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.]

We Gather Together (even if we can't)

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. This year I'm missing my sister Maureen--she and Olivier went to France, to say bon voyage to his brother and sister-in-law, leaving Bordeaux to open an inn in Indonesia.  Missing my nieces, too--Mia will be with her friend, and Molly will be with her husband Alex and his family.  We'll all be together in spirit, as well as with Rosemary...sometimes that's the best even a close family can do.

Thinking of Maureen and Olivier in France, I remember having Thanksgivings in Paris.  The day would start by reading Art Buchwald's yearly-repeated column in the International Herald Tribune.  Then I'd make dinner, including a not-so-easy-to-find dinde, for all my American friends there.  There'd always be at least twenty...

I'm very lucky, though; a young friend, Nyasha, is coming down from Massachusetts to spend the holiday with me.  I love having visitors from out of town, and I'll enjoy showing her all my favorite NYC places, and having a special dinner.

Growing up always had dinner with my father's sisters and family--Aunt Mary, Uncle Bill, and Billy Keenan, Aunt Jan and Uncle Bud Lee--either at our house in New Britain or the Keenans' in Elmwood.  When it was at ours, we had lots to do to prepare.  Wednesday was a half-day at school, and my sisters and I would run home to help our mother and grandmother.

We'd go down to the basement to get the good china and crystal glasses, and we'd wash everything till it sparkled.  Mim would bake pies, and we'd help: apple, pumpkin, and mince.  One of us would make cranberry-orange relish--a recipe via Ocean Spray from the Whitneys, the family across the street for whom I babysat--and another of us would bake cranberry and date-nut breads.

The three of us would help polish the silver, and fill bowls with nuts in their shells.  My grandmother had a turkey platter, a green oval with a splendid turkey, its tail spread and preening, displayed on a hutch in the dining room.  We would take it down, the only time all year, feeling excited to know the next day it would be laden with turkey.

(Photo below from right: Tom Rice, Bill Keenan, Mary Keenan, me, Billy's elbow, Lucille Rice raising her glass, tiny corner of Maureen's hair.)

After dinner, my father would lead a walk on Shuttle Meadow golf course, across the street.  It was always wonderfully bracing and damp, and usually cold, and we'd tromp through the rough toward the brook and ponds, to see if any ice had formed yet.  Given my father and Uncle Bill's humor, there'd be lots of laughter.

Dinner at the Keenans's was great, not only because we were guests and had only to bring the pies, but because Billy had these toy horses that I loved and wanted to play with long after it made sense age-wise.  When we got older and could drive, "the kids"--my sisters, Bill, and I--would go to the movies.  Billy and I were recently reminiscing about seeing Silent Movie at the Elm Theater.  Dom Deluise's line, "I need a blueberry pie badly" made a particularly deep impression.

Billy was a football player; if he had a game we'd go see him play at Northwest Catholic.  Later, when he went to Amherst College, one of my teenage highlights was to head up there with his parents and my sisters, tailgate in the parking lot, and feel like hot stuff because we knew Billy.  (Photo of Rosemary, me, Bill Keenan.)

This year Thanksgiving falls on November 25.  That is a bright and shining occurrence.  It happened once many years ago.  Mrs. Whitney, my "other mother," (and currently bookseller extraordinaire at G. J. Ford ) gave birth to her second daughter, the exceptional and luminous Sam--aka the best midwife in the west in my novel Dream Country.  Sam lit up our lives from the minute she was born, and continues to do so while being the best midwife in the west, raising her daughter (my goddaughter) and twins, and telemark skiing in the mountains of Park City, Utah. (Photo of Sam and Sadie)

We all attended Vance School--from my mother to my sisters and me to the Whitney children (aside from Sam, the birthday-Thanksgiving girl, there are Tobin and the twins Sarah and Palmer.)

Every year all the classes filed into the auditorium, and we'd sing We Gather Together and Over the River and Through the Woods.  May you all be gathering together with your families and friends, all your loved ones.

Cranberry Orange relish:

1 bag cranberries; 1 seedless orange; 1 cup of sugar.  Make in two batches: chop up the orange and put half plus half the cranberries and half the sugar through a Cuisinart, food mill, or grinder.  Then do it again.  The relish will be delicious and you will be happy.

