Where the heart lies

Our NY view of the Hudson

By Caitlin Kelly

If you have moved around a lot, it can be hard to decide where your heart truly lies — where “home” is.

I’ve lived in six cities and two towns in five countries — my native Canada, England (ages 2-5), Mexico (age 14), France (ages 25-26), the United States (age 30 on.)

I always felt too American for Canada — too bossy, too direct, too ambitious, too much in a hurry.

Now I feel too European for the U.S. — I savor time off. I don’t flagellate myself hourly for being less “productive” than my many peers and competitors, many half my age. I like long vacations and two-hour lunches. I take naps.

So while home again in Canada for the first time in two full years, the eternal question arises again: where’s home?

While I spent decades in Toronto, and have many many memories there, is it home?

Home, to me, means a place I feel truly welcome, and while we have lifelong friends there, Toronto housing is absurdly overpriced — nasty little houses an arm’s length apart are $1 million and condo boxes $600,000. No thanks!

Then…maybe a house in the Ontario countryside? Same problem. The cost of housing is inflated by demand, beyond what is workable for us.

Then….another province?

Or another country?

Tempted by Montreal’s many charms…

I follow several Facebook pages now on living in France and look at a lot of French real estate online. Because of COVID, I don’t see spending the requisite time and money to search more seriously.

I lived there for a year at 25 and have been back many times. I know a few areas a bit: Paris, Normandy, Brittany, the Camargue, the Cote d’Azur, Corsica. I speak fluent French. I love the way of life and physical beauty and ease of getting around thanks to the TGV network. But if we moved there full-time would any of our North American friends ever come to visit?

Would we easily make new deep friendships?

So…who knows?

My mother died in a nursing home in 2020, her apartment sold a decade earlier to pay its costs.

My father buys and sells houses, forever restless. So there’s no family homestead to attach to emotionally…I left one of his houses at 19 and never again lived with either parent.

So, for now, my heart remains in Tarrytown, a small town north of Manhattan on the Hudson, a town so pretty we are constantly seeing film and TV crews arriving to set up on our main street. I landed there when my first husband found a psych residency nearby and we bought a one-bedroom apartment. I had never been there nor ever lived outside a major city. It’s dull and hard to make friends, but we enjoy a great quality of life with Manhattan only 45 minutes south and gorgeous scenery for walks and bike rides and a lot of history.

With 45 gone for now (but who knows?) life feels so much calmer and less terrifying than it did between 2016 and 2020 when, like many others, thoughts of fleeing were a daily part of our life, however impractical.

Where does your heart lie?

Heading north — after 2 years

By Caitlin Kelly

A banner from NYC Fleet Week a few years ago

I moved to the U.S. permanently 34 years ago.

This two-year absence — COVID-caused — is likely the longest time I’ve not been back to Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal.)

If our COVID tests are negative, we’ll soon drive the 5.5 hours through upstate New York and cross into Canada at the 1,000 Islands, then have lunch in Kingston, Ontario, before going to stay with my father, 93, who we haven’t seen in more than two years and who lives alone in rural Ontario.

And we’re off!

I’m also looking forward to seeing some old friends who live near him.

I miss Canada.

Yes, it’s riddled with COVID — as is everywhere now. We are fully vaccinated and will mask wherever necessary.

But only on August 9 did Canada even open the land border with the U.S. so this is our first opportunity to drive back, which is what we always do. I don’t want to sit in an airplane now with un-vaccinated passengers and crew, let alone face standing in crowds at security and immigration.

Many people (especially some in the U.S.) think Canadians are just quiet, polite Americans. But we’re not.

I miss just sharing a culture and history with others there.

Whether books, magazines, films, music, politics, food — there are many specifically Canadian things and points of view that most Americans wouldn’t know unless they went to university there and got to know it more deeply. Like Canadian content, mandated by the government to boost homegrown talent and protect it from American domination — what percentage played on-air radio has to be Canadian.

