Do you have a shadow life?

I love having this Inuit print over our bed. A daily taste of home and its distinct arts.

By Caitlin Kelly

Not sure what else to call it.

Maybe a ghost life.

I don’t mean you’re haunted.

It’s a conversation I’ve had with other people who chose to emigrate, leaving a country behind where they likely grew up and were educated, leaving behind easy access to their childhood home(s) and earliest memories. In my case, leaving behind a thriving career as a reporter and writer, since I moved to New York at 30 — with no job, no connections and no American educational credentials, (in a city where Ivy League degrees proliferate.) It took me six months to find my first job, as senior editor of a national magazine, aided by my French and Spanish skills.

I’ve now lived in New York longer than I lived in my native Canada.

Some of my Canadian friends, some who stayed home their whole lives, have risen to stunning heights of achievement, one of whom runs the CBC; she and I used to argue ferociously as university freshmen in our philosophy class. Maybe not surprisingly, we followed oddly similar paths, from Toronto to Montreal to New York, and I kept bumping into her along the way.

If you spend your entire career in the same Canadian city, you don’t have to re-invent or explain to Americans that U of T is not Texas but Toronto…

Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

I recently met up with a fellow Canadian who’s also lived in New York for decades, also a writer and editor.

And, as we did, I guess predictably, we wondered what would life be like had we never left — who (if anyone) would we have married? Where would we be living? Would we, as most of my friends now do, head for the cottage every weekend between May and October? Would we attend our high school and university events and reunions? Would we have regretted not leaving and trying for our American dream?

There are no do-overs!

And yet she and I actually own our own NY homes, apartments, in a place people assume is only for millionaires — we were both very lucky to buy ours decades ago and each of us aided by an inheritance. There is nothing anywhere in our native Ontario now we could afford to buy, including in remote northern towns. That decision to stay in NY, alone, has proven a lucky and fortunate one.

We don’t regret our move, and both love living here; unlike many parts of the United States now, New York City and environs remains largely diverse, liberal, full of work opportunities and interesting, high achieving creatives. People are not legally allowed to own or carry guns; (there has been a frightening uptick in stabbings and shootings in the city, especially on public transit.)

Lacing up my skates atop Mt. Royal, Montreal in Feb. 2019, our last visit

I left Canada for a variety of reasons:

  • I could, thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. I was able to easily obtain a “green card”, to become what’s now as an alien (!) I renew the card every decade.
  • Canada has only a few major cities, and I’m usually a pretty urban person. They’re very different in character, history and climate and the only truly affordable one, Montreal, has brutally long winters and, even for a bilingual Anglophone reporter, limited longterm job prospects.
  • Half my family — my mother’s side — is American, some highly accomplished. I was always intrigued by them and their lives. Ironically, I never see any of them and am only in touch with one cousin, in California, in her late 80s.
  • I wanted to see if I had the skills to compete in a larger, tougher place. Canada, with only 38 million people, has the population of New York State — and one-tenth of the U.S.
  • I had always wanted to live in New York; I’ve lived, instead, in a small historic town 25 miles north of it, its towers visible from our street and easily reached within 45 minutes’ train or drive. Works for me.
  • I was bored of Toronto and its intensely vicious media gossips. I knew I couldn’t take another few decades genuflecting to the same half dozen people in power. New York journalism has plenty of its own drama, but — as I like to joke — I’ve clawed my way to the bottom of the middle. I have enough access to the people I want, but I remain powerless enough to avoid attack, slander and sabotage. A few people even lied and gossiped about me in Toronto; if that was the price of local success (as it was), thank God I had good options to leave and never return.
  • I wasn’t emotionally close to my father and his wife or to my mother, so no need to stick around for emotional reasons.

