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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


It's an overcast, cloudy but pleasantly warm day here at Rehoboth Bay, which almost perfectly matches the interior of my psyche this morning.

It started innocently enough. I was watching "The Other Boleyn Girl" last night and something about the dynamic between the sisters, Ann and Mary, and their mother caught me completely off guard. I got all weepy and girly-burbly and just couldn't shake it.

I've been writing furiously this morning since about 6 AM, sorting out the Stories of My Youth and the Myth of My Mother. I can't - won't - publish any of it. There are, in fact, boundaries, even in the seemingly vast limitlessness of cyberspace. But, I write here, on my blog, to say a few things so y'all don't worry too much about me.

This grief work is hard stuff, even on a good day, but there's something about the grief associated with the loss of one's mother that makes it seem, sometimes, too much for one's heart and mind and soul to bear.

I've been going over the snapshots in my head, slowly turning the pages of my memory like an old, dusty, yellow-with-age, but dearly beloved photo album.

There I am at my birthday party. I don't know. I'm six or seven. Maybe older.

I can see the cake and the candles - the birthday presents piled high around me. I can see my sisters and young brother - The Little Prince, we sisters called him through grit teeth. I can see my aunts and cousins, my grandmother and Bella, my "fairy godmother", as I still call her.

My parents broke tradition and had Bella and Larry, my mother's friend from work, as godparents to all four of their children. That was nothing less than a scandal in my immigrant family - which my mother seemed to delight in and never missed an opportunity to announce that, if anything, God forbid, should happen to her or my father, Bella and Larry would take care of us. We'd go to live with them, she said emphatically. You couldn't miss the scowls on the faces of my aunts, her sisters.

I can see my father and the rest of the men of my family, over in the living room, smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes and drinking my grandfather's homemade whiskey and beer.

Boiler-makers, I think they were called, and aptly so. My experience, even at a very young age, was that tempers flared in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed.

I can see all that, but I can't see my mother. I know she's there, but I can't see her. She's present - very present - but not in the picture.

And, I am not happy. Decidedly not happy. I think that was my first memory of knowing that I didn't belong here. There. What I really wanted for my birthday present was "out". Gone. Anywhere but there. Here. With "them" and their false laughter and lavish displays of saccharine affection.

My grandmother, the story goes, 'ran away from home' in Portugal at age 13. Her mother had died and she, being the youngest of 16 children and the only girl, knew her fate. She said she 'faked' the intensity of her grieving in order to convince her father that she really ought to visit her aunts in Boston for a few months - just to get the maternal comfort her father and brothers could not provide and recover before she returned to care of them, the way her mother did.

Except, she never did. She never went back to Portugal. Ever. Not even for a visit. Indeed, she married my grandfather just shortly before her 16th birthday. Together, as was often the case in those days, they had 20 pregnancies and 22 children.

This story was told often and in many ways - in the stories my grandmother told us at night or whenever a new person came into the family, either by birth or marriage. She would allude to it when she read stories in her little black bible, which she read from several times a day. The stories of Mariam and Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Joseph and his brothers all held elements that tugged on her heart and pulled out the threads of the sacred story of her own life.

She also played her Portuguese guitara and sang about it in the traditional style of Portuguese 'fado' - a folk song that sounds rather like a lament. Fado, roughly translated means "destiny" or "fate."

Mind you, my grandfather would always walk out of the room when she sang 'fado'. Only Portuguese men were allowed to sing this particular kind of song. Only men, you see, are in control of destiny. As much as he loved to hear my grandmother's beautiful voice and her soulful guitar playing, his loyalty to the tradition of his homeland was stronger.

A fado is sad but in a nostalgic kind of way, if you can understand. The Portuguese word, as I remember my 'Mother tongue' is "suadade" which doesn't exactly translate to 'nostalgia'. (Luiz, if you're reading this, help me out here.) The best I can describe it is that it must be the sound the soul makes when it is longing for a return to something, but tinged with a mixture that I call "regret and gratitude" that you can't return - probably wouldn't, even if you could.