I like going into a local bookstore to see what’s new from Canadian authors, certainly since so many of my journalism colleagues there also write books.

Canada has also been through its own special hells this summer, in addition to COVID — the terrible discoveries of children buried at residential schools in several provinces, schools where indigenous children were literally pulled from their parents’ arms and forced to renounce their languages and culture.

Now Canada faces a snap election and the Conservatives are as ugly as ever.

So I will be curious to hear what Canadians have to say about all of this. I follow Canadian media on Twitter so I hear and see a fair bit of coverage.

Some of the pleasure is silly stuff — little things like playing a round of golf at a lakeside course we know and love or lunch at Basil’s, a small deli in Port Hope, or eating a butter tart, not sold in the U.S., mostly sugar and calories and sooooooo good.

We are also just really ready for a break, as our last one was five days upstate in March.

Ageism is rising — and toxic!

old, weathered…now what?

By Caitlin Kelly

A friend of ours, Tanzina Vega, who used to work with my husband at The New York Times, until last week hosted an NPR radio talk show every day, The Takeaway.

She, like me, is fascinated by/horrified by/wants to end ageism — the persistent myth that older people are useless (and, sometimes younger ones, too.)

She recently did a show on this, and here is the link. It’s 32:43 and worth every minute, especially the powerful reader comment at the very end.

And Tanzina is only in her mid-40s.

Here’s this story by Stacy Morrison.

An excerpt:

Ageism as it relates to women is very much an extension of sexism, an -ism women have been living with their whole lives. And recent research shows that ageism may be the more disruptive force. According to a survey conducted by co-working community The Riveter, 58% of women say their identities or physical attributes impact their experiences at work—and age was the top factor (25%), garnering many more votes than being female (17%).

And no wonder: “As soon as women show visible signs of aging, they are actually perceived as being less competent, having less value,” says executive coach and author Bonnie Marcus, author of Not Done Yet!

Social activist Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, captures the issue more succinctly: “Women are never the right age.” Applewhite points out that when women are young in the workplace, they are considered lightweights and are oversexualized; then when women reach prime childbearing years, they are diminished if they become mothers, earning less and being given fewer promotions or opportunities to thrive at work. “And then pretty soon after that,” Applewhite says, “when you’re starting to fall away from this grotesque, obscene obsession with extreme youth as being the ideal for women, you are now less attractive as a woman. So you then become less attractive as an employee, even though that is what disqualified you when you were younger and prettier.”

There is no punishment for age discrimination, although it’s illegal.

Some job ads insist on you revealing your year of college or university graduation — like I’m going to share that!? Blatant age discrimination right there…and who does anything about it?

No one!

I lost my last staff job at the age of 50, earning a decent (for journalism) $80,000 a year at a major New York newspaper. I applied for dozens of jobs immediately, almost all of them in communications roles at non-profits — given my global life experience and speaking three languages, I thought I might bring some good transferable skills.

Not a word in reply.

I’ve applied for a few staff roles in journalism in recent years, but it’s really a waste of my time. Everyone over the age of 40 is deemed doddering, useless and completely unable to function in a digital environment.

So when I was interviewed recently, for a podcast (link here) and for a story, I never mentioned my age.

It’s no one’s business!

People here have a good idea how old I am, and my close-up photos here on my Welcome and About pages are obviously not of someone younger than 40!

But I admit to being flattered when — as an 86-year-old neighbor told me last week — I don’t look my age either.

Beyond moral, ethical and legal reasons –oh, we need more?! — denying older workers access to (good) jobs with benefits and paid sick days and paid vacation (at best) means shoving more of them into decades of crappy, part-time work at low wages, even as their minds and bodies are ready for rest.

In the United States, unless you are married to someone with heavily subsidized health insurance, you can be paying a fortune for health insurance — until you reach 65 and get into Medicare, government-paid healthcare that still requires payment for all sorts of things!

One friend, a man in his late 50s with a partner who has faced multiple cancer surgeries, is paying $2,600 a month for theirs.

