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Tag Archives: loss

Done All Right for a Girl

I fall into that sad category of “too young for Woodstock and too old for Coachella.”  So while at age 12 I missed Melanie at Woodstock, I did see her in summer 1974 at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, shelling out a meager $2 for that privilege. I’ve always loved her — her surprisingly big voice with its occasional slight rasp, the way she stood up on stage with just her guitar.

Melanie performed last night at a house concert in Claremont, an intimate gathering of about 30 people. Before I went, I fished out my Melanie songbook and remembered my insufficient attempts to strum “Peace Will Come” or “Candles in the Rain.”


It was sad and slightly shocking to see that the years haven’t been kind to her. I anticipated a silver-haired version of the Melanie I’d seen 42 years ago, and winced guiltily when she recited a monologue from her 2012 musical, “Melanie and the Record Man,” in which she admonishes her audience for expecting her to remain frozen as that sylphlike, iconic version of herself.


She looks to be in poor health, helped on and off stage by her son Beau, whose solicitousness of his mother was touching. She spoke with a hint of wistfulness about performing for 500,000 people at Woodstock. Still obviously grieving her husband of 45 years who died in 2010, she mentions that he “took care of everything” and said that until recently, she’d been drifting on her own.  I suspect that she struggles financially now despite two gold albums, a gold single and a Billboard award for Top Female Vocalist.


When she developed a tickle in her throat during her set of old and new songs last night, an obliging fan jumped up, dashed out to his car and retrieved a half-empty bottle of tequila. A shot was sloshed into a coffee mug and downed by the singer. “Did you drink the other half on the way in the car?” she asked her impromptu voice doctor, and the audience laughed.

Although “Brand New Key” sold 3 million copies worldwide, Melanie described coming to loathe it for years as a “silly” song that branded her as “cute.” She’s come back around now to appreciate the hit again, she said. It wasn’t the song’s then-risque sexual double-entendre that made it revolutionary, or even the supposedly sinister reference to “key” for kilo of drugs. When she sang, “Some people say I done all right for a girl,” that bit of social commentary went unnoticed in 1972.

The evening left me thinking about how fleeting the time seems, the nature of success, and girls who have done all right despite setbacks, sudden losses and things that can’t be helped.






Siblings: Unrivaled Relationships

Today is Siblings Day.  Our relationships with brothers and sisters are the longest—and often the most complex—we have. I was lucky to be a middle child. Depending on my mood, I could join Richard in forming large battalions with his green plastic Army men or sneak sugar from the kitchen in order to stage an elaborate, imaginary high tea with Mary.


This photo is undated, but I’m guessing we were 3, 5, and 7. Richard’s knees are banged up, I seem very pleased with my perch on that tricycle, and Mary is keeping her distance and her eye on the ball, perhaps wanting to separate a bit from us.

Of course we couldn’t know then that we wouldn’t grow old together, that Mary would be taken from us.

My friend and colleague Kristen Spalding understands the grief of losing a sibling—her sister Allie died at 12 of leukemia. Kristen formed Allie’s Helping Hands, a nonprofit organization that provides support for siblings of ill children by arranging days of play and fun.

Here, Kristen tells about her passion and empathy that led her to create Allie’s helping hands:

Call or hug your sibs today.  If you know a family who has an ill child with siblings, tell them about Allie’s Helping Hands.


Yesterday we were invited to Easter lunch by a lovely young couple we met last year when we volunteered for the Homeless Count in Long Beach. They have a 9-month-old baby, fat and merry.

The invitation was an antidote to feeling slightly forlorn. Christopher was here last week on spring break, and left at midday to finish out his junior year, just before we went to lunch with our friends. It seems like the blink of an eye since he was in a high chair, and we would host the Easter gathering at our house. Time, age, infirmity, death and divorce have refashioned all that.

At lunch, we all laughed as the baby pulverized avocado with his tiny fists and made a fearsome mess of it.  It felt odd, too, to be a generation away and to think, “That’s not how we did it.”  Evidently “self-feeding” has been the trend for at least seven or eight years – no more spoon-feeding.  The thinking is that spoon-fed kids are potentially obese and grow up to be picky eaters.

