Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers

Fire Drill

It’s amazing to me that a sound that causes my heart to race and my head to pound does nothing to rouse my slumbering sons.

I imagine I slept like that too.  Before I hit middle age. Before the kids were born.  Before.

Were there even smoke alarms in houses when we were kids? (“We” meaning all those growing up in the sixties and seventies or earlier.)

I can remember “fires,” but not alarms.

The first one came the Sunday that the whole family went to church.   My dad, an agnostic half-Jew/half-Protestant; and my mother, a lapsed Catholic, blamed the fire on their unusual attendance. They never went again.

Four fire trucks were dispatched, and one of our neighbors, a teenage football player in a leg cast, threw snowballs into the flames until the fireman arrived.

It was the sashes to our Christmas dresses, placed too closely to the furnace, that caused them to ignite.

We were actually at home–upstairs in the living room, with the orange chair, and the fish tank, talking about the novelty of attending church together. Usually my parents sent us along to Sunday school without them.  I was maybe ten, which makes my younger sisters, 7 and 4 and 1.

I think my father smelled the smoke first and went down to check it out, hollering up to my mother to call the department. (There were no portable phones on every floor back then.)

Ironically, my father had  just enacted our first “fire drill” the week before to prepare us for such an event.   Unlike the drill, we proceeded simply and safely (though anxiously) out the front door.

Not so, the other family in our small town outside Denver.  Only one was safe, and he was thrown out the window into his grandmother’s arms.  Luckily she lived in their converted garage apartment.

This little boy went to my school, and although I didn’t know him, his story lingers in my memory, thirty something years later. It still stops my breath to tell it–whether to my therapist or here, this morning.

Tommy’s older brother had roused him out of bed, threw him out the window, and went back into the flames for his sisters.  They were in the shower–a last attempt for safety or maybe it was his mother that was in the shower and his sisters were in bed.  I don’t remember where they found the father.

Fires.

We had another one a few years later when we were visiting my grandparents house.   It was the room where I was staying that burst in flames, eating away at my clothes in the open suitcase and burning through the walls to the brick exterior of the house.

Fortunately, I spent the night at my aunt’s place down the street where I was babysitting younger cousins.  But I remember the phone call in the middle of the night.  It was the fire department urgently checking on the whereabouts of family members.   I remember the dark street and the flashing lights, and everyone standing outside in their robes.  I remember my grandmother trembling, insisting it wasn’t her cigarettes that caused the fire.

She perished the next summer in a fiery car wreck.

It’s this history that’s tripped every time a smoke alarm goes off–which ours seem to do way too often despite the lack of cause.  My husband changes the batteries regularly and vacuums out the dust as needed, but still they wake us at night, particularly in the summer.  I suspect that bugs are attracted to their light.

And while the alarms no longer trip the anxiety that kept me awake for hours, I do notice my breath constricting and my body tensing, even the next day.

Not so my boys who sleep right through the whole debacle of their father running around the house at three in the morning to discover which alarm has triggered the others, leaving them scattered around the house.

I try my best not to think about it.  Maybe we don’t need an alarm in every bedroom and on every floor on just this night–or however long it takes him to solve the problem this time.

But I have to admit, that although I can fall back to sleep, the sight of a smoke alarm on the table instead of where it should be, takes me back to ten years old.

The night after Tommy’s family died in the fire, I shivered  in fear under the stairs of my house.  I had taken my sleeping bag there to the cement crawl space in our cellar and stayed there all night until the sun rose and lightened my fears.

My own son turned ten this week and I worry that he has fears  that keep him awake at night.  I hope that he’ll reach out to me to comfort him, rather than tremble alone;  but there seems to be some necessary gulf between parents and children as we come of age.

 

So instead, I head down to the cellar of my childhood, and find my own ten-year old self there, under the stairs;  and listen to her fears and write them here, in the hope of softening yet another layer of memory as we tremble in each others arms.

Kelly Salasin

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Markers, My Bonnie, Pure Love

Namesake

“Bonnie Lijane”

As we prepared for my baby sister’s wedding shower, I found myself heartsick for our mother. We lost her to cancer, ten years ago this summer. The bride is her namesake.

