Family · Life on the Island · Uncategorized

At Easter

This is a strange time of year for a non-believer in the best of times.

Through social media I watch Jewish friends prepare for a Passover ritual I am intrigued by, but don’t entirely understand. People who were raised in traditions closer to my own might greet each other Sunday with “He is Risen!” Only this year it will be posts on social media instead of exclamations in church. This is not a greeting I grew up with, but religious rituals evolve; much like Catholics holding hands across the congregation during the Lord’s prayer. I didn’t grow up with this, I encountered the practice at my mother-in-law’s church. Catholics did this for a few years until someone in the hierarchy decided it was putting too much emphasis on human instead of god. It was a tradition until it wasn’t.

I was well into adulthood before I fully grasped what the Easter story was asking us to believe. It’s not that I hadn’t been paying attention during all those years of CCD and Catholic School. I remember a Good Friday one year looking out the window to see if the sky got dark at 3:00 PM like one of my teachers said it would to mark the time when Jesus died. Perhaps I was just in the wrong time zone, I don’t think there was even a cloud that day.

When you are a child, you tend to absorb what is taught to you uncritically. So much of the world is a mystery when you are learning, that it doesn’t much matter if the explanations are fact- or faith-based. Hopefully, that comes later.


As a family, our participation in the rituals of Lent and Easter were pretty superficial. As Northerners there was no Mardi Gras for us. The day before Ash Wednesday was hardly mentioned at all, but occasionally it was referred to as “Shrove” or Fat Tuesday. Shroves are like pancakes, which I believe we had once at school.

I don’t know how well I played along with the expectation of “giving up” something for Lent. There were never a lot of sweets in the house so they were not around to be sacrificed. By then no meat at Lent had been reduced to no meat on Fridays and so began a month and a half of (homemade) macaroni and cheese or tuna fish for Friday dinners. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice, just a rule.

Surprise baskets I was able to order from a local chocolatier.


All day I’ve been thinking about childhood Easters at my cousins’ in New Canaan. In southern CT, it was usually decently warm at Easter and we could be outside before or after the meal. My cousins had something we did not – they lived in a cul-de-sac neighborhood full of other families and kids to play with.

If it was cold or raining, we would play in their basement, pretending god knows what with my uncle’s large collection of empty beer cans. Foster’s, it seems, has always looked like a large can of motor oil. There were no video games, but lots of active imaginations.

There are other images from those days, my aunt’s delicate shamrock china with the gold trim, that I believe had once belonged to my grandmother – or at least my grandfather bought it. I can’t imagine my grandmother asking for it. He was the Irish one, and if it was in the Shannon catalog, it probably found a way into their home through him.

For many years there was an ancient, bright blue Volvo in the driveway. I remember a passing conversation with one of my cousins about music we liked, I can’t remember whether he mentioned “Cruel to be Kind” or “Games People Play.” It was one of those two. I might have talked about “Heaven on the Seventh Floor,” not having any idea of the implications, and today, not even sure the timeline is right. My cousins were a lot less sheltered than I was and their stories were a lot more interesting.

After dinner there was often a cutthroat game of hearts that the adults would play, and eventually we would be old enough to understand and join. It was very competitive. The triumph of trump cards was boisterous compared to the rather subdued celebration of success on the Scrabble board at my grandmother’s.

Today’s celebration was very simple, just my husband and I and our two grown (!) sons. No matter what the holiday though, there is a part of me that is not the adult pulling it all together, but an 11- or 12-year old who misses the ritual of visiting people important to me.


Community · Family · Health Care · Life on the Island · Uncategorized

Sparkling Isolation

I can’t watch pandemic movies even in the best of times. There’s something deeply frightening about germs you can’t see, can’t control, that ramps up all of my anxieties, even in fiction. Now we have a real pandemic at our doorstep, and life as we know it is changing rapidly. I’ll admit it, I’m scared.

I’m in a high risk category for contracting COVID-19. Self-isolation isn’t a big deal for me because I have always been something of a hermit. I’ve been at home, largely alone, since getting laid off and then being besieged with health problems. Even before that I was working at home a lot. Being stuck at home doesn’t bother me, though it feels a little paradoxical to be trying to outrun something while staying in one place.

