Category Archives: History of a Girl

Ancestors

I looked into the bright blue eyes of my six-year-old grandson. My separation from his mother during her first eighteen years looms from a distance in my mind. The punch of the memory’s sad echo fades next to his beautiful pink cheeks. I follow his tracks as he looks for a piece of wood to whittle, his new obsession. He is as manly as he is beautiful in his nimble six year-old body and his mind is quick and curious. My husband is one of his heroes. They have bonded over dead snakes and dragonflies and they crow back at crows nagging them from wires overhead as they walk the neighborhood together.

I ponder my grandson’s gait – proud and self-assured. He is confident. He knows who he is underneath the monkey-covered pajamas he has put on after his bath with his little brother. He is who he has always been since the day he was born.

I love him and cherish his strength. His mother is strong, too. So am I. It’s in our blood. Fierce with life. The bloodline we share has been traced through the centuries to scholars, artists, poets, ship captains; blacksmiths from Cork and cops from Edinburgh – and women who sailed high seas, who knew their own minds and used them to navigate the unexpected lives they led. There wasn’t a shrinking violet in the lot.

The exploits of our ancestors describe a swath of experience over time so colorful and far-reaching that my fickle imagination holds fast to each winding thread that curls through the weft and weave in the tapestry of our family’s history. I can almost feel the grip of ghostly relatives as their risks and achievements set the stage to reveal an adventurous prequel to now and the lives we find ourselves in. We have come far and new acts play out from within each of us daily. There were many stories before ours began.

Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, England, Austria, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland found their way to Boston and took root there, where I was born. I culled their stories in bits and pieces from my relatives and fantasized about who my ancestors were underneath their rogue memories. As a youngster, I dressed them up in their worldly roles and they grew into vivid characters in my mind.

The ancestors I imagined may or may not bear a true resemblance to the people they were but each one of them piqued my interest with flavors and traits I recognize in myself and members of my family. My daughter is thick with them.

My understanding of my ancestors helped me to form answers to the question of who I was, where I came from and what I was made of from an early age. I have tried to pass their stories on to my children and grandchildren to help them understand the rich heritage they come from.

It never occurred to me that I might be anything else, different or apart from my ancestors; they were mysterious predecessors to my life and I was a result of theirs. My complexion, my voice, my laugh, my wit, my constituion – all carry elements of these people in the past. We may not have crossed paths in real time but we are kin nevertheless. Traits that made my family, and made me, recognizable as one of the clan, grew into a unique code mixed with the experiences of many generations.

As different as we may be, my daughter and I understand each other in a way that can only be explained as genetic. I accept that. She does too.

Quinn rouses me from my reverie with a pirate yell as his imaginary sword switches back and forth over his little brother’s head and cousin Lucy looks for a cue to dive into play. The three children step into character letting go with shouts while they unleash their pirate selves and circle around the tent again and again.

Right now, the children are free from worry and time – they chase each other and make up games that children have been making up since the beginning of time. A day will come when they will need more to go on. They will learn to read and write and think things through. The truth of the past will complicate their innocence and unveiled trust. They will need honest answers to quell the questions that arise. It may not be simple to explain. I know they will be affected by the story of my past and the truth I share with their mother.

When I ask the ancestors to give me the answers I need, they echo silence like a muted song rising in my mind’s ear.

“We have turned to dust. It’s up to you to answer your Life.”

So I will respond to their questions in my own way and hope that the children will recognize my love for their mother in the answer.

Future generations who carry our resemblance may not know any more about us than we guessed about our ancestors. If something in their blood compels them to play out the stories we started here, Life will keep us in the mix and what we do now will matter. From here in the middle between what was and what will be, anything is possible.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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(Painting “Sirens” by Roderick Smith ©1999 for Harbour CD)

“Sirens” by kate power
performed & recorded by kate power & steve einhorn on “Harbour”, produced by craig carothers

Candlelight in the window
Burning brighter than a holy wick glow
Lead my boat into safe harbour
Take me through these rocky waters

Stormy weather winds blow
Toss me off far from my destination
Folding me in blinding weather
I’m in your hands, I’m barely bound together

I’m blowin’ in from deep water
I’m blowin’ in from sea
And I’m holding my eye on the beacon
Bring me in

Sirens sound in the wind
Or is it the bell in the buoy moaning?
There, I hear it again
I’m coming about, I’m rowing

Like a gusty gull in the air
Skimming top of the deepest ocean
Stirring fish in salty water
Chasing fin from seal to otter

I’m blowing in from deep water
Blowin’ in from sea
Won’t you hold me in your line of vision
Bring me in

Sirens sound in the wind
Or is it the bell in the buoy moaning?
There, I hear it again
I’m coming about, I’m rowing

Candlelight in the window
Burning brighter than a holy wick glow
Lead my boat into safe harbour
Take me through these rocky waters

I’m blowing in from deep water
Blowin’ in from sea
Won’t you hold me in your line of vision
Bring me in

Sirens sound in the wind
Or is it the bell in the buoy moaning?
There, I hear it again
I’m coming about, I’m rowing

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Flashback

Kate at 4After a couple of trains to Portland in the past month, it was Cathy’s turn to take the train north to Olympia to write together this past weekend.  A blog about what happens when we write is this week’s focus. To talk about writing and to re-experience the issues we write about are two different conversations.

