalted)
1 box sifted confectioners sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup pecans

cream butter and cream cheese thoroughly; mix in sugar and add vanilla and nuts

if it seems dry, add a little milk

(my mother’s recipe)

ImageGen

I remember the first birthday cake that I ever baked. It was my father’s thirty-second birthday.

It was also the first occasion that we celebrated in our new home on Connor Rd–a steep hill lined with duplexes, reserved for officers.  We lived at the very top, and looked out over the base and into the embrace of the Highlands above the mighty Hudson River.

Years later, many, many years later (but before Homeland Security), I returned to West Point to discover that I could no longer see the river from our place. The view had been obscured by trees–ones that had only just been planted when I first arrived on the base at the age of 11.

It was the mid-seventies, and my mother was still baking from scratch (sometimes), and sewing our costumes for Halloween (all the time), and keeping our house immaculately tidy–except for now. Now, she was crying in the tiny bathroom off the small kitchen which was just like all the others in this row of Captains quarters.

Beneath us, on the flat stretch below, were the First Lieutenant’s homes–somewhat smaller, and without a view, but nicer than those beneath them–in the apartments assigned to Second Lieutenants.

We would live on this base in this duplex for 3 years, until my father became a Major, which wasn’t enough of an advancement to get us one of those fancy homes with the big lawns and the screened porches. My father used to drive us down those tree-lined roads, which were closer to the Academy and the Chapel; and sometimes, he’d even venture into the exclusive cul-de-sac at the heart of West Point–reserved for Generals.

My mother hadn’t left yet. Hadn’t woken us girls up and carried the youngest ones out to the car sleeping, and then silently winded her way through the base, past the Generals’ homes, and out the gate, into Highland Falls; where she pulled up to the curb at the liquor store; and I held my breath; before she drove 4 hours in the dark to her hometown at the shore.

photo-5621
Portrait of a mother in hiding, K Salasin, 2003

On my father’s thirty-second birthday, in mid-September, she hadn’t mustered that courage. Instead she was weak, and weepy, like a dog.

In fact, when I think back to this day, I think of Tigger–the dog that belonged to my baby sister once she was grown. I remember hearing her scold Tigger once, and then I watched, as Tigger bowed her head, slinked into the bathroom, and hid there until she was absolved.

My mother was hiding too. She had been hiding for a long time. Hiding pain. Hiding the bottle. Hiding from my father.

On this day, he banished her from the celebration at the kitchen table saying, “You don’t belong here, Mommy.”

She was drunk.

Because she was drunk, I decided that I would be the one to make the cake.

Carrot cake was my father’s favorite, and my mom made it every year with that cream cheese frosting and pecans.

It was a tall order for my first try. I never made it to the frosting.

The cake sat there–flat–on the table between us. Stiff, like clay, in our mouths. Especially after we sang Happy Birthday, Daddy to the sound of our mother’s shame echoing off the walls of the tiny bathroom.