Christmas and loss

My apologies for my long absence. This has been a time of transition and upheaval. I left my job of 17 years in early October with a plan to focus on my own writing, do some freelance work, and teach. I was—am—eager to move into this next phase and also a bit apprehensive and sorry to leave my colleagues.

I thought the job transition would be the primary story of this fall and winter. But, sadly, overshadowing the work transition has been the ill health and death of Barbara, my older and only sister.

A couple of days after my final day at work, I got a call that she was gravely ill. Her health started failing last winter and in April she went into a care home in England, where she’s lived for many years. I visited her in June and then flew to England again in October, after I got the emergency call. She rallied a bit while I was there but then went rapidly downhill through November. She died in early December

I’ve been writing during these months of blog silence and have just posted three backdated entries–I invite you to check them out:

Sometimes I need a list (October 26)

Rain then sun (November 8)

“Hope is the thing…” (November 14)

For now, here are some reflections on Christmas this year.


Sadness and joy can co-exist. That’s a lesson I’m learning and re-learning this Christmas season.

IMG_0216I put the Christmas tree up a week ago. I bought the tree in late November because the garden center quickly runs out of the small, table top trees I like. It languished in the dark, cold garage for weeks. I dragged my heels about putting it up because I was wary of the emotional impact, weighing the possible—probable—sadness against the pleasure I get from bringing the green and light into the house.

And perhaps if I’d waited until Christmas eve to decorate the tree, had the twelve lessons and carols service from King’s College, Cambridge, playing in the background, remembered sitting with Barbara in her English home watching the service in real time, the sadness would have deepened.

But this year I simply felt my usual mix of nostalgia and pleasure as I draped the white lights and hung the familiar ornaments, a few that have been handed down from our dad’s childhood tree, a few that friends have given me, some I’ve bought over the years. Under the tree I placed the wooden village that was under dad’s tree. I did not put Kris Kringle on the top. This is another ornament from dad’s childhood but Kris is old and fragile and now retired to the china cabinet. Instead I perched a cardinal, honoring our mom and her love of these birds.

As often happens when we’re living through an experience, gifts float our way. On a friend’s recommendation I listened to a recent On Being podcast. Krista Tippett’s guest was Pauline Boss, who teaches and writes about ambiguous loss, that loss you feel when a loved one is alive but lost to you for some reason, the loss I felt for my sister over the last few months of her life.

She talked about the “myth of closure.” “‘Closure’ is a terrible word in human relationships,” she said. “Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them—when they’re lost you still care about them. It’s a different dimension, but you can’t just turn it off.” Grief continues and in some way gets integrated into our lives.

She also disputed the idea of the five stages of grief. She said that Kubler-Ross intended those stages to describe the experience of people living with terminal illness, not the experience of those left behind after a death. Instead, grief is episodic, kaleidoscopic, appearing and receding.

My grief for my sister often feels muted, subterranean and then fissures open and sadness bubbles up—I had a day like that on a recent Saturday. I took part in my usual Saturday morning routines—coffee with a friend, farmers’ market with another friend—but then in the afternoon I retreated to the couch and opened to a deep sense of loss. I sat with the feeling until it passed, as these feelings do, but was left with a lingering lethargy of spirit. 

But even when I’m not consciously feeling sad, I know my mind and body are absorbing the loss on some level. I read an essay by the Irish writer Derek O’Connor about his grief at his wife’s death. He describes a conversation with a friend who is a scientist: “She details the neuroscience of grief, how mourning is the process by which the brain repairs itself.” The neuroscience of grief—I want to know more.

I talked with my cousin Kathy shortly after Barbara died. She lives on the west coast and we see each other rarely but she’s family, she’s continuity. Her voice sounds like her mother’s voice and I remember that her mother sounded like my mother—echoes rippling out, bridging time and loss. Her parents and her only sibling are also dead. “We’re adult orphans,” she said. I take that in.

I spent Christmas eve at a dinner party with old and new friends and gathered with other friends for a meal on Christmas day. Both days were filled with laughter and connection, the warmth of good company. On Christmas day we toasted those who were missing from the circle, including my sister, and in doing so made a space for them around the table.

Someone once told me that decorations on a tree at winter solstice represent souls of the dead. A quick Google search yields one website that makes that point and then others that say the decorations represent wishes for the year to come. I choose to think of the tree as both—a nod to memories of those who have died and a nod, as well, to life and light in the darkest season.


