Friday, July 1, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge, Part II

 (Writing fiction about a real-life character isn't as easy as you'd think.  I don't know where this is going, but I'm going with it.)

                             PROLOGUE:  MARCH 31, 1984

          “There you go,” Jessie said.  She set the tea tray carefully down on the little table.
          Elizabeth smiled up from where she sat.  She picked up the dented but still elegant-looking coin silver spoon…one of the survivors of the set given to her parents as a wedding gift…and stirred her tea, remembering that long-ago day when she’d first met Jessie in the Providence Cottage garden in Devon.  Mother had just died, she recalled, and I was so horribly alone…glad that her suffering was over but feeling cut off from everything, even my writing.  And then Jessie came in response to my letter, her hair like a horse chestnut a-fire and her eyes clear and direct, and the loneliness began to let go of me….
          Jessie’s hair had gone rusty, and her figure was a tad thicker; but the face with its broad cheekbones was dearer.  Twenty-one years together had worn away all their edges, and they could talk about anything because they knew each other and each other’s stories inside-out.  The young woman who’d come to her as a companion had, in a sense, become the daughter she would’ve like to have had.
          All this and more passed through Elizabeth’s mind as she studied Jessie’s tired comfortable face….”I’d give anything to be able to go out into the garden,” she said with sudden wistfulness.
          “I know, love.”  Jessie’s voice was sympathetic yet matter-of-fact.  “But it’s much too damp for you with your arthritis.  Give it time, Elizabeth – it’s not as though there’s anything much out there to look at yet.  It’ll be warm soon enough for you to sit out there and soak up the sun while I get busy with the flowers again.”
          “You’re just itching to get your hands back in that soil, aren’t you?”  Elizabeth played with half her sandwich:  she wasn’t really hungry, but Jessie had gone to such trouble.  “And the dirtier you get, the happier you are.”
          Jessie grinned.  “You know how it is with me, Elizabeth.  I’m my best self when I’m gardening.  I come alive like one of the flowers and lose all sense of time.  It’s like what you feel when you’re writing, I expect.”
          Elizabeth abandoned her sandwich and reached for the tea.  She sipped it appreciatively.  One of Jessie’s own special teas, brewed from the comfrey she grew in the garden and thickly laced with honey.  And as she drank, her mind flitted about, landing like a butterfly first on this thought and then on the next.  “I wonder what those readers of mine would think if they knew that you’re the one who gives me the information about flowers and herbs that I work into my books,”   Elizabeth chuckled.
          “Ah, some of that’s from you,” Jessie replied.  She slipped a cushion behind the older woman’s bony back.  “And the soul behind them, that’s all you.  I can’t lay claim to any of that.”
          Elizabeth glanced up.  She tried to keep a straight face, but the corners of her mouth quirked up.  “Why, Jessie, you’ve been reading my books!”
          Jessie had come into her employ never having read any of her novels, something that Elizabeth had found refreshing.  She had always loved the letters from her readers, of course, but she’d also worried that they might have this impossible-to-live-up-to stained-glass image of her.  People never could separate fact from fiction and were always so sure they knew you better than you knew yourself after reading your books.
          “Well, I was bound to come to it sooner or later, wasn’t I?”  Jessie demanded with mock fierceness.  She walked over to the front window and began twitching the drapes unnecessarily.  Elizabeth sat there, nursing her tea.  You got the best revelations by holding yourself still and waiting; she’d learned that much over the years.  “I like them, Elizabeth, I do at that,” Jessie said slowly.
          She tilted her head to the side with an expression that made Elizabeth think of the robin from The Secret Garden“You know what I think?  I think you’ve got to read your books more than once.  Once just for the story, a second time for the descriptions – they’re rich, they are, Elizabeth – and a third for the meaning.”  She smiled – a warm, awkward smile like a fire slow getting started.  “So I expect I’ll be reading and re-reading them for quite some time.  Rest of my life, probably.”
          Elizabeth folded her thin hands, letting them rest on the edge of the table.  It had been worth waiting over thirty years to hear Jessie make such a speech and sweeter than any review she’d ever gotten. 
          Jessie ducked back out into the kitchen, leaving Elizabeth staring out the window.  Such a gray day, she thought.  Tomorrow would be April.  Her month.  I’ll be 84, she told herself and shook her head.  I don’t feel 84.  She glanced down at her hands lying so veined and fragile against the table’s wood and grimaced.  Mother was right:  your  hands do show your age faster than the rest of you.  And, of course, there was the osteoarthritis.
          She reached down and stroked her skirt, her right hand moving against the fabric with a kind of rhythm despite its swollen joints.  She’d always liked pretty clothes and things.  Never had thought much of her own looks, although she had rather liked her figure.  Tall and slim, she’d been, a feminine version of her father.  And her hair.  It had been long and beautiful….
          My knees didn’t bend outward back then, and I walked straight, Elizabeth remembered.  That’s what he said I was, straight and slender as a birch.  A dryad come to life.    She found herself yearning over that young woman, unencumbered by osteoarthritis, bright of eye (no thought of cataracts then!), and in love for the first time.  And she found herself yearning over Julian, too.  He had gone to dust and ashes years ago, and yet he was more real to her now than anyone, excepting Jessie.
          He had been married.  That and her upbringing had kept them in check.  But the memory of his touch still sent the blood in her veins thrumming…still made her paper-thin skin feel as though it was about to burst into flame.  It’s surprising how hot a man’s lips can be when he desires you, and there are times you think his arms will crack your ribs, and yet you glory in it.  The words of Harriet, her people-wise old woman from The Rosemary Tree, wandered unbidden into her mind just then, and she smiled wistfully.  Funny how the characters from her novels and the people she’d known were beginning to blur together in this last stretch.  Maybe it was because so much of her life had gone into her books.