About a month ago I finished watching HBO’s Chernobyl. I started it when it was first released, but I had to stop because I found the constant lying by the characters to be deeply disturbing. The impulse to lie and deny reached from the operators in the plant to the highest party officials trying to keep the severity of the accident secret from the rest of the world. This is where we are now.

Our so-called leaders lied to us and refused to prepare for the severity of what was coming at us. They had intelligence that told them what to expect. They chose to profit from that information over saving lives. Because of their inaction, testing is still being rationed as of this writing. The nation is short of ventilators needed to treat patients. GM CEO Mary Barra and others have offered to convert idle plants to the production of ventilators to cover the shortage in the same way that automakers retooled during WWII. Trump has not taken them up on their offer, but GM appears to be going forward anyway.

I am not listening to Trump’s daily briefings. He continues to lie, makes things up as he goes along, contradicts experts, and conceals much of the reality of the situation. He is not a leader. Listening to him during this crisis is bad for people’s mental health. His misinformation is dangerous. At home all day, I can’t help but be barraged with information on social media. Fact checks of Trump, complaints about shortages, stories of people being denied testing, concerns about people’s jobs and businesses, and so on. I try to limit myself.

From HBO’s Chernobyl

As a nation, we haven’t gone through anything like this in 100 years. The closest things might be a presidential assassination, the Challenger accident, or 9/11; moments when, however briefly, we paused, mourned, and stood together in solidarity. It doesn’t feel like that’s happening this time, and not just because we are all supposed to be sequestered in our homes. The hoarding behavior, the refusal in some quarters to take social distancing seriously, the emphasis on the economy over public health, the suggestion that elders sacrifice themselves for the Dow; all exacerbate the “us vs. them” mentality that has dominated our society for the last several years. Divided, we fall.

There’s no question that the economy is going to be affected by self-isolation. I live in a small town that is dependent on travel and tourism dollars. Restaurants are closing, people are being laid off, the performing arts center has shut down, and inns don’t know whether they will have a summer season this year.

Where people can work from home, they are doing that, but there have also been millions of layoffs across the country already; many of them already living paycheck to paycheck. Not only are they now without a job, but many have also lost their health insurance.

At the same time, we are seeing families not able to visit with each other because of social isolation. Grandmothers are missing visits and hugs from their grandchildren. Work and school are being conducted remotely and people are learning more about their coworkers’ home lives when children and barking dogs can be heard in the background of conference calls.

People are talking about this “lockdown” as if it might last a month or so. I think it will be longer. I have no faith in the Trump regime to do the right thing on any front. The suffering of others seems to delight rather than concern him, and his or Pence’s ability to manage any coordinated national response is highly suspect. They have already wasted a significant amount of time. I can’t see them getting their act together in any way that moves us forward with confidence.

In the meantime, we wait. We declutter, or do puzzles; we bake and think about gardening when the weather gets warm. We make masks or we knit. We watch the news or avoid the news. We attempt to work, we attempt to homeschool. We dream about the first thing we’ll do when the lockdown is lifted. We try to stay positive, but there’s an existential dread hanging over us that we mostly don’t talk about, but that is more real now than when we talked about climate change. The disease moves fast, the numbers grow, and it won’t be long before we all know someone who has been affected.

Somewhere between the puzzles, and the Netflix binges, we will have plenty of time to take stock of the lives we’re living and what might come after. I wonder if this time away from our work, our routines, our expectations, and in some cases, our families will prompt an examination of why we do things the way we do. I wonder if the state of the economy when this is over will lead to major changes in the way we live and work. Or, will we be so eager to get back to “normal” that we will scramble blindly to reassert ourselves in a system that doesn’t work for most people in our country.

Family · Health Care · Life on the Island · Uncategorized

Changing My Mind

It started with a drive home. I dropped my son off at an event in the next town and rode back looking at all the Christmas lights.

