at home with Roo
By Caitlin Kelly
Before we were estranged, we weren’t.
Like me, she had dear friends all over the world, but she was never a joiner. She never stayed for coffee hour after church.
So, sorry to say, there are not enough people to gather for a funeral or a memorial.
Some memories to share:
She and my father love(d) to be rabble-rousers and rule-breakers, so I remember — before they divorced when I was six or seven — one of them, maybe her, choosing to get arrested for non-payment of parking tickets.
In the 60s, anything went, so she decided to wear sarees and sandals — in WASPy Toronto, a definite outlier amidst the cashmere-and-pearls mummies at my prep school.
When she left my father, we moved from a large house in one of Toronto’s nicest neighborhoods to a two-bedroom apartment, a two-story walk-up, in a basic (safe) downtown area. But, typical of her style, she had a wooden playhouse made for me and put on our balcony.
She threw great, stylish birthday parties for me, usually at a local hotel.
Not a flattering pic, but years ago on our New York balcony
She had endured a moneyed-but-strange childhood — including a governess and a mother who kept changing husbands (six? eight?) the way some people change their shoes.
We moved to Cuernavaca so she could study with Ivan Illich. We lived in a basic neighborhood and I walked up the hill to school. We had no phone and didn’t know anyone — so when she had a manic breakdown on Christmas Eve I ended up on my own for two weeks with another 14-year-old friend, visiting from Toronto.
She never discussed her childhood or adolescence. I tried.
She traveled for years alone, even through Latin America. She taught me to shove a chair beneath the door handle, if needed, to stay safe in your hotel room.
She never enjoyed cooking. We used to joke that dinner was ready when smoke poured out of the kitchen.
Born American, always a fervent progressive, she wept the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated — my 11th birthday. I couldn’t understand why she was crying on my birthday.
Whenever I gave in to some sort of panic, she’d reply with her own solution: “What am I going to do? Jump out of my skin?”
As she traveled, always alone, she’d import me once a year to wherever she was — so I visited Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Fiji all in my early 20s. Fun, sometimes. Peru was the best, including a fffffffreezing midnight train ride through the Andes and sunrise at Machu Picchu. Loved the blue starfish in Fiji.
She never re-married and had few romantic relationships. I think intimacy wasn’t enjoyable.
She endured some terrible health issues, including thyroid cancer at 30, breast cancer in her 60s and a brain tumor at 68, a massive meningioma that had likely been growing for a long time, maybe decades. The Vancouver neurosurgeon who performed the six-hour surgery told me it had made her irritable and moody because of its location — so I’d been arguing with a tumor for years?!
When she had the brain tumor, but before we knew for sure when she was taken many miles south to Vancouver for tests, she was taken to a small regional hospital and we flew from NY to see her. Jose was then national/foreign photo editor for The New York Times (a huge job) but took a week off to go with me — and he had never met my mother before. He cleans up nice, and in his khakis and crisp white button-down, came into her room.
“Holy cow!” said Cynthia — maybe the only woman I know who could flirt while battling a big-ass brain tumor.
She traveled the world with a small stuffed mouse with a string tail — her mother’s nickname for her.
Worn, but well-loved
When I went into the hospital in London, age maybe four?, to have my tonsils removed, I was told I was there to have a baby elephant…and she’s still in my life.
A mass of contradictions, Cynthia Blanche von Rhau.