Talking to Dead People

Hallowe’en is the absolute entry point to the dark time of the year. As such, Hallowe’en is celebrated by dark things– witches’ potions, rattling bones, haunted houses, jack-o-lanterns, and scary stories. This is the time to commune with the Dead. Gaelic traditions include inviting your beloved dead family members to join you at the table. I’ll admit to placing photographs on the table with my pumpkins and candy corn, and honoring my family members by telling stories about them, but I’ve drawn the line at talking to dead people. This is something I am attempting to change.

“Why?” you might ask. Well, when I was in New Orleans this year, I decided to have a tarot reading. During the session, the reader asked me if I conversed with my dead relations. I said no. She seemed surprised by this (I guess it is de rigueur for her!). I told her that I was scared of dead people. This made her laugh. She agreed that death does not make a person any less fallible (as in, this isn’t like talking to God), but she encouraged me to give it a try. She explained that there are dead people who care about me and who can assist me from the Other Side.


So, six months later I am home. Bemused, I find myself well-positioned for a promotion as a medical librarian at a facility where my maternal grandfather (who died nearly twenty years before my birth) was a medical intern. I never envisioned myself as a medical librarian. I had more than a dozen years’ experience working in public libraries. But, last year I needed a job. I was relocating and looking at any librarian job within a reasonable commuting distance. This is the job that I was offered. And now there is an opportunity for a promotion.

My grandfather holding my mother, with my uncle alongside in 1939.
My grandfather holding my mother, with my uncle alongside in 1939.

Yes, I’ve been working outside of my comfort zone. For months I felt completely inept. I do count my blessings that I managed to find a job during such a crappy time for our economy. So, I entertain the idea that my grandfather, who never made it to a grandfatherly age, exerted some influence in order to secure me a position. Also likely– the idea that my grandmother, who focused intensely on her family needs for decades, exerted her influence on my grandfather.

My grandmother at a summer party in 1985.
My grandmother at a summer party in 1985.

I have tentatively approached my paternal grandfather, who died when I was three. I was the first grandchild, and family lore has it that he just flipped over me. I’ve asked him to help get me in a position wherein I can provide for my kids’ college expenses. I know that is a cause that he could get behind. And my Nana? She’s my constant inspiration for moving on when it is time to move on.

My mother, Nana, and F.G. holding me in their home in 1961.
My mother, Nana, and F.G. holding me in their home in 1961.

Lastly, I do think of my maternal great-grandmother. I do homage to her for all that she endured to love and raise her family. And, to scare the bejesus out of them. Grandma told us that her mother would tell them ghost stories, and then go outside with a sheet over her head and rap on the windows.

My great grandmother holding me in my grandmother's kitchen in 1961.
My great grandmother holding me in my grandmother’s kitchen in 1961.

Now, there’s a Hallowe’en goddess for you!

Glimmerglass in August

For our first roadtrip in a year, we headed West. Fittingly, we watched the sun’s slow descent as we wound our way out of the Pioneer Valley and into the Leatherstocking Region of New York State. The Empire State. “Why Empire?” I asked Ed. He wasn’t sure. Since returning home, I’ve learned that on April 10, 1785, George Washington referred to New York State as “the Seat of the Empire” in a letter to New York City mayor James Duane. (Klein, Milton. The Empire State: A History of New York. 2006) News like this is always hard to take for those from Red Sox Nation. What was Washington thinking? Well, OK, be the Seat of the Empire. Massachusetts remains the Birthplace of a Revolution.

To prepare for our trip, I actually made my way through The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. After a few chapters, the action did pick up and made it much easier to read. Still, it wasn’t like watching Daniel Day Lewis leap down a waterfall. As we drove through the green hills, I did wonder at the boldness of the early settlers.

We arrived in Cooperstown as dusk fell. After putting up our tent under the headlights of the Subaru, we tilted our heads back to see thousands and thousands of stars.