Here are two previous posts about Christmas:

Homesick for Christmas

Kris Kringle




Rain then sun

Tuesday’s chill, dark rain sank me, drowned me. I drifted through the gloom, semi -reclined on the couch, bright yellow throw over my legs, streaming video on the laptop. Anyone peering in the front window would have thought I was ill and maybe in some soul space I was—not exactly ill but tired, damp, moldy.

I got up from the couch to make lunch, run a quick errand, make supper, do some minimal tidying up. I did not read a good book, make soup or bread, sweep up the leaves I’d tracked in from the front walk, do any of the items on my to-do list, exercise, meditate, write. I tell myself I need these down days but I’m not sure that’s true.


I think of my sister every day. She’s hard to reach by phone these days. She’s sleeping a lot and not always making sense when she’s awake. She’s slipping away from me, from us. Last week I wrote her a letter and emailed it to M to deliver. I’ll do the same this week.

I think of her everyday but especially on a couch day like Tuesday when her image hovers like a warning, my last view of her as I left her in late October, lying in bed unable to tend to herself, bathe, feed, turn over in bed. She’s so frail and weak. She sleeps, wakes, sleeps again. I whisper to myself to move, to use my strong enough body, my agile enough brain while I can.


Light returned. Two crisp, clear, sunny days. My to-do list still languishes with items unchecked but I got off the couch and out into the world. Walks around the neighborhood, dinner with a friend.

Yesterday, mid-afternoon, I went into the garden to empty some pots, put away chairs, cut back the rose bushes. As I walked around the house and into the back yard, crunching through leaves, I startled a Barred Owl—it soared across the backyard to a new perch in a pine tree near my compost pile, just above the garden cart I needed for my clean up tasks. I walked toward the cart as quietly as I could, not wanting to startle the owl again. It sat there as I retrieved the cart and went about my clean up tasks then flew off again, toward the field behind my house. 

I dumped the accumulated dirt and plant debris onto the compost pile and walked back toward the house slowly, stopping to look and wonder at the light glinting through yellow leaves on a Norway maple.


New Harbor and Pemaquid

 My sister and I spent the week of September 12 – 19 at Thompson Cottages in New Harbor, Maine. When we turned off Route 1 and drove down the hill into Damariscotta and then headed down the peninsula to New Harbor, I felt like I was coming home. This is a bit odd since this was a vacation destination for my family rather than a permanent home but it’s a place with many layers of connection and history for me as it was for my parents. My mother’s faimagemily spent summers near Boothbay, at the end of a neighboring peninsula, and she and her siblings came regularly to Pemaquid. I have pictures of her with her brother and later with my dad and friends picnicking and playing on the rocks.

Every time I make this trip, memories ride along—my first visit with my parents after a long drive east from Ohio when I was 9 or 10, subsequent visits with parents in my late teens and throughout my 20s when they owned a cottage for a few years and then came for extended summer/fall stays in various rentals and I’d come for regular weekend visits from my Massachusetts home. In more recent years, I’ve come up every few years, sometimes alone; sometimes with friends or, as in this vacation, with my sister.

My sister and I rented one of the Thompson’s Back Cove cottages, which was wonderfully private and quiet, especially at this low season time. One of the best features of the cottage, which was overall a comfortable home away from home, was the screened porch that overlooked the cove.

I got up early every morning, made the coffee, then wandered out to thIMG_0410e porch, where I read, watched the birds, wrote a bit in a journal. Later in the day, B and I sat there together, after whatever adventures the day had taken us on. We’d watch the light glow on the trees across the cove and then slowly diminish. Unidentified birds swooped and chittered, crows called loudly, a blue heron waded by daily. (We wished we’d brought binoculars and a bird book!)

Five miles further along, down at the end of the peninsula, is Pemaquid Point, a big pile of rocks spilling into the sea, a lighthouse, a small cafe.

Pemaquid has long had power for me. I remember sitting for long stretches huddled against a sheltering pile of rocks, shutting out the sounds of other visitors and letting myself sink into the crash of imagewaves and the smell of salt and seaweed. I came there one evening when I was in my 20s and caught up in some sort of tumult—there was a full moon and a high tide—magic, an easing of spirit. I came again the spring that my dad died and 10 years later, the summer my mom died, needing the touchstone of a place that has echoes back in family history, remembering childhood picnics on the rocks and imagining my parents there in their younger, newly married days

And I still gravitate there. If I’m in Maine, I make sure to stop at Pemaquid even if it’s not my primary destination.On this trip I made daily pilgrimages to the point, trying to reconnect with that power. And it was beautiful and the waves crashed and the air smelled of brine but the power was diminished. I suspect it’s partly because I’m more cautious than I used to be about clambering around on the rocks and so I felt more distant, a viewer from afar.

