Sudden death — my mother

jose 1

A long ago image, one of my favorites

By Caitlin Kelly

I found out Sunday and immediately knew, seeing the nursing home’s name on caller ID, what this was.

A call I dreaded, but knew was inevitable at some point.

She had not been ill, although she had many health issues — COPD, a colostomy, survivor of multiple cancers. She was 85.  I am her only child and we had been estranged, again, since 2010, for many reasons. Her alcoholism was a major one for me. I was worn out competing with it.

She was also bipolar and her manic episodes, certainly when I was in my teens and 20s,  were terrifying, often resulting in hospital stays around the world as she traveled. I was 19, living alone and attending university, and would find calls on my answering machine from consular officials, from the Americans (she was) and Canadians (I am) asking me what to do.

I knew?

It was a lot.

She had been in a nursing home since 2011 when she became too ill to live independently. She lived, at the end, in Victoria, B.C. as far as one can get from my home in N.Y., another obstacle to visits, even if wanted.

Which we often didn’t want.

She had previously lived in many places, including Roswell, NM, Woods Hole, MA, Toronto, Montreal, Bath and Gibsons. B.C. where she joined the volunteer sea rescue crew, bouncing around in a Zodiac and tending her garden.

In Victoria, she had a dear friend locally who will  take her things for now, and who is executor of her will. She will be cremated and I’ll likely go out in a few months to take her ashes back to the part of mainland B.C. she wants them shared. Sadly, there are not enough people to make a funeral or memorial.

I am a stew of emotions, as anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows.

Cynthia had, in many ways, an amazing life, blessed with Mensa-level intelligence, beauty and enough inherited money she didn’t have to work after her 40s.

She traveled the world alone, even to remote Pacific Islands, and made friends in Australia, England and in Canada, where she moved from New York when she married my Canadian father — at 17. They met in Eze-en-Haut, France at a party, and barely knew one another before marrying at St. Bartholomew Cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City — two wealthy, charming, strong-headed people…who made me!

They were quite the pair and we moved to London from Vancouver while my father worked for the BBC making films. She was adventurous all her life.

She never attended university but worked as a radio reporter, TV talk show host and magazine editor and writer.

She met her lifelong best friend, an East Indian travel agency owner in Toronto, Molly, when she interviewed her for a story.

She had a wardrobe of wigs, sometimes changing her hair color several times a week.

Her black mink had a brilliant emerald green silk lining.

She was glamorous as hell — and also fiercely independent and private.

I knew very little of her.

I was sent to boarding school at eight and summer camps ages 8-14 when I left her care to live with my father. We had lived in Toronto, Montreal and Cuernavaca together.

I never lived with her again after that.

Because she always lived so far away, or vice versa, we saw one another maybe once a year. As she traveled, she would import me once a year to wherever she was at the time: Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji.

Some years went by with no visits, due to rancor.

The closest we were, emotionally and physically, was the year I was 25 and living in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she was living, as always alone, in Bath. We saw one another more often then.

 

She taught me to play gin rummy.

To travel safely as a woman alone.

To set a pretty dining table.

To fight hard for what you believe in.

To talk to anyone interesting, anywhere.

We played ferocious games of jacks — her long fingernails, she knew, a competitive advantage

Some photos:

 

CKELLY RENO BATHROOM

Ooohhhhh, we were competitive!

 

PA140145

Love this one

 

jose 4

That’s me, maybe age five or six, in Toronto.

Renewing my green card

IMG_5301

I love the timeless beauty of the Hudson Valley, where I live. Here, looking south.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t post the image here, obviously.

But it is green-ish — a pale image of the Statue of Liberty, a copy of my fingerprint (they take your biometrics), my photo (in black and white), my signature, gender and other details.

It also has a code that tells officials how I won this legal status — the drop-down menu of options as you go to renew it is very long. Last time I came back from Canada, the officer commented he rarely sees my category.

It’s a truly precious document.

I was born in Vancouver, Canada, lived in London, England ages two to five, then Toronto ages five to 30, with residence in Mexico, Paris and Montreal along the way.

But I was forever being mistaken for American — which every Canadian knows is not a compliment: too loud, too bossy, too driven, too direct. Walks too fast. Talks too fast. Wants too much.

