Boston belongs to school kids everywhere. When we were young, at R. J. Vance Elementary in New Britain, Connecticut, we could count on two annual field trips: one to the Boston Freedom Trail, the other to the Boston Museum of Science. At the museum we saw chicks hatching in incubators, fuzzy new life, and Foucault’s Pendulum, proving that the earth is not stationary but in constant rotation. The Freedom Trail took us from Boston Common past historic sites including—this sticks in my mind—the Granary Burying Ground with Mother Goose’s grave. Although I’ve never lived in Boston, yesterday’s bombing felt personal. I think it did to everyone. The Boston Marathon is one of the world’s great sporting events. I can picture the finish line and feel the emotions of joy, exhilaration, exhaustion—people cheering their loved ones on, eight-year old Martin Richard of Dorchester waiting, watching for his dad to run past. The cruelest bomb, if there is such a thing, placed in a location of celebration and victory, is designed for maximum injury, destruction, and trauma. News cameras showed slashed bodies and pools of blood. Graphic, visceral images I can’t get out of my mind. And that place: that familiar stretch of Boylston Street, so near the Boston Public Library, where I spent hours researching and writing a never-published first book that I walked across the Common to hand-deliver to a publisher on Park Street. 951 Boylston Street once housed the Institute of Contemporary Art, where one literary evening I saw Tobias Wolff introduce Mary Robison, and she stood at the podium reading new work and drinking a beer, and the moment is emblazoned in my memory--a great and raucous gathering to celebrate a new collection of short stories. My parents spent their wedding night at the Copley Plaza Hotel—many parents did, many friends did. My niece won a poetry prize at Regis College, and we held a celebratory dinner at a restaurant on Boylston Street. Our family sat around a big table with friends and young poets, and afterwards, in cold spring snow, we walked outside, right past the spot where yesterday the bombs went off. There are moments in life you’ll always remember: where were you when you heard? Equally there are places in life that will gain new meaning after a tragedy—we were right there, we walked down that very street. This is human, a drawing together, touching the spot where others suffered, connecting through our hearts. Right now I’m in California. The sky is bright blue. The breeze blows off the Pacific, not the Atlantic. But my heart is in New England. I can see the spring trees just starting to bud, can imagine sunlight reflecting on the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library. I can picture the yellow and red sandstone campanile of New Old South Church—shown so prominently in the news photos—towering over Boylston Street. A good friend works at Massachusetts General Hospital, helping trauma victims, and I know that and other hospitals are flooded with those needing help. I’m far away, but I’m also right there, my heart and thoughts. So many of us are. Love to you, Boston.
When my mother came to Paris for her chemotherapy, it was her very first time on a plane. The trip was full of meaning. Lucille Arrigan Rice, my mother, was one of the greatest readers ever to live. She had been born and raised in New England and never traveled beyond Washington DC to the south, Quebec City to the north, and New York City to the west. Her reading had taken her everywhere in the world so perhaps she hadn't felt the need to visit places other than through literature. The cost was also an issue; it wasn't so uncommon for teachers, typewriter men, and their children, to think flying was only for the Air Force and rich people.
I was living in Paris and couldn't bear not being with her during her treatment for a brain tumor, so I arranged for her to have chemo at the American Hospital in Neuilly. She loved Paris immediately; she'd felt a bond with the city since, when pregnant with my youngest sister, she'd spent labor reading Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris goes to Paris, and eventually the baby grew up to marry a Frenchman (here is the baby and her husband, Maureen and Olivier Onorato, in Arcachon, France, where they lived their first year of marriage many moons ago.) (Photo by Amelia Onorato,) Anyway, the Gallico book is a magical reference tool in our family, so my sister's marriage, and now my mother's visit to Paris, all seemed quite blessed and cosmic, but that is another story.
My mother was enchanted by Paris but wanted to go to England. Her grandmother, Gertrude Gibson Harwood Beaudry, was English, so we'd grown up with teatime, silver spoons commemorating Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and a habit i shared with my sisters of practicing English accents while walking on the golf course, pretending it was the Yorkshire Moors. I also invented an imaginary English family, wherein my father was the fabulously dashing Max Gardiner, I had nine brothers and no sisters, and my own bay thoroughbred, on whom I rode hunt seat jolly well. But that too is another story.
Flying across the Channel, my mother was moved to remember my father's service during WWll, how his squadron had given air support to the troops landing on Normandy beaches on D-Day. During our London stay we would visit places my father had stayed on leave from the base at North Pickenham, including a Catholic church hit by a buzz-bomb while my father was at Mass.
Upon landing in England, my mother's smile grew huge, as if she had finally come home. We took a taxi to the Basil Street Hotel, where we had a tiny suite and our own butler. My mother tired easily, so she had to drink bouillon in bed and sleep a while before we could set out to see London.