Bonnie also carries the middle name of our paternal grandmother (Lila Jane) who we also lost early–to an accident–in the summer before my mother gave birth to Bonnie Lijane.

Last night as the bridal shower winded down, our father stopped by. He leaned against the island in the kitchen and began telling a story about his mother. In the telling, there was a underlying expression of pride rather than the conflict that was most often  revealed when he talked about his mother.

Lila Jane Salasin, 32.

At 5 foot 9, Lila was a formidable woman, even sober–beautiful, bold and big-boned like her father, Amos Burrows, who was a Merchant Marine. Lila loved a party, but she also had a severe side that intimidated her four sons–and each of their trembling betrothed ones–while her granddaughters (and grandsons) adored her.

That there could be a story about my grandmother that I hadn’t heard was beguiling–especially given the way that this story shaped her last day.

As my father began the telling, a circle of Lila’s granddaughters gathered around him, sisters and cousins and nieces.

“She was at black tie party,” he began, “Something to do with the hospital… a benefit… and she was introduced to the CEO of a large bank.”

Just after my grandfather, the Chief of Staff, reached across to shake the man’s hand, Lila refused him. “I don’t like your bank,” she said, without explanation,

“Do you have an account with us, Mrs. Salasin?” the CEO asked, surprised by her affront.

“I would never have an account there,” she replied flatly.

“Would you mind telling me about that?” the CEO asked, uncomfortably.

“You host an annual golf tournament, correct?” Lila asked.

“Yes,” the CEO answered, baffled.

“Well, that tournament has never had a woman official,” Lila said.

“Is that’s true?”  the CEO asked.

“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,” she replied sharply.

My father smiled at this point in the story–looking around at his captive audience–every bit as bold and as beautiful as his mother (though some, like me, not nearly as tall.)

The CEO called the very next day to follow up on the conversation, he tells us, and we smile too.

“Mrs. Salasin, I made some inquiries and you’re are right,” he said. “We have never had a woman official at our golf tournament.”

“Yes,” Lila replied, impatiently.

“Well, we’d like to invite you and your friends to be our first,”  he said.

“I’ll think about it,” Lila said, and hung up the phone.

My father delivers this last line to a chorus of laughter and knowing glances among Lila’s descendants.

Needless to say, she did become the very first woman official for the ILL Golf Tournament, and though our grandfather was originally embarrassed by his wife’s audacity, he saw fit to pass this story on to his eldest son, who saw fit to share it with all of us on this particular day, which just happened to be, we discovered, to much surprise, an auspicious day at that.

There had been more than a little controversy among Bonnie’s bridesmaids in choosing a mutually convenient day for this occasion, particularly as it involved travel for some of us. Ultimately, the seven of us sisters, deferred to what worked best for the bride to be. In retrospect, it appears that Lila had her hand in it as well. (Lila’s hand has always been in many things.)

On the day of the shower, our Aunt Barbara, Lila’s only daughter sent her love from afar. She also had something else to share: we we were celebrating Lila’s namesake on the day of Lila’s death.

Thirty-two years ago, Lila headed out the door with her 3 dearest friends for their fourth year as officials at the ILL Tournament.  The women were giddy with excitement, but Lila insisted they stop in to see the newest baby in the house, my aunt Chrissy’s week-old son, Alan.

My Aunt Chrissy, was my mother’s sister, and Lila had graciously invited her and her husband and their new baby to live in her extra room because they didn’t have another place to go.

Lila and my aunties traipsed up the stairs to the room above the garage and oohed and aahed over the baby before getting on the road. With a broad sweeping gesture, Lila said to my Aunt Chris:  “We’re off. The whole house is yours. Enjoy!”

My aunt and her husband and baby Alan moved out the next day.

Just after 3 pm that afternoon, four women perished in a fiery collision atop a bridge, heading into Philadelphia. Soon after, the empty house filled with family. With children and grandchildren and aunts and uncles.

Though she left of us too early, Lila lives on. She lives on in the spirit and smiles and boldness of her children–and their children–and their children’s children–and she lives on in her namesake, whom she never met, and whose bridal shower uplifts this day in the lives of all those who love her.