Canadians prize quiet modesty and indirectness. They loathe conflict and are ambivalent or reluctant about celebrating heroes, money or celebrity — which is why Harry and Meghan chose wisely to move to Victoria, British Columbia. Most Canadians just don’t care.

My mother was born in New York and lived in a few places in the U.S., but she never liked it much and was glad to flee permanently to Canada. The irony is that I now live near her birthplace and she, in Victoria, near mine.

 

IMG_3763(1)

I love this elegant NYC restaurant, Via Carota

 

Why did I want to move to the U.S., and to New York?

My one word answer remains unchanged after all these years — ambition.

Canada is small, and offers limited opportunities for a big career in journalism and publishing, Even in a recession, and I’ve weathered three of them in New York since arriving in 1989, there are a lot of decent opportunities here and, key, people willing to hire me, staff or freelance.

There are many things about the U.S. — as you know if you read this blog regularly — that deeply trouble me: racism, violence, guns, sexism, income inequality. Not to mention current electoral politics.

But I’ve always been surprised by — and much appreciated — the willingness here to give me chances to prove myself. I am privileged, for sure: well-educated, white, able-bodied. And this is a country where money talks, so when people choose me, I know they do so with the confidence I’ll help them make more and not let them down.

 

IMG_3850

Downtown Montreal has re-purposed some gorgeous bank buildings into cafes and co0-working spaces

I get it. I almost welcome the nakedness of this transaction.

Canadians are a different breed. Much more averse to risk. Slower to commit and quick to scuttle away from conflict.

In a smaller country, failure sticks and is more difficult to erase, deny or flee. I get it.

So I feel more at ease, in some ways, and certainly in New York, than I ever did in Toronto or Montreal.

I miss elements of my life in Canada and I really miss the deeper quality of those friendships.

And boy I do miss its cooler emotional temperature and impulse to discretion — sometimes I want to holler, here: “Enough! I don’t want to hear all your damn feelings!”

I find it exhausting and unwelcome.

I’ve also been fortunate here: owning an apartment, finding a loving, hard-working and accomplished husband and a few friends.

I’ve luckily ticked many of my life boxes, and have — still — some serious professional ambitions yet to satisfy, like hoping to write and sell two more non-fiction books.

I also came here because I had some cool American relatives and ancestors, like a Chicago developer, or the bullfighter, or the archeologist or the diplomat or the small aircraft pilot with the almond farm.

I found them all so intriguing.

So, for $540, my new green card will buy me another American decade.

I pray to be alive and healthy when it expires.

 

Have you left your native country to settle permanently abroad?

 

Are you happy with how it turned out?

 

Managing anxiety

 

IMG_6173

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I know, for some people, it’s a chronic and debilitating issue.

There are days I think I’m going to explode.

Being asked by my doctor to monitor my blood pressure every morning is making me much more aware how chronically anxious I am, even from the moment I wake up.

This is not good!

So I’m trying to do more deep breathing.

Keeping up with my three-times-a-week spin class, which I enjoy a lot and which burns off a lot of stress.

Taking more and longer naps, even if I don’t sleep but just snuggle under the duvet and stare out into the cold, gray, cloudy winter sky from the warm safety of bed.

 

IMG_2082

 

It’s odd…some things that make people feel really really freaked out don’t bother me at all; I recently read a tweet by someone much higher profile than I who literally ran off stage at an event to vomit with a panic attack.

Public speaking has never scared me.

But it’s time to really examine why I feel so stressed.

Part of it is very real — our monthly living costs are high and we have done everything we can to reduce them. So, working freelance means paid projects we rely on can — and do — fall through. That means making sure we always have accessible savings (which, thankfully, we do.)

Part of it is just the sheer exhaustion of constantly having to manage so many relationships — professional and personal — and the inevitable conflict and misunderstanding that often comes as a result of much (too much!) online conversation. If I piss off the wrong person, I can lose valuable friendships and clients, so I too often feel now like I’m walking eggshells to avoid that.