We head back to Canada today for a visit to Charlevoix, a region on the north shore of the St. Lawrence — ironically with lots of local advice from a fellow Canadian I knew when we were both baby reporters in the 80s, who became a U.S. network news reporter for decades. Then four days in Montreal, seeing friends and eating at our favorite restaurants and savoring sights both new and deeply familiar — I lived there for a year at 12 and for 18 months at 30 as a reporter for the Gazette.

I love speaking and hearing French, seeing familiar foods in the grocery stores — butter tarts! Shreddies cereal! — and once more being around people with whom I can share political and cultural references, even specific words, without explanation. Because, for anyone who’s an immigrant, there’s a lot your friends, neighbors and colleagues in your new country will never understand or even ask you about.

We’re very fortunate that Canada’s border is within 5.5 hours’ drive so, when and if I want to go back, it’s easy. That, or a 90-minute flight. I do miss it and I miss our friends especially.

Have you lived outside your native land?

Is this a question for you as well sometimes?

My 2 weeks with Queen Elizabeth

By Caitlin Kelly

I admit — we were in the middle of a restaurant lunch yesterday when we learned that Queen Elizabeth had died.

I burst into tears.

I know for many people the monarchy is something hated and archaic. I get it.

For a Canadian who grew up, initially, with photos of Her Majesty on our classroom walls, then later on our stamps and currency, the Queen was a daily part of our lives, even if only her image.

As a young reporter for the national daily Globe and Mail, she became a part of my daily life in person when I was chosen to cover a Royal Tour of the Queen and Prince Philip.

It was the oddest sort of high profile assignment as it meant my stories would run on the front page most days — yet there would be little to say beyond what she wore, what she might say and who she met. It was both thrilling to be chosen and terrifying, especially as this was long before cellphones or the Internet or light, quick laptops. I would have to file for up to five daily editions, racing to meet each deadline with no easy access to a telephone or even a place from which to send my story or even to sit down and write it.

This made for some seriously weird moments — like the big old house in small-town New Brunswick where I begged to use their kitchen table to write, and, when an older gentlemen entered his own kitchen, muttered “Globe and Mail, on deadline!” Then I had to kick the lady of the house off her own telephone to commandeer the line, unscrew the handset, attach alligator clips, and transmit my story in time. The gentleman was a judge who would be attending a formal dinner with her that evening.

Or the hotel lobby gift shop whose pay phone I needed to use.

Or the small-town rural home whose front door I banged on in desperation…scaring the hell out of its poor owners as I begged yet more strangers for their help and to use their phone.

Each day was long and tiring, often with multiple events, and I think we were working 12-15 hour days, whipped.

We must have eaten, but I don’t remember when or how or what.

We traveled in a huge press pack, with Time and Newsweek and BBC and CBC all jammed into press planes or buses. Sometimes we flew in a Lear jet (a first!) and observed the “purple corridor” — the elapsed time between when Her Majesty’s plane took off and ours was allowed to.

We were all technically competing with one another for…no real news!

It was very odd to watch her turn her charm on and off like a spigot on walkabouts — we’re so used to politicians and celebrities who crave our attention, admiration, votes and money that to observe someone with multiple castles, the wealthiest woman (at least then) in the world up close — becoming cool/distant when she felt like it, was quite disorienting.

A dapper Glaswegian security man in a tweed jacket followed behind the Royal entourage, holding out his hands to keep us at bay like wild animals.

“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.

“I could use the whip,” he replied, with a flirtatious twinkle in his eye. (I later bought one and gave it to him as a joke at our final party.)

I broke a few controversial stories and ended up being the brunt of some serious bullshit from competitors who had not matched my reporting. At a crowded mess hall somewhere in Manitoba, the legendary BBC TV reporter, Kate Adie, saw my distress and whispered in my ear: “The higher your profile, the better target you make.” She later mentioned me and that event in one of her memoirs.

A few specific memories:

— The stunning jewels of a tiara she wore to a dinner

— a brooch with an emerald the size of a baby’s fist

— a small suitcase in the back of a car, with a large red cardboard tag: The Queen

— being given a small piece of paper each morning with the official language we were to use to describe her clothing; eau-de-nil, not “light green.”