I had planned an itinerary that I thought she would enjoy, but it went out the window as soon as she woke up. "I want to go straight to Doughty Street," she said. "What's there?" I asked. She looked disappointed in both herself and me, as if she'd failed me in my education and I'd failed myself by not enquiring further. "Charles Dickens' house," she said.
We went straightaway. Dickens had lived in the Georgian terraced house at 48 Doughty Street for two years: he and Catherine moved in right after their marriage in April 1837. Home to the Dickenses and the three eldest of their ten children, two of their daughters were born there. The family moved to larger houses as Dickens became more successful, but none of those other residences survive.
The interior was Victorian, and we wandered--my mother blissfully--through the morning room, drawing room, and brilliantly scholarly library. The house contains the most comprehensive collection of all things Dickens, including first editions and a painting, Dicken's Dream, by R. W. Buss, the artist who'd illustrated The Pickwick Papers.
I was overjoyed to see early editions of Dombey and Son, a novel my sisters and I loved for its own merit but also because in Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger, it was the novel Zooey was reading at the kitchen table when Jesus appeared and asked him for a small glass of ginger ale. A small glass, mind you.
My mother adored Dickens. Not just as the literary giant he was, but also, simply as an avid reader, because he wrote such engaging, addictive stories. My mother said, "He wrote such cliffhangers. The books would be published in serials, and readers would be waiting at the loading dock to pick up the next installment." It thrilled her to know that he had written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and part of Barnaby Rudge while in residence there.
After reluctantly leaving as the house/museum closed for the day, we went to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was both charming and incredibly touristy, because a woman in the museum had told my mother that Dickens had frequented the pub. My mother couldn't eat, she was too sick, but she leaned back and soaked in the atmosphere, imagining Dickens at the next table--perhaps writing, perhaps thinking of his latest chapter.
Our next stop, the following day, would be at Samuel Johnson's house, as she was quite obsessed with Dr. Johnson and was, back in Connecticut, caring for a stray tiger cat she'd named Boswell after the diarist and author of The Life of Samuel Johnson. But today, in this post, I savor that memory of my mother and our visit with Charles Dickens. It is, after all, Dickens' birthday... Lucille would be the first to bake him a cake.
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.
[Image at top of page: The Meteor of 1860 by Frederic Church.]
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.
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.
"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." ~ From "Howard's End" by E. M. Forster Many years ago, when I first started submitting short stories to magazines and journals, Daniel Curley, the editor of Ascent, sent me the above quote. I was young, and was positive I knew exactly what it meant: the necessity and desire, both in real life and fiction, of making close ties. It seemed so obvious to me, such a clear life's path, that I tucked it away more as a motto than as guidance and admonition.
It was easy to do. My mother and Mim, the grandmother who lived with us, were still alive. I was in love, and couldn't imagine ever parting from him. Both sisters and I were so close we had our own language and, I swear, saw the world through the exact same lens, through each other's eyes. Childhood friendships were intact.
Life was sheltered and insular. My sisters and I had the same first grade teacher, Miss Convey, as our mother. Every summer our family went to the beach, a Brigadoon set apart from the world by a train trestle, staying in the cottage our grandparents had built. We played with the children of people our parents had grown up with. Those connections comprised our world.
I moved out and on. And on and on. Long story, but don't we all have long stories? Even so, I still go to that family cottage, and I'm still friends with the girl I walked to school with, the boy I learned to swim with.
Now I find the Forster quote more philosophical, and I see a shadow behind it. There's loss in life--people you thought would be with you forever go another way and disappear. People break up, move away, get hurt. It's easier to pile on emotional armor than to keep an open heart. Only connect! Maybe not...
Yet writing this makes me feel very connected to friends and family and people I've never met. All the readers who visit my site, tell me they love my books, share their own connections with my stories and the characters who populate them. How lucky am I?
Still, there are people long lost to me. I think about them and wonder where they've gone. Sometimes I dream about them. Sometimes I regret their leaving or my leaving or things we said or things we didn't say. Some of them were very close to me at one time; others might have no idea the role they played in my life.
Here's one of those: Billy K. We went to Vance School together. He lived in the Children's Home, a large brick building on a distant hill, that I could see from my bedroom window. We were friends because we both had freckles. I'd stare up at the Children's Home and wonder why he was there. Had his parents died? Had he been taken from them? I asked my parents if we could adopt him, and they said we couldn't. He had a sweater with a hole in its sleeve, and I'd see the hole getting bigger and wonder why someone didn't mend it for him.
Maybe he's out there. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he read this and knew it was about him? The internet makes connecting not only possible but ubiquitous. People from the past find each other. It's nice to make contact, take a trip down memory lane, catch up on life's happenings. But I feel "Only Connect!" is more than internet-deep. It's true love, real love, enduring friendship, and the hard work involved in holding on, holding tight.
Still, I would love to know about Billy, a boy I haven't seen since fifth or sixth grade, to hear how his life has been.
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.