Part of it is knowing we have zero family support or back-up, whether emotional, financial or physical. I no longer have a relationship with my mother (her only child) and my father and I have a very stormy one. My 3 half-siblings are not people I know or like, and vice versa. Jose’s parents have been dead for decades and we very rarely see his two sisters who live far away. Whatever happens, it’s all on us.

Part of it is what happens after you’ve gotten a diagnosis of any form of cancer; mine in June 2018 for DCIS, stage zero, no spread, surgery and radiation. But I live every day in fear of recurrence.

Part of it is not having quite as many supports as would be ideal, really close friends who live nearby. I have three or four close women friends where I live, but the other day, really in a panic over a work issue, I had to call one who lives in Toronto, a woman I’m lucky to see once a year but who knows me very well. At my age, most women are retired, and at leisure and/or traveling and/or obsessed with their grandchildren, so I have very little in common with them — more with peers decades younger still in the work trenches yet also at a very different stage of life and facing very different challenges.

Part of it is just my general fears about my health and how to strengthen and preserve it as I age. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol to lose weight. I’ve added another day of a different kind of exercise. I’m trying to eat less meat and smaller portions.

Part of it is age. We are not able, now to get another well-paid full-time job in our chaotic industry because of rampant age discrimination. That keeps us in the financial precarity of freelance work and extremely expensive health insurance.

 

 

IMG_0379
We stayed overnight in this house in a Nicaraguan village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.

 

And I know — believe me! — having lived in and traveled to and worked in much poorer places (like Nicaragua, March 2014), that these are all “first world problems” — worries relatively very small indeed in comparison to those of millions of others, abroad and domestic.

 

I took six weeks off in the summer of 2017, a massive splurge of savings. It was worth every penny to travel, alone, through Europe.

When I came home I remarked to a friend that my head, literally, felt different.

“That’s what it’s like not to be anxious all the time,” she said.

I would like to feel that way again.

 

The freelance writing life

IMG_5878

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Well, mine anyway!

If you fantasize about the glam life of a full-time freelance writer — no commute! work in sweatpants! no meetings! no office politics! — the quotidian reality can be…bracing.

I’ve been full-time freelance many times in my career, this most recent stint starting (again) in the summer of 2006 when I was summarily canned (no emails, no meetings, no warnings) by the New York Daily News.

Bye-bye paycheck!

Bye-bye enormous laminated press pass!

It’s much more difficult now to earn a good living (like $60,000 year-plus) in journalism because so many magazines have shut down or gone to a digital-only version — which pay much less than print (I call it #MissingAZero, as they now offer $150 for 1,000 words [at worst] instead of the $1,500 to $3,000 that was once standard payment for that length. Yes, we are still, typical in journalism, paid by the word.)

 

 

IMG_5361

Here’s some of my recent writing life:

 

— A pal on Twitter, who lives in Alaska but who edits for a magazine based in New York City, tweets out she seeks pitches on retail, the topic of my last book. Sweet! I like her a lot and trust her to be a good person to work with, so I pitch her.

— I pitch a religion-focused idea to a Canadian magazine and follow up three times to discover she never saw the initial pitch. Re-send it. I get an offer but it’s short and low, and the Canadian dollar is 25% lower than U.S. — and I pay my bills in New York. Unless they’ll go higher, I’ll pass. (They didn’t, but the email conversation remained cordial.)

Phone interview for an amazing opportunity with a super-prestigious and interesting project, told I’m one of their top three candidates. This is rare! This is potentially very cool. Must wait now for further details.

 

IMG_6211

 

— The print version of my American Prospect story arrives. I love seeing my work in print! I also get paid for it (after starting work on it in August 2019 and finishing work on it in November 2019.) This is the first time in our 20 years together that Jose and I worked together on a story.

Phone conversation with an editor far far away seeking a daily editor for a major news-site. I am surprised to be in the mix (as I am so often not, now!) and ask why; as I suspected, my decades of news experience do have value. I find out I’m also the only candidate (of many) who followed up with a phone call.

— I apply for a reporting fellowship. Waiting to see if I make the finalists’ cut.

— I apply for a few staff jobs but get nothing.

— I report and write a 2,200 word story on STEM education, my first (and an assignment, not my pitch), for Mechanical Engineering magazine. Editor loves it and wants to work on more stories. Yay!

