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.

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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 Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

Grief & Pregnancy


I often think of my 20-year-old mother today. Irish Catholic. Exactly 8 & 1/2 months pregnant. Her President, the age of her father-in-law, shot dead, beside his wife, on a Texas street.

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.

Posted in Ancestors, My Bonnie

All Souls Eve


Today finds me preparing for a women’s retreat in my home, appreciating the cocoon of a dark morning.

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.

I bow.

~All Souls Eve, 2018

Posted in Light, Loss & our nation, My Bonnie

For the grandmothers


Peaches & blueberries & lima beans: Nana Burrows.

Corn on the cob & shell peas: Nana Lila.

Tomatoes: My mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, myself.

I find us in the garden. At harvest time.

And how is it that this matrilineality surprises me there?
Have I forgotten Eve? Gaia?

I resent the garden like I do all realms relegated to my mother because of course, they meant she had no energy, no time, no spirit left for anything else (if in fact she was admitted anywhere else.)

Even so, I marvel at the capacity of two days of vague autumn sun to ripen so much on the vine.

One must be hopeful to plant a garden and persistent and resilient. Gardening is foolhardy and often stunningly rewarding–body, mind & soul, but especially soul. To be intimate with the soil and the sun, the worms and the birds, the elements and disease is… Everything.

It is a holy act, gardening, in the dirt, on one’s knees.

A man in the garden is a beautiful thing. A child too.

But it is my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother who I meet there, in the intertwining of the vines while I gather the green beans, reminding me of our lives, our paths, our futures–joined.

I harvest for them. I plant for them. I speak for them.

I hope–for all of us.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

2:22 am

The undertow of insight is so strong that it pulls me to the shore of waking, and in the alchemy of night, I see clearly, my son’s pain, like the barren planet upon which the Little Prince once landed.

18 years ago this very night, I woke too, with another kind of undertow. My mother’s leaving.

That night, instead of both my boys back home in their own beds for their father’s 53rd, it was each of my siblings sleeping under one roof, like we rarely had, with 22 years between the oldest, myself, and the last of my mother’s children, my youngest sister April.

As retrospect goes, despite being the oldest, I was young too. 36. A newborn at my breast. My mother just a few years older than I am now. My baby sister, 14. My brother 16. And a whole host of sisters in between, in various stages of “grown,” out living on their own.

It was a magical night of co-sleeping, literally beside one another, whole families on wall-to-wall air mattresses lined up in the diningroom (where had the table gone?)~the mattress closest to the kitchen held me, Casey, baby Aidan & Lloyd (missing his first week of kindergarten.)

Just two weeks ago, before returning home to an empty nest (a perch, I now realize, my mother never reached), I bought myself 3 different small packages of tiny tea cookies, one with Lavender, another with Earl Grey, and the last with a chewy raspberry center, which sits beside my rose tea as I type and the clock strikes 3.

We sat vigil with our mother this night, 18 years ago, beside her hospital bed which sat in her livingroom near the bay window where her exercise equipment stood only 3 months earlier.

We took turns beside her. One or two at a time. Until that time, when the turn-taker woke us to say:

It’s time.

But before that dawning, my mother’s namesake went to put on the coffee, and did I open a tootsie pop, the one with the raspberry wrapper, or were we eating pop tarts, the raspberry kind?

I’ve learned that if I set aside some time for grieving, for missing, for communing with this holiest of nights, my mother’s leaving, then there will be more space for celebrating the man born on this day with the boys we brought into this world together, though this was much less true on his 35th birthday after my mother was zipped inside a bag by her high school classmate, the undertaker, and taken out like the trash–a body that conceived, carried and delivered 9 of us.

She is my muse.

Until her death, I had only written for myself, in my journals, but after she was gone, the words poured out in an act of love and consciousness we had long cultivated together, at her diningroom table, though she preferred coffee.

The thing is, neither tootsie pops or poptarts have seeds, like this tiny cookie shaped into a flower that sticks to my teeth even as I sip and swallow.

Today is also the Feast Day of Mary. The Mother of God. A perfect day for my mother’s heavenly reunion as she arrived, like her Aunt Doll did, on Christmas Day.

We are a Marian household. I write across the pond from land belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (of Mary), my own day of birth, and welcomed to the world our first child on Mary’s Assumption.

No doubt it is Mary who thought of the raspberry and the comfort of the Little Prince on the barren planet, knowing what it is to worry about the silent suffering of a grown child.

He was the one to see her blue effervescent light on this land before it was ours.

“You live in paradise,” he says now when he visits.

“Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.”

If only that quote belonged to Le Petite Prince then this piece would neatly end and I back to bed beside the birthday boy, but alas, “The true paradises are the ones we lose,” belongs to Proust.

Posted in Artifacts/My Bonnie, My Bonnie

My Mother’s Glue

I wake to the sounds of turkey, like the ones clucking across the ceramic spice containers that sit in my kitchen window. (Maybe those are roosters not turkeys? I always thought they were turkeys.)

The Salt is my favorite because there is a crack running through it. My mother was dedicated to reparation (and salt.) Countless testimonies withstand of her willingness to put things back together. There is the statue of Mary. The teapot. The picture frame. Her sobriety. Her life.

She often dismissed my need for precision in the kitchen.”I don’t know, Kelly, just put some in,” she’d say, about the salt or the celery, the butter or the onion. (A stuffed turkey, her favorite, was the first thing I learned to prepare, each her Christmas for her birthday.)

Never able to reach perfection herself, and having almost drowned in the attempt, my mother taught me to rely on softer measures of knowing… taste, smell, the signs and the synchronicities.

My mother’s spice set is stained with age. The square edges are chipped. They remain empty, but they are filled with the comfort of her imperfection.