Look up

There is so much to love and find beautiful right now, while memories tug into the past, thoughts of Christmases gone by.  I find this time of year bittersweet. I think of my mother, father, and Mim, old friends, a sister who's said goodbye.  I remember the house we grew up in, on Lincoln Street in New Britain, Connecticut.

We'd decorate the tree, wrap a lauren garland  around the banister, place another over the mantle,  and drape one over the front door.  Mim would decorate the wreath, hang it on the door.  We'd bake Christmas cookies.  One year we made clay angels, and our favorite was the one that looked like Uncle Fester from the Addams Family.

Even then, at a young age, there was longing for more connection, especially with my father.  If you've read my novel Firefly Beach, you know the story of my pregnant mother, three-year old sister, and my five year old self being held hostage one night, by the man with a gun.  It happened at Christmas, and had to do with my complicated father, so that experience is in my holiday memory bank as well.

Isn't it strange the way we sometimes miss sad or painful things?  Maybe it's the desire to go back and make them turn out right.  My father would be magically happier, the man with the gun wouldn't have come, the cold and dark would stay outside while in our little cape cod house our family would be cozy, drawn together, safe and sound.  That's the visions-of-sugarplums version.

In reality there were many visions-of-sugarplum moments.  My mother would read to us from The Cricket on the Hearth and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden; A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.

One summer we found an enormous starfish, and began to use it as the star atop our tree.  When my father was home he'd place the star; I'd always have a lump in my throat when he did that.  On Christmas Eve my mother would tell us to listen for the angels singing, it was the one time in the year that we could hear them, and we always would, just before drifting off to sleep.

Later, after my father died, we moved to the beach year-round.  We kept the old traditions but found new ones.  We heated with a coal stove, so there was an old-fashioned ritual to stoking the fire.  We'd tie red ribbons around all the candlestick holders, and light the night by candlelight.

On Christmas morning, nearly every year, we'd look out at Long Island Sound and see sea smoke: a low mysterious cloud just over the water's surface, like smoke above a cauldron, a phenomenon caused when arctic air moves over warmer salt water.

Sometimes we'd see ships passing down the sound, some with lighted Christmas trees tied to their masts--magical to look far out and see that, tiny bright spots sailing along the horizon--and we'd wonder where they were going, how the crew felt to be away from their families.

At night we'd go outside.  Maybe it would be snowing, or the stars would be blazing, and one year a comet streaked through the sky--celestial wonder.  The moment brought us close to heaven, and I'd think of my father, I think we all did, and sent him love while also wondering why he couldn't have been happier here on earth, and Mim would stand in the kitchen door calling us back inside, weren't we freezing, it was making her cold just to look at us.  We'd laugh and go in.

So many gone, but strong love still here.  My little sister and I have each other.  Her husband and daughter, and our niece and her husband, and two friends so dear they're nothing less than family to us.  We've been creating our own traditions over the last years. We've invited to the table our ghosts and lost loves, so they can be at the celebration too.  We carry them with us.

Maybe the lesson, if there has to be a lesson, is that nothing is ever all one way.  The holidays seem to promise universal goodness, happiness, togetherness.  That isn't always the way, and because of our heightened hopes, the disappointment can be all the greater.

There's beauty in every life, every single day.  Sometimes it takes effort and focus to find it.  To find that starfish, taking that beach walk we had to look down.  Even when your heart is aching for who's not here, you look around and find who is.  There's someone who loves you.  There's a cat who wants to sit on your lap.  There are bright stars in the cold, dark sky.  Position the starfish at the top of the tree.   All will be well.

Look up.

[Image at top of page: The Meteor of 1860 by Frederic Church.]

Butterfly on the Tide Line

Butterfly on the Tide Line by Luanne Rice

Walking the tide line, I came upon an Eastern Comma Butterfly in the wet sand.  The front edge of a wave pushed it higher on the beach.  I thought the butterfly was dead, but then I saw one of its legs move.  I picked it up.  I carried it to the top of the beach thinking I would lower it into the tall grass where it could die, but it held my finger with a sharp grip.  It began to walk up the back of my hand.

I sat in the sand holding it.  We stayed there for a long time.  The sun felt warm.  Ants crawled around the sand.  The butterfly was still, its wings glued together, sticking straight up.  It looked as if a bite had been taken from its wings, but it was so symmetrical I believe that was just their shape.

Brown spots on dark orange wings, like a monarch but with no white markings.  Raggedy wings, big eyes.  She had only one antenna visible.  I thought the other had been torn off, but it was trapped between her wings.  She worked to free it and did.  Now two antennae waved.  Four legs walking.  Up my hand onto the sleeve of my sweatshirt.   Over my shoulder, onto my back.  She positioned herself in full sunlight.  We stayed there a long time.  She was drying her wings.

She moved her wings apart.  A little, then back together.  Stillness.  Her big eyes.  No more walking, then many more steps onto my shoulder.  She tilted.  Her wings opened.  Now she closed them again.  Wide wings, grains of sand stuck to them.  A small patch of sand where the wing joined her thorax.  As her wings dried, the sand fell off grain by grain.

I slid off my sweatshirt and placed it on my towel with her on the shoulder of the sweatshirt in the sun.  I went to swim.  I just ducked in, stayed a few minutes, came out.  She was still there in the sunlight.  The wind ruffled her wings.  They were open now and stayed open.  The sun was setting; I was getting cold.  I waited, wishing she would fly.  I felt my hopes getting up, but checked them.  Maybe she would try to fly and not be able to.  I thought of my youngest sister.  She had once watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis.  It had crawled onto her finger and taken flight from there.  She’d described to me the feeling of tiny claws on her skin.  I had known that with my butterfly.  I wanted her to fly, but she didn’t.  The sun was going down.

I didn’t want to leave her on the beach.  I picked up my sweatshirt with her still clinging to the shoulder, wings open.  Carrying her across the sand, I spotted a young gull, dark markings, standing on one foot.  On the body, right where the second leg should have been, was a scrap of red.  Blood, from where the leg had been—recently, from the blood and ruffled feathers—torn off.

Every day is a heartbreak.  You can’t save everything.  Maybe you can’t save anything.  I carried the butterfly on my sweatshirt.  The sea breeze picks up just before sunset, and I was afraid she’d blow off my sweatshirt when we crossed the footbridge, but I shielded her with my body and she hung on.

We climbed the steep stone steps up the wooded hillside.  When we got to the yard, I left her on my sweatshirt on the ground by the back door.  Her wings were open, then she closed them.  I went to take a shower, an outside shower under the sky, with vines climbing the latticework.  The water felt hot and good.  When I came back around the house, she was gone.

No Woods

The area is called Point O' Woods, but now it might as well be called Point O' No Woods. The new houses have air-conditioning—who needs the sea breeze, and who needs shade? Instead of the rustle of leaves overhead, walk down the road and hear the low, constant hum of a big air-conditioning unit.

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Beach Girls

Beach Girls explores the complex and contradictory territories of love, family and friendship. Luanne's sensuous prose and unforgettably rich and textured characters guide us toward a truth that lies within and sometimes beyond our dreams—an enduring strength that we all must embrace to find our way home and into the hearts of those we cherish most.

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