Posted in Ancestors, Back to the Castle, Return

a week back “home”


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.

So many places, spaces & faces that feel like home.

This time next week she’ll be 92.

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.

Thanks Mom.


I wake before dawn with the full moon of Thanksgiving setting in the West and all my resilience spent with night’s regret.

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.

Posted in Ancestors, Apprenticeship with my own passing, Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Losing a friend, Markers, My Bonnie

Where to die?

Sea Mandala, by Pengosekan

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.

Posted in Ancestors, Apprenticeship with my own passing, Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Markers, My Bonnie

Inside the Mess


December 4th

RESIGNATION:

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.

Trauma.
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.

JOY.

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.)

RESIGNATION.

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.

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

Undertow

Last week I woke at dawn, in the home of my husband’s family, and took out my laptop to squeeze out a bit of deadline while everyone slept, but moments later closed my computer, and walked out the front door, and kept on walking, across the island, until my feet were in the sand, and the spray of  sea met my face, and the sun burst above the clouds in regal light.

I trailed the surf then until I came to “my” beach–between the Pan Am & the Crusader–and noticed how the empty lifeguard stands bore the name of roads–all flowers–instead of men or soldiers or continents; something I once dismissed and now appreciate.

I turned away from the surf then and trudged through the deep, soft sand, and into the dunes past the place where the prickers always found our feet or our ankles or our shins no matter how carefully we stepped, and past the beach hotels, across Atlantic, and down along the Little League field where Mrs. DelConte sold the Reese Cups; and across Seaview, alongside what remained of the beach houses not yet turned into condos, until I came to a rose bush, on the corner of Pacific, just across from “my” house, but I didn’t pretend that I lived there, not this time, I just kept on walking, past the Way’s house, the sister house to ours (and a better-looking one at that, having aged with love and continuity instead of loss and abandonment), and nodded across the street to the church where I went to Sunday School and married my husband and buried my mother, and nodded too to the big house beside it, the mother house of the 3, Aunt Sue’s, which was now a summer rental for the wealthy, and turned 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 was once my entire world, traversed barefoot, at the age of 4, big toe bloodied by sidewalks shifting on sand, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

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 a dollar to fix the pumps I wore as a young teacher, a Driving School. Sticky Fingers, across Cardinal, a Surf Shop, and Snuffy’s Hoagies, across Aster, where my grandfather opened me a summer account at the age of 7, now the Jellyfish Cafe. (Who wants to eat with jellyfish?)

I kept on walking across New Jersey Avenue past where I enrolled in the second grade, for two weeks, before we moved out to Colorado, and even though I told myself that I had no need to see the house that had once been my mother’s, especially with the sun rising higher in the sky, and the day growing warm, my feet took me toward the bay anyway, and I stood still for just a moment and felt into her presence, there on the porch in her wicker chair, with her tomato plants beside the stairs.

“Hi Kel,”

I sank into her steady, constant, contemplative presence, with those chesnut eyes like my first born’s and dark hair that she had dyed lighter and lighter and lighter until it was lighter than mine had ever been (which she had always admired/envied), and then it was the morning of my wedding, just after Jackie finished my hair and put on my veil, and I stopped by while I was still on the island, wanting to be sure that she was okay, and found her sitting on the front stoop, almost sober, still in her nighshirt, hair matted with neglect, and careful of my veil, married twice but never in a gown herself, somberly kissed me on the cheek, and as I got into my car, she stood to wave, leaving, beneath her, a puddle of blood, not knowing she was bleeding…

So I turned away, and headed north, walking until I left the shore once more and returned to the Green Mountains, a safe distance away, from the undertow of a lifetime of accumulated memory.

(2017)

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.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Pure Love

Remains

10402680_10152593677848746_2848677266097389621_n

7/18: She is crushed, then incinerated.

7/19: I find out about that.

7/20: I search through her house for something…
that particular thing, that something that was close to her and will keep her close to me
despite the unfathomable absence of her in this house.

Beneath the tissues and cotton balls and cu-tips, I find this.
Her lipstick is pressed against it.

3 and a 1/2 decades later,
it still is.

Posted in Back to the Castle, Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories

The lost castle

Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.
The true paradises are those which we have lost.
~Marcel Proust

Better joy in a cottage than sorrow in a palace.

~Proverb

I was born beside the sea, delivered by the Sisters of Mercy, on the Feast of Immaculate Conception, of our Blessed Virgin Mary.  From there I was placed into the arms of an overbearing Queen, my beautiful grandmother Lila, and brought to live with her in a castle on a barrier reef.

Rich, green ivy climbed the castle’s brick walls, and tall white columns ushered in honored guests. At the foot of the steps was a golden engraving, bearing the castle’s name: Sixty-Twelve.

6012 was a child’s delight. There was a staircase taller than any father, and a cherry bannister that curved its way from earth to sky.  Soft green stairs cushioned the descent of any who chose to ride.

There was music too. Piped into every room. An orchestra playing just for you.

Crisp, cool, mountain air, brushed your skin as you glided from place to place, no matter what the temperature outside.

Deep lush carpets and plush thrones lured you in forbidden rooms.  An inner chamber beckoned you further–toward heavy drapes that hid the world outside. If you were brave and if you were strong, you could shove one of these aside and hold it in place with your face pressed against the glass to spy people passing by.

But better than the floor to window panes was the golden box built into a wall. If you could reach it, if you could drag a chair upon which to precariously stand, you might be able to touch the dials, and if so, your orchestra would grow hushed or suddenly boom.

The Queen would find you then.

Kelly Salasin, January 2013