                  Or maybe it was simply because her characters had always been so real to her.   Harriet…the Eliot Family, whose trilogy she still loved best of all novels…Fronigna, her white witch.  She still remembered that day so long ago, when she’d seen the beautiful woman step through the hedge, then vanish, though Elizabeth had never taken her eyes off her.  And that had paved the way for her novel The White Witch.
          Harriet…the Eliots…Fronigna….There was a pattern forming, if she could just grab hold of it.  Moving about the room – any kind of physical activity – helped whenever she was wrestling with something.  And movement wasn’t something that came easily to her these days.  Elizabeth frowned, biting her lower lip.  Jessie would be cross with her for risking it.  But she had to try.
          Grabbing hold of her wooden frame, she slowly got to her feet, every muscle and tendon screaming in protest.  She teetered and almost pitched forward.  What if her barely healed leg gave way and she did further damage to her already disintegrating spine? But then, just as suddenly, she righted herself and inched over to the front window.  “’Creep-mouse, creep-mouse,’” she murmured, the words of the old childhood rhyme tap-dancing in her brain.
          Finally, she stood, leaning into the glass, her eyes greedily taking in the landscape.  Didn’t matter that it was sodden and without any redeeming touches of green.  That would change, and she would be here to welcome it once again.  The familiar walls fell away, and she stood – well, metaphorically speaking -- on the threshold of yearning, unable to tell where the pain left off and the joy began.  But, then, it had always been that way with her, even in the days when her love for Julian had colored the picture, spilling over the lines.  Nothing had ever been unmixed for her:  tears in the midst of laughter, blessing bleeding heartache and piercing her soul.  I, crucified, become real.  More words, and she wondered which of her poems they had come from.
          And then she remembered.  It was the poem she’d started to write after Julian had left Ely; unable to finish it, she’d torn it up and fed the pieces to the fire.  She hadn’t thought of it since.  But this little ghost of a line had somehow survived and come back to haunt her now…
          Elizabeth’s eyes traveled to the large crewel embroidery piece hanging to the right of the window.  She’d done it years ago, just as the arthritis had started creeping up on her.  Two stags rested face-to-face under a tree; flitting under the tree’s flower-starred branches  were several birds, able to move freely while her fingers grew more swollen and knobby and her joints screamed at her to stop reaching, stop moving…
          She hobbled over to the needlework and touched the satin-stitched wing of one of the birds.  “’But they that wait upon the Lord shall have new strength,’” she murmured.  “’They shall fly with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.’”
          She found herself thinking back to her stay in hospital a few years earlier.  How she’d been lying there in the public ward after her fall, feeling pretty weary herself – weary of the pain, weary of everything – when a poem had come to her.  And because writing had always been a spiritual thing for her, the poem had been a sign.  A finding – or, rather, a re-finding – of faith and brought on by something as simple as Ida, one of the volunteers, wheeling the tea trolley on that Easter morning, “rattling and banging,
          Swaying and singing down the long ward
          Like a ship in full sail was Ida
          Crying aloud the tidings of joy
          ‘Cup of tea with sugar?    With sugar”’
          …The risen sun filled the ward with light,
          We held out our hands for his bounty,”
Elizabeth murmured, remembering.  And the remembering sent out ripples, widening, ever widening….
          She turned from the embroidery piece, and there he was again.  Julian with his kind, amused eyes that missed very little…his lean face lined as it had been when she’d last seen him, then young and smooth as tanned leather.   The two faces flickered back and forth…a magic-lantern show…and she could not honestly say which she loved more.
          Loving him had been easier than breathing; the holding back had been the hard part.  And yet with them, the non-physical had been as powerful as the physical.  Perhaps more.  They had been circles overlapping one another, their souls somehow recognizing each other right from the start.  She reached one arthritic hand up, wanting to touch that face just one more time:  it flickered brightly, then gently faded away.
          Elizabeth sighed, her shoulders slumping.  She would’ve liked for Julian to stay longer.  She couldn’t always will him back, any more than she could always recall the words to her poems. Still, he seemed to come more often these days.  One of the perks of growing old, she supposed.
          Slowly, biting her lip, she made it back o her chair.  That certainly took the starch out of me, she thought, leaning her head back against the cool chintz fabric.  She glanced at the sandwich on her tray.  I’ll eat later.  A catnap is all I need now.
          She closed her eyes, letting the room wrap its silence around her.  Only as she was on the verge of dropping off did she become aware of a breeze flirting with her hair, which seemed oddly longer.  The curls were brushing against her neck, and the smell of sun-warmed raspberries teased her nose.  And then, suddenly, she was swaying and stumbling as she made her way along the tree-shaded path, the flecks of summer sunlight dancing on the leaves.  There was someone she had to find, but the trees confused her, there were so many of them, and they were so much taller than she remembered them being.
          Then Elizabeth saw him.  She had forgotten how slim and quick-footed her father had been in his younger days, had only remembered the frail old man she had sat with during his final illness.  He moved among the raspberry bushes now, picking the fruit and completely unaware of her.  Mother must’ve sent him to do that, she thought, knowing how much he hated doing anything domestic.  She hastened to catch up with him.
          But her legs had grown shorter and her skirts bunchier.  She tumbled over.  “Papa!”  she cried, but he was already disappearing among the nearby trees.
          Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back.  The sky was darkening, and the trees crowded around her, trying to keep her from him.  But she could still see a bit of the path…could just make out that long-legged well-loved figure disappearing down it….
          There was only one thing to do.  She picked herself up and ran on her stubby little legs after him.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Shifting Facets: Gigi Kast

