This is my hometown

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some moment in my adult life, I stopped saying that I was from New York. Technically, I am a New Yorker. I grew up there – specifically, on Long Island – but then I moved to Boston to go to college, and stayed for a long time. When I traveled, if I was asked where I was from, I would say Boston. Through years, jobs, networks, marriage, home ownership, and friendships, Boston had become home.

But New York is, well, New York. And while I don’t always claim it as “home”, I admit to the occasional flash of pride or identification when faced with some of New York’s better-known traits: tell-it-like-it-is honesty, seen-it-all-before worldliness, or don’t-get-me-started frustration. New Yorkers are fun and surprising and resilient as hell. They are the descendants – or at least the inheritors – of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan: the adventurous pirates and practical merchants who brought trade, religious freedom, and representative government to the “New World”.

It was with all this in mind that I returned to New York for a solo vacation. I spent a little more than a week between Long Island and New York City, catching up with family and friends, and rediscovering spots I used to know. I was explaining to a friend one evening that whenever I’m on Long Island, I have a sense of what I call my “ghost life”…a life I could have had, had I chosen to stay there.  In a favorite poem of mine, Thomas Transtromer writes, “Without really knowing, we divine; our life has a sister ship, following quite another route”. My sister ship may well be sailing somewhere in the Long Island Sound, but (happily), that is not the ship I am on.


Central Park. (Not a “hidden gem”, I know.)

While I could never live on Long Island, it can be a great place to visit. Manhattan, too, offers so much to the visitor that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m always thankful for my guides: friends who have lived in NYC for years and have built up a stable of favorite places and neighborhood gems that I’d never find on my own.

There were two big “events” around which my vacation was centered. At the end of the week, I had a cousin’s wedding – the first in many years. I’m one of twenty grandchildren on my father’s side (good Irish-American Catholics), and when the whole family is together, it is something to see. Growing up, I was a shy child and my family overwhelmed me; they were loud, argumentative, overly affectionate, physically imposing (very tall), and there were just so damn many of them. As an adult, though, I’ve come to love my big, crazy family. And if nothing else, we are really, really good at weddings. It was great to see my cousins and get caught up on their lives.

Kempton family

My cousins, aunts, and uncles. Yeah, there’s a lot of us.

Mostly, though, we danced, following the example we inherited from our parents and all those family parties at the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the grown-ups did the Stroll and the Mashed Potato while we kids goofed around at the edges of the dance floor or hung out in the coat room. A DJ and a few cases of beer and a couple of 6-foot subs were all that was needed for a good time.


The other big event of my trip was almost like family, at least to me. Several months ago, my friend Ellen had finally gotten us tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway. Ellen is a true fan, and we’ve now seen Bruce together on several occasions and in multiple countries. I’ve written before about my love of Bruce, about which I am unapologetic. I love the man and his music, and it’s been the longest love affair of my life so far…over 30 years.


A little blurry, but definitely The Boss.

What else is there to say? I can say that the intimacy of a 900-seat theater can’t compare to Bruce’s big stadium shows, even when I was up close to the stage in the Pit. And to be clear, this is not a concert. It is a performance; a beautiful blending of story and song meant to chart a life, a journey. It is funny and touching and poignant and, at moments, heartbreaking. It is, as a good friend and serious Bruce fan noted, a recognition that while we continue this journey together, there is more road behind us than there is in front.  As Bruce himself said, “I hope that along the way, I’ve provided you with some measure of joy”.  No amount of applause could convey just how much joy this man and his music have given me. And alongside the joy, in equal measure, there’s been comfort, solace, energy, retreat, nostalgia, longing, hope, and celebration. So thanks, Bruce, for a great night at the theater and for a life-long journey that continues on, as long as you’re here, and as long as we’re here.

See you further on up the road.




The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”


As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.

The books she never read

It is an odd phenomenon of our modern world that our online lives continue after our earthly lives have ended. Our digital footprints cross more virtual space than our real feet could wish to cover.