Campground at Glimmerglass
Campground at Glimmerglass

Cooperstown is assuredly a “guy” location for a vacation. The Baseball Hall of Fame (and its attendant gift shops) as well as two breweries made for lots of happy men. Even a tour of the Glimmerglass Queen proved to be a place of comparing hard-won opportunities to play in the World Series. Fortunately (for me, at least, needing more than bats and jerseys to hold my attention), the location is breathtaking. Our drive out to the Ommegang Brewery was amazing. We learned the next day that New York was a hops growing haven. I wonder, with the new emphasis on going local, if Ommegang and The Cooperstown Brewing Co. will encourage all those dairy farmers to plant a new crop.

The following day, we visited Hyde Hall, a 19th century estate that is in the process of restoration. And, I mean seriously in the process. For anyone interested in seeing the inside of the walls, or in smelling the mildew that the estate battles with, here’s your opportunity. I know that might not seem appealing, but honestly it was fascinating. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and able to go “off script”. We continued our history theme with an afternoon’s dual reading of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The next morning, we broke camp in the lovely morning sunshine and headed to Howe Caverns. Bundled up for the 50 degree temps, we descended into the Earth for a walking tour and a boat ride! Yes, it was wicked cool. We got to squeeze through narrow passageways. But, we didn’t need to crawl on our bellies. Plenty of airspace.

We arrived in Williamstown, MA at 3:00pm, with enough time for a quick dip in the Berkshire Hills Motel pool before the sun disappeared behind the pines. In the morning, we toured The Clark. Lovely show of Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove. The hanging of the show was incredibly tasteful.

We finished our roadtrip with a drive up Mt. Greylock. Given that we had only an afternoon, and it was 90 degrees, we agreed that we’d hike around the top of the mountain instead of up it. Regardless, we got hot and sweaty. And, yes, I was wearing a dress because of our museum plans earlier in the day AND I wanted any opportunity to catch a breeze.

On top of Greylock
On top of Greylock

All in all, a fabulous way to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.

Joye l’amour feu

My hometown of Montague celebrates Independence Day with a bonfire. This extravagance has taken place for approximately the last 75 years (I vaguely recall, but could be corrected). Preparation visibly begins in mid-June with the appearance of wood-to-be-burned in the town park. This is no small fire that a sports fan could leap over. The most enthused Tar Heel fan could not clear its flames. This is a serious bonfire.

Bonfires are the focus of agrarian European celebrations of Midsummer, or the longest day of the year. This is within two weeks of our Independence Day. Yes, I know that our national holiday is held on the Fourth of July to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is not purposely aligned with old European holidays. Still, I do find it thought-provoking that our celebrations are still fire-oriented (fireworks, barbecues, and bonfires).

On July 1, 1776, John Adams himself suggested that we would celebrate our independence with fire:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

This year, I prepared for our celebration with an afternoon of errands on the second day of July: collecting vegetables, strawberries and a bouquet of flowers at Riverland Farm, selecting a variety of Victory beers (for our Victory in Independence), picking up Mole Hollow light blue candles and a large bag of jasmine rice, as well as chicken breast and the makings for marinades (teriyaki and tandoori).

On July 3rd, we welcomed friends and family to our home for grilled chicken and other delectable dishes. After supper, we headed down to the expertly-lit bonfire.

Our strawberries
Our strawberries

Strawberry memories for me are under blue, blue skies with billowy clouds. Chamomile flowers and hay underfoot. Berries like gems under dark green leaves. Late June is the time for strawberry picking in the Pioneer Valley. When my girls were small, Nan and I took them picking at the end of every school year. I still see Meghan and Chella dancing in the rows, and Chella’s little feet landing in the tray of berries we had picked. The laughter of grandmother and mother/aunt. Those little blond heads and round bellies.

Back home to boil and boil and boil pots of water. The needlessly anxious moments of measuring, stirring, pouring, sealing. The ping! sound of jam jars. Stashing away summer sweetness for Christmas gifts.