(From The Way-Back Files -- Just Cats!, July/August 2000)

Sometimes the answers come to animal healer Gigi Kast through images. Sometimes a story will come to her, she explains, and “the healing may be in the mental story. The problem that’s going on, whether it’s emotional or physical, may have its beginning in another time. Because the emotional body is a timeless body, it doesn’t know when it [the problem] is happening.”

Basically, the Walpole, Maine woman tries to leave herself open to whatever the animal is psychically sending her way. “My healing is not of a typical straight-ahead kind,” she cautions. “I work intuitively and have applied that to animals….My strong spot is helping the spiritual or emotional bodies clear by spontaneously going to the root of the problem.” Often, Kast adds, a healing will occur over the phone while she talks with the animal’s owner, “and I energetically work with them. I channel however this is to happen – perhaps through sound, movement, or seeing the vibration shift with color.” For her, each is simply another facet of the prism.

A former emergency medical technician (EMT) and assistant midwife, she has been working as an animal communicator and energy-field healer for roughly the last 17 years. But even as a child, Kast felt a powerful connection with nature and had a number of intensely spiritual experiences. “I went through a period of time where I wasn’t validated,” she recalls. “But the images were always there. They don’t come all at once, and they come in different ways. You have one particular talent, and mine is direct knowing over the visual or the auditory….The whole animal thing has been in my life from the very beginning, especially with wild animals.”