I’ve lived in this town almost thirty years. I barely see it anymore. It remains a beautiful place, but after a while, you stop thinking about it. I’m not sure why my attention was caught by the Christmas lights that early evening, but for a few moments I really saw the beauty of an ordinary drive I’ve done more times than I can count. I was present, and content; the first time in a while I felt truly happy to be living here.

The town’s tree. Yes, it’s tilted.

I’ve written about aspects of this before, but it has been a hard couple of years. Between getting laid off, health problems, huge medical bills, the politics of the age, and family-related stress, I went into self-protection mode and dropped out of everything. The health stuff was brought on by panic attacks, so my response was to remove myself from anything that might exacerbate my anxiety. I spent months feeling as if under siege, I needed to rest and to recover my equilibrium.

I do this from time to time. When I’m hurt, exhausted, embarrassed, or otherwise in need of emotional restoration, I retreat. I’m very much an introvert anyway (until you know me, then I seem like an extrovert), and people exhaust me. Every year I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and hermit myself away from the world as much as I can. At the end of that time, I am usually ready to go back to work.

This time, my self-imposed exile has lasted about two years. I’ve been in a mental and emotional limbo both waiting for this transplant to move forward and wanting the “second half” of my life post-transplant to move in a different direction. Most of what set me on this trajectory two years ago has resolved itself or at least become less of an issue. The family is stable; I’ve managed to stay out of the hospital for months now (knock wood) because I know more about managing my Afib episodes. We’ve just had one of the most pleasant holiday seasons ever. It was low key, but everyone in the house approached it with the same spirit.

This year, there’s no work to go back to. I’m still keeping my eyes open for something, possibly part-time, local or remote, so that I can have some money coming in, but avoid an exhausting and expensive commute. I’m still trying to write more regularly. I’ve been at a standstill for two years, frozen in place, stuck. It’s past time for me to get moving again.

I worked briefly with a therapist earlier this year and soon came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a match. She was more focused on the practical day to day stuff, and less about how I felt and how I could cope. I struggled with how to end the sessions and then I discovered that the deductible for counseling services with my health plan was enormous; decision made. I was relieved, but no better off.

Driving home that night before Christmas I decided I need to experience that present and contented feeling more often, and that by deliberately seeking those “moments of light,” I might be able to help get myself unstuck. I might be able to start changing my mind. I’ve been thinking about how I might help myself do this, and here is what I came up with:

Movement – This is the probably the most important effort, but also the toughest, particularly in the winter when the cold air can make it difficult to breathe. I was never an athlete, but I used to walk everywhere. The myriad health problems I’ve been dealing with have put me in a state of de-conditioning (that’s what the cardiologist called it). With osteoporosis running in my family, and the effects of my rheumatoid arthritis meds, I need to start battling back to regain my strength. When I was doing yoga regularly, I always felt this peace at the end of a session. I need more of that now.

Dial down the carb-reliance – I don’t diet. I don’t need to lose weight. I don’t eat a lot of junk food or fast food or fake food; but I love pasta, bread, potatoes, and other carb-heavy ingredients. I put sugar in my tea and I’m a fan of the occasional soda. A small chocolate treat is a staple of most late afternoons. I absolutely need more protein, particularly at the start of the day. I’m very curious to see if tweaking the balance here has any noticeable effect on my mood and energy levels.

Gratitude / Appreciation / Observance – After the last two tempestuous years, things have calmed down enough for me to notice and appreciate moments of family harmony and growth. Sure there’s still plenty to work through, but reason and cooperation are more frequent visitors to our home, and they are most welcome. I have been trying to be on the lookout for things that support this feeling – whether it is the the boys working together to decorate for Christmas, the birds at the feeder, or the flowers I buy to fill our home with something natural.

Confront Shame – At a workshop a few years ago we were asked to think about some of the messages we heard or internalized growing up. My parents had quite a few snarky sayings that stuck with me, but I came to realize that a major theme of my childhood, between school (nuns), church, parents, and the society of the age, was “It’s not okay to make a mistake.” That got me to thinking about how much we used to control children by shaming them. We still try to do this to a lot of women. On some level, I rejected these attempts at control (hence my allergy to authority), but I know they made a huge impact on how I see the world. I know that a lot of my paralysis, a lot of my impulse to cloister myself comes from a sense of shame.