At the end of it all, we were invited aboard the royal yacht Britannia for drinks. That was amazing enough, and then we were each presented to Her Majesty.

It was brief, but memorable.

No more yelling!

If you ever watch the HBO series Succession, here’s one very toxic boss, Logan Roy

By Caitlin Kelly

My favorite place in the suburban New York county where I’ve lived for decades is an indie art film house; some weeks I’m up there multiple times to see a film. I love movies!

Its programming director was recently fired for yelling at his staff, leaving one in tears.

There have always been bad-tempered toxic bosses, but in some places there’s now (happily!) a diminished appetite for them — as several high profile male NPR radio hosts have also learned in recent years, also fired for abusing their staff.

I welcome this, as someone who grew up in an emotionally abusive family and then worked in journalism, one of the most dysfunctional of industries; with a constant oversupply of eager job-seekers, nasty bosses can thrive and rise, thrive and rise, usually without any form of accountability. If they keep losing talented staff, well, hey, whose fault is that?

Having also survived years at boarding school, also being yelled at by old women who were our housemothers, I have little appetite for people unable to hold their damn tongues and be civil. I don’t care how frustrated you are.

I’ve survived quite a few terrifying bosses, one a woman at a trade magazine publisher in Manhattan, who thought nothing of shouting abuse across the room at all of us and, when I dared confront her, stood very very close to me and leaned in further….her pupils oddly dilated. I quit within a month, and with no job waiting and newly divorced.

At the New York Daily News, I dared to ask the photo editor a question in an open newsroom so large it ran from 34th to 33rd street. His idea to humiliate and intimidate me, he yelled at me that I was asking a really difficult question; how to fill out a photo request. What a dick. This was a wholly normal question for a new employee offered zero training. I was then 50 — and quietly told him that being abusive wasn’t going to alter my request. He then ran to my boss to complain about me. Such a FUN workplace!

And, of course, there was another trade magazine boss, a weird little troll who shouted at me for disappointing him when I was editing a 48 page trade magazine with no staff at all, able to offer only extremely low freelance rates that guaranteed careless work from the only writers we could afford.

He came into my very small office and, as I pleaded with him that I was doing my best, snarled: “Define best!”

I was, no surprise, fired a few days later.

I ran into him decades later while riding our shared commuter rail line. As he went to sit beside me, he asked: “Do you remember me?”

“Yes,” was all I said.

Journalism attracts people who are smart and tough and highly impatient, expected to produce flawless results very, very quickly…not a great combo. Then the most demanding rise into management where, sure, they have high standards — but also can get away with shouting and raging with impunity.

I’ve even encountered this toxic arrogance as a freelancer, like a young woman then an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review (ooooh, the delicious irony) who I finally had to hang up the phone on since she was unable to let me finish a sentence.

And, funny thing, she too has since risen in the industry.

I shook for an hour after that phone call — because if you’ve been the subject of a lot of yelling, especially as a child, it really evokes a sort of PTSD.

So every time another abusive manager loses their job, income and authority, I’m thrilled!

Have you been the victim of such bad behavior?

How did you handle it?

Some birthday thoughts

By Caitlin Kelly

My birthday is June 6.

This year (gulp) is a landmark/milestone birthday, one many never reach.

Some thoughts from a few decades’ experience:

The house that got away! I chased it really hard (rural Nova Scotia, November 2021).

It was a bit of a debacle and cost several thousand dollars to determine it wasn’t a

wise choice. Oh well!

Take more chances

I know some of us are limited, for a while or a long time, by fear of losing a job, relationship, the comfort of the familiar, some bound tightly by bonds of duty to children and/or parents.

I’ve been lucky to enjoy a lot of independence, even within my 22-year marriage, so have been able to take on work that scared me at first with its new challenges (and met.)