Seventeen years ago, however, she had “a really in-my-face” psychic experience following her cat Ruby’s disappearance. After a few days of frantic and unsuccessful searching, Kast remembers saying to herself, “Damn! I’m going to find her in a dream.’” That night, she did: “The next morning, I found her body exactly where I had in the dream.”

Then several visual and auditory psychic occurrences took place, and Ruby appeared the front and center in all of them. “She wasn’t going to leave until we got the message, so her spirit stayed with us for awhile.” The message was that Kast would become pregnant in three months’ time…and she did. Kast believed that there was a spiritual connection between the cat and the child she was carrying: when her son was born, his hair was exactly the same color as Ruby’s fur. More than anything, it “showed me the interweaving between the animals, my psychic abilities, and humans.”

These otherworldly experiences involving animals – especially wild ones – kept happening. She’d drive by an animal lying dead in the road, “and I’d have to turn around or stop right there to help them pass over. Sometimes they have an issue they’re worried about – like they’ve left their babies – and you counsel and comfort them. Sometimes an animal would merge with me while I was working, and I would come to understand the animal by becoming the animal.” In that sense, her approach is organic or shamanic, Kast says. “You’re traveling to other realms, as in soul retrieval, bringing back a part of the soul that’s been lost or separated.”

She isn’t a homeopath. But she will sometimes suggest homeopathic remedies to clients, “then refer out because I basically don’t want to have that responsibility over the long haul.” She also makes use of flower essences.

A lot of what she does, however, simply falls within the category of “energy work.” As she puts it, “You’re energy-shifting and healing whatever the attitude or the problem is. So you go back and do a healing coupled with counseling.” She focuses on getting the energy to “shift, so often what comes through me is sound. That promotes a shift in the vibration. Sometimes the sound will come in and break up a block, just like the water vibrates and begins movement. The other thing that sound does is promote regeneration at a higher vibration.” Something as simple as a lullaby can be “a really healing thing.”

Actually, Kast’s messages from the animals – especially those who have passed on – can themselves be as simple and healing as a lullaby. Case in point: a recently euthanized 10-month-old kitten. “I see a strong golden light about her,” the healer says thoughtfully. “This is about loss and letting go, connected with light….This particular light has a very strong glow. That light, whether you’re in body or not, continues.”

(Update: Gigi Kast now lives in Velarde, New Mexico. And she’s still talking to animals.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge

     (This is part of a work-in-progress.  Over the last few years, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Elizabeth's company, and I have learned a lot from her both as a writer and as a seeker of truth in all things spiritual.)

       Elizabeth deBeauchamp Goudge (1900 – 1984) has been called “the greatest ‘unknown’ writer of the 20th century” ( She was a bestselling author in England and America for four decades; her book Green Dolphin Country (published in this country as Green Dolphin Street) became the basis for a movie starring Donna Reed and Lana Turner. Goudge came back into the public eye in 1993, when Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen plagiarized her novel The Rosemary Tree (1956).  Paul Kafka, who had initially given Aikath-Gyaltsen’s Crane’s Morning a positive review, conceded his mistake, saying, “If something comes from exotic parts, it’s read very differently than if it’s domestically grown….Maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn’t gotten her due.”
          Goudge’s readers have always been a loyal crew.  (It was through an Ontario reader that the plagiarism was discovered.)  Many of us met her for the first time in The Little White Horse (winner of the 1946 Carnegie Medal) and Linnets and Valerians when we were little:  we lost ourselves in the magic of the stories she wove and were totally at home with her because she could see things through a child’s eyes, something that she never lost the gift of.  And we found her again as adults in novels that were brimming over with magic of another kind – that of forgiveness and God’s grace.