As my father finishes smiling about his mother, we offer him food from the leftover platters catered by a young man named Alan. The last head Lila kissed before she was gone.

Kelly Salasin

July 18, 2010, Cape May County


For more on the loss of Lila, including details of “the accident” that took her life and the life of her  friends, click here. 

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, Pure Love

The Heat of Love

“At the last moment before we die, all becomes clear that only love matters. So why don’t we all just get clear NOW?” Marianne Williamson
Van Gogh (visipix.com)

Hot temperatures like these–especially when night falls–bring me back to the bed I shared with my sister. The summers we shared as girls were enjoyed, or endured, without the aid of air condition–so we had to be creative in keeping cool–particularly on airless evenings.

One of our favorite tactics was pouring a glass of cold water onto our pillows.  I remember the relief I felt when I placed my head on that cool pillow case–and I remember how quickly it got steamy again–at which point, I’d turn it over to soak the opposite side.

Toulouse-Lautrec (visipix.com)

Steamy nights are rare in rural Vermont where I live now, and when they do come, we are ill-equipped to handle them. Most of our energy is invested in keeping warm–even on summer nights–when the New England temperatures can be downright cold.

If we do get a short spell of warm weather, a small fan usually does the trick.  But not this week–with temperatures rising past 100 all over the Northeast.

I feel a similar temperature rising within my family of origin as we move closer toward my sister’s August wedding.  I’m afraid that as the last of us comes of age, the family dynamic is heating.

Ten years ago, we buried our mother when the youngest was only 14.  Things were sticky then too, but roles and authority were clearly defined by familial order, and we were aligned by the singular focus of devotion and grief.

Now that everyone is an adult, the balance of power and responsibility needs to shift–or maybe needs to be relinquished altogether.  But I also fear this separation–because our familial unity has defined us–and me–for so long.

Twenty-five years ago, our parents made a mess of a divorce and we siblings became a family unto ourselves. To my surprise, others recognized and commented on this unique bond which we had taken for granted out of necessity.

Now the 8 of us are spread out between 4 states, spanning the country, and we’ve lost touch with the day to day intimacy of childhood.  On the hot summer night that our mother died, we all slept under one roof again–and even shared the floor–with wall to wall air mattresses around her dying bed.

Now that she’s gone, I’m not sure who to talk to about the heat rising among us.  I wish it was as simple as placing a pillow beneath each head–with a cold glass of water on the night table should things get steamy.

It would be simpler still to just let us fall apart from one another in the heat of this lifetime together.  Many siblings do.  Most maybe.  We could easily let a cooling distance form between us.  It might feel good.

But if we don’t want that to happen, we’ll each need to get creative–finding ways to cool our heads–while keeping our hearts warm.

Kelly Salasin

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie, Poetry

Love’s Hiding Place

In tippy-toed embraces

and

arched-neck kisses

I learned

about Love

from

my

Mommy

& Daddy


But

Love was Lost

when they Divorced

Turning Numb

and Cold

and Hiding its Face

among the stars


I never thought to

see Love again

Never wanted to


Yet to my unabashed

Surprise

It reappeared

Many years later

when I myself

was a Mommy

tippy-toe kissing a Dad


I found it

 

in the strangest place…

Hiding

in the

Spoon-Cuddling nap

of my Father

& stepMother


Who would have thought

that it’d be there

just waiting

for me

to notice…


As I grew older

Love was less shy

about showing itself to me:


Once

it was

so Bold

& Brazen

it made me cry,


As I watched my “stepFather”

hold my mother’s hand

while she died

Kelly Salasin

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

The Ring

Kelly Salasin, Contributor, Chicken Soup for the Mother & Daughter Soul

Morisot (visipix.com)

When the one-year anniversary of my mother’s passing came around, I found myself in the kitchen preparing some of her favorite dishes. I hadn’t planned it, but there I was one hot August afternoon, making her famous soup from the turkey I had roasted the day before.