At 25, weeping so hard I could barely stand up, I threw a bunch of stuff into a duffel bag, boarded a flight to Paris and began an 8-month journalism fellowship that required each of us (28 people from 19 nations, aged 25 to 35) to make four 10-day solo reporting trips across Europe. I was scared!

I knew it would forever change me, and it did, in every possible good way. I came back to Toronto brimming with new and hard-earned self-confidence, better reporting skills, a better sense of teamwork cross-culturally, fluent French, lifelong friendships and the respect of some people I admired greatly.

At 30, I left Canada for the U.S. , permanently.

SO SCARED!

I felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean. I left behind a solid career, deep friendships, my identity. Would I ever regain these?

Yes I did.

Taking chances means risk. Risk can mean disappointment and failure — but also amazing new possibilities.

Cherish your deep friendships

Oh my! My bestie Marion, maid of honor at my first wedding, 1992, met in freshman English
class at university. Still besties!

As an only child of not-very-loving parents and relatives, my friends have always really been my family — celebrating my triumphs, mourning my losses and tough times. They have stood by me through a marriage, divorce and remarriage, through unemployment, through relocation and breast cancer.

Their love and strength and constancy have been essential to my survival, literally.

I have not found this sort of devotion to friendship, certainly in adulthood, in New York and have found it lonely. If you have friends, anywhere, cherish them! Stay in touch!

Venice, July 2017

Travel as far and often as health and your means allow

I know — a very privileged point of view! I was fortunate to grow up in a family of means who really valued travel and exploration. My father and I drove from Toronto across Canada the summer I was 15, and he and I visited Mexico, Ireland and some southern U.S. states together. My mother inherited enough money she lived many places and flew me to Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia and Fiji. On my own, I’ve been to more than another 30 places, from Istanbul to Copenhagen, rural Texas to coastal Maine, Victoria, B.C. to Newfoundland. Not having children allowed me more freedom and income to do this, I realize.

Even the worst moments, (blessedly very few!), have been worth the going and seeing. I regret none of it: new friends, a deeper understanding of and appreciation for different cultures, the chance to use my French and Spanish skills.

Read/listen/watch widely and deeply

These days, more important than ever, especially in the U.S. where there are such deep divisions some fear a new Civil War soon.

Guard your time jealously — it’s precious and fleeting

Not a huge Steely Dan fan but this 1972 lyric of theirs is hitting me much harder these days:

Are you reeling in the years?

Stowing away the time?

There are so many moments in life when we’re impatient, waiting for something great we really want(ed), wishing that time would move faster.

The older I get (cliche alert!) the slower I want to move, the fewer people I want to have access to my time, attention and energy and the frightening fact that I have fewer years ahead of me than behind me.

As a full-time freelancer, I’m super selective now about who I work with and what amount of energy and time they will need from me, and at what pay rate.

Every time you feel guilty about taking time just for yourself — to sit still and think or write or pray or nap or hug someone you love — this is the time best spent.

Set and keep boundaries

Huge! Especially challenging for girls and women, socialized to be “nice” and “go along to get along”, often deeply suppressing our rage and grief behind yet another quick fake reassuring smile.

It’s taken me a long time to say “Nope!” to people and situations that are really not healthy for me, whether in work or relationships.

Therapy can help. Breaking old habits is difficult, but worth it.

Apologize sincerely and quickly

I’m not sure how anyone can manage to retain any long-term relationship without this.

It’s hard!

It demands self-awareness and humility.

What if the person is too angry at you to accept it?

Do it anyway.

Flee toxic people and places

Not easy…although The Great Resignation is making clear how badly so many people really wanted out of a job or workplace or team or corporate culture they loathed.

I’ve put up with some seriously toxic people and workplaces and it’s never good for your mental or physical health.

Keeping solid work skills and a network of peers to refer you to opportunities is crucial.