I’ve been thinking of this only because I ran into an online ghost recently on (An aside: if you’re a reader and you don’t know or use Goodreads, check it out. It lets you track the books you’ve read and find recommendations. You can connect to friends of the real or virtual kind, follow authors, and share reviews and suggestions. I’m not into online socializing; for me, Goodreads is a tool to remember what books I’ve read and what I want to read. More than once, it has saved me from the paralysis I sometimes feel in a bookstore or library, and instead sent me confidently towards the right shelf.)

After adding something to my want-to-read list, I started browsing the long list of titles I’ve already read. I clicked on a Jane Austen book, of which I had only the vaguest memory, and I saw, below my four-star rating of the work, that someone I followed on Goodreads had also read the book. My mom. Who died in August, 2014.

I clicked into her profile. She had joined Goodreads in late 2012 and literally all of her activity on the site had happened on one single day, December 1. On that day she input and rated over 80 books. I suspect she never went back to the site; no additional books had been added, though I’m certain she kept reading up until her death. My friend request to her remains, forever, unanswered.

Few things in my adult life made me happier than when my mother – an exceptionally smart and well-educated woman who was a teacher for decades – finally started reading real books.

Image result for harlequin romance


For reasons I never understood as a child, and only vaguely understand now, my mother read trash for years. Years. Hers was a steady diet of Harlequin Romance. If you’re not familiar with Harlequin, their website describes their books as “uplifting escapes featuring real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men.” Most of the books feature these same “relatable” and “desirable” people on the cover in various states of undress. And by chapter seven (it was always chapter seven), all the clothes came off and the prose turned purple, or sometimes blue.

I might not have been too bothered by my mother’s enjoyment of these books, except she was always asking me to get some for her when I went to the library. She never cared if she had already read them; she knew they were essentially all the same. “Just pick out some with good covers”, she would tell me. My pre-teen or teen self would blush with shame as I put those worn paperbacks on the top of my pile of young-adult novels or research books.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my mom joined a book club a few years before she retired. Suddenly she was asking what I was reading and sharing recommendations of books she enjoyed. Like most book clubs, I think hers was light on the actual book discussion and heavy on the chatting and wine tasting, but I loved that her involvement in it gave us something else to talk about together, and another way to connect.

When I found her Goodreads profile a few weeks ago, I was struck by the overlap between the books she had read and those on my list. I remembered which she had suggested to me. I can see where our tastes come together (Austin again, Ann Patchett) and where they diverge (Chris Cleve, Chris Bohjalian). She was generous with her five-star ratings, where I reserve those only for mind-blowing books I cannot live without.

Then I saw that my mom had marked several books as want-to-read. And my immediate thought was that she will never get to read them. My next thought was: I will.

There were eight in total, but two had ratings indicating that they may have been read, so that left me with just six. (It occurs to me now that it’s possible my mom actually read all of them and just never went back to Goodreads to change the labels. Which perhaps makes my little project even more pointless. But isn’t much of what we do for those we have lost pointless, really? So, ever onward.)

There’s nothing extraordinary about any of the books. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, old and new. There’s nothing there I’ve been desperate to read, but neither will any be a struggle. The titles don’t give me some new insight into my mother. I don’t think there is any message from the great beyond waiting for me at the end of these six books. I doubt there’s a lesson to be learned or a revelation coming. I’ll mark the books as read and then cross them off both of our to-do lists. But while I’m reading, the conversation between me and my mom continues.

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day that can be complicated regardless of the status of your particular mother-child relationship. So I’m going to offer a suggestion, borrowed from the great Mr. Fred Rogers, that we all spend 10 seconds on Mother’s Day thinking “of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” I’ll watch the time.