As I poured myself into cooking, some of the deep sadness I was experiencing at this moved through me. I loved my mom’s turkey soup–how she cooked the egg noodles right in the broth, and how they soaked it up, tasting like dumplings.

I remembered the time she made some especially for me. It was summer then, too, and I had a terrible head cold. She arrived unexpectedly one afternoon at my work place with a huge jar of her turkey noodle soup.

I thought about the bread she used to bake and about how much butter she would slather on it, and how we loved to dip it into the broth. I began to feel a little more buoyant amid the pain of losing her

While the noodles boiled in the broth in my kitchen, I realized that I was reconnecting with my mother through food. I laughed a bit at myself when I reflected on all the dishes I had cooked that week. Without knowing it, I had created a beautiful ritual to honor my mother and to comfort myself at this vulnerable time.

Suddenly I felt my mother’s presence beside me.  I was so uplifted and excited that I began talking to her, imagining she were there.

What else should we make?” I asked of us both, wanting to keep the ritual from ending.

Irish Potato Pancakes,” was her reply.

I hesitated. The thought of these brought up another loss. The last time I made potato pancakes was two and a half years ago. I had taken off my engagement ring to make the dough, and never found it again.

Since that time, I resisted using that recipe–even though I really liked those pancakes. It’s sort of silly, but whenever I considered making them, I felt resentful of their participation in my loss, as if they were to blame.

My mom should know better than to suggest these, I thought. (I don’t even remember her ever making them.) She knew how upset I was about losing my ring. I had always called her whenever I lost something, even when I was away at college, even from across the country, even when I traveled abroad. My mom had a knack for helping me find my way to lost things, except for this time.

But despite these hesitations, I found myself caught up in the joy and celebration of the moment, and I reached for the cookbook without another thought of the ring.

My mom did love Irish things, and these were delicious. I opened the large coffee-table cookbook and turned to the pancake recipe. At once, something at the bottom of the page caught my eye… It sparkled!

I gasped in utter amazement! There, pressed into the pages of this book, was my diamond ring!

Chills ran up and down my body as my mind raced to ponder how this was possible. Hadn’t I used the book for other recipes in the course of almost three years? Wouldn’t the ring have slipped out during the packing and unpacking of two household moves? Hadn’t I checked the book for the ring when I had lost it?

My mind was subdued as my heart overflowed with the magic of gratitude and wonder. I slipped my ring onto my trembling hand, and a smile filled my soul as I whispered, “Thanks Mom.

That day, I made potato pancakes in the shape of hearts.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Lila Stories, Markers

Grieving Lila

Though I don’t remember my grandmother’s funeral, I do remember the burial at the cemetery at Cold Spring.

Reverend Rowe presided–and as is his custom, asked everyone to join hands to form a large circle in the grass around Lila’s grave.

At 14, I refused.   My loss was too personal to be shared.  I remained sullen and apart.

Later, my sister and I were hanging out in the car.  I thought it was the Pinto that Nana won on the boardwalk, but it couldn’t have been because that’s what she was driving when it broke down and the truck crashed into it, dragging it 300 yards across the bridge before landing on top of them.

All they found was her teeth.

It must have been the Mustang, and I must have confided in my sister because I remember her telling on me.  “Kelly hates God,” she said to my Uncle Jeff–who was a pastor.  He had something to say about that.

My hippee aunt who taught me how to meditate also had something to say about how much I was crying each night.  She sat down beside me on my bed in the dark and massaged my fingers while she told me that I was being indulgent.

I thought the food after the funeral was indulgent.  Who wants to eat all this food when the person you love the most has died?  And what sick person brought her favorite candy and why was I eating some?

I watched my betrayal in Nana’s large dining room mirror and felt the vacancy of her house despite how full it was.

My recent adolescent rite of passage into “her kitchen” no longer mattered.  Everyone could be in there now–even the real little ones–without Nana to shoo them away, “No kids in the kitchen!”

In the evening, I was permitted to accompany the adults to dinner because I was the oldest “granddaughter“–something that no longer mattered either.

We were seated at Zaberer’s very own tables–pushed together to accommodate close to two dozen Salasins and guests.  The Monsignor joined us and spoke of the $6,000 statue of Mary that his diocese had built in front of the church.