Having access to deep, nurturing friendships will also steel your spine in moments of doubt about fleeing.

Saving as much money as possible also allows us the chance to get out of a terrible situation, whether personal or professional.

I’ve fled both.

Before my first (short, miserable) marriage to a physician, I made sure I had a pre-nuptial agreement; it saved my home and the family money I inherited that gave us the down payment.

Having an attorney (luckily pro bono) allowed me some dignity when I was bullied and shunned at the New York Daily News for months.

Leave a legacy

It might be a garden or a child or a scholarship fund.

It might be a piece of work you’re known and admired for.

Think about what you leave behind.

Women — time to speak up!

By Caitlin Kelly

The editor in chief of the Financial Times, Rouala Khalaf, (probably the most male of the big newspapers — and boy are they male, especially at the very top) — recently implored more women to write to their letters page.

I was thrilled to have my letter published there, verbatim, a few months ago.

I can see why so few women do:

— It’s intimidating! Letters to the FT routinely arrive from Lords and CEOs and deans of elite universities. How dare we add our voices?!

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of professional reputational loss (see above!)

— Too busy working/parenting/caregiving

— Modesty…why listen to us?

As you know (cough!) I’m fine expressing my opinions publicly, here and on social media and in classrooms and at conferences and in letters pages, including those of The New York Times and Newsweek.

I was basically raised as a boy, to be smart and competitive, not sweet and submissive as so many girls and women still are, so this never scared me, even if maybe it should.

I am very careful on Twitter not to discuss the most divisive topics — abortion, guns, politics — in any detail. Women are trolled and harassed and get death and rape threats when they do. No thanks!

So, when and where should we speak up?

— Protest marches

— School board meetings

— City council/town hall meetings

— at industry conferences, either as a speaker, moderator or audience member

— your blog, and others’

— social media

— writing and publishing essays and op-eds

— voting

— call-in radio shows

— as a member of an organization or group or community

I know, it can feel scary to invite argument or ridicule or dismissal!

But the more we stay invisible and inaudible, the more we allow this behavior to dominate and silence us.

Now that the landmark abortion law Roe v. Wade is in danger, and so many U.S. states ready to ban abortion, it’s no time to sit back and shrug. Our many bodily rights to autonomy are being erased daily.

Our voices matter.

The challenge of making adult friends

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe. Probably the most unusual shared experience!

I recently came across this fascinating series of interviews on the website of The Atlantic, The Friendship Files.

Each is a meditation on an aspect of friendship, a subject often overlooked for focus on family, marriage, dating and children.

This one, on the tight bonds between expats, struck me, as some of my closest friends have been expats or have moved to a country (or several) far from their country of origin. I was born in Canada, but have lived in England (ages 2-5), Mexico (14), France (25) and the U.S. (30 to the present), which really makes me an immigrant to the U.S., not an expat (short for ex-patriate, not patriot!)

So while I have met a few fellow Canadians over the years, and am soon having coffee with a film-maker from Calgary, and presenting May 1 at a journalism conference with another ex-Calgary resident who lives here, I don’t have a lot of Canadian friends here. Many of the Canadians in or near NY are wealthy bankers or lawyers or corporate types, so our paths just wouldn’t cross socially or professionally. I’ve attended a few alumni events (very rare for my alma mater, University of Toronto, sorry to say) but have never met anyone I wanted to follow up with.

But some of my friends are people who do live far away from their homelands, like the author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, an American long happiest in London, my neighbor across the street who spent a year in high schol in New Zealand, my Canadian best friend from university who went to British boarding school and lived for a while in Tanzania and our neighbor across the hall here in New York who has moved permanently to Holland, to marry her British partner. My sister-in-law and her husband, now back in the U.S., lived for many years working in international schools in China, Malaysia, the Netherlands.

So there’s a lot we don’t have to explain to one another, even from the start. That helps a friendship.