          Elizabeth is a spiritual writer first and foremost:  she does not preach, just kindly and quietly follows her characters on their quests for truth and redemption, and that is where the power in her novels lie.  The soul mattered immensely to her – not just because she was a clergyman’s daughter but because she, a well-read free-thinking woman (one of her novels, The Middle Window, deals with reincarnation), was on a similar pilgrimage.  Her novels reflect that.  Her characters suffer, lose heart, lose their way, and sometimes even die.  What matters is that they find their soul-truth; ultimately, it is their spiritual triumph that matters.
          Elizabeth, who was so very open when it came to matters of the soul, was very reserved about her heart.   There is a brief reference in her memoir The Joy of Snow to a love affair when she was a young woman…glimmers of it in her novels…and a strong sense that this is a writer who knows all the shapes that love can take and who empathizes with her characters accordingly.  But that is all. So, for the purpose of this novel, I have put forward a theory of my own, one that I believe is in keeping with both the woman and the writer.  I think that Elizabeth would have understood.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Loving Till It Hurts: Women, Dementia, & Caregiving

During what turned out to be our last phone conversation, my Guideposts editor, Phyllis Hobe, talked about a book that she wanted to write: it was going to be based on her own experience as a caregiver to her stepfather, and she wanted to call it Loving Till It Hurts. She died before she had a chance to write a single word. That title haunted me, however. This is my small tribute to one of the best editors I ever worked with.


Dementia, my oldest brother once said, robs you of your personality. We had ample proof of that in the three-and-a-half years that the disease sucked away our mother’s personality, leaving her a stranger both to us and to herself. The most poignant image I have is of Mom sitting in her chair during her last holiday with us, holding gifts that she ordinarily would’ve delighted in – a pretty pink-and-white afghan, a stained-glass bluebird – and just staring us, her beautiful brown eyes completely blank.

For Rebecca Penarroya Blanchette, her mother’s dementia meant trading places with her. “I was feeding her,” she says. “I was changing her diaper. It was like a 48-hour work day.” When Blanchette came home from work, she would change her mom and brush her teeth before she even thought about starting supper.

Then there was the financial burden. “You’re not prepared for it,” Blanchette says. “They can live one year to twenty years. Every person is different.” The only silver – well, pewter – lining in the scenario was that her mother knew her most of the time. “I adored my mom. I am an only child. To see her slip away into dementia was devastating. She was good at everything.”

“The truth is, there is no knowing,” observes Carol Child, who writes under the pseudonym Samantha Mozart. “Every situation is different, and every moment within that situation is different: expect the unexpected.”

There’s a reason I start with three stories/quotes from a female perspective. Caregiving is, of course, largely a women’s issue, though some men do take on the role. “Yes, it’s a cultural thing,” agrees Patty O’Brian, the North Central Regional Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, Connecticut Chapter. “It goes back to roles in the family, roles in the community. Specifically in the Latino culture, it’s the female that takes on the role – it could be a daughter, a daughter-in-law, or a granddaughter.”

Most of the caregivers I’ve known over the years have been female. In fact, three out of five unpaid caregivers are women; 2.5 more women than men provide 24-hour care for someone with Alzheimer’s. And 20 per cent of the women caregivers with jobs have gone from working full-time to working part-time because of those caregiving duties.

“Within our complex system of long-term care, women’s caregiving is essential in providing a backbone of support,” maintains the Family Caregiver Alliance. “In fact, the value of the informal care that women provide ranges from $148 billion to $188 billion annually. Women provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors, and they play many roles while caregiving—hands-on health provider, care manager, friend, companion, surrogate decision-maker and advocate.”

In other words, we’re playing that same caretaker role that women played in earlier times. And the cost is very high, as the Alliance points out. Aside from the physical and emotional toll, caregiving “places a further strain on the precarious nature of many women’s retirement income, particularly since time out of the workforce does not only have short-term financial consequences. For most women, fewer contributions to pensions, Social Security and other retirement savings vehicles are the result of reduced hours on the job or fewer years in the workforce.”

“Anyone who has been a caregiver knows that no matter how much help you have, when you are in the middle of it, you are alone,” writes Mozart/Child in Begins the Night Music: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal; “you feel guilty for not doing better – and you wonder if this moment, this hour, these hours will ever end, if you’ll ever get out; and when you do, then what?” Mozart’s book – and its sequel, To What Green Altar – should be required reading for all caregivers. She writes about a world peopled by health aides who don’t show up on time and doctors, hospice workers, and agencies with red tape coming out their ears, the better not to hear you with. About what it’s like watching her mother “gradually shutting down” and how she feels as though she’s “shooting in the dark, often blindsided and with the strength of a jellyfish.”