Engage, Create – I do need to get out more, and since 2016, I have been searching for a way to have better impact than I did as a School Committee Member. I’m not a protestor or petitioner, but my interests have moved from education, to health care and transportation. Next week I will be going to a talk on Medicare for All, to try to understand, and see how much the proponents understand about our current health care system and a plan to move forward. Of course I will write about what I have learned. I am still hoping to find a role in the community, I’ve talked with a few people, but now I feel like I can be less tentative about it, and get myself out there.

Social Media Diet – Another tough one, especially for someone as hermited as I can be. For my own sanity I declared a moratorium of all things Trump for the holidays. I don’t want to hear him, I don’t want to hear about him, I don’t want to listen to the Sunday talkies, or other news programs, I’ve mostly stayed away from Twitter and Medium this week. It’s been glorious, and I feel so much less anxious. I’ve taken to leaving my phone upstairs for most of the day when I’m trying to write. I’m happier and less distracted that way. Writing longhand first is usually something that helps my creative process anyway.

I can’t call these resolutions. Rather, they are behaviors and ways of thinking that I want to use to check in with myself about regularly. I’m really hoping that this time next year, I will feel perceptively unstuck and moving forward.

Happy New Year!
Family · Uncategorized · Writing Life

Changing Seasons

Summer riding off into the sunset.

We’re in it now.

P started school before Labor Day, T started last week. Since neither kid has a full driver’s license, my days are now filled with chauffeuring them to campus and to work, or at least accompanying them while they drive. This has forced me into a routine of sorts, which is not entirely a bad thing.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, T’s two classes are back to back, meaning there’s hardly enough time to make a trip back home worth the while. On those days I will probably run errands close to campus or bring my laptop to a coffee shop nearby. I tried this last week and the place I went was much noisier than I’m used to. The area around campus is very mall-centric so I think all the coffee shops will be this way. I will have to try to find something independent, off the beaten path. I enjoy working in coffee shops. Sometimes those couple of hours can be very productive in spite of the distractions.

I’m still getting used to the writer’s life. It’s a dream I’ve had for decades and understood very little. I am trying to learn the business of being a writer as well as come up with story ideas. I’m not too worried about my prose. As I tell my husband when I’m trying to convince myself I can do this. “If I knew what I was writing, I could write it very well.” For the most part, I believe that, bolstered by feedback I’ve gotten from various places where I’ve published. Of course, the competitive part of me wants not to struggle, and not to write anything that isn’t perfect and free of critique. I want that award. I want to be able to say, “this is why I never did that Ph.D. or became a middle manager; I was meant to do this instead.

Yet, I keep half-assedly looking for, and sometimes even applying to, full time positions. Intellectually, I know that both my health and the logistics with the kids make that highly impractical, but oh, it would be so much easier than trying to slog this transition out with no guardrails. And the money would help.

In the Boston area, Wednesday, September 11 will be the last day of the year that the sun sets after 7 PM. The season is ending and autumn is on its way whether I like it or not. In a similar way, the layoff last summer, and subsequent health problems, have created a career ending situation, a change of season and a turning point of sorts, whether I like it or not. I’m choosing to see it as an opportunity, even if it doesn’t always feel like one. There are other things going into this feeling; my age, the fact that I’m almost done with my active parenting years, the way this transplant proposal feels like some kind of epic journey I have ahead of me. I don’t really want to go back to doing what I was doing. I do want the change.

Maybe I just want it to have happened already.

Family · Life on the Island · Uncategorized · Writing Life

Labor Day

On Labor Day, we had a rare opportunity, because neither of the boys were working, to go out for breakfast together. I am not a morning person, but going out for breakfast is one of my favorite things about being an adult. In spite of my hermetic ways, there is something about being greeted and settled in by the waitstaff (especially if they recognize you as a regular) that brings a comfort to the start of the day.