This is a massive and unfair cost burden, which is why there are increasing calls for the age of Medicare access to be lowered.

So here’s what life over 40 or 50 or 60 looks like, at worst, and especially for women:

— lower Social Security payments for women who stopped work to raise children and/or be a caregiver

— lower SS payments for women, who need it most because we live longer, because we stopped making money a decade or more before we planned to, when we should have been at the peak of our earning power

— no access to well-paid staff jobs with benefits

— no access, through a staff job, to a steady, reliable income

— intellectual stagnation

— boredom

— loneliness

— isolation

— depression

— poverty

I never had children — so I have no one (should I outlive my husband) to help me financially and physically in older age. I urge everyone, all the time, to make the most money available within their industry, and to save as much as possible, which does mean a lot of self-discipline and denial, for all but the wealthy.

Because if you can’t get a job, where is your money going to come from?

Writing personal history

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m no celebrity, obviously, but have been urged for a while to write a memoir.

I’ve always resisted because…really?

How would my life be of interest to strangers?

I’ve enjoyed it, for sure, and had some wild adventures — visiting 41 countries, a two-year marriage, winning some nice writing awards — but is that of larger appeal?

I’ve had a great career: three major newspaper jobs with some fantastic assignments (going to the Arctic, covering Queen Elizabeth), a European fellowship, two books, etc. — so maybe some of that would be interesting to other journalists.

My family, as readers here know, is not a Hallmark card. My late mother and I were estranged for the last decade of her life. I have three half-siblings, one of whom I’m estranged from, one of whom is a self-made millionaire and one I’ve never met and don’t want to.

So, does a any of this add up to a book an agent will rep and a publisher will buy?

To be determined.

Most books are 80,000 words.

So far, I’ve easily and quickly written 20,000 and, to my surprise, am really enjoying it. It’s a mix of personal and professional stories, ranging from my time in Toronto to that in Paris to moving to New York knowing no one and without a job.

I have diaries from my 20s I haven’t even looked at, and a journal from 1998 of my trip to Australia and New Zealand, so I have some material there to work from.

Thanks to Google, I’m constantly fact-checking — like the distance from Montreal to the Arctic, or where the tree line ends in Quebec (the 56th parallel.) I also found a glaring error in my aunt’s Wikipedia entry, so am fortunate my father is still alive and lucid at 93 to do some corrections there; my aunt and uncle, both Canadian but British residents, were very well known in Britain in the 1960s and 70s for their work in TV and radio.

Several people who follow me on social media are most intrigued by my estrangements — how and when they happened and how it has affected me; my recent New York Times story on this topic elicited a stunning 700 comments, so it clearly struck a nerve.

We’ll see if this ends up being commercially useful.

Memoir starts with “me” — but it has to make sense to thousands of strangers.

In the meantime, I’m banging out 1,000 to 1,500 words a day.

What, if anything, would you want to know about me?

Trust. It’s everything.

12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements.”photo, J.R. Lopez, New York Times.

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve been reading Broadside for a while — thank you! — you know I’m generally an openhearted person.

I like people and approach new situations, professional and personal, with a sense of optimism.

Working as a journalist means I have to quickly put strangers at ease and gather useful information from them. We have to establish trust fast — something of a contradiction.

Working as a journalist also means assuming most people are not lying to me, or want to do me harm in so doing, because a journalist who publishes lies is someone with a very short career. So we fact-check when possible and seek out sources whose background and credentials are as legit as we can find.

When it comes to personal relationships, trust is also paramount, at least for me.

My first marriage, to a physician, lasted barely two years; he bailed and remarried, quickly, a fellow therapist (!) he worked with and with whom he spent a lot of personal time. I was wholly reliant on him financially, so I had to trust him. I had little choice then.

Jose and I have spent time apart. I traveled alone for six weeks in Europe in June-July 2017, as blissful as I could be. I love solo time and traveling alone, exploring to my heart’s content.