The former has to do with the unusual process we devised early on to share topics but not our content with each other. So far, that has given us the freedom to speak honestly and it has lent an element of trust that brings us close together.

Our secrecy surrounding our writing with each other also has given us permission not to talk about the things we write about. The fallout from what we don’t say remains to be felt when we share it all. There’s a good chance we will need some extra care and guidance once we finish to share what it is we’ve created.

What an unusual pact we’ve made! It is an act of trust – to say what is true for each of us in spite of the impact it may have. It scares me to think about reading about ways I have disappointed her. We have based the work of the past eight years on our personal truth. “The truth shall set you free.” The truth is what we perceive it to be and that means there will be flaws in the story that rise to the surface to self-correct as we speak from two directions. The intrigue has become part of the story.

Sometimes the actual experience of writing ambushes us by waking up subliminal unrest and moving us in unexpected ways that tells each of us that even though we have talked about our relationship a great deal over the years, we are still in the thick of experiencing it with all the consequences of our separation and reunion; who we were, who we are, and who we’ve become – to ourselves, to our families and to one another. Our relationship is part of our connection and disconnection with the world around us.

A good example from my side is a small but significant event that occurred last summer at a writers retreat called Fishtrap. I’ve been on the advisory board, presented on panels and taught songwriting at the Fishtrap writer retreats over the past ten years. It is a place I consider a harbor as a writer. I have written some of my best songs there, including “Travis John” “Before You Go” and “Wallowa”.

Cathy and I read from our book for the first time at last summer’s Fishtrap. Cathy was sequestered in a car away from the building while I read. Conversely, I sat in the car while she followed my reading with hers. The audience was the first group to ever hear us read our separate sides to the same chapter. As they listened, they integrated the collective truth that rose from our four-minute excerpts expressed in our own voices from our mutual story.

When I came back into the lodge after Cathy’s reading, I was struck by the feeling in the room and the faces visibly moved by our story. Comments of enthusiastic support rallied around us and we were encouraged to finish the book and get it out into the world. We had crossed a threshold by sharing our words out loud and in public. It was a big moment for us. Victorious. A first.

The next day I approached a publisher at the retreat to ask about finding an agent. I was nervous because this is one publisher I had hoped to send our book proposal to. I had broached our project with him a few years before. At the time, he had said, “Let me see it when you’re ready” and his words stayed with me as we worked and wrote. Now that I was bringing it to him, I introduced Cathy and told him where we were in our process.

What I thought happened next and what Cathy saw happen were two different things.

I thought I was presenting my daughter and our book to him. His response was that our subject was not something his company was interested in. I retreated to make room for the buzzing circle of writers waiting to approach him. My guts felt tight and I held my breath with an odd sense of relief for having tried. Rejection is something writers are supposed to expect and get used to. This was the first.

What Cathy saw was me poking the publisher with aggressive body language that told him about our book project as though he couldn’t have it, that it belonged to us and that there was no way I was going to give him our book. She was confused.

That five-minute interlude turned into a conversation that went on for hours between Cathy and I in front of her tent up the hill from the lodge, watered by tears so deep I couldn’t stop.  My daughter watched me with a serious face and listened to sobs of loss bound up inside her first mother, as they loosened into a river, undiluted by the passing of forty years. I tried to explain myself but knew I was in over my head. I didn’t know how to let go of this.

I was confused. I had no idea I had came off as a bully rather than the friendly herald I thought I was announcing readiness to share our book. Instead, my conversation was seen as aggressive and defensive, as though to prevent our book from being taken by this powerful publisher who could deliver it to the world. I had made a stand, he rejected it and I rejected him. What was happening?

I didn’t want them to take my baby. This was not about Cathy writing a book with me, it was about me giving her up and getting her back and now that book was getting closer to completion, I was giving her up again. The book was the baby. It was a massive bit of transference. I tell myself this isn’t therapy; it’s a metaphor – an emotional artifact. My job is to gather the truth and simply to tell the story the best way I can, simply and as the narrator. Not so simple.