Mother’s Day

When my dad and niece were visiting last month, we were watching TV one evening and a commercial came on for some Mother’s Day promotion. My niece, who was cuddled up on the couch with me, turned and said, “Huh…you don’t get to celebrate that anymore.” She didn’t say it to be cruel – it was more of an observation than anything else. Still, it hurt. In the days since, I’ve kept her words with me, rolling them around my head in quiet moments.

Today is Mother’s Day. And as most of my readers know, my mom is no longer with us. And I’m wondering: do I get to celebrate it?

Years ago a friend shared an essay from Charles Dickens about Christmas and how the meaning of the holiday can change as we age and experience loss. Dickens speaks of a friend from his youth, with whom he had once imagined and discussed their growing old together. Now that his friend has – in his prime – taken up “his destined habitation in the City of the Dead”, Dickens asks, “Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, husband, brother, wife, we will not so discard you…”

So, in the spirit of Dickens and Christmas, I am observing Mother’s Day. Like most holidays, Mother’s Day isn’t a purely individual holiday – it’s not just about your mom.  (But don’t tell your mom that. Because of course it’s only about her.) It’s a collective recognition that being a mother can be hard. It’s a celebration of grandmothers and aunts and sisters and whoever else may have mothered us in some way at a time when we needed mothering. It’s a time to think about women around the world for whom motherhood and childbirth is dangerous, or deadly. It’s a moment to consider what mothers risk and dream of for their children, and the sacrifices made to help realize those futures.

And for myself, it is a day to think about my mom. More than once during this time abroad, I’ve thought about how much she would have enjoyed hearing about our lives here. She would have had a lot of questions – silly ones, about everyday things, like where we buy groceries and if we’ve met the neighbors and where we store our bicycles.

Today I’m thinking about all the little things that make up a person, a life. I could tell you a thousand things about my mom or write a thousand questions that I never thought to ask her. But today I’m thinking about how we couldn’t talk while she was baking, as if measuring flour took all her attention. I’m thinking about her beautiful complexion and how she never wore foundation.  I’m remembering the smell of her perfume.  The look she would give my dad on Christmas morning if one of his gifts didn’t quite hit the mark. And the very specific way she would say, “Hello Katie” whenever we spoke by phone. And the fact that she still called me Katie, which almost no one now does.

One of the stupid, annoying things about grieving is that the grief changes, and I change, and how I respond to loss and what I need to deal with it also changes. It sucks. So maybe this year I can have this sort-of reflective, Zen-like perspective on the universality of Mother’s Day. Next year I may ignore it completely. Who can say? Mother’s Day is hard for people who still have mothers – our relationships with our moms are complicated, in life and in death.  I don’t have any answers for you there.

So we’ll end where we began, with Dickens again. His final word, his promise to his lost friend – and his appeal to us – is that we “shut out nothing!” There’s no right or wrong way for me to observe this day or any other significant day. You take what comes, you find yourself where you are, and you shut out nothing.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Family, flowers, and food

Not a bad way to spend a week, eh?

Family: We just hosted our first guests at our new apartment. After months of anticipation, I headed to the airport on Sunday morning to meet my dad and my 13-year-old niece Emily. The trip – her first abroad – was Emily’s birthday present from Grandpa, given to her back in October. My father had visited last summer at the end of a long river cruise, but we had all been looking forward to his return trip, and to sharing Amsterdam with Emily. They arrived sleepy from the overnight flight but (as is my way when it comes to fighting jet lag) I forced them to keep going as long as they could.