That probably doesn't make much sense, but I think it captures where I was on that birthday and where I am right now. Indeed, as I look at that snapshot of my memory, if I close my eyes, I can hear my grandmother singing a fado for my birthday.

And, as I listen, as I follow the sound of my grandmother's voice, I suddenly find my mother. She's off in the kitchen, weeping over the preparation of my birthday meal. She doesn't know why she is crying, exactly, but she's sad in a "regret and gratitude" sort of way. She's weeping because her 'baby' is getting older and so is she.

She's weeping because she knows, deep in her heart, that she has to get out of this place. She's caught between two worlds - her status as immigrant and the American Dream which seems, in this moment, to be painfully illusive. She's caught between the proud heritage of being Portuguese and the reality of being and American.

She doesn't really fit in either place, but she knows that if she doesn't leave this tenement apartment, this city, this family, her daughters don't stand a chance of an 'igloo in Florida' (one of her favorite expressions when I was a kid) of living the dream her mother gave to her and the one she is trying to give to her children.

At least, that's the story as I remember it. The fact is that, shortly after that birthday party, my mother went back to work full time. And, in three years time, they had enough money to buy their own home. In Westport. The suburbs. The place where they could finally live the Great American Dream.

The story of leaving one's family to 'find a better life' and 'be on your own' has become a myth in my family and that myth, in many ways, drives the family dynamic in sometimes positive but often negative ways.

I am keenly aware, this morning, of the power of that myth. I realize that the place I am in right now is 'suadade'. If you drew a map of the landscape of grief, you probably wouldn't find it, but I am here. In this place. This Land of Regret and Gratitude.

I am here in the place of Suadade, turning the pages of my life, my mother and grandmother's life, and noticing things done and left undone, things said and left unsaid. Regret and Gratitude.

My soul is singing a fado this morning. In many ways, it is the song of my life. I am singing it for my life. For my mother's life. For my grandmother's life. For the life of my children and grandchildren.

It is the song of the unfinished and factually questionable stories which become the myths that are at the center of my life.

All our lives, I'm thinking.

It's not a bad place. It's not a place I want to visit often, but I think we all need to travel there - here - every once in a while.

I won't stay long. It's just where I need to be right now.


suzanne said...


I'm sending you a large warm hug from N.Wilmington. Grieving is hard stuff, especially for a Mother who you didn't get to say good bye to.

You couldn't be in a more perfect location to grieve.


JimB said...

Rev Elizabeth,

Roma sing in another voice. I am accounted a minstral and singer in my family (tribal as we are) so I often am the one who plays and sings in our times of joy, gratitude and sadness.

I have been playing for you and your family. Rom music, wild, free and sad is ascending from here, American folk tunes are too, We Rom stand in two places too.

Stay in your place until it is time to move on and know we are all as our voices permit, singing for you.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for the hug, Suzanne. And, jimB, well, your gift of song makes me weep. Guess it must be something in the waters of the Mediterranean.

Fr Craig said...

Elizabeth - take ALL THE TIME YOU NEED! As often as you need - you know this when you counsel others, don't - as so many priests do - ignore your own advice. Pre-ordination, my Mom died - I adored her. But I was tough and got on with it. Must have been 5 years later that I was watching a movie (which I have blacked out!) and one scene got me blubbering. My poor wife had no idea. Finally I began to grieve. What a relief it was.
bless you - and you must be exhausted as well. Take care!

June Butler said...

Elizabeth, love and prayers go your way, my dear. What a moving reflection. "Suadade" - The Land of Regret and Gratitude. I love that Elizabeth. I live there a good bit of the time myself.

It seems that you come from a family of strong minded women. Not that I'm saying that you're strong-minded, or anything. ;o) Thanks for your words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, Mimi, I think the reason Fado music is so powerful is that it taps into the core of being human. I think this is also why suadade is so hard to translate. It's "a groan and a sigh too deep for human words." It's a prayer and a place. It's where we all find ourselves, from time to time, if we're brave enough to be fully human.

And, Mimi, you're one of the bravest women I know.

Ostrich said...

For these women, for all women, for you, thanks be to God.

June Butler said...