I had an amusing evening in Berlin, sharing a table with three handsome young men (all co-workers), one of whom (as part of the conversation!) took off his dress shirt.

It was all good fun, nothing more.

Trust is the basic foundation of every interaction we have, from infancy to death:

— our parents

— our physicians

— our caregivers

— our teachers and professors

— our school/college administrators

— the police

— the courts

— our clergy and religious leaders

— our political leaders

— activists

— our relatives

— our romantic partners/spouses

— our employers

— youth group leaders

— our co-workers

— government agencies whose job it is to regulate/fine/shut down offenders

If you’re a person of color, or non-Christian, or gay, you have now become a target for hatred — with more and more deaths-by-vehicle, targeted by sociopaths or a pervasive police brutality that is deeply shocking, if no longer surprising.

You can’t even go out for a bike ride or a walk trusting in your personal safety.

And, as I’ve written here before, trust can be quickly shattered, and is difficult to regain….after dating a con man in 1998, being laughed at, literally, by my local police and D.A., my worldview would never be the same again.

My family relationships, too often toxic through anger and alcohol, taught me to be wary of intimacy.

Trust also underpins every freelance personal and professional relationship:

— our friends

— our colleagues

— our clients

— our agents

— our editors

— our social media networks

I spend a lot of time (too much!) on Twitter, where I have some 5600 followers, including some very senior people in my industry.

I’ve made several very good friends with people I still have yet to meet face to face, whether in Brazil or Tennessee.

So this past weekend, we did!

SO MUCH FUN!

A gay couple, one of whom works in our industry (journalism) and her partner, came up to our home and shared a long lunch that started at noon — and ended at 5:30.

We all took the chance of getting together and hoping we would be as we are on social media — fun, funny, playful, smart, interesting.

We were and we did.

I call these Twitter blind dates, not that we want a romantic thing, but we go into them really only knowing a tiny profile photo, a bunch of tweets and LinkedIn profile. Hoping for the best!

I’ve done this many times, never disappointed.

With a retail expert who lives in Virginia.

With a travel blogger and an archeologist (2 people) in Berlin.

With a pair of travel agent sisters in Zagreb.

With a fellow blogger, in London, https://smalldogsyndrome.com/.

We’ve been repeat house-guests a few times, and that also requires trust — that we’re quiet and thoughtful and don’t smoke or do drugs or will break or stain or ruin things. We bring food and drink and a gift and we always send a thank-you note.

We also trust our hosts to offer us a clean, soft bed. To let us have quiet alone time. To offer good food. To not (as one did to me?!) leave a filthy cat litter box beneath my pull-out bed.

I also once house-sat for a family of four headed to Tuscany from Vermont — unpaid. I was perfectly happy to walk their small affectionate dog. I was not at all happy to also get stuck watering their large garden in a heat wave and (!?) cleaning their pool.

That friendship died with this abuse of my time and energy. I trusted them to be fair with me, and they were not.

Do you trust easily?

Boundaries matter

By Caitlin Kelly

For some people, including me, setting and keeping tight boundaries around our time, energy, bodies, and psyche presents a real challenge.

I grew up in a bossy, often angry family that rarely, if ever, asked: “How do you feel?”

It wasn’t deemed relevant. Or I guess they assumed I’d speak up, which I rarely did.

I left my mother’s care at 14 when she was suffering from mental illness and not doing a great job with it. The stress was too much for me.

So I did set a boundary and a major one, early. But every time I hear the Cat Stevens song, Father and Son, it wrings my heart — the father pleading, “Stay, stay” and the son replying “I have to go.”

Sometimes you just do.

But it also matters when it comes to work.

Americans – with the worst/cheapest/nastiest labor policies possible — are used to working like dogs, not taking vacations or sick days, working in “at will” states where you can be legally fired for no reason at all.

So setting boundaries is just very difficult in a culture that expects us to be on and eagerly available pretty much all the time.

Last week, I walked away from a writing assignment worth $1,250 with a new-to-me editor at a major website.