I could almost hear myself say in a creaky voice while brandishing a cane, “In my day, we fed our kids with a spoon.”

Spoon Fed




Memories on the Shelf

I’ve been moving ashes around again. This time I transferred the makeshift altar in the front closet because David wanted to rewire the sound system in the house. The shelf that held both my mother’s and sister’s ashes had to make way for some kind of blinking box that now allows David to blare the Grateful Dead in three different rooms.

So I moved the ashes and their accoutrements: a black and white photo of my sister taken at her office on her birthday, where she is dressed up and smiling, surrounded by flowers and cake on what was to be the last birthday she spent on this earth, my mother’s glasses with the parti-colored chain I’d given her so she could keep them around her neck and not lose them as often, and her little 10-bead rosary from Rome.


I shifted the small shrine onto a shelf in a closet in my office. That one I’ll have to open more frequently than I did the hall closet, which was rarely used. When I needed to get a seldom-worn jacket or a folding chair I’d open the door and say breezily, “Hi Mom.” I knew she wouldn’t mind the irreverence.

Sometimes I feel OK about having these ashes in the house, and sometimes I worry that maybe it’s not normal, but creepy and weird. I have them not because I’m attached to them in any way, but because I don’t know what else to do with them. I should take both sets of ashes and hike up to Glacier Point or some other exquisite spot in the Sierra where I could bury them together.  But the thought of it, the weight of them in my backpack, lifting the lids from the boxes, makes me start panting in anxiety.  So I leave them in the closet.

My mother’s ashes came to their resting place in the closet without drama, although with deep grief. She’d been ill for three-and-a-half years before she died, and had made it clear that she wanted to be cremated.  When I got the call from the mortuary that her “cremains,” a term she’d no doubt loathe, were ready to be picked up, I went and got them. They were already in a serviceable wooden box, evidently included in what my husband accurately but grimly called the disposal fee. I put them on the front seat of the car, strapped the box in with the seat belt, drove home shakily, and placed them on the shelf where they stayed from 2004 until they were ousted by the Grateful Dead.

When my sister died in 1988 only six weeks after being diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I couldn’t deal with her ashes. She’d made no funeral arrangements—who does that at age 33? When the funeral home said I could pay $100 to have the ashes stored at Trinity Cemetery until I figured out what to do with them, I gladly agreed. “Do you think we should go and get them?” my mother would ask me from time to time. I’d say yes, we should, but then we’d talk about what to do with them and neither of us could bear to go any further. Once I’d arranged to pick them up, but lost courage and never went.

Several months after my mother died, I decided that I couldn’t leave Mary’s ashes alone in Manhattan, with no one on the East Coast anymore.  It didn’t seem right even though it wasn’t as if we’d been visiting the place where her ashes were stored—I’d never gone or even seen it.

But I called the funeral home again, and spoke to Charles, the same man who had evidently noted my defection of several years before.  “You never came,” he said, in a faintly accusing tone.  “I know, I’m sorry,” I said, wondering why I was apologizing. 

I hadn’t gone because I was terrified. Not of the ashes themselves, but of the reaction I feared I’d have if I picked them up.  I pictured myself carrying them through the streets of Washington Heights, howling. 

He told me again where to go at Trinity Cemetery. I was going to D.C. for a conference, so afterward I took the train to New York, and then the #1 to 157th Street. I walked slowly and with trepidation to the cemetery, a burial place that has been there since the 1600s.

Trinity Cemetery was quiet and leafy, a surprising haven in Manhattan. In a small room, I signed a paper and a young woman brought me what looked like a paint can. I had no idea what the ashes would be in—I didn’t expect that my $100 storage fee had bought any kind of ceremonial looking urn—but the sight of the paint can jolted me. I had planned ahead by bringing a shopping bag—Macy’s, to be precise, a touch that might have pleased my sister, the inveterate shopper.