“One of the things we always repeat during our caregiving seminars and support group is that it’s O.K. to ask for help,” says Elizabeth Marquis, the director of marketing at McLean in Simsbury.

It’s important, too, she adds, to acknowledge that a loss has occurred, even though your loved one is still physically present. “With that dynamic, you can feel sad. You can feel the loss of that relationship. It’s O. K. to pause and notice how this change has impacted your life.”

It’s easy to forget all that when you’re in the trenches. And it’s even easier to let go of friends and activities you enjoy. But they’re precisely what caregivers need to hold on to most.

“It’s those relationships and those things you like to do that sustain you through the process of caregiving and beyond,” Marquis insists. “They sustain and support you and can provide balance and well-being.”

Connecticut now has a statewide respite care program, courtesy of O’Brian’s organization, the Area Agencies on Aging, and the Connecticut State Department on Aging. This program “offers relief to stressed caregivers by providing information, support, the development of an appropriate plan of care, and services for the individual with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias.” (Remember, dementia is, as the Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom points out, “an umbrella term....[and t]here are many different types of dementia although some are far more common than others.”)

Under the Connecticut program’s guidelines, you, the caregiver, can go the traditional route and obtain said services through agencies. Or you may hire a companion/aide of your own choosing. Either way, there is a maximum of $7,500 in services available on a yearly basis, subject to an Agency on Aging Care Manager’s approval. The individual you’re caring for may also receive a yearly maximum of 30 days of out-of-home respite care services. (This does not, however, include adult day care, which is a godsend to many caregivers.)

You need a doctor’s written statement that yes, said individual does have dementia. And then there are the finances. You have to show that the applicant/patient has income of $44,591 or less and liquid assets of $118,549 or less. Income includes Social Security (minus the Medicare Part B premiums); Supplemental security income; Railroad retirement Income; veterans’ benefits; and any other one-time or recurring payments. Liquid assets include checking and savings accounts; stocks and bonds; IRAS and certificates of deposit; and any other holdings that you can convert into cash.

Last, but not least, a co-payment of 20% of the cost of services is required unless the Care Manager decides to waive it on account of financial hardship. So, this is not necessarily “easy money.”

Caregiving may be a women’s issue, but so, unfortunately, is dementia. Nearly two-thirds of the 3.2 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s are female. Women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are breast cancer. “Once a woman hits 60, the figures really change in regard to breast cancer and dementia,” observes O’Brian. “At age 65, women without Alzheimer’s have a one-in-six chance of developing Alzheimer’s; for men, it’s one in eleven.”

Alzheimer’s is considered the sixth leading cause of death in this country, ”but we should be higher,” she adds. “We still have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. We still have a long ways to go.” For instance, nearly of quarter of men and women mistakenly believe that “Alzheimer’s must run in your family. But everyone is at risk. This is not a disease that discriminates.” And yet Alzheimer’s research is significantly underfunded compared to other diseases.

So caregivers slog on the best they can. On a personal level, you can’t help wondering where the person is that you knew so well. Occasionally, you see firefly glimmers of that old self.  "It is difficult to watch a loved one’s life slowly slipping away,” observes Mozart/Child. “[I]t is hard to know what goes on in the mind of a dementia patient – other than ‘movie trailers’ of seeking lost loves, of being lost and trying to find the subway and the way home.”

Blanchette has her own response to what has been called “the Alzheimer’s crisis”: a silver bracelet that she has designed in her mother’s memory. Twenty per cent of the proceeds go toward Alzheimer’s research. It’s a very simple bracelet with a single rectangular charm that reads, “Dementia, find a cure one bracelet at a time.”

-- Alzheimer’s Helpline. (Lines are open 24/7). 1-800-272-3900.

-- For more information on the Connecticut Statewide Respite Program, call 1-800-994-9422 to be connected with the Area Agency on Aging representative nearest to you.

-- Rebecca Penarroya Blanchette’s bracelets can be purchased at

-- Samantha Mozart’s books can be purchased on

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Fine and Friendly Place

                 The grave’s a fine and private place,
                  But none, I think, do there embrace.
                      -- Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

Or maybe they do. In Peter S. Beagle’s novel A Fine and Private Place, two ghosts – Michael Morgan, a possible suicide, and Laura Durand, a shy bookstore clerk – fall in love. They cannot move beyond the confines of the cemetery, and their posthumous romance will only last as long as they can remember life, love, each other...and themselves. Once they forget these things, they will quietly fade away, remembered only by a talking raven and a bankrupt pharmacist who has been living in the cemetery for almost 20 years.

