Inventing Lovers on the Phone

I wrote this piece for a creative nonfiction writing course in 2021.

“At Seventeen” hit the Billboard charts when I was in high school. This haunting bossa nova tune filled the airwaves with a lament that love was made for beauty queens. Like Janis Ian, I was a kid whose name was never called when choosing sides for basketball. Her lyrics drew me in with melancholy observations of the beautiful. The song ultimately reveals that life will not be flawless for hometown queens. Janis Ian gets us there with a samba step, forward and back. We step into predictions that the beautiful will lose love. We step back into cheating ourselves at solitaire.

At seventeen, I stepped away from my own high school lament. Dance clothes shoved into a knapsack, I got off the bus in a very sketchy part of Boston. Did my mother understand my route to the Boston Conservatory? I did not share this information with her at seventeen. I strode, exhilarated by my freedom, from the bus stop to my 1-mile walk down Boylston Street.

Building sign for the Boston Conservatory
The Boston Conservatory merged with Berklee College of Music in 2016.

That summer, I left behind the high school girls with clear skinned smiles. The cheerleaders and the jocks and their Friday night parties that excluded me. I joined strangers in our mutual love of dance. Skinny young women, skinnier and more talented than I, but it didn’t matter. “Have a good class,” they’d call out to me as I leaned over the drinking fountain. We were dripping with sweat in those dance studios.

At seventeen, I donned footless dance tights and leotards with skinny straps. Bobby pins in my mouth, I pulled back my thick, brown hair and secured my bun. Ballet, jazz, modern. The barre work was hard, and the floor work intimidating. Dance teachers adjusted the placement of our arms, lifted our legs higher, and corrected the alignment of our hips. In my heart, I knew that I would never be a professional dancer. Remarkably, at seventeen, it didn’t matter.

Brick building in the city
Boston Conservatory dance studios were in this basement in the 1970s.

I held my head erect. After morning classes, I walked through Boston like a queen. I reveled in anonymity. The spell was not broken by the bus ride to my job. At seventeen, I scooped ice cream for the money to pay for my freedom. I made sundaes with perfect swirls of whipped cream. I mastered the art of ice cream sodas, balancing scoops of ice cream against long spoons. If the ice cream plopped into the soda, the drink would bubble over the glass and onto the countertop.

After work, I clumsily tossed frisbees in the parking lot with the other teens. Some, as Janis Ian would describe, with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces. Work romances developed over the summer, but not for me. I remained alone as socially awkward teens paired up with other socially awkward teens. I could barely listen to “At Seventeen”, a song that cut too close to the bone.

That was long ago and far away. My social life blossomed in college, and I learned the thrill and heartbreak of young love. At seventeen, I filled the bathroom sink with cold water and a capful of Woolite. My hands reddened in the cold water as I washed my leotard and tights. I slung them over the shower curtain and spread a towel on the floor to catch the drips. Consoled myself with invented lovers who called and said, “come dance with me.”

The samba, forward and back.

Black Letter Days

On Thu, Sept 29th, I lost my job.  I was notified that my job was eliminated in a wave of layoffs at Baystate Health.  A blow.  I had sense enough to know that I am one of the lucky ones.  I am not going to lose my home.  I will not be destitute.  But, I will take a financial hit as Baystate Health is a generous employer.


I worked for another five weeks, alternating between sadness and boredom.  Much of my work involved making contacts and planning events.  Without those tasks, I did not have much to engage my mind while I sat at my computer.  I took short walks 2-3 times during the work day.  I watched the brilliance of October dim toward the rusty colors of November.  My thoughts turned to St. Martin, whose feast day is November 11.  Dropping myself into the rabbit hole of Google, I found this passage in Sermons on the Black Letter Days Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England, by John Mason Neale.

The days are getting short, and the wind cold, and the leaves have nearly all fallen; and everything reminds us that the year is very near its end…

There is but one thing that I know of that can comfort you now, and keep you safe when [your own] end really comes. It is the same thing which made Martin able to do his mighty works,–Faith. Faith, we are told in Holy Scripture, is the gift of GOD; and of Him therefore we are to ask it. So, if when your hour is come to depart out of the world, Satan should try to vex and distress you, as he did of old time to Martin, you will be able, like Martin, to say, “What dost thou here, cruel beast? Thou hast no portion in me: I am going, to Abraham’s bosom.”

I thought to myself, what would it mean to me to rest in Abraham’s bosom in my hour of need?  This is Hades, or the resting place where the righteous await judgement.  A place of comfort and fellowship.  Raised Catholic in the 60’s and 70’s, the Bosom of Abraham is no place I’ve given much thought to.  A place of comfort.  I have memories of laying against my grandmother’s bosom, her red painted fingernails scratching my scalp as we watched Lawrence Welk on black-and-white TV.  I have rested my head against my husband’s chest listening to his heartbeat.  A more intimate fellowship.

In the days following the notice of my job loss, I discovered fellowship among my colleagues near and far.  Condolences, handshakes, hugs.  Offers to put in a good word.  I tapped into the teachings of my favorite Buddhists and mindfulness teachers. I found myself steadying in this time of passage.

I listen to the water filling the tea kettle in the morning.  I watch my hand measuring oatmeal into the saucepan, as if I were watching an indie film.  I inhale the scent of decaying leaves as I gather kindling for the woodstove.  I catch hold of the warm towels tumbling out of the drier.  And, I taste… I taste… gingerbread.

On my first Monday home, I pulled out one of my favorite recipes.

Boston Gingerbread ~Fanny Farmer

2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup molasses
1 stick butter
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg

Mix dry ingredients together. Melt butter and stir in molasses. Beat egg into the buttermilk. Blend all ingredients together and beat until smooth. Pour into greased square pan and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

The best gingerbread in the world.


Stay Wild, My Soul Child

I last saw Miss Ivy on July 7, 2010. She went into the woods on a hot, sultry day and never came out. I did not worry too much for a day or two. She is an experienced huntress and is Queen of her territory. She ritualistically heads out after nightfall and is waiting at the door at dawn. She sleeps all day. But, she did not appear on the third morning. I started to worry.


So strange to mourn a cat whom many people tell you might come back in a week, a month, or a year or two. Fantastical stories pour forth. These stories have competition from the tales of coyotes roaming the riverside and the number of cats that have gone missing in these hills. “We used to have cats,” some say, “not anymore.”

I placed my small statue of St. Francis on my bedroom window sill. He is facing out into the woods. I followed the advice for searching for an outdoor cat (as distinct from an indoor cat that escapes, or a cat that has recently moved). I notified neighbors for 1 1/2 miles. I called the police and Ed stopped by the animal shelter. I put my dirty laundry in the garden and on the porch, hoping my scent would call her home. I tell myself that I need to let her go, but I am still watchful as I pull into the driveway. I expect to see her bounding for the door. I have auditory hallucinations of her meowing in the early morning.

So, today I am preparing. For what? Not a funeral. I don’t know what to call it…

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away…to the waters and the wild…with a faery, hand in hand, for the world’s full of weeping…

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep
Come away…to the waters and the wild…with a faery, hand in hand, for the world’s full of weeping…

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away…to the waters and the wild…with a faery, hand in hand, for the world’s full of weeping…

Away with us she’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
She’ll no more hear the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into her breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
Come away…to the waters and the wild…with a faery, hand in hand, for the world’s full of weeping…
(apologies to W.B. Yeats for altering “The Stolen Child”)

Here is a more faithful rendition of Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus”:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when the white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name;
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

In closing, I’ll paraphrase Shawn Mullins… Ivy, stay wild, my soul child, and don’t you let ’em bring you down.

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