What a waste of money!” I blurted out from my end of the table.  “Think of how many people you could have helped with that.

The room grew silent and I felt even more alone without Lila.

In the car ride home, the brothers argued over her belongings.  Their sister was taking things from the house already.  Some of the wives said it wasn’t fair.

Why not,” I butted in.  “Why shouldn’t she have her mother’s things? You guys don’t care about Hummels and china.”

But I was silenced for not understanding the value of certain items.

Once Lila died, it seemed as if our family was on a ship without a Captain.  My grandfather sunk into himself in grief and the great house became dark and hollow.

Our beloved “Poppop” still made us silver dollar pancakes and banana splits, but without Lila, the house was spirit-less.  He moved to a condo off shore.

Later my own family resuscitated “6012” by filling it ourselves. But it didn’t last.

Three divorces and almost a fourth ripped through the family in the years after Lila’s passing.

The River Place was sold.

And except for weddings and funerals, there were no more family gatherings.

The loss of a Matriarch is a hard loss to bear. But Lila left behind the gift of granddaughters–19 of them:  Kelly, Robin, Michelle, Stephanie, Bonnie, Lauren, Sandy, Kristen, Denise, Karen, Deborah, Jessica, Grace, Joy, Beverly, Terri, Lisa, Rian and Devon.

As her “first granddaughter,” my child would be named Lila.  But she never came.

Reverend Rowe told me that my deep grief over the miscarriage was really over the unresolved loss of my grandmother, 15 years earlier.

My father told me that on a scale of 1 to 10, a “miscarriage” was a “3” when it came to the sorrows my life would bear.

Who knew there so many rules to grief.

Kelly Salasin

For more Lila stories, click below:

Part II. Nana Lila

Part I. Lila

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, Poetry

The Ghost of Dr. George

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.

~Sonnet # 73

IMG_1090This poem returns to haunt me each autumn in the voice of Dr. George–my freshman English professor from Saint Joes University in Philadelphia.

It’s only now, 25 years later, as I enter the autumn of my own life, that I begin to understand why George was moved to tears when he recited this particular Shakespearean sonnet.

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

At 18, I couldn’t understand how a poem could make anyone cry–let alone a grown man in a suit–who was old (but only generically so, like everyone else over 30.)

It was my junior year in London that I got word that Professor George actually died.

Upon whose boughs which shake against the cold,
bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

At 20, death was still so unexpected that it shook me to my roots, and also filled me with guilt for all the complaints I’d lodged against this stern professor: All those sonnets that he made us memorize!  The time he kicked me out of class after a “poor” answer!  The C he gave me on my descriptive essay!

I still have that essay. It’s grease stained because I ordered an Overbrook pizza for research. I couldn’t understand how something so relevant to college life could be dismissed with a C!

How then did his words, his spirit, his sonnet creep into my life?

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,

A few years after graduation, I sent this poem to my grandfather, and he responded with deep appreciation for the recognition of how little time he had left.

Which by and by black night doth take away,

In my thirties, I relocated to New England where I began to pay closer attention to the shifting seasons. I watched as the world outside my window moved from blush to green to gold to bare–and I was moved to write.  Poetry.

It is early October, when the Ghost of Dr. George comes to call; and I hush him, telling him it’s too soon to speak of bare ruined choirs; but he silently points toward the future.

            Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

Typically, he teases me, with the repetition of the first two lines. Which lets me know. It’s not my time.

And then I wonder, did he know?

Is that what brought tears to his eyes when he offered himself to the disdainful audience of immortal 18 year olds?

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

I’m not sure why Dr. George visits me year after year, but I’m glad he does. Once I thought of him as a tyrant, but now I know that he–and his tyranny–have something worth saying.

It was Dr. George who INSISTED that I KNOW the meaning of EACH and every WORD in each and every poem I recited; so that after his class, I could no longer say, I just don’t get poetry.

Dr. George forced an understanding, and with each year, it grows–until I am moved to tears by poems–which no doubt will be among my companion when at last my own time comes.

As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.