But I think it also says something about being in a calmer, more reflective time of life. What held power for me on this trip was the cove. The stillness, the light, the heron wading, the light. That’s the stillness I look for when I meditate, when I sit to write, when I sit with morning coffee looking out at the garden, not thinking, just being.


I’m halfway through an online writing group called One Story, Ten Facets, led by Jena Schwartz–we’ll be together for 2 weeks. There are 8 of us in the group from around the country. Each morning we get a prompt from Jena in our inboxes. We each write for 10 minutes and then, if we want, post what we’ve written in a private Facebook group. I’ve been writing a lot about my mom and me, which surprised me a bit. This post evolved from one of the prompts.


I don’t have a view of full-on sunsets from my house but on summer evenings I can see a faint rosy glow, the edge of the sunset, through the branches of the evergreens at the back of the yard. Sometimes that faint glow draws me out of the house and down the block to the field at the end of the neighborhood where I can watch the full display across the valley.

My mother loved sunsets. She kept a journal, beginning in 1966–she would have been in her late 50s then. She wrote in it sporadically, an entry or two and then a gap of years before another entry. The last entry was dated 1976. She wrote several times about the sunsets she could see from the kitchen window. In the first entry, written on a January afternoon, she describes a sunset that was a delicate rose in color with black tracing of tree branches. She goes on to say how frustrating it is that my father and I didn’t see this beauty: “I say, ‘Look at the sunset–it’s fabulous.’ They say ‘yes very nice’ and they don’t really see. It’s so beautiful it hurts.”

And she’s right. As a teen ager I didn’t see the sunsets–or at least I didn’t see what she saw–the painful beauty of them.

I wrote about sunsets in my own journal once a few years ago. I’d had a string of conversations with friends who were dealing with illnesses of various kinds. I wrote about driving home from work along the river one winter afternoon. The sun was setting behind the hills across the river and it took my breath away–the hills, the scarlet sky, the reflection in the river. I wrote that I wanted to give this sunset to my friends as an antidote, a balm, something to hold onto when all else seemed to be giving way. The redemptive power of sunsets.

Maybe that’s what my mother saw in sunsets, those many many years ago. I wish I could come up behind her, circle my arms around her waist where she stands at the sink, rest my chin on her shoulder and see the sunset along with her. Yes, it’s gorgeous I’d say.

Fishing with Dad

20599-R1-31-31On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of my dad who died over 30 years ago at age 75. He had a heart attack, sitting in his chair, 5:30 in the afternoon, watching 3s Company reruns on tv and probably sipping a Manhattan while my mother made supper.

Dad’s eyesight was failing–glaucoma that he’d had since he was 40. He had a heart condition–the heart attack was a surprise but in some way also expected. He’d had a pacemaker for a few years and problems regulating his heart medication. He was slowing down, physically and mentally, and having a hard time accepting this. We all knew that we’d soon have to have that difficult conversation about driving.

He had a group of men friends—the Old Goat’s Club they called themselves. My dad, the ex banker; Hubert, who used to own the drugstore in town; Dick, who was also a banker; and Jack, an insurance agent. They met each Tuesday morning at a coffee shop off the town square. I wonder what they talked about as they navigated retirement and old age.

Dad was an avid photographer—I still have carousels filled with his slides documenting trips and family events, including many silly pictures of me, little ham that I was. My sister and I say we’re going to sort through them, get the ones we want to keep onto the computer and toss the rest but we haven’t done it yet. I kept his camera—and used it for many years until it needed a new part and turned out to be too old to fix.

I also kept his yellow cardigan sweater, one of his favorites. I can still feel its texture under my fingertips and on the inside of my arms where I’d press against him in a hug–he was good with hugs.

I wish I’d known my dad better. That sounds like an odd thing to say about a man I saw every day for more than 18 years but he was a very private man, who was, I think, easily hurt. I remember one blow-out fight we had when I was in my 20s. I don’t remember what the topic was–I just remember yelling at each other–a rarity in our family–and I remember thinking that beneath his anger, dad was deeply hurt that I thought so differently about something.