The truth is that the truth isn’t what I thought it was. I thought I was trying to write a story of events as they happened. Instead, I find myself holding on to the baby in the story with my life – and this time, with everything defined and embodied in words, as if she would stay with me – I wasn’t going to let her go anywhere but where she belonged, with me.  The old sorrow takes the baby back again and again as though the story never happened or needed to be told.

I don’t know if I’ve ever lived out a metaphor like this before. Now I wonder if what I think I’m doing may only be a front for what I wish to do; to know her, to love her and to let her go to be part of the world – this time in a world we share to the end. It’s my job to finish my side of the story. The ending will take care of itself.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, go to ReunionEyes.

Cathy’s Birthday

Today is the first day of Spring. The bunch of crocus off the back kitchen stoop sign “hallelujah!” from thawing ground as yellow stars tip long skinny branches of an old forsythia in back of the shed. Arbiters of warmer weather tickle a wily charge out of nowhere to jumpstart my low mood with possibilities in spite of one raw rainyass afternoon. The flowers wear their colors proudly, bellwethers of sunshine to come after months of wet weather in the rainforest.

Memories seep under the surface like an incoming tide overrunning the shore with fishes from deeper places once thought to be extinct. When the tide and light is right their shapes shift between light and darkness, air above, water below, rampant reflections blinding definition as movements tease my eyes into focus, lost again when I look away.

I sit back up in my seat and roll my shoulders to shake the past back to “before” and resume. Circumstances range the lines of my face caught sideways in the mirror across from my desk. Laugh lines counter the child I once was, now hidden far behind the face of an old lady.

If I had known then what I know now, my life might have been different. For better or for worse, who’s to say? I do know that someday my grandchildren will need to understand the role I played in the family story. As they grow from toddlers to teens, questions of where they came from will rise and curiosity will need answers. I am determined to love them freely now before I scramble to unhook the chains of regret hung across my heart. My story will shape karma in their lives. As I keep praying for happy endings, they will be working through what remains unfinished and it will be them, not me, who determine how the story turns out. My job is to be true and to give them love that is sound and good.

When Cathy’s adoptive parents came to visit years ago, I asked her mother if she had any pictures of Cathy’s childhood that she could share with me. It was an innocent request and Dottie’s response was “Of course. I’ll bring them next time.”

On their next visit that following Christmas, she handed me a wax envelope filled with a dozen pictures of Cathy in her childhood. I gasped with the prospect of seeing what I had never been allowed to see before. Except for two pictures Sr. Alice sent me of Cathy when Cathy was 4 and 6 years old, I had never seen pictures of my daughter as a child. Dottie and I sat down on my living room couch and she recounted each photo in a gentle, matter of fact voice.

“This is Cathy’s christening picture” (Cathy’s a baby is in a perfect white taffeta baptismal gown with satin ribbon, holding her mother’s finger with her chubby hand.)

“Here is one on her first birthday” (the identical feminine of my grandson, Quinn with a paper cone birthday hat tied under her chin and sitting in her chrome throne high chair – Cathy points her finger at the birthday cake with the candle lit to wish on top.)

“These are from her tap dancing class at dance school when she was eight.” (four small portraits in dance costume… Cathy looks so much like I did at that age – her hair is auburn, thick and wavy – her smile is warm, bright and wholesome under a headband adorned with a red and white feathers to match her showgirl outfit trimmed with pearls and bow-tied tap shoes. Her smile is radiant as she poses in long over-the-elbows fingerless red gloves.)

“This is Cathy’s 8th birthday. (Cathy looks a little pale as she blows into a party favor, a top heavy blue corsage hangs on her flowered blouse at a table set for guests with birthday hats, plates and paper cups lined up around her birthday cake.)

“This is her First Holy Communion from that same year” (a tiara-veiled beauty in white holding a sweet bouquet of daisies as she stands in front of the gold-embroidered “Alleluia” background draped behind her.)

“And another communion picture…(It’s 1979. Cathy smiles standing in front of the cake with her mother’s hands resting on her shoulders she looks into the camera with confidence, ready to cut the white sheet cake with two little statues of a child being blessed by Jesus and “God Bless Cathy” scrolled in yellow script.)

“School picture, age 9.” (round cheeks have thinned from little girl to young girl.)

The next picture is a school picture – she looks around eleven with braces, feminine lavender blouse with a high collar. I wonder if she’s started biting her nails – her nails so short on poised hands posed for the portrait.

Then she’s thirteen and looks like she may be getting ready to go to a school dance as she sits on a patio chair in a pink skirt and pink sweater patterned with white hearts under a double strand of pearls. A peanut butter sandwich and a plastic mug of milk rest on a red and white-checkered tablecloth. Everything looks so normal.

