This Old House

I learned recently that my dog helped our family buy a house.

In 1977, when I was nine, my parents put in a bid on a house two blocks away. The house went on the market in the morning, and before noon, the sellers had four identical offers. 

After weighing their options, they decided to accept my parents’ bid when they learned that my father was the man who always walked a three-legged dog past their house. Our dog, Inky, had been hit by a car the year before. She survived, but one of her back legs had to be amputated. While some of our neighbors didn’t know us, many of them recognized Inky, and that turned out to be the reason we ended up at 138 Kelbourne Avenue.

The rest of my family was excited about the move, but I wasn’t. I was happy that I’d be getting my own room – my sister and I would no longer have reason for regular turf wars – but I wouldn’t be able to look out the window to see if my friends were outside playing kickball or Kill the Carrier. I groused about having to walk two whole blocks to find playmates.

Little did I know that this house would serve as the backdrop for most of our family’s important life events for the next four decades. 

Two months ago my parents moved out of the house and into an assisted living and memory care facility. My siblings and I have spent a lot of time at