Out for breakfast on Rocky Neck

Whether it is an elegant petit dejeuner in Paris, or a busy diner with sturdy stone wear plates of pancakes or eggs and endless refills of cheap coffee, there’s something strangely life affirming about sharing this ritual with other people; even if they are at the next table, and not part of your group.

Though a few of our usual breakfast spots were closed for the holiday or had very long lines, on this beautiful morning, we were lucky enough to get a table on the porch of a local go-to. Along with standard breakfast fare, menus around here are sprinkled with local favorites like linguica, a Portuguese sausage, and anadama bread, thought to be brought over from Finland by the early stonecutters in the quarries here. Anadama French Toast is a popular offering.

Driftwood Fish

It was nice for the four of us to have a meal together to mark the end of summer. With both boys working, time to sit down together is rare these days. Now that the kids are older and need less management, they have become pleasant companions and these meals are much more enjoyable. There much less bickering, much more storytelling and joking around.

This part of the island is an art colony, and after breakfast we strolled through the neighborhood looking at the cottages and gardens. Many of the galleries were closed for the holiday, but there was still art and creativity everywhere.

The weather here has already gotten cooler. I find myself greedily consuming the views of flowers still in bloom from the height of summer, as if the memory of them will hold me through the barren months of winter. I know it’s coming. My youngest started his classes at the high school last week, and my oldest starts his college classes on Thursday. My days are going to get busier, carting them to school and to work, or other places. Though they both have their learning permits, neither has a full license. And even if they did, we’d be short a car (or two).

I am not ready to put my sandals away. I am not ready for football, or fat socks and boots, or pumpkin spice anything. I still want to walk down to the beach or the harbor. I want to listen to the seagulls or watch the sandpipers zooming back and forth along the surf. I want to be able to breathe without the frozen air hampering me. This kills me. Ordinarily I would be eagerly awaiting the trappings of autumn every year. Chronic illness has changed that. I truly love having four seasons, but it would be easier to live in a place where it hovered around 70º all year-round.

This is a hydrangea tree. Now I want one.

In other news, I am writing again. I created a piece for Labor Day on how corporate culture and public policy (or lack thereof) is killing the so-called dignity of work. You can find it here on Medium. I’m trying out Medium as a potential platform, but I am also looking at other markets. If last winter was about recovering and getting through a devastating year career, health and family-wise, I hope this year will be much more about working and rebuilding.

Lobster trap chair, you might need a cushion.
Another local restaurant
Gloucester Marine Railways
More lovely gardens
A view of the harbor, still full of boats for now.
Family · Health Care · Life on the Island · Uncategorized · Writing Life

Passing Time

Almost as simply as turning a calendar page, the air of summer has changed. The humidity has lessened here somewhat and a cool breeze foreshadows the coming autumn. This is as ever, a bittersweet time for me. I need the summer warmth and ease more than I used to, and I will be sorry to see it go.

August, already?

This school year will be a big one. T starts classes at the local community college in a couple of weeks. He is out of our tiny high school and into a much larger, more diverse arena. I hope that it will be good for him. P will be a Junior at the high school and starting to look at colleges as well.

I will try to make the most of my unemployed status. I have to get out of the house more this winter, and I need something new to work on. Ordinarily at this time of year, I’d be pining to take classes of my own. Of course since I am not working, no one is going to pay for me to go back to school. With all the medical bills, and tuition for T, loans for me are not an option.

I also seem to be going through something. It’s hard to tell whether it’s fatigue and depression or a true evolution, but I may be finally letting go of a career dream I’ve had for 20-plus years.

How do you know when to give up on a dream? I mean, it sounds so defeatist to say it like that, but I’m not sure that I really feel defeated anymore. I certainly did when my dream job was given to a less qualified man several years ago. It broke me. But I also knew that in the three months I had the job, I proved that I could do it and was very good at it. The hiring manager’s agenda had nothing to do with my qualifications or capabilities. I knew when I left though, that I would probably never get another shot, which is what broke my heart so completely.

That was over six years ago. When I think about it though, it still feels like yesterday in spite of since having had five years with a great manager and team, and lots of wonderful, creative challenges since. What’s different now is that I’m not sure I would apply for similar jobs anymore. I can’t yet tell if it’s because I’m tired of running up against an impenetrable wall or if I have truly moved on.

