Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

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The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”

 

 

 

Who should we mourn?

By Caitlin Kelly

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In the past few months, three famous people have died, two of whose deaths widely elicited public scorn, derision and relief: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Toronto mayor (and admitted drug user while in office) Rob Ford.

The late Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid was by all accounts a brilliant tough cookie — who one acquaintance of mine immediately dismissed as a woman who only created properties for the world’s wealthiest.

I wonder about the wisdom of this.

I asked a friend in her 30s what she thought, a fellow journalist, a thoughtful person.

“They’re celebrities. They don’t feel like real people to us.”

I wonder about this as well.

There are people — serial killers, perpetrators of terrorism and genocide — whose deaths, natural or murdered, we don’t grieve. Those boundaries seem clear enough to me.

There are people within our own families, people who perpetrated sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, whose deaths we might also greet with a sigh of relief.

Here’s a powerful essay, from Bust, by a 26-year-old woman whose abusive mother died, and how that felt for her.

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I attended a funeral about a decade ago, of a man whose widow and adult daughter share an apartment hallway with us. We have never socialized and likely never will; we’re very different sorts of people. We say hello in the hallway and parking lot.

But when their father and husband was dying a horrible death of cancer, we helped them connect with a hospice and, when he died, we went to his funeral.

I was stunned to see how empty it was. I doubt more than a dozen people were there, and this for a local man.

I wondered, then as now, why so few people cared enough to come and pay their respects; I’ve attended funerals that were practically standing room only, filled with people utterly distraught at their loss.

Why did this man’s death go so un-mourned? What had he said or done (or left unsaid or un-done?)

For public figures like Scalia, Ford and Hadid, we have access to reams of information about them and their work, their public behavior and accomplishments, sometimes their struggles.

Those who knew them best might not feel comfortable sharing more intimate details, so we’re left with broad outlines.

Many people loathed Scalia and Ford for their misogyny and for holding power over so many lives while espousing values they disagreed with.

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They were also human.

They left behind people who loved them deeply and respected them.

Do they, too, deserve to be mourned?

I say yes.

What do you think?

 

What will they remember you for?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

— He baked bread in clay flowerpots

— His amazing home-made pizza

— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

From wife to widow

By Caitlin Kelly

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There is a woman in our apartment building whose husband will soon die, at the absurd and frighteningly young age of 54. Maybe it’s 52.

All I can do is think of him, and pray for him and her and hope his death is as gentle as it can be.

He is not 16 or 25 or 40, true.

But he is young — and he is dying from a brain tumor and he was a lovely, smart, hard-working man who will soon leave behind a grieving younger wife and a teenage daughter from his first marriage.

We were not close friends, which is why I did not visit his bedside and got the news of his imminent demise from a neighbor.

He and I served on our co-op board together, a true test of character and grace under pressure!

And when my second book came out and I was struggling with some personal attacks, he explained to me — he, being a lawyer — what an ad hominem attack was and, more essentially, how to fight one effectively.

His compassion and wisdom touched me deeply.

And all I can think of is that — through nothing more than the shittiest fortune imaginable — his death soon transforms his wife into a widow.

Niva Dorell Smith, a fellow blogger, knows this nightmare as well, although she was younger, as was her husband Kaz, when he, too succumbed to a brain tumor.

She recently published her story about it on narrative.ly, married only 11 days before he died:

Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.

I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.

“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”

The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.

There is no good way I know of to lose the man (or woman) you adore. To whom you once said — praying it wouldn’t happen any time soon — “til death do us part.”

My handsome hubby, Jose
My handsome hubby, Jose, wearing seersucker (a NYT tradition) for June 21

Just cherish the hell out of them while you have them.