When I was a kid, my dad used to sometimes drop me off at the old library on Saturday afternoons. After a few hours of rummaging through the books, I’d go outside and sit on one of the marble benches, waiting for him. The town cemetery was right next door. I was always tempted to go exploring there – the old gravestones fascinated me – but never did.

Not till many years later, that is. I was working on my novel A Time for Shadows: parts of it were set in Simsbury, and I wanted to use Antoinette Eno Woods, a prominent figure in town, and her nephew, conservationist Gifford Pinchot, as minor characters. So my son Zeke and I drove over to the cemetery and wandered about the older section, where Woods is buried. That section is situated on a gently sloping hill, and her mausoleum is right at the top. As I stood there, gazing down at the main street and the brick and redstone buildings, I was struck by how little it had all changed since my days of hanging out at the library. It was like one of those antique tinted postcards come to life….

Still much later, I walked through both the old and new —well, newer --sections of the cemetery. My husband Tim is in the former; the latter is the final resting place of many familiar souls, people I either knew or heard my parents speak of while I was growing up.

But maybe “resting place” is the wrong term. To me, they speak; and as I wander among the headstones, bits of conversation, funny and colorful, come to me, making me smile or laugh. I hear Betty, my friend Kathy’s mom, roaring when she walked into the bathroom and discovered that their puppy had chewed her dentures: “Who’s the congenital idiot who let the dog in here?” And there’s my mom’s old friend Cora, one of my very best favorite people. Cora had a very distinctive voice: she was also extremely blunt. One day, my mother and I stopped to see her at the local department store where she worked. Coral smiled at us and, as usual, cut directly to the chase. “I made the mistake of saying hello to your brother-in-law this morning,” she informed Mom. “My God, he is the most boring man alive!” Another time, she was telling us about when she broke her ankle years earlier: she turned to my mother and said, “And your husband said, ‘If you were a horse, we’d shoot you --!’ I could’ve killed him.”

(She actually thought very highly of my dad. Just not at that moment.)

I have a few relatives buried here, too. One aunt – “Ol’ Porkpie-Hat,” Tim always called her -- I was not particularly fond of, but she made for great stories. Like the time she turned to Dad’s best friend, Al, and said, “That was when your wife left you. You remember when your wife left you, Al?”

And just as clearly, I hear my late sister-in-law’s voice: “Of course, he’s going to remember it! He might rise above it, but he’s not gonna forget it!”

Along with the voices come a slew of memory-pictures. My father’s grammar-school teacher is buried here. She was over 100 when she died, and I remember Dad bringing me to see her after my Bat Mitzvah: he brought her the flowers from the bimah (the podium where the Torah is read), too, and talked gently with her for awhile. I stop at the graves of Amos and Pearl George. Amos was the caretaker at the McLean Game Refuge, and I remember how he used to poke fun at Mom for the red poncho she always brought with her to work on. (Mom was a whiz with all sorts of needlework, but it took her forever to finish that poncho.) Pearl was a sweet lady, and I visited her  when I was doing an article at her convalescent home. I didn’t do the flowers thing, but I did bring her a cat picture because Mom had told me how much Pearl was missing her cat.

Cora’s son, who predeceased her, is here, too. I remember the funeral, which was a military one, and how Cora held the folded flag close to her chest, like a child clutching a teddy bear.

A few summers ago, I went to the cemetery with my friend Cel, who wanted to visit her mother’s grave before she moved down South. I figured I’d go look up Cora, as I’d been to her funeral service but not to the internment. It took me awhile, but I found her, buried next to her husband, Pete. There was an elegant little cat carved on the stone. It was very Cora.

Cel and I paid Tim a visit, too. We talked about a lot of things, including the fact that her father (who remarried long ago) was going to give her the plot next to her mom’s.

“Oh, good,” I said. “Tim and I’ll float over and visit you.”