My sister had been gone 16 years by that time. It wasn’t as if the pain of losing her was fresh, but my heart still pounded violently as I put the paint can in the bag and set out from the cemetery. Some of the streets in Washington Heights are still cobblestoned, and I picked my way carefully, ambling north, not knowing exactly where I was going.

My pace was slow, almost catatonic, as if I were afraid that if I moved too fast or suddenly, I’d start screaming and crying hysterically. Maybe I should have made a big terrible public scene and spectacle—after all, this was one horrible goddamned errand.

I spotted signs for the Morris Jumel Mansion, so I followed them, even though I had no idea what or where it was. The cobblestoned streets narrowed to a little alleyway that led to what turned out to be the oldest residence in Manhattan, George Washington’s headquarters for a time. It was Monday, so the museum was closed and no one was on the grounds, which perch high over the Hudson.

I sat on a park bench outside the mansion, which looked dingy and in need of paint, and looked out over the river, waiting to calm down, and after awhile, I did.  I shed no tears.

I buried the ashes deep in my suitcase for the flight home. I’d heard that you couldn’t just carry ashes around — that some kind of permit or bureaucratic process was required. I decided to chance it and hoped the TSA wouldn’t pick my suitcase as one they were going to grovel through. They didn’t.

There were still more steps before Mary’s ashes made it to the shelf. I found an “Urns Are Us” kind of place on the Internet and ordered a wooden box. It was surprisingly pretty, birds-eye maple, varnished to a bright gleam.  But I kept it and the paint can in the Macy’s bag hidden in a laundry basket for four more months. No one knew—I hadn’t told anyone that I retrieved the ashes.

On the anniversary of Mary’s death in February that year, I decided that I couldn’t delay transferring the ashes into the box any longer. I made a small ritual of it while David was at work and Christopher was at school, lighting a candle, listening to Telemann, and placing the black and white photo of Mary on the table. I spread newspapers under the paint can and opened it fearfully.

I’d also heard that sometimes ashes contain a bit of bone or tooth.  I prayed I wouldn’t see that, because I thought I’d freak out.  But the ashes were like coarse gray sand, dense and heavy.  I used a big soupspoon to dish them out of the paint can and ladle them into the box. 

Then I wrapped the soupspoon and the empty paint can in the newspaper and stuffed all of it deep into the trashcan outside. If either my mother or sister had been there, I would have said that no one should have to sip their vichyssoise with cutlery that has been used on dead people’s remains, even if it was a beloved sister, and we would have laughed, helplessly and guiltily.

The day after I put Mary’s ashes in the wooden box and on the shelf next to our mother’s, a raging headache, blazing fever, and severe body aches flattened me for two weeks. It took another two weeks before I felt strong again. Just a virus, and no connection to the sad sequence of events? Probably. In most cultures, Mary’s circuitous, 16-year journey to her final resting place wouldn’t be considered a proper delivery into the next life. Lengthy and unconventional, the ritual had its own sacredness. 



Jumping Rope After Mass

Children weren’t photographed relentlessly when we were growing up, but these early snapshots of my sister capture her essence. She is gone 25 years today. The photos of us together also speak to my yearning.

Mary fashion show

As a toddler, Mary starred in a department store fashion show in Lexington, Ky., where we grew up. Modeling a snow suit with leggings, she looks like she is about to step gingerly from the stage, led by a store employee. Mary’s very early interest in couture endured throughout her 33 years—she always dressed with creativity and flair.

Easter finery

We are decked out in spring coats, ready for Mass. It looks like we have fresh pixie haircuts, too.

Mary leaping

Mary in mid-air, getting in a few rounds of jump rope after Mass, probably restless from sitting through all those dominus vobiscums and recitations of the Pope’s phone number, et cum spiritu tuo.  (You had to have gone to Catholic school to get that joke.)

MTC and KTC holding hands on beach

My grandmother took this one at Avon-by-the-Sea, N.J., in 1964.  The bathing caps were undoubtedly Nana’s idea—she worried that the chilly Atlantic would harm our ears! Rifling through old photos brings me to tears every time, but I wept the most when I came across this one. It’s the only one that shows Mary and me clasping hands.