We were up in Maine, in a cottage that my parents owned for a few years right after dad retired. I was living in the Boston area and came up a lot on the weekends in the summer. I suspect we were arguing about decisions I was making about work. Dad wanted me to find a respectable career like his, banking, but I wasn’t interested in something so conventional.

We yelled. I probably cried. Mom intervened and it was over. At times I wish we’d kept going–gotten to something deep and honest that needed saying–but I also wonder if one of us–probably me–would have said something irretrievable.

That one fight aside, the times I spent with dad in Maine are some of my best memories of adult time with him. The cottage was on a lake. He had a rowboat with an outboard motor and we’d go fishing for long hours, puttering down the lake to find a good spot and then casting our lines and waiting companionably for something to bite, which it rarely did. Here’s a poem I wrote about that time:

Fishing with My Father

Our boat drifts through light and shade.

We sit angled, bow and stern, poles poised

for elusive fish, no sound but the slap

of water on the boat’s hull, the whipping hiss

of a cast line. We are caught there,

drifting the length of the lake.

We pretend knowledge of underwater geography,

the habits of fish; disturb the places hidden by rocks,

push our way through lily pads and weeds,

seek the warm currents.

Sometimes you just need to let go…

I love my couch. I sit on it all the time, reclined against a pile IMG_0027of pillows that are arranged just so, legs up and outstretched, afghan over me, coffee table next to me with dinner dishes stacked waiting for a trip out to the kitchen. Discarded earrings litter the coffee table, along with Sunday’s newspaper, and a book flopped open.I bought the couch probably 15 years ago–I don’t remember exactly when it became part of my living room decor. It’s upholstered in a brown cotton fabric. Bauhaus style the label said–it has high arms (perfect for piling those pillows up), and soft cushions, a distinctive line to the back and flare of the arms. Newly purchased it was elegant–the most expensive piece of furniture I’d ever bought–I who was queen of the Goodwill and second hand furniture stores, whose good pieces of furniture were mostly things brought from my parent’s house.

Elegance soon faded along with the fabric which got sun bleached along the back and tops of the arms. And my 3 cats decided that the arms made great scratching posts. I taped foil to the arms, then sticky strips guaranteed to deter kitty claws, sprayed it with noxious smelling sprays which kept me away but not the cats.

The fabric quickly succumbed to the kitty attention and shred marks adorned the front of the arms. I bought the first in a series of ready-made slipcovers, something green and synthetic and floppy. Then at some point I discovered the stretchy slipcovers that now cover it up–what one friend calls an undershirt for furniture. It’s corduroy textured, fitted, and seemingly indestructible even with a determined cat. But to get this cover to fit, I had to remove the back cushions (and it’s hard to sit sideways as I love to do with those cushions there). I now have an array of throw pillows lining the back. When I have company, I arrange them just so but I think they’re really not all that comfortable. As soon as the company leaves, the pillows get piled at the end or tossed aside and my nest re-emerges.

This year I announced to a friend that i was finally going to replace the couch. But I haven’t done it.


Yellow chair just after I moved into my house.

This all reminds me of the faded yellow armchair that I brought home from my mother’s house after she died. I hadn’t yet bought a house–didn’t even know I was going to do so–but house or apartment, the chair would be a comforting reminder of my childhood home.

Mom and dad had bought the chair shortly after they were married and it followed them from home to home, taking pride of place in the living room for many years, upholstered, reupholstered, slipcovered, and finally reupholstered yet again, its final coat a tough pale yellow fabric that was scratchy against bare skin. At some point it left the living room and was relegated to the small back bedroom that my mother used as her nest.

I did eventually buy a house and placed the chair in the living room, near the fireplace. But somehow it never looked at home. It was somehow out of proportion to my other furniture, too old fashioned, and ultimately too worn.

There were those cats–the tough fabric of the upholstery stood up to their claws for quite a while but then gashes began to show through. And there was a kind of musty smell to the chair. I’d drape it with throws or try to dress it up with ready-made slipcovers but it never really fit.

Eventually I had it hauled away along with a truckload of items destined for the dump. I remember the pickup truck pulling out of the driveway with the chair perched on top of the load. I felt sad, felt I was betraying that chair, guilty that I hadn’t taken better care of this relic from my family’s past.

I have other things that I brought from Ohio and take care of and cherish–a lamp, a painting, a glass vase, a pottery vase, some small wood carvings. I value these items for their own beauty as well as the association with mom and dad. But this poor sad chair got discarded.

Of course, my mother would probably have nagged me to get rid of the chair long before I did. And she’d be telling me that the couch needs to follow.