 

IMG_2383

— I pitch several ideas to editors at The New York Times, to Air B & B magazine, and to a new website focused on interior design. The Air B & B essay idea is rejected but it’s a good one and I start thinking who else might want it.

Need to come up with some ideas for The Wall Street Journal, as an editor there contacted me after my American Prospect healthcare story came out.

— Have found an intern, a college student, and assign her research work for two book projects. She found me on Twitter and we will meet this weekend in New York for lunch, face to face for the first time.

— A former Times colleague of Jose’s, who knows me and my work, suggests me to an editor there for a project. We’ll see!

— I lose a lot of energy and patience trying to get the two key sources for a magazine profile to give me the initial information I need. I finally get it, but after too much needless anxiety. This is the kind of story others would kill to have written about them.

 

IMG_3977

 

— I practice and time my remarks for a workshop on pitching I’m giving on March 6 at the annual Northern Short Course, a 3-day conference for photojournalists, this year in Fairfax, VA. I book two nights’ hotel in a quaint town nearby beforehand and two nights’ hotel in D.C. to catch up there with friends as well.

 

Ready for a break!

When the new neighbors are too shiny

IMG_3734

Our town reservoir

By Caitlin Kelly

Oh, this essay!

I loved every word of it, marinated in nostalgia — but not really nostalgia because the author, Jeremiah Moss, still lives in the place, New York’s East Village, whose massive changes he mourns.

An excerpt, originally published in n + 1:

The mothers are coming up the stairs. Holding the hands of their adult children. Daughters, mostly, and one hesitant son. Asking questions like, “Is the neighborhood safe?” The real estate agent, in his starched white shirt and slick hair, replies, “The East Village used to have quite a reputation fifteen, twenty years ago, but now it’s totally safe.” Or did he say totally tame? As in domesticated, subjugated, a wild horse broken. I am listening from inside my apartment, ear pressed to the gap where door doesn’t quite meet jamb, looking through the peephole, trying to see who my new neighbors might be, knowing they’ll be the same as all the rest. Young and funded, they belong to a certain type: utterly unblemished, physically fit, exceptionally well dressed, as bland as skim milk and unsalted saltine crackers. “I work on Wall Street,” I hear one of them call to the real-estate agent. “Awesome!” the agent replies.

They didn’t used to be here.


came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money.

This is so evocative and, if you know Manhattan, and especially its East Village, it will strike a powerful chord in you as well.

Sadly, it’s really not a place that tourists visit.

Why would they?

It’s residential. Not shiny. Not glossy. Not especially Instagram-able.

Long blocks filled with narrow buildings, walk-ups to tenement-style apartments.

This isn’t the cool, trendy West Village, full of investment bankers and their very thin, very blond stay at home wives and international clothing brands like Reiss and Scotch & Soda.

I’ve always loved the quieter, battered East Village, wandering and taking photos, stopping for a coffee.

And I really hear him — because the town I chose decades ago has also massively gentrified, becoming much trendier than when I moved here. We now have two coffee shops and two gyms, beyond the worn-out Y.

We even have a Japanese restaurant where we watched an angelic 27-month-old with her mother happily slurping her miso soup in silence.

 

IMG_20150227_115203336

A shop on our Main Street, interior

 

I joke — not really — that it’s become all Mini Coopers and man-buns. Now it also contains women wearing those shearling boot/clogs and artisanal scarves and driving pastel Fiats and married to guys with turned-up cuffs on their dark rinse jeans.

The cool kids priced out of Park Slope, Brooklyn have stampeded north to our funky little river town, the one whose volunteer fire department — still — is summoned by a series of specific fog-horn blasts.

Alma Snape florists is now an art gallery.

Mrs. Reali’s dry cleaners, with the dead ficus tree in the window, is now a photographer specializing in wedding and engagement and baby photos.

The former antiques mall, stretching way back from Main Street, is a gourmet shop and restaurant run by a former Manhattan photographer — one we enjoy, but where we also saw three people, in one day, read the menu and say out loud: “This is too expensive.”

Ours was once a town of battered Saturns and Corollas and Buicks.

Now there are Mercedes and even a Maserati and a Lamborghini.

Like Moss, I stare and think — who are these people?