They had a few days on their own, though we always met up for dinner to hear the stories of their adventures and observations. We had two great days together, as I played hooky from work and enjoyed near-perfect Amsterdam spring weather. I loved hearing Emily’s impressions of what she saw and felt. She is a vibrant, curious, and very funny person. She noticed so many things that I now take for granted: the frustratingly tiny water glasses at restaurants, the full-sized doors on Dutch public bathrooms (great for us tall gals who end up looking over the door), the ease and efficiency of the tram system.image

Flowers: We spent most of one day at the Keukenhof Gardens, that seasonal wonder that draws millions of tourists and very few Dutch. (This is not a scientific study, but I estimate that 7 of 10 Dutch people I spoke to about the Keukenhof have never been.) We went last year as part of a marvelous, memorable birthday adventure for a dear friend, and it was lovely to go back with family and enjoy the gardens again. We took tons of photos, did a boat ride, ate and explored, until Emily announced that she was “all set” with flowers. Honestly, I think I was all set, too. The brain can only absorb so many facts about the tulip trade or the 7 million bulbs that are planted by hand
in the gardens each year. And maybe our eyes can only absorb so much color and manicured beauty.

Food:  Our usual approach with visitors is to simply eat our way through Amsterdam. Over the course of a few days, we introduced Dad and Emily to rijsttafel, stroopwaffels, the appeltarte at Winkel 43, bitterballen, and gevulde koeken. We convinced my chocolate-hating father to try a chocolate cookie from a store that only makes one kind of cookie. My dad, however, failed to convince Emily to try herring while on a food tour of the Jordaan.

More than the food we ate, I loved our meals together. In those moments, over a beer or the world’s smallest water glass, we were able to really connect, and really catch up. We laughed. We listened. We told the same old stories and a few new ones, too. We learned about each other. We had fun. Together. Not a bad way to spend a week.

The things we lose – thoughts on distance

Last week we had a stark and difficult reminder of just how far away from home we are. My husband’s grandmother passed away, somewhat suddenly, last Wednesday. In the days before her death, it was hard to get details from his family about her condition. It was also hard to know what to do: should my husband fly home right away, or wait for more information? Should we listen to family or just do what we thought was best?

Thankfully, we were able to work things out quickly and make the right decisions for us. I left Amsterdam a day after my husband, arriving in the U.S. the morning of the wake. We were glad to be with family and I know it was important to my husband to be present for the funeral. And it was a lovely celebration of his grandmother, a vibrant and funny woman who had a fondness for telling dirty jokes to the priests at the Knights of Columbus hall many years ago. Last Christmas, someone gave her a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and when she opened it, she said, “FINALLY! Everyone’s been talking about this and I want to see what all the fuss is about!”. Her spirit and humor were infectious, and she will be missed.

I had time with my dad, sister, and my nieces, all of whom came to the funeral and the luncheon that followed. We also managed to squeeze in a visit with friends, joining in on what has been an annual outing to the famous Woodman’s. While my husband is still in the U.S., I returned the day after the funeral – a total of 55 hours in America. Whew.

For both of us, this was the first time that we really felt the distance between us and our families and lives in the U.S. It is relatively easy to keep in touch with people these days. With email and Skype and regular phone calls, I can maintain the illusion that nothing much has changed from when we lived in Boston. On top of that, there’s the ease of travel. Our families are on the east coast, so we tell ourselves that we’re “only” 6 or 7 hours away.

But in times of crisis or stress, the miles seem to stretch and I can suddenly feel very, very far away. In an abstract sense, we anticipated this when we moved here, but I don’t think we really understood what it meant to leave, to be away from family. You don’t see the incremental erosion of health in aging relatives. You can’t help with the day-to-day maintenance. You miss the regular gatherings, the summer festivals, the sporting events. And when you do return, whether for a few days or for a week, you can feel like you don’t quite belong.

These are the trade-offs we make for the chance to live abroad. In this case, since the crisis was in my husband’s family, I’m acutely aware of the fact that our life abroad was my doing. If not for me and my crazy plans, we would have been a mere hour’s drive from family. John would have been able to see his grandmother before she passed away, and may have felt that he was giving more support to his mom and family.

Maybe it’s just the distance that matters, and not the geography. Maybe I’d be feeling the same if we were living in California or Chicago. We’re not the first people to deal with this challenge, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time we experience this distance, this disconnect. So we’re left to find ways to cope, to be as present and supportive as we can be from far away, and to keep working at it.