I’m not thrilled about this. I have done this three times in my career, when the stress outweighed the income.

That’s a significant loss of income for us and was only possible because we have savings.

It’s not a habit of mine to bail on work!

But nor is it a habit to work with editors or others who are unpleasant or disrespectful.

I could have stayed.

I could have kept working on this story.

These days, decades into my career, I make my mental health the priority.

Setting and keeping a boundary can mean changing the dynamics of a relationship, or ending it entirely.

It comes at a cost, and has consequences, sometimes those we don’t expect or can’t foresee.

But who counts more?

Understanding my mother…now

By Caitlin Kelly

Long-time readers here know my mother and I were estranged for the final decade of her life. I won’t repeat all those details. She died in her chair, watching TV, on Feb. 15, 2020, my best friend’s birthday, in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

Her friend and executor was kind enough, at 2:00 a.m., to say Psalm 23 over her body, a gesture I’m really grateful for.

She was cremated and I was to have gone to B.C. — basically impossible thanks to Canadian border closings and quarantine demands — to scatter her ashes there.

Now they’re in our living room, in a nasty plastic container they arrived in (for now) and it’s oddly comforting.

Because our relationship was so difficult for so many years, we usually lived very far apart — I in her native New York, she in my native British Columbia.

The closest ever? I was in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she lived in Bath. We had a few very good visits, until the week I was to fly back to Canada for good, and she ended up in a locked ward of a London psychiatric hospital.

So there was always tension and fear and anxiety for me with her.

A cliche, but true — her death has released me from this, and for that I’m very glad.

It has also, thank God, lessened my anger and frustration over the behaviors and decisions that cost us thousands we couldn’t really afford, over her unwillingness to address her alcoholism, even to acknowledge my annual Christmas cards and newsletters, including 2018, when I got early-stage breast cancer. (She had had a mastectomy.)

But, to my absolute shock, she left me a significant sum of money.

I would never have imagined this.

I assumed she was, by then, broke.

I assumed whatever she might have had would go to someone else.

I assumed…nothing.

That money is now in my bank account and I keep flailing about emotionally, alternating between guilt (it’s unearned) and gratitude.

It’s even enough to buy a small house, although — as one friend said — not in a place I would actually want to live!

I spent a lot of years, decades, dreading the next argument or insult or unwanted phone call alerting me to some fresh chaos. I left her care for good at 14.

She never taught me to cook or dress or wear make-up or how to handle money.

Even my minimal sex education was a booklet she left on a table.

What I did learn was how to be independent.

How to make and keep good friendships.

How to confidently and effectively manage my own affairs.

Only in a recent conversation did I finally, belatedly, understand something fundamental about her that I had always taken too personally.

She did not invite or enjoy intimacy.

Her alcoholism and bipolar illness and tough personality all made sure it was very difficult to get close to her.

That kept her safe.

It hurt me, but with hindsight and distance I now see them as coping mechanisms.

Better late than never.

Three boxes, one crate. A life.

My favorite photo of my mother. Cynthia von Rhau, born Nov. 28, NYC; died Feb. 15, 2020, Victoria. B.C.

By Caitlin Kelly

Three heavy cardboard boxes arrived at our apartment this week, without a word of warning.

They contained a wide variety of items, including several photo albums, a small stuffed mouse, a copy of the New Testament, a white wool blanket — and my mother’s ashes.

Might have been nice to have a heads-up for those.

The woman chosen as executor of my mother’s will was a woman who, for reasons I’ll never grasp, really disliked me.

She had met my mother on a beach in Costa Rica and decided to become a close friend of my mother. Except, she really wasn’t. It was a weird relationship, subservient and deferential to my mother in ways few true intimates are.

After my mother had major surgery for a brain tumor, after decades of independent home ownership and much global travel, she decided to live in a smaller home and moved into the same city and same condo complex as this woman.