For me friendship is a delicate stew of shared interests and experiences, and being an expat or immigrant living far from your home country, culture and language (no matter where) — tends to create very relatable moments, whether a nervous visit to the doctor (fumbling for medical terms) or post office or choosing a word with a dirty meaning by mistake — damn you, baiser!

The French have a great phrase, “coup de foudre“, basically love at first sight, and I tend to be like this with a potential new friend. I tend to feel an attraction — style, intellect, history, cultural interests, sense of humor, the sort of work they do and value — right away.

But there are so many tricky elements to finding and nurturing a new adult friend, and year after year of COVID fear and social avoidance have made this more difficult. You can’t hug someone on Zoom!

I’m happiest with someone who has also traveled widely — and even many of the richest Americans don’t. They work all the time or choose luxury spots not my style or budget. Nor do I have children, a typical glue for many adult friendships. So this is difficult in a country and culture where even taking two weeks off in a row is seen as lazy and weird — I prefer three to six weeks when possible, more European than workaholic American.

But finding a new friend — and continuing and deepening the relationship — takes more than shared interests. It takes time, energy, honesty and vulnerability.

It also means having the strength to work through conflict because it can happen; I lost three women friends who had been very close when I dared to ask them to look at a behavior that was hurting me. They refused and ended the friendship; I mourned one of them for many years. But I don’t regret it, either.

I’ve started to get to know two or three people from my spin class…because I go two or three times a week and show up consistently. It takes time! One was a speechwriter for a former NY governor and journalist, and one is a lawyer with a major local firm who does a lot of coaching and mentoring. Both are super-smart but also friendly.

My two closest friends in New York came through journalism and a church we attended for a long time. I’ve recently seen two women at the gym who seem cool, so I may ask them for coffee.

The pandemic has really changed — and ended — many friendships, as we’ve faced different challenges (we have been very very lucky to not have COVID or lose a loved one to it, for example) and the basic proximity of meeting for a coffee has become a risk for so many.

We’re super excited to welcome a younger pal visiting next week from Oregon and, the following week, a friend I knew at boarding school when I was 12…and haven’t seen since!

How are your friendships these days?

Have you been able to find and make new friends as an adult — how?

And what do we really know about one another?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this recent piece by New York Times writer Frank Bruni, about losing some of his sight, moving:

And that truth helped me reframe the silly question “Why me?” into the smarter “Why not me?” It was a guard against anger, an antidote to self-pity, so much of which hinges on the conviction, usually a delusion, that you’re grinding out your days while the people around you glide through theirs, that you’ve landed in the bramble to their clover. To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.

Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.

“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.” A woman I know would be wearing that, and her acquaintances would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.

In a world that glamorizes money and power and objects, it’s easy to assume someone with more of these than you is gliding through life. Not true, not true at all.

One of the wealthiest people I know manages multiple chronic illnesses, runs her own business, raises two teenagers and faced cancer when I did, which is how we met. (We’re both fine!)

Only through true intimacy can we finally find out what others are facing, or have survived and somehow kept on going — terrible accidents, unemployment, being a refugee (even surviving torture and imprisonment), losing a child, or several.

While Americans often tell total strangers a lot about themselves — which more reticent cultures find weird and uncomfortable — it can take years for some people to share their darkest moments with us. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe it’s fear we’ll reject them or dismiss their trauma. Or, worst of all, try to best it.

One of my closest friends, after a truly terrible multi-year wait of endless surgeries and medical and legal appointments, finally won a major lawsuit against the company whose negligence damaged her body and altered her life for good.

I despaired of her getting what she so badly deserved, but she did. No one would know this to see her, smiling and well-groomed and well-dressed and calm.

But she somehow soldiered on.

Many of us do.

A family reunion, of sorts

My maternal great grandmother, Blanche Gresham, 1924

By Caitlin Kelly

For years, my late mother and I were estranged. When we were in touch, even as her only child, she almost never discussed her childhood or adolescence before, at 17, she met my Canadian father in the south of France, then left her native New York City to move to his hometown, Vancouver, where I was born six years later.