Next she’s in her cheerleader uniform with “Captain Cathy” embroidered on her jacket and her hands in her pockets standing in front of an autumnal living room fire. Her face is in the shape of a heart and her smile is serene – so lovely.

Then high school pictures followed stylish blonde-colored hair, more prominent makeup, proms with boyfriends and high school and, finally, high school graduation.

To see her framed in snapshots over various stages of her development of the life she had lived without me had an unexpected effect.

I thanked Dottie for the pictures and carefully put them back in the wax envelope. I brought them upstairs to my bedroom and tucked them deep in the back of my writing drawer and made a mental note not to forget where I put them before I closed the drawer, turned and went back downstairs to finish making Christmas dinner for all of us.

It had been a generous gift for Dottie to share those pictures with me. I didn’t want to appear ungrateful as they opened up a volcanic pile of emotion that I kept forgetting lived behind my sunny disposition. Vapors of feeling steamed at my seams and I felt the volcano getting hot. My heart was racing and I practiced a smile to break the tension in my face. I took a breath and forced myself to forget about it for now and shifted my focus on the turkey in the oven, refilling drinks and passing hors d’oeuvres around the room.

I took out the pictures today to look at them for the first time since that Christmas almost ten years ago. The wax envelope has yellowed to a dry crinkle. In a couple of weeks Cathy will turn another birthday. She’s coming up on the train to write with me this weekend. Maybe we’ll celebrate early.

Maybe I will get to bake her a cake this time. We’ve had a few birthday cakes together now. She’s due for one. I’ll sing her happy birthday on my ukulele. My heart is grateful for all the cakes her mother baked and for the gift in turn that I may do the same. That we both love her and call her “my child” is an enigma of a mother’s heart, first and last.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.

It’s all good…

Visiting the topics inherent in Kathleen~Cathleen brings us all into some sensitive territory. The truth is that although it’s a controversial subject, Cathy and I enjoy each other.  A great deal of what we cherish would never have come to light if we hadn’t explored the shadows our relationship sprang from.  The patina of our relationship between us grows richer and more exquisite and the sheen never dulls with time.  We are aware of the irony and paradox we live with. The closer we get, the deeper the loss is felt.  Still, it’s better than the void. It is worth the risk to have what we share.  It holds a place of honor in my heart, in my family, in my life.  For this, I am grateful.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.

Forty Years Later Letter

Dear brothers and sisters – Stephen Joseph, Michael Francis, Brian Frederick, Mary Ellen, Kevin John, Deborah Marie & Regina Marie,

I am writing you today as your sister. I need to tell you some things and share a part of myself that got sideswiped when we were all still together – a part I never really recovered with you. It affected Mom and Dad, too but that’s a different letter that needs to be written another day. They did the best they could.

I want to tell you some things – complicated things – but before I do, I want to tell you that I love each one of you for being my brothers and sisters. Even Johnny, who left us by accident before most of us were born, is counted – the one who took on the mantle as the family guardian angel as our first brother and was the first one of us. Even though he was gone, Johnny was always there as part of my first memory – I was the next one born after he left. He was a part of the family fabric as first son, as though he was standing right there. He was looking after us from heaven, as Mom always said. No matter what we were doing, where we were or how we needed him, he was there – checking in. I felt his oversight when I came out of brain surgery. I knew it was him and that he was there with me – guiding the doctor’s hands, making sure I was okay when I woke up. Dad was there by my bed, my head all wrapped in gauze. I think he felt him too.

I just wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I couldn’t share Cathy’s birth with you. I know now that she, like Johnny, was a presence in our family – invisibly but palpably – not only for me, who grew, felt and watched her grow from my secret belly, but for you, too – each of you, who knew without saying or telling that news of Cathy was missing from the table.

If Mom and Dad had folded the indiscretion and Cathy’s existence into our unfolding cast of characters in the family story, chances are that none of us,  and least of all me, would have been able to let her go.

I’m sorry for the loss of Cathy in your lives right from the beginning. Gaining these past twenty-two years between Cathy and me since she turned eighteen has been a gift beyond hope. Thank you for loving her now, even in the limited ways to be found – and for loving me anyway, besides and always. I love you too. I feel you inside the beat of my heart when I say “my brothers and sisters.” We learned love as a family. I do love you.

Your sister,

Kathleen Mary

To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Three Poems

One

Girls in white dresses dangle rosaries in the May procession.  I sneak Mom’s cigarettes and smoke in the woods with my best friend, Bonnie with breasts, teased hair and gum.

Two

Grandfather is taking my brothers on a fruit boat to South America. Being a girl means I stay home.  I didn’t know there was a difference – until then.

Three

Cloistered nuns without voices pray

To heal the world outside the gates

That keep them safe from it.

I want to join them; an offertory…

And then you kiss me;

I sing instead.

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To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.