She was always sweet as pie to me in front of my mother — until the day my mother had to be moved, suddenly, into a nursing home. I’ll spare you the details, but she and her daughter and her sister were absolute bitches to me.

I think readers here know I’m made of pretty tough stuff but this was…horrible.

I never went back.

Even the nurses at the nursing home asked me what on earth these two women had in common.

Their city is a 7 hour flight from NY, where I live, and this cruelty and bizarre behavior was quite enough.

But after my mother died, Feb. 15, 2020, she left a few belongings behind, including a massive pastel portrait of her grandmother, framed. That woman took possession of them, as was her legal responsibility.

The pandemic has made travel into Canada expensive and complicated so I wasn’t going to even try to go north and deal with it all.

Now, finally, suddenly, I’m the guardian of the very few items left from my great-grandmother and grandmother.

They had lots of money but my maternal granny, who died in 1975 in Toronto, was pretty profligate and never bothered to pay any taxes, for decades, to any of the three governments to which she likely owed a fortune — American (she lived in Canada), Canadian federal and provincial. So my poor mother had to sell pretty much everything she had owned to pay them off. The quality was so good one of her armoires is in a Toronto museum.

It’s all somewhat ironic as my great-grandmother is now literally coming full circle by returning to New York — she lived for years in Manhattan, on Park Avenue.

And now I’m the guardian and wonder what will happen to these few objects when we die.

We have no children or nieces or nephews we’re close to.

So it’s prompted an overdue discussion to whom we’ll leave our assets and estate, which isn’t a quick or easy answer — and we have little nostalgia for our two universities.

The many photos of my mother are fabulous and I am so glad to have them, as she was very beautiful and there are true glamour shots from her time modeling and acting.

Seeing a pile of ashes in an ugly brown plastic tub is…sobering.

Want to find love? Make a list!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re still hoping to find a partner, it can feel like an exhausting and overwhelming search.

I spent my 20s dating a lot of men, but not wanting a long-term commitment from anyone, certainly not marriage. I didn’t want children and I wanted, long-term, to get to New York, a difficult thing for most Canadians.

So after I moved to Montreal, I fell in love with an American medical student from New Jersey. I was able to obtain a “green card” allowing me to live and work permanently in the U.S.

We spent seven years together, but should never have married.

I liked this piece in The New York Times’ Modern Love column:

I experienced repeated collisions of misaligned values and discovered personality traits I wanted to avoid. Dates that caused me to be versions of myself I didn’t like and cost me time that I could have spent on my couch: just me, a Vicodin and a book about sadness.

To break this cycle, I decided to track it all. Make sense of the patterns and change them.

Cue the Trello board. As of today, the board has six stages and eight traits. It’s similar to the business development process of a salesperson, with each stage representing a step toward a successful deal and each trait representing a characteristic that is more likely to lead to success.

The stages are: To Vet, Vetting, Vetted, Scheduling, Scheduled and Dating. Each person is represented by a Trello card — a kind of digital sticky note.

Before I go on a date with anyone, his card progresses from left to right, passing through these stages until we’re dating. If we never get that far, I archive his card, in which case an archived card is all he will ever be.

I evaluate my potential dates based on eight traits. Five of those traits I try to learn about before the date. The remaining three I think about after the date.

Before the first date, I try to determine the following: Does he make me laugh via text? Does he live in L.A.? Does he like his job? Is he down to go backpacking? Will he get on the phone?

Years ago, after my miserable two-year marriage — he walked out barely two years to the date of our marriage, and remarried a colleague within the year — I found the acronym PEPSI, and used it think more seriously about compatibility with potential partners.

I stayed divorced and single for six years.

I had a few marriage proposals, one very serious.

But I didn’t want them, from those people, one from a man I had had a huge crush on in my 20s after I profiled him for a Toronto magazine. Oddly, later, we dated seriously for about six months, but there was a large age difference — that didn’t bother me at 24 but did at 39.

I did want to re-marry, even though my first husband was unfaithful, which broke my heart.