Both parents grew up wealthy — in large houses with servants, attending prep school (my mother), owning a horse and a sailboat (father). But neither childhood was necessarily calm and happy.

So their histories have remained mostly a mystery to me.

My mother died April 15, 2020 and a very large, heavy packing crate arrived a year later from her final home, a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

For a variety of reasons — partly fear the works inside would be very damaged (they weren’t), ambivalence about owning the final items of hers and knowing we have no one in our family to leave these things to — I didn’t open it for nine months.

It took a lot of hard work to get it open — thank you Jose!!

This week, finally, we did, and my husband Jose attacked it with a hammer and crowbar and a lot of determination!

Amazingly, the four things inside were in excellent shape; only a few bits of one frame had chipped off and the glass was wholly intact on everything (having been taped.)

There were two family portraits and a gorgeous Inuit print of a polar bear from 1961 I had long admired. And a sampler, from 1845.

This is one of the earliest Inuit prints, by Lucy, 1961; ignore my unbrushed hair!

So now my maternal great-grandmother — Blanche Gresham — later the Countess Casagrande of Park Avenue — has come almost full circle, some 3,011 miles.

I only met her once, as a very old, very infirm lady in that apartment. My mother adored her. I adored my grandmother — while we both had very difficult times with our own mothers. Go figure!

These women led quite extraordinary lives, cocooned by enormous wealth, but with marital mayhem — my grandmother married six times, four in a decade. I never met any of them, long gone by the time I met her.

I think (?) the smaller image is her with my grandmother Aline, and her sister Lois

I am very curious about these women and their lives; the money came from my great grandfather, Louis Stumer, a Chicago stockbroker and developer of a gorgeous skyscraper in 1912, The North American Building, on State Street in Chicago, (since torn down):

Developers Stumer, Rosenthal and Eckstein hired one of Chicago’s busiest, and best, tall building architectural firms Holabird & Roche for the project. William Holabird and Martin Roche, along with a team of talented designers and engineers, had developed a commercial building system that was not only pleasing to the eye, but more importantly for an investor could be built quickly, efficiently, and ready for rent-paying tenants on schedule. They were instrumental in helping make what came to be known as the Chicago School world famous.

One reason I chose to move to the U.S. was my fascination with this family and their lives. One relative became an ambassador, one an archeologist, one (!) a bullfighter. My cousins had lives that included piloting their own Cessna and running a rug business from Morocco. They were all intimidatingly confident — and so much larger than life than most of the quiet, polite Canadians I grew up around.

It’s quite comforting to finally have these women in our home now.

10 reasons to love Mame

By Caitlin Kelly

Starting a new occasional series here, dedicated to cultural things I love — and hope to inspire you to check out as well: music, books. films, art and more.

Do you know the book, musical or movie of Mame?

If you’re below 50, probably not!

Written in 1955 by Patrick Dennis, it sold more than two million copies and stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for 112 weeks. Then it became a play, a musical and a film, nominated for six Academy Awards.

The 10 year old boy at its center — also named Patrick — is sent to live with his madcap aunt Mame, who defines fabulous; in the 1958 film, Mame re-decorates her apartment almost every scene.

I adore Mame, and its spirit of joie de vivre.

I know all the songs by heart and love singing along, although “My Best Girl” always makes me weepy.

From Wikipedia:

A June 1958 Los Angeles Examiner article named six different styles: Chinese, 1920s Modern, “Syrie Maugham” a French style named for writer Somerset Maugham’s wife; English, Danish Modern and East Indian. When the Upsons visit Mame, they run afoul of the Danish Modern furniture, which is equipped with lifts[5] The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Malcolm Bert; Set Decoration: George James Hopkins).

