My father joined the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was twenty-one, from a close family in Hartford, Connecticut. When the time came for him to report for training, Thomas F. Rice, Jr. went to the Hartford train station and joined a long line of other young men, ready to board. The line was single-file, until it got to my father.Read More
Connecticut is next to Massachusetts and my sisters and I had strong imaginary connections to the women, a.k.a the witches, of Salem. We had more local witches as well--the weathervane atop E. E. Dickinson's Witch Hazel factory in Essex, CT, always a favorite sight when my family would drive down Rte. 9 to the beach.
And the young Connecticut "witch" Kit Tyler, age 16 in 1667, the heroine of one of my favorite books, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.
The book frightened and thrilled me--to think about such prejudice and hatred, and to read about Kit's strength, independence, loyalty, and ultimately, faith that the truth would out. The novel and its characters felt very close to home--Kit first landed in America at Old Saybrook, just across the Connecticut River from our beach cottage in Old Lyme.
Maybe it was Kit's story that always inspired me to dress like a witch for Halloween. Each year I wore the same thing: Mim's ancient crinoline black slip, lace up pointy-toed boots, and a black velvet opera cape that I had actually sewn, and who knows why?--the only opera I'd ever attended was I Pagliacci, at the Bushnell Theater, with my seventh grade class from St. Maurice School. But there came a time when my sisters and I got seriously into capes, and we sewed them, complete with hoods, silk lining, and hand-tied black frog closures.
It was all very dramatic. Trick-or-treating down Lincoln Street, with the Whitney children (my second family and beloved babysitting charges) holding our hands in the darkness, I think we envisioned ourselves crossing some moor in Puritan times, fighting oppression and casting spells whilst collecting candy.
Halloween didn't used to be so commercialized. Plastic pumpkins were rare--who would even want one? We carved elaborate jack-o-lanterns, placed candles inside for scary illumination, and toasted the pumpkin seeds. Some families actually handed out crisp apples and we liked getting them. (At least in my memory we did. Probably not as much as Snickers bars, however.) The holiday was a melange of fun and gravity; candy and costumes mixed in with our Irish Catholicism--All Souls Day, All Saints Day, All Saints Eve, All Hallows Eve, with a dash of Celtic Samhain tradition as well.
It was New England, therefore spooky with bare branches raking the cold sky, piles of dry fallen leaves underfoot, the sound of wind whistling through the swaying trees, but also reverent, in that we felt and heard the ghosts and prayed for them to be released from this life into the next.
Then I moved to New York. Halloween in Chelsea makes me happy. So many brownstones, pumpkins, set designers who go to town on their own houses. The late great Empire Diner always decorated for holidays, Halloween included. I miss Renate and the diner. Grrr, things change, and good places and people leave.
So here's to the Whitneys, now trick-or-treating with their own children; the Witch of Blackbird Pond; the spirits of Lincoln Street; the ghosts of Chelsea; the Empire Diner; and hobgoblins everywhere. Happy Halloween. Please enjoy a good apple and a Snickers bar for me.
Maura was such a dear friend. She was an amazing singer-songwriter, and I was always touched and honored when she would come to my apartment and play music with me. We shared being Irish Catholic, living in New York, having sisters, seeing the dark behind the light. I wrote a song, You’re the Sea, and Maura sang on the recording.
One summer morning Maura and I went to the Irish Hunger Memorial in lower Manhattan. There was a slight drizzle, and the fog rolling up the Hudson obscured the tallest buildings, enhancing the feeling we’d stepped out of time, out of New York. We walked through the ruins of a stone cottage, up the winding path through a field to the hilltop.
“Feels like Ireland,” she said.
“Because of the weather?” I asked.
She nodded. “And because every stone, every plant on the memorial comes from the different counties, all thirty two of them.”
She carried a certain knowledge, a bone-deep connection with that memorial. It symbolized suffering, and striving, and Maura’s love of Ireland. Maura had a heart unlike anyone I’ve ever known. She felt other people’s pain right through her skin, and it came out in her songs. She found a great songwriting partner, John Bertsche, and to hear her describe their sessions, there was something mystical at work.
Maura’s music broke your heart. She sang with such deep emotion—every song. And it was real, as if she was truly reliving the experience about which she sang. She loved fiercely, starting with her family. She spoke of her mother so often, with great devotion. I remember when she played “Our Lady of Fatima” for me, telling me she’d written it for her mother.
She loved her sisters, and her cousins, her dearest friends, her writing partner. All of that love poured into her music, yet there was often a sense of loss, or melancholy, an unspoken understanding that nothing, not even the strongest love could last forever. She grasped the truth of impermanence. Some songwriters compose around it, but Maura faced it head-on. Perhaps it was her father’s death that taught her, or perhaps it was just that Maura was an old soul.
A mutual friend says Maura had the voice of an angel. She did, but not your every-day-pious white-winged Seraphim. Her voice broke with emotion. She was an angel of the Bronx. I think of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s Grievous Angel. For Maura and her work with John, it was more like Heartstruck Angel, Devastated Angel, take your pick. Her voice was like no other, and her inspiration was earthbound. She and John wove together songs of the here and now: love, loss, betrayal, and—with into the sun—hope.
We lost her too soon.