I have spent a lot of my life alone and, while I’m pretty independent, I much prefer having someone loyal and loving to share my life with.

I knew a few women like me who kept striking out and finally made a list of what they most wanted in a partner.

Everyone thinks: cute, smart, rich.

After a few decades in the trenches it’s a lot more like: funny, smart, kind, flexible, accomplished.

I wanted a unicorn — someone virtually impossible to find in New York City — a man who was both highly accomplished but also modest about it.

Someone able to be deeply serious and responsible about the matters of adult life (bills, savings, health issues) but able to laugh a lot.

Someone generous emotionally, able to easily express affection, something I struggle with.

I found Jose online while writing about online dating for a women’s magazine.

We would never have met otherwise — even though we had people who knew us both.

This was then part of my thinking if I met a man who seemed interesting.

So, how compatible, really, were we?

Hence PEPSI:

P for Professional

E for Emotional

P for Physical Attraction

S for Spiritual

I for Intellectual

There were some serious doubts on both parts.

P met the bill, both of them.

E…well, two very stubborn people!

He felt I wasn’t nearly spiritual enough for him, a devout Buddhist. I told him that seemed mighty judgmental.

I feared he wasn’t intellectual enough.

Yet here are, 21 years later!

Some of the qualities I think essential in a life partner include a phenomenal work ethic, a spirit of generosity for himself and others, awareness of the world and how it works (and doesn’t), a commitment to making others happier.

Resilience is huge. We’ve been through a lot of stuff — deep family conflicts, his turning full-time freelance, his diabetes diagnosis, my breast cancer. I wanted someone with a spine and a heart!

We each arrive to the quest with our own specific deficits and needs, our strengths and weaknesses.

But knowing who we are and what we value most is a good start.

Commitment is key.

The challenges of estranged grief

My late mother. Elegant, complicated.

By Caitlin Kelly

There are times that a deeply personal and private experience intersects with the larger culture. In journalism, it’s called the hook or the news peg, i.e. since everyone is now talking about it or thinking about it, it’s worth discussion and an assignment.

And my primary goal, often, for writing about a topic, especially a difficult and painful one, is to be of service, to comfort and to connect people to others who know their journey and who truly understand.

To explain to those who don’t understand and might become less judgmental as a result.

My mother Cynthia died Feb. 15, 2020 in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C. a seven-hour flight from our home in suburban New York. We had not spoken in a decade and even though I sent cards every Christmas and included a newsletter, no reply.

We had had some good years and some good visits.

But we had also had some very very bad ones.

She had been through so much in her life, including divorcing my father when she was 30, traveling through Latin America alone for years, living alone in such places as London, New Mexico, Mexico, Bath, Montreal and Toronto, surviving multiple cancers. She never re-married.

Intimacy was not her strong suit.

So, have I grieved this loss? Yes and no.

Which is why I wrote this story for The New York Times, probably the most revealing and personal words I’ve ever published there.

I was scared.

I’m actually a quite private person, and choosing to discuss painful issues before millions of readers worldwide is objectively somewhat frightening.

Here’s some of it:

When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.

I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.

For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.

As I write this, the story has gathered 49 comments, and they are so so painful to read, as so many others share their stories.

I was stunned to see how many people — through Twitter and Facebook — praised the story’s honesty about such a difficult topic and how many people struggle with estrangement in their own families. I had no idea.

It’s very hard to be estranged from a family member, as I still am from a half-brother who is 23 years my junior and father of year-old twins, a boy and girl I may never meet.

It’s also hard because it’s really taboo to admit you don’t speak to your mother or father or siblings or any of them. The myth that “family” equals love is a strong one. Those of us who don’t have that experience seek out others who get it. Our husbands and wives and best friends know. Our therapists know.

But it tends to remain secret and private because you can never trust someone new not to gaslight you or deny your lived experience since theirs has been so happy.

There is a great deal more detail, of course, I couldn’t include in this article. There are more characters and more history.

But the gratitude readers have shared has been deeply moving.