Elizabeth, much as I want to demur, I shall only say, "Thank you. Those words from you honor me greatly."

Fran said...

I read this earlier and it has stayed with me all day.

You express so much and so evocatively here. The feelings are palpable.

Oh as we negotiate the challenging places between our feelings, our memories and our grief many things can happen.

Please know I send you all my prayers as you trod that road Elizabeth.

BTW, I am still stunned when I read of the number of pregnancies and children... God have mercy!

Paul said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for passing on the gift of your people, your roots, your loved ones, full of all the pain and regret and gratitude and blessings and limitations that are part of being human and experiencing life fully. Enjoy the gift of suadade - may it help you feel what you must feel and express what you must express. You have blessed us with this reflection.

it's margaret said...

I will be singing an Appalachian song for you Elizabeth --"Bright Morning Stars are Rising, Day's a-breakin' in my soul."

A song of longing and confidence. A series of verses go: Where are our dear Mothers? --some are in the valley sleeping, some are in the mountains praying, day's a-breakin' 'in my soul.

Thank you for sharing this post Elizabeth.

JCF said...

Elizabeth, do you know (of) the blogger called the Pagan Sphinx?

I don't know whether you might like to "meet" her, or perhaps she meet you, but with you both having mothers rooted in Portugal, recovering RCism, and "Matters Gay" (you and your mother, her daughter and her mother), it just seems like you might have something important in common (she's on vacation at the moment---heh, ANOTHER commonality!)

Not to push you, or anything: your story on this entry just brought PS (and her family sitch) to mind.

God be with you, in your grief. I lost my mother almost a year ago, and "flashes" of her come to me in the STRANGEST moments! [We're at peace. Pretty much. ;-/]

Fran said...

JCF- glad to see you mentioned the Pagan Sphinx... I thought of her too. Elizabeth, when time permits you should peruse her blog.

Bill said...

It was ten years this last July that Mom died. I never know what's going to set me off. Sometimes it's a picture or a song or the passing of someone elses Mom. That's when I start getting teary eyed all over again. I don't think I'll ever get fully over it, nor do I want to. That's what being human is all about.

The same thing happens if something triggers a memory of my cousin Bobby. Back in 1970 he was a navigator on a B52. The plane blew up on landing killing the entire crew. He was only 25. He was the third brother along with John my sibling. Somethings you just never get over. And again, I don't want to. Those bitter/sweet memories are like old friends now.

Anonymous said...

Dear, strong Elizabeth. One of the gifts now is having the strength actually to feel these things. It's a kind of richness, isn't it. Mother-grieving is so deep and can last so long. After several years, mine still pops in to say hi on a regular basis. I'm glad that you are taking time to begin - eloquently, as usual.

Lindy said...

May you be shielded in this tender time and be granted a good grief.

Cany said...

This is a truly lovely post. A soul post.

I still have my mom. She is 94 now, but not in the best of mental health. Even at my age, I still need her very much.

You sound like you had/have a lot of love in that (seemingly HUGE) family/extended family and that alone is priceless.

Spend the time you need in your suadade and may it refresh your dear soul.

Brian R said...

Just over 2 years now since my Mum died and she would have been 99 last week. I was so fortunate to have her into my 60's but like others here, a tear often appears when I think of her. A lady in her 70's told me she still misses her Mum who died when she was in her 20's and there were tears in her eyes as she spoke. Mothers are one of God's greatest gifts and there will be tears until God brings us all together again.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Elizabeth...I know the landscape. On the Kirkepiscatoid Planet, it's known as "The sorrowful place in the corner of my soul." It is an okay place to visit...just leave breadcrumbs.

It's a place that hurts so much it can't be explained, but to feel the hurt for a spell is incredibly cathartic.

I was rather embarrassed about a month ago that I ended up in that place all of a sudden simply by singing the last verse of "Come thou fount of every blessing" during the procession of the Gospel book.

"O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!

Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here's my heart, o, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above."

I continue to pray for you and yours, dear...

JCF said...

An example of the Pagan Sphinx's work, for your (everyone's) listening pleasure:

Amalia Rodrigues Sings Fado