Posted in My Bonnie

Ode to Blonde

When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, What will I be? Will I be pretty?
Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me…

My mother and me

My mother loved that song and insisted I play it for her on the piano. She adored Doris Day too, mostly for her blonde hair, I suspect, ie. her leading role on the stage of American womanhood.

This was long before the internet at a time when one didn’t go looking for a beautiful blonde gal’s background which was awfully suspicious given her real name: Kappelhoff.

I bet my dark-haired, dark-eyed mother didn’t know that Day’s family wasn’t even Protestant, but Catholic like her own.

“It was the only ambition I ever had,” said Day. “To be a housewife in a good marriage.”

She was married 4 times.

But Day’s screen presence offered the illusion of ease and perfection, and perfection is what my mother was after.

Or maybe I misunderstood my mother. Maybe despite her prettiness and married-up wealth, she came to understand that all women, even blondes, suffer, that women’s dreams are lost, and that surrender was the only path forward.

Que sera, sera, Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.

And yet, after her own failed marriage to my father, my mother began lightening her dark hair, little by little, year after year, until it was yellow-blonde, a color my physician father whispered to me in the hallway of the hospital outside the room where she lay dying, “It looks cheap.”

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

I explained to him that his ex-wife’s alimony didn’t allow her to pay what his new wife paid to achieve the right shade of blonde.

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Posted in Ancestors, legacy, My Bonnie

Inheritance

My mother in her kitchen

All of a sudden, I wondered, Had I done it?

I turned to ask my husband but he was asleep. I considered waking him. It was an important question. Timely. Our youngest was about to graduate. But my husband had another early morning ahead of him–at the high school–which is where he will hand our youngest his diploma on the football field as he did our first born.

I had begun shaping my expectations during my own high school years, announced one with specificity, to my health teacher, and on this point, my best friend and I agreed, even while the adults in our lives shook their heads at our naivety, even as our classmates did.

But we’d done it, she and I. We had raised our children without it. Two boys each. Fine young men. The oldest, hers, in his thirties. The youngest, mine, 18.

The expectations grew over time.

What had begun as a girlhood pact–to withstrain from physically assaulting our children–had been extended by me as an antidote to my own childhood:

To No spanking, I added:
No addiction.
No affair.
No abandonment.
No punishment.
No silencing.
No squashing.

At first, I thought perfection possible. That illusion went on far too long. 4 and a half years as a mother–of one–without yelling once. Without losing my cool. Sustaining a loving connection through everything. If only failure would have freed me sooner from such constraint, I would have been a better mother; I would have been gentler on myself.

At first, I thought it possible to simultaneously rescue my other children–7 younger siblings–but on this account, I failed, not for lack of trying, but for trying too hard, so that instead of rescue, I may have pushed some heads deeper underwater, or worse yet, dragging them toward my shore instead of theirs.

But had I succeeded with the two that I brought into the world?

Had I delivered them from birth to adulthood without inflicting trauma?

Had I ended the legacies that I inherited so that my grandchildren might flourish in ways that I can only imagine?

And if so, how will I celebrate? How will I honor such commitment? Such courage. Such vulnerability. Such creativity. Such sacrifice. Such determination.

There are so many ways I failed. One can’t try so hard without leaking joy and ease and spaciousness.

But now the day-to-day is done.

And what have I done?

Have I, like I was instructed by my father when I was a girl, made the best contribution I could make to the world?

And isn’t this now theirs to decide?

“…What is it you plan to do
with your one wild & precious life?”

And isn’t it now mine again too?

Posted in Ancestors, Artifacts/My Bonnie, Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie, Spring

Our Mother’s Grief

Though I was 19 before I knew that I wasn’t, in fact, her firstborn–something she confided in the small kitchen of her new home (after she left our father’s), a confession which was meant to be a cautionary tale of fertility (her own at the same age, but alas 3 years too late for me)–it was too late. I had already assumed her burdens, spoken and mostly unspoken, embodied, and here was yet another—a heartache she carried alone for so long—her firstborn daughter, delivered at a Home for Unwed Mothers, less than a year before she married my father, pregnant with me.

“He wouldn’t let me talk about her,” she said. “I just wanted to know that she was as okay.”

Do all firstborn daughters & onlies and even sons carry the weight of their mother’s grief?

Which is not to say, there weren’t other inheritances.

The light of my mother’s consciousness.
Her dedication to study.
Her devotion to home.
Her innate gentleness and good nature.
Her capacity to see a whole person even in those who had harmed her/us–at times to a fault.
Her loneliness. Her isolation. Her martyrdom.

60486281_10157449155313746_6431391089680187392_n.jpg

Posted in Ancestors, Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie, Spring

What women share

All over the interwebs, I’m struck by the honesty, the rawness, the sobriety of this Mothers Day. Is it the weather? (It can’t be snowing everywhere.) Is it the nation’s weather?

Women are waking up to REAL. Speaking truth. Feeling pain. Sharing it. Tending it. Using voice. Claiming space. Including space for joy and rest and reclamation. May it be so.

My compassion tonight extends to all those who have mothers who hurt them. (And all those who have children who hurt them.) And all those who feel less than (or have been told they’re so) because they aren’t mothers. (And all those who wanted to be mothers, and had to find another way to mother.) And all those who have lost a child. (Or a mother.)