Magic for 2009, well, as we all know, these holidays are times of great magic, and I am handed a few choices. Traditional wisdom holds that a small piece of coal from the Bonfire protects against being kidnapped by the Good People if sewn into your clothes.

Alternatively, storing the coal in your home will protect you from lightning strikes. Given the storminess of this summer, I opted for fire protection. Ed and I walked down to the site of the bonfire in the morning of July 4. Heat still pulsed from the center. I scooped up some remnants that were cool to the touch. We wandered around town, headed into the Montague Book Mill for coffee and book-browsing before heading back home. I placed my coal on the shelf by the woodstove.

I guess that still leaves me vulnerable to the Good People.


The Feast of St. Martin of Tours

The Feast of St. Martin of Tours falls on November 11 or Veteran’s Day in the United States. Veteran’s Day is the time wherein we honor those who have served our country. In agrarian Europe, Martinmas was a time to honor the foods we harvest. And, St. Martin? My favorite piece of information states that he is the patron saint of drunkards and outcasts. He is also the patron saint of vintners and shoemakers.

554332_3007383624104_604803569_nNovember in New England is the time to rake leaves. All but the most stubborn oaks and beeches have dropped their leaves. I remember my dad raking leaves onto an old sheet, gathering up the ends and hauling it over his shoulder into the woods. We would “sneak” onto the sheet of leaves, and listen to his groans and complaints about the heaviness of the leaves before tumbling us out. I loved this game until a neighborhood kid suggested that there were snakes in the leaf piles. Kids can be so mean.

This year, Ed and I raked leaves into our compost pile (no kids around to toss in as well) and brought in the deck furniture. We gazed out at the grey, skeletal, Novemberish woodlands, and I commented “that’s our landscape for the next six months!” Our recent relocation from North Carolina made this concept stunning. “Well,” I amended, “maybe five months.” Ed looked dubious, but I held my ground. “By May 1, the apple trees are blooming!” I insisted.

Martinmas is also the time to load up on root vegetables and squashes. Over the weekend, Ed and I went to the Smiarowski Farm and purchased beets, parsnips, rutabagas, carrots, potatoes, leeks, and onions. For squashes, we picked up delicata, acorn, buttercup, and butternut. We couldn’t bring ourselves to purchase a head of cabbage as big as a giant’s head (only $1.50), but we did get a 1/2 peck of Cortland apples.

The Martinmas Feast is traditionally tied to harvest, slaughter and wine-making activities of Europe. Pork is a common choice, and one year we did prepare a roast. Earlier this year, we were inspired to make an incredibly delicious brined pork roast. The recipe, published in Bon Appetit, is from a Durham, NC restaurant. We served it with garlicky spinach and mashed potatoes–which would certainly work for Martinmas.

This year, we opted for beet soup and dark rye bread. I boiled two large beets for an hour, let them cool, and then engaged in the sensual experience of removing the skins. Holding those warm beets in my hand, with the magenta cooking water splattered about, was akin to holding something alive. The bread was outstanding (if I do say so myself). I knew by the way the dough was responding to kneading that it would be moist and dense.

The Soundtrack for Martinmas has endless possibilities if your aim is to recognize the contributions of drunkards and outcasts. Tom Waits featured heavily in our 2008 celebration. Consider the lyrics of November…

No shadow no stars
no moon no cars
it only believes
in a pile of leaves
and a moon
that’s the color of bone
No prayers for November
to linger longer
stick your spoon in the wall
we’ll slaughter them all
November has tied me
to an old dead tree
get the word to April
to rescue me
November’s cold chain
Made of wet boots and rain
and shiny black ravens
on chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
you’re my firing squad
With my hair slicked back
with carrion shellac
with the blood from a pheasant
and the bone from a hare
Tied to the branches
of a roebuck stag
left to wave in the timber
like a buck shot flag
Go away you rainsnout
Go away blow your brains out

Entertainment for Drunkards & Outcasts is best served by reading poetry aloud. We pull out some books…the Beats are an obvious choice…and read at random.