RIP my dear.

Pinwheels and Peach Nectar

In a radio interview I heard a few months ago, singer Rosanne Cash mentioned visiting her famous father’s grave and bringing two cups of coffee. The interviewer seemed puzzled and asked, “Why, because you thought you were going to be there for a long time?” I knew instantly what Cash meant before she answered, “No, I brought one for him, too.”

My late husband Mark wasn’t a caffeinated kind of guy, so when I visited his grave today, on the 25th anniversary of his death, I brought a can of his favorite peach nectar. The sweet drink, the product of that most beautiful fruit, helped me keep my resolve to reflect and talk only about the good things about him and his life, and resist the temptation to dwell on the sorrow of his illness and death.


Mark was a writer, and a brilliant one. Not long after I met him in 1984, I spotted a pencil with a tiny pinwheel on top in a gift shop in Laguna Beach, where I lived at the time. I bought it for him right away. It was for no occasion, but I planned to give it to him that evening, and joke that if he sat in a breeze so that the pinwheel would spin, it would help him write faster.


I forget now where we were scheduled to go that night. Mark was never late, so the knock came at 7 on the dot.  I flung the door open but stopped in shock before I could even say hi. He was grinning, holding out a full-sized pinwheel. “This is for you,” he said. I took it wordlessly, then wheeled and rushed into my bedroom to get the pinwheel-topped pencil.

We laughed at the incredible coincidence—neither of us had seen or thought of pinwheels since we were kids. “I just thought you’d like it,” Mark said. “Remember holding them out the car window?” That spontaneous small gift was the essence of Mark. Along with his intellectual, studious side, and his remarkable, prodigious brain, he was uncomplicated and fun, and revealed the occasional streak of whimsy.

I don’t have the pinwheel Mark gave me – the delicate toy eventually fell apart. I still have his pencil, though, a sweet reminder of a giddy and precious day.


Cookie Sheet Solutions




My mother would be 90 today. I’d like to think she would still be spry and elegant, but I recognize the possibility that she could have become infirm, confused, and unsteady by this age, too.

I washed her 2000 Acura carefully to mark the day, since there can’t be any birthday lunch, dinner, or cake. Later I might put in the CD of the Telemann piece she liked so much and take a ride to the beach. My mother bought this car when she was 78 – no sensible Camry or sturdy Buick for her. She had me ship it to California from New Jersey when illness forced her to move here, although she never drove it again. It would have been easier and more economical to sell it in New Jersey at the time, but I understood her need to have it here – it represented the hope that she would get well and learn to zip around the LA Freeways much as she had barreled up and down the NJ Turnpike.

This car was a luxury, bought brand-new and paid for in full. My mother made do with dubious cars for a long time when the family economy was rocky, driving a ’67 VW bug when she was well into her 50s, taking an occasional perverse pleasure in flooring it on her way home from work on Route 18, nudging the speedometer past 95. When the bottom rusted out after many harsh East Coast winters, she nailed a cookie sheet over the holes and drove it another 30,000 miles. Last week when Michelle Obama talked about her early rides in Barack’s rusty car, I could hear my mother pronouncing that a cookie sheet would have easily taken care of the problem.

My 16-year-old son alternates between sniffing that it is “embarrassing” to be seen in this car and claiming that he wants to lower it, soup it up with rims, and career around in it much like the young Asian-American men in Westminster and Gardena who seem to favor turning these Acuras into hotrods.

I’ve told him that he can’t have it unless he pays me darn good money for it. Although my mother sold it to me for $1 not long before she died, if she were here today I imagine she’d order me to give it to him, and she’d probably float Christopher the money to trick it out – she was that kind of doting grandmother.

I can’t give my mother a 90th birthday present today, but I’m thinking about her many gifts to me, not the least of which is a certain practicality and resourcefulness. Regal as she was, she also had that nail-a-cookie-sheet-over-it-and-get-on-with-it side, too. I’ve been lucky enough to make good use of that ability to patch up all kinds of things.