The costume design for the film, which includes outfits for Mame that coordinate with those sets, was provided by Orry-Kelly,[6] who had worked with Rosalind Russell on a number of films. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther observed: “The lavish décor of Mame’s apartment is changed almost as frequently as are her flashy costumes, and all of them are dazzling, in color and on the modified wide-screen

Ten reasons I adore Mame, and hope you will too!

— Although Patrick lands abruptly in her care after his father suddenly dies, she’s thrilled to now be taking care of him, not resentful.

— Her glamorous Beekman Place apartment is a froth of over-the-top fun and fantasy.

— That cigarette-holder!

— The characters are great, including lock-jawed snob Gloria Upson and gloomy Agnes Gooch.

— Mame can not stand snobbery!

— She reminds me so much of the wealthy, profligate Chicago-born heiress who was my late maternal grandmother, all raw silk turbans and custom-made raw silk muumuus and gold-topped canes and limo’s everywhere.

— Like me, Patrick is sent off to boarding school but treasures his visits with Mame.

— Despite moving in wealthy Manhattan circles, Mame is always urging Patrick to be curious and adventurous: “Open a new window, open a new door, travel a new highway you’ve never tried before…”

— She knows how to cheer everyone up, singing: “Haul out the holly, put up the tree…We need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles at the window, carols at the spinnet!”

— She’s a figure we can all enjoy in our lives, whether we’re a lost little boy or a happy play, musical or film-goer. She stands the test of time.

The power of scent

Lilac — the best!

Like some of you, perhaps, I’m obsessed with fragrance, and not a day goes by (unless an appointment in small shared spaces) without wearing perfume — currently in rotation are Terre by Hermes (winter only), L’Eau de l’Artisan by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Chanel No. 5, Prada Iris and Herbae, a spontaneous purchase this year, by L’Occitane.

So this story from Spain was perfect.

He leads “smelling tours”:

“Smell goes directly to your emotions, you are crying, you don’t know why,” Mr. Collado expounded as the others leaned in. “Smelling has a power that none of the other senses have, and I must tell you now, it is molecular, it goes to the essence of the essence.”

Our lives are filled with scents, some pleasant, some less so and they can so powerfully evoke memories.

When we married, in September 2011 in a small wooden church on an island in Toronto harbor, I was so deeply comforted by the smell of sun-warmed wood — a cherished memory of my summers at camp, where we slept in wooden cabins and all our buildings were made of wood.

Some of my favorite smells include:

jet fuel (!), motorboat gas (I think it’s the connotation of motion/travel!), cut grass, sun dried pine needles, the ocean, coffee grounds, Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco, gardenia, lilac, the peppery scent of marigolds, the briny smell of fresh oysters, good leather — shoes or a saddle or a lovely old jacket, new books!

Jose and I have an odd scent we both love, from our childhoods — the distinctive but subtle fragrance of an olive green Spanish soap and perfume called Maja. It still comes wrapped in black tissue paper.

Created in 1921, here’s a description of it:

Top notes are Geranium, Citruses, Tobacco and Orange Blossom; middle notes are Carnation, Cloves, Nutmeg, Rose, Lavender, Leather and Jasmine; base notes are Patchouli, Cypress, Tonka Bean, Amber, Benzoin and Oakmoss.

I adored a Roger & Gallet soap with the spicy scent of carnation as well but (sob!) it seems to have been discontinued.

The night I met Jose in March 2000 he wore a delicious scent — 1881 — whose top notes also include carnation, juniper, lavender and cypress, created in 1990. He was wearing a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (!) as a muffler and, at the end of the evening, took it off and wrapped me in it.

DONE.

Perhaps my favorite memory of scent is the week I spent alone traveling across the Balagne, the northern tip of Corsica, by mo-ped. It was July and I drove across endless fields of the low, scrubby brush known as maquis, a mix of fragrant plants — sun-warmed, their fragrance filled my nostrils. So sensual!

What are some of your favorite smells, and why?