My lifelong interest in education and education policy also seems to be fading. I was on my local school board for 12 years and I loved it. For years I would independently dig in to the weeds of education policy and try to understand, without ever having held a teaching job, what made for a great school, teacher, classroom. I certainly still have my opinions, but I have noticed that our public school policies have gotten farther and farther away from what I might have considered ideal, The testing regime still lingers, charter schools have arguably made things worse overall, and it’s not a battle I have energy for or much interest in any longer.

Part of it, I think, is my age. I’m going to be 53 at the end of the summer. Assuming I make it, I will have outlived my father. When I was a child, no one could have predicted I’d live this long. Here, I am, way past expectations. The unexpected hiatus due to layoff and health problems has felt like a significant chapter closing. It has me asking; assuming I make it through transplant and regain my strength, what do I want to do with my “Book 2?”

For years I have wanted a job that involved less desk sitting, solitary heads-down work, more meeting, consulting and collaborating. Writing, of course, is none of the latter, but it might provide me with a little more variety than an office job. When I’m healthier, I want to do more travel, and I’m hoping that the things that I research and choose to write about will facilitate that. I’ve been dabbling a little, trying to figure out what the business of writing looks like, training I did not get in college. I have submitted a short story to a publication, and I’m looking to do more. I still am better at non-fiction than fiction, but I’m working on it.

Family · Uncategorized

Something to Celebrate!

Happily, we got out of town for a few days around Independence Day. It’s been hard to even think about celebrating this country lately because we are so far from the ideals we were founded on. It would have been awfully hard to watch our town’s traditional parade and the bonfire we have instead of fireworks. It would have been hard to go through these motions, the same as every other year, as if this year the country wasn’t burning down around us.

Thankfully, this year my husband’s family had a reunion. We rented a house in Vermont for 29 people. Only one person, one of my nephews in flight school, wasn’t able to make it.

L is the oldest of six and his family is scattered all over the country. Before we had kids of our own, we did a lot of traveling to where one brother or another was stationed, but with all of our kids getting older and having schedules of their own, it’s gotten harder and harder to get everyone together.

Ludlow, VT. Near Mt. Okemo, this house sleeps 30!

This reunion was two years in the planning. People far more organized than me took care of all the details. We travelled from all over the country, as far as Seattle and Mississippi to be together.

There were several times during our stay that I found myself close to tears of gratitude for having become a part of this family and that they were so loving and accepting. L and I have been married over 25 years and every so often it strikes me how lucky I am and how lucky our kids are to be a part of this clan. I can remember at one point sitting with many of them around the table thinking that this was the large, extended family I had always hoped for – the one for which I wrote stories played out in my childhood dollhouses. Here they were, in real life. I was surrounded by them.

There were twenty-nine of us and four dogs. Many of my nieces and nephews are now adults, starting lives of their own, scattered across even more states. One recently became a captain in the Air Force, another just bought a house and is expecting a child in November. One landed a killer first job in the office of her Senator. Two are starting college in the Fall.

Three generations watching old home movies.

There were old home movies that my sister-in-law had converted from the original film reels. I had heard about these, but never saw them. Apparently I somehow missed the ritual of showing them to each new significant other. L was never thrilled about them, so I didn’t pursue it back then. The clips went back to L’s first Christmases. Each new clip brought the next child, and through it all, my Mother-in-law was smiling. That, I think is what struck me the most.

For the most part, on that weekend, I forgot all about the politics of the day. I mean, we had a short conversation about my old bumpersticker and whether it meant that I was supporting Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential bid (currently, I’m team Kamala, though I love them both), but I was able to read, nap, talk to people about their lives, and mostly stay off Twitter. We watched Wimbledon matches instead of the news.

Two generations playing Cards against Humanity . I managed not to be too embarrassed in front of my kids.

We talked about going to see Ludlow’s fireworks. There’s just something magical about fireworks (not to mention, my eighteen year old son discovered he could buy them in Vermont; they are illegal in Massachusetts). When we looked into it, we realized we could see the show from the house we were in. It was wonderful because the little ones could watch in their pajamas and head off the bed when they were done.