It’s really quite a little township, the center cemetery. And when I walk here, I think that both Marvell and Beagle got it wrong. This graveyard’s a fine and friendly place, and these ghosts aren’t about to fade away any time soon. For me, they are just as quirky and vivid as they were in this life. It’s The Spoon River Anthology but with a much less mournful twist.

Friday, August 7, 2015


(I had a sister-in-law who was very much the big sister I had always wanted.  She died young, but something of her lingered in her garden. This is for her. 5/19/54 -8/16/83.)

Sweetpeas you planted
          ten years ago --
their petals butterfly-shaped
          rose-pink, almost magenta --
keep their color
long into the fall,
their poetry
dulling the pale-purple chives
          and star-blossomed sage
          to prose.
Their leaves and stalks,
joined like an antique doll’s
reach their twisted fingers
          out of the dark earth.
You -- your eyes, your laugh,
          your lightning-bursts of temper --
have gone to ashes
but your sweetpeas keep
you before me,
          a memory I can touch.
Ground could not hold you,
          a spirit too restless
                    to be stilled.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Unseen Traveler

(From The Way-Back Files:  Until We Meet Again.  Guideposts, 2003.)

The rain that early July Tuesday had been monsoon-like, forcing me to pull over to the side of the road at one point during my travels. By 7:15 p. m., it had stopped, but the roads were still dangerously slick. I’d just gotten off the phone with my husband, Tim, and could tell from his voice that the swing shift he’d worked the night before had finally started catching up with him. “You sound like you need to be off the road,” I’d remarked, telling him to skip the trip to the store he’d been about to make.

“I really want to be home,” he’d said just before signing off.

A funny queasiness took hold of me shortly afterwards. I wandered restlessly about the house, then headed up to our three-year-old son Zeke’s room and began reading to him. I happened to look up at one point and went even sicker inside. The walls of the room began pulsing, the colors in the wallpaper draining away.

A few hours later, my in-laws came to tell me that Tim’s van had crashed into a telephone pole, killing him instantly. The time of death was 7:31. (“I can’t say for sure,” a friend said later when I told her the wallpaper story, “but I’ll bet you that’s when Tim died.”)

Pain set in, followed by an eerie numbness, a winter of the soul like nothing I’d ever known before. I made the funeral arrangements, picked out the monument, gave away many of Tim’s belongings, and probated the will, hoping that once these things were done, I would somehow come back to life. I was a ghost wandering through a lonely dark wood, searching desperately for a clearing, some space between the branches that a ray of light could pierce through.

Two weeks after Tim died, I came back from running some errands and went up to my room to lie down. I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I’d just rest a bit in the cool shadowy room while my mother took care of Zeke downstairs.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a white-gold light appeared to the left of the headboard. It hung in mid-air, glowing like a flame and deepening in intensity as I gazed into the heart of it. The light flickered and danced before my eyes, then slowly…ever so slowly…faded away.

I sat up, amazed. The room, as I’ve said, was a shadowy one, thanks to the huge oak tree shading the window directly across from the bed: in the past, I’d hung crystals in that window in vain attempts to work a little rainbow magic. There was no prism in the window now, only an enormous aloe plant snaking its arms against the pains…and, anyway, a prism would’ve cast its rainbows against the walls, ceiling, and floor. It wouldn’t have conjured up that firefly flame that hung suspended in the air, beckoning and reassuring me….

The June after Tim died, Zeke and I traveled to Prince Edward Island. It was the vacation that Tim and I had planned for the three of us to take for what would have been our tenth anniversary. It was a tough trip on my own with a four-year-old, and Zeke was homesick. So I cut the vacation short and drove the rental car to Charlottetown the day before our re-scheduled flight. We stopped at the airport first to confirm the flight changes. The woman at the counter was genuinely charming and helpful, waiving the change fee. “Now,” she said brightly, looking up at me, “there’s a third person traveling with you?”

I did a double-take – after all, it was 1996, and surely a single parent traveling alone with a child shouldn’t be that much of a novelty – but explained the circumstances. The woman shivered. “That gives me the willies,” she admitted, as she directed us to a motel close to the airport.

I found it easily enough. The woman who ran it was just as friendly, and we chatted lightly as I filled out the necessary paperwork. “There’s a third person traveling with you?” she asked suddenly.

I guessed there was – an unseen traveler who wanted to make sure that we were all right and had landed in a good place.