Here’s a short one from The Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll:

Some detectives in worn suits slide at my door.
They told me Eddie was dead on Lexington and 103
stabbed in the jugular at mid-day
outside two automated hospital doors.
He often walked East Harlem after dark, high
on reds, calling out the black man. Before the sheet
on his eyes he grabbed the nurse’s wrist
to check the blood was real, he signed one last paper
to donate properly his eyes.
And I salute you, my brother.

Fiona McKee

Last night, Fiona died peacefully. I will miss her sweet face. She was nearly 18 years old.

I first brought Fiona home to Montague during the October of Niina’s first birthday (that’s how I remember how old she is). Meghan was 2 1/2 years old. I thought Meghan would like having a kitty, but Fiona chased her ankles, and Meghan did NOT like that! Fiona grew out of that phase, and then became the Huntress of the Woodlands and the Keeper of the Hearth. She was quite content until we had the nerve to get another kitty, Sebastian, in the fall of 2000. Sadly, Sebastian disappeared one winter’s day. He was a dear soul.


Ivy the Rascal came to live with us in February 2001, and she soon became Fiona’s tormentor– lying in wait to attack at any opportunity. Fiona would hiss just upon seeing Ivy. Ironically, when the two cats traveled down to North Carolina with Natalie and me in July of 2004, Fiona fared better than Ivy. Ivy stayed curled into a ball in the upstairs hallway for a week while Fiona stood in wonder outside. She was amazed at the sweet, heavy air and noisy cicadas and tree frogs of the South. As an elderly cat, she loved lying in the sun year-round. She rarely ventured off of the porch, but she was visited nearly daily by the postman who (much to my amusement) would have little conversations with her.

Taimse tuirseach
Agus beidh go neal,
Mo bha ar bhruinne,
Is mo phadraic bán.

I am weary now
And soon it will be
My scent on the branches
And my strength in the bark.

(from a traditional Irish folksong)

Fiona was losing weight and slowing down. Several days ago, she went outside and disappeared into the woods for the entire day. In the evening, I opened the door to call her in. She sat in the middle of the driveway and turned her head slowly at the sound of my voice. Then, in a manner that appeared to be for my benefit rather than for her own, she slowly walked to the door and entered the house. The next day, she went outside again. At sunset, Ed and I went to look for her. We were returning home when we saw her at the edge of the driveway, her paws muddy. She gave a sorrowful meow, and I gathered her to me and brought her in. I did not let her outside the next day.

Yesterday, after dropping Natalie off at school, I returned home to find Fiona alive, but lying in the litter box. Poor thing, she did not have the strength to get up. I placed her on the Nana Blanket (a soft, pink blanket that I brought home from my Nana’s apartment after her funeral), and set a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi next to her. I asked St. Francis and Nana to watch over her while I went to work. When I came home, she lifted her head and meowed again. I spent the evening with her on my chest as I lay on the couch reading while Natalie did her homework.

At 10:30 p.m., Fiona arched her back and coughed. Her movement scared me, so I wrapped her in the Nana Blanket and set her down on the floor. She coughed several more times and then was still. I was too scared to see if she was dead, and even more scared to see if she was alive. I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. Natalie went to bed, and I camped out on the couch. In the morning, she was clearly dead.

Tonight, we will bury her in the red clay of North Carolina. I will sing to her “Fiona’s Lullabye” (from The Secret of Roan Inish)

Inionaí, Inionaí
Codailigí, Codailigí
Inionaí, Inionaí
Codailigí, Codailigí

Codailigí, Codailigí
Cois a chlé mo, cois a chlé mo
Codailigí, Codailigí
Socair sásta, socair sásta

Little one, little one
Sleep, sleep
Little one, little one
Sleep, sleep

Sleep, sleep
Beside my bosom, beside my bosom
Sleep, sleep
Peacefully serene, peacefully serene