There was cake!

We played games, several folks took hikes to the nearby river. There was cake. My youngest nephew, aged seven, followed my youngest son, seventeen, everywhere. P is not crazy about little kids, but he was remarkably patient.

My only complaint was the heat. Since the house is mainly rented by skiers in the winter, there was no air conditioning. There were a couple of nights I ended up sleeping downstairs on the couch because it was cooler. The heat may or may not have contributed to the short battle I had with Afib while I was there. I was a little embarrassed to be such a wreck in front of everybody, but of course they were wonderful. I managed to get myself back into normal rhythm, so there was no trip to the hospital. Later, one of my sisters-in-law told me that she was planning to take time off to come help me post-transplant. She lives on the other side of the country. I’m just floored. And indescribably grateful.

As it happened, we had plenty to celebrate this Independence Day, and it was so nice to focus on other people, their humor, and their gifts instead of my health and the politics of the day. It’s hard to remember when I’m worried about being sick, or about money, or about my teenagers, or the state of the world; but, of all the things I imagined for myself when I was younger, I got this wonderful family. And I get a few moments, every so often, to sit quietly and revel in it.

Now in my head, I know the time was made sweeter by the fact that we don’t see each other that often, but in my heart, I sure do wish they all were closer.

Community · Family · Uncategorized · Writing Life

A Memory of Geraniums

The smell of geraniums reminds me of my grandfather. He instilled a love of gardening in me and though I can’t match his work ethic when it comes to fertilizing and weeding, I have a reasonably successful vegetable garden and plenty of flower pots around the yard, including several geraniums.

They are available in many more colors now than they were in the 1970s. I remember the geraniums in my grandparents’ yard as solid red, and occasionally white, growing in a basket hung from the lamppost opposite a sign with the house’s number and a name, “Squaw Rock.” The name came from the large rock formation between the back yard and the beach and there is also another formation with the same name off the coast of a different part of town. Although Native/Indian names are common in the town and surrounding area, “Squaw” is now considered a slur and the name has vanished from the property as it stands today.

Squaw Rock in a Storm

Geraniums and salvia were part of my summers. The salvia was a treat because you could pull the red center part from the rest of the flower and suck a tiny drop of nectar from the end. These days the salvia I see at garden centers is mostly purple, and the geraniums can be peach or even a lavender.

My mother and I are not in frequent contact, but when we do talk, I have made a point about asking clarifying questions about some of the family lore. For instance, my parents both grew up in New Jersey, but stories made it sound as if my mother’s parents had grown up in Connecticut. Which is it?

My grandparents grew up in Connecticut. I believe my grandmother’s father founded the Congregational Church in their town (that’s another thing I’ll have to clarify). My grandfather worked on a farm there and the owner of the land had connections that led to a job for my grandfather on Wall Street. After the Crash, he was laid off and came back to a job at a manufacturing plant in his home town. He was bored and he hated it. He set about trying to find work back on Wall Street – during the Depression. He did find a job with a firm that sold odd lots (small orders) of stocks, moved back to New York, and eventually did quite well.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was a teacher. One summer she was taking some sort of certification classes at Yale. On the last day of the session she offered a classmate, Martha, a ride home in her Model T. Martha’s brother, my grandfather, was home for the weekend, and when he met Anne, my grandmother, he asked her on a date right then and there.

The house at 405 Stuyvesant in New Jersey

They eventually married and moved to an apartment in New York. They quickly had two sons, but when Anne was pregnant with their third child, my mother, the two of them decided that they needed more room. The story goes that my grandfather got on a train to New Jersey after work one day and rode until the train came to a stop where there were a lot of trees. He got off the train, walked around the town and picked out a house. He bought it without my grandmother ever seeing it first. They raised five children in that house through the war and beyond. They would often rent a house in the summer back in Connecticut.

As it happened, a couple of decades later, my father opened his business several blocks away on the same street in New Jersey. My mother would eventually meet him when she applied for a secretarial position there after a few years away at college.