The profound depth of what it is to be a woman–what we embody, experience, feel, surrender, claim–is shared among us no matter our race, our faith, our nationality, our politics, our procreative status.

Mothers Day 2019

~

An old friend from college sent me this song today, set to a poem by Maya Angelou.

Phenomenal Women

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

Benevolent

It was my mother who taught me to watch the signs, to wink at the synchronicities, to see all things, even the inanimate, in possession of soul, and to view the world, despite its imperfections, as she was herself, despite hers—benevolent.

Her life and that of my youngest crossed paths, for a single month, and now, eighteen years later, when he has unexpectantly returned to the nest, we embarked on an epic road trip, covering 8 states and 1,900 miles in under a week. Because we could.

Because one of my youngest cousins was getting married in Tennessee. Because the groom and his friends were scientists & engineers (& goofy & interesting) like Aidan aspired (and now needed encouragement) to be.

We drove west out of the Green Mountains into New York, past Albany. “I’ve never been this far west,” Aidan said, and he was right, but still this surprised me because hadn’t I’d lived in the Rockies as a kid and returned as an adult, and hadn’t Aidan always been with me?

“I can’t believe there is all this country I’ve never seen,” he said, “Now I have to go everywhere.”

I chose this westerly route at the advice of friends to avoid the traffic around New York and Philly and DC, and Aidan heartily endorsed a longer route once he realized that we would pass Scranton.

“Scranton!” he said. “Scranton, PA?!!”

His enthusiasm was unfathomable as was his request to stop there, particularly when he showed such little interest in a detour to Monticello on our way south.

“Dunder Mifflin is in Scranton,” he said.

We continued past Scranton (though I took photos at his request), traveling south on Interstate 81 for an audacious 678 miles–through Pennsylvania and into Maryland and West Virginia.

We took turns with our respective audiobooks. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” (which he downloaded “for me” because he had already read it three times), and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by the phenomenal Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which was the more captivating of the two (in my opinion.)

The next morning we drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains in a snowstorm, with elevations exceeding 2,500 feet, which is where we found ourselves, stuck behind a box truck whose cargo caught my attention and grief, just as the characters in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” professors and parents and school children, found themselves steeped in the trauma of war.

“What is that?” I said. “Chickens?”

“Turkins, maybe,” Aidan said, navigating into the passing lane.

“It’s so cold out. Why would the truck be open like that?”

“There’s no company name on it,” Aidan said as we passed.” They don’t want to advertise.”

I snapped a photo of the cages, thinking there was beauty in the angles and color and light even as it pained me to see it, and thinking that I wanted to share what it is we do to animals before we eat them.

“This is why we get our food locally,” I said, as the truck faded from view, and Aidan nodded his head before pushing play on his second book, another Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, a new one that he hadn’t read: “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”

All of this cast a spell on the afternoon–the high elevation, the wind, the snow, the chickens or Turkins, the war in the novel and the alliance between profit and killing.

“Let’s listen to the radio for a while,” I suggested, hoping to lend a sense of place, but it was then that the announcer said, “The poet Mary Oliver had died.”

This darkness stayed with me as we crossed into the Smokies and then it receded when we arrived at the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, and took the elevator to the top of the Sunsphere where dozens of relatives–uncles & aunts, nieces & nephews, siblings & grandparents–gathered inside a 360-degree view of Knoxville, Tennessee.

By the time Aidan and I left Knoxville three days later for the long drive home, we knew our way around town and had each found our favorite coffee shops–his downtown, sleek and minimalistic, and mine comfortable and homey in the historic part of town.

Our return trip was delayed by weather and so before we left Tennessee, I found us an establishment that served chicken & dumplings (in the town where Dolly Parton was born in fact, on her birthday weekend), and this meal nourished and delighted us, even the next day, as set out north on 81, out of the Smokies again, listening solely to “Accessory to War,” because the extra day meant that my library loan had expired.

We moved at a clip with Aidan was behind the wheel again, insisting on doing all the navigating himself, as he had throughout the city.

“There’s an accident up ahead,” he said, pointing to the GPS. “But this is still the fastest route.”

The traffic slowed as we approached the scene and I felt how strange it was to move in procession among the eighteen wheelers who had been such a nuisance on our journey, though there were fewer because it was MLK Day.

Their gray somber pace reminded of the teenage sport’s team who arrived at the funeral parlor, heads bowed, uncharacteristically subdued, outfitted in suits instead of cleats, as they walked past the coffin which held my lifelong friend, who died this very weekend, an unfathomable two years ago, for whom the site of the box truck with the chickens or the Turkins, would have been unbearable, so large her heart for the creatures among us.

The accident, if that’s what it was, seemed to have occurred on the soft grass up head between the north and south lanes of the highway, but I didn’t see any vehicles as we approached.

“I think it’s construction work,” I said, pushing pause on Aidan’s audiobook. But as we passed the site, he said something chilling, just as I realized it too.

“The chickens.”

The cab was barely recognizable, but the birds were.

I remember holding Aidan in my arms while my mother took her last breaths. I never understood why my sister needed to photograph even this, but those photos became precious touchstones of life, of loss, of love, and the benevolence of all that is, her passing, his arrival. Her dying palm cradling his newborn head.

We drove in silence for a good while as we continued on 81 through the Smokies and when we pulled over at a rest area just across the border in Virginia, Aidan asked if I would drive.

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.