The photo above is of Maureen and me in the kitchen at Hubbard's Point.

Wedding Chronicles, Part I

Oh love.  I woke up thinking of it.  Maybe I'd dreamed...  No, I know.  I'm thinking of love because my niece is getting married next week. She is radiant and beautiful, a scientist who left the lab with her betrothed to make a better frozen yogurt in Northampton.  Go Berry is delicious and causes cravings.  This is a brilliant young woman.  Not least of all, Molly is known for having debunked the 5-second rule.  I mention it here only because if an aunt with a blog can't promote her niece's frozen yogurt, who can?

Alex, her fiance, is also a scientist.  They met at Connecticut College.  They love the sea, the ocean, the littoral zone, marine life, diving, swimming, many other things, and especially each other.  Their kindness is touching beyond words.  They once drove miles out of their way when the snow was lovely, dark, and deep, to give me a hug just because I needed one.

Molly goes through life with such courage and grace.  I'm late to her life.  I didn't know her well as a little girl, but we've been making up for lost time.  My sister Maureen and I are watching her and Alex plan their wedding, proud to be her  aunts.

I'm writing this because Love is amazing.  It is fierce when it has to be.  It forgives.  It finds people who believe, really believe in it, and takes them into its fold.  This has happened with Molly and Alex. There's sorrow here, yes, there is.  There are people we love and miss--every day, but especially now.

The wild gift, beyond the casting off, has come in the form of a great coming-together.  Families getting to know each other.  The joy of having Alex in our lives.  Molly and her cousin Mia have gotten close.  Today as Mia heads off to grad school (I feel another niece blog coming,) Molly and Alex will be driving her to Vermont, helping her move in.  They're together today and will be again next week; Mia will be one of Molly's bridesmaids.

Twigg will be at the wedding, wouldn't miss it for anything.  The Loggias love Molly and will attend.  I know my mother and Mim, ghosts for many years now, will be there.  And so much family in spirit--I love you, we love you, you know that.  We'll celebrate at the edge of the sea together.  Be there!

Random wonderful thing

A great beach friend from childhood and, in some ways, even before--our parents had been friends when they were young, and our grandparents before that--posted on my facebook page today.  We were reminiscing about Helen Hubbard--a neighbor who lived on the Point, and for whom my fictional beach town "Hubbard's Point" is named. Betty reminded me of how we used to crouch under Helen's window to listen to her practice.  Helen was an opera singer and voice teacher, and when she sang it was beach music--as much a natural sound as seagulls and wind blowing through the pine needles.  Once or twice a summer she would give recitals and invite grownups from the Point.  That didn't stop us kids from sitting outside and enjoying the performance.

Betty and her sisters and brother and my sisters and I were across-the-road neighbors, and pretty much inseparable from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  We loved summer and each other.  The beach was OURS.  As I wrote back to her, we swam and laughed all day.  Mim, my grandmother, and her great-aunt Florence would hang out together too, tell old stories, go for swims in their skirted bathing suits and white bathing caps.

When Betty's family visited Ireland--often--they would come home with Irish linens, wall-hangings, and tea towels.  My cottage is still filled with the many gifts they brought us.

Her family had a party every Labor Day.  Such a bittersweet gathering!  The weather would still be summery, but fall and school and--especially-leaving the beach--were in the air.  We'd walk down the steep steps from their cottage to glacial rock ledge sloping into Long Island Sound.  Black-eyed Susans, bright pink sweet peas, and lavender flowered spearmint grew at the top of the rocks.  A picnic table would be set with plates of sandwiches, platters of sliced honeydew and musk-melon, and--the piece de resistance--Aunt Florence's soda bread and blueberry buckle.

We'd make that party last as long as possible, because as soon as it was over it was time to pack the station wagon and head up to New Britain for the school year.

As Betty says, our memories are a treasure in themselves.  She is so right.  Just connecting with her today makes me remember everything, and smile, and feel so happy.  I wish I had a picture of us all as children--if I did, no doubt our hair would be wet, someone would be adorned with seaweed, there'd be sunglasses, flip-flops, and a few Good Humors in the picture.  And we'd be doing our best and not succeeding to keep from laughing.