I only have the barest details of our family history, but I have been increasingly drawn back to the towns in Connecticut where I grew up and where my grandparents had a house on the beach that is the biggest part of my summer memories. It started last winter with my uncle’s funeral, and intensified when his daughter died this past winter. I wrote about this pull earlier this year. I really can’t explain it, but a sense of place has always been important to me. Where you grow up has a huge impact on your identity, and your perspective.

I think about the books I’ve read that are based in the South, and how the climate and the culture are almost characters unto themselves. Surely, New England has some of that, in stories like Olive Kitteridge , set in Maine. But, Connecticut? What stories are there? I’m sure there are plenty, and I need to start somewhere.

Family · Life on the Island · What I'm Reading · Writing Life

Family Structures and Strictures

The birds are busy at the feeder this morning, perhaps in anticipation of tomorrow’s snow. Among them is a large Red-bellied Woodpecker, nearly twice the size of the other birds out there. He’s been around quite a bit this winter, but it is always a treat to see him contrasted so brightly with the myriad brown birds that we normally get in the colder months. It is for visitors like this that I insist on maintaining the feeders in the winter, even though seed isn’t cheap.

It’s midmorning and I’m having the last of the real bagels with my tea. Even stale they are better than supermarket bagels. I feel lucky to be able to get them every once in a while. I consider what I might be able to get done today after I have decided that my morning reading is complete. I’ve just started Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. She is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, and yet this may be the first book of hers that I’ve read. I vaguely remember being assigned something of hers in college, but I don’t remember what it was (a poem, maybe? a short story?), and like most of what we read as English majors, it was dark and depressing. I’ve not tried anything of hers since.

I picked up Mulvaneys from the hospital exchange cart, and I will probably bring it back there when I’m done with it. Hospital book carts have saved my sanity more than once last year and I try to contribute to them when I can. You don’t really sleep much in hospitals, you might as well have something good to read. I’ve now taken to packing books whenever I think I’m going to be admitted, but I almost always get through the ones I bring.

My grandparents with their five children.

So far, I like the Mulvaneys and the simple, almost religious optimism that holds their lives together. Yet, you know their happiness is tenuous, that something awful is going to happen that rips apart their carefully constructed lives; like a squirrel dashing through the dazzling but delicate web that took a spider so long to build. When Oates describes a non-central character’s effort to set his own children against each other, I stop and seriously wonder if this is common in Irish families, as it was certainly recognizable in mine.

This gives me something to think about in my own family and my own writing. Growing up I had this dollhouse that I played with well into my teens. My sister was four years younger and constantly begging me to play with her, which is part of the reason. The other reason, I didn’t realize until many years later, was that the dollhouses (there were three of them) served as a setting for the stories in my head. Those stories were almost always about the kind of family I wanted, rather than the one I had. The family in my head was always large, active and social. They enjoyed each others’ company had each others’ backs.

For decades I’ve wanted to set a story in a multigenerational family with a summer house. I have such wonderful descriptions of the place, I could make you want to go there. the place itself is a character. And yet, I can’t do it because moving the story forward would mean that one of my characters would have to do something horrible to another. I can’t bear to imagine what that thing might be although I have plenty of examples in my own family.

For a writer, there’s a lot to explore within the disintegration of a family. Society would like us to think that these are unbreakable bonds, but they fall apart all the time over money, abuse, resentment, and the smallest things can become the last straw. After those bonds have been broken, what makes them worth trying to repair? Or is it just easier not to?

This has been on my mind a lot since my cousin’s death around the holidays. I suppose there was an “event” that precipitated our all falling away when we were kids, but in truth, fault lines among the adults already existed. That my mother’s generation never thought those sibling bonds important enough to repair saddens me when I think of it. Yet, my own generation is similar. We all live in different states, we have very different lives and we would never reach out to each other for help. It’s just the way it is.

Perhaps I imagined this might change after many of my cousins started to reach out to each other, mostly on Facebook. Maybe my surprising anger at her passing is not just about her age, but about the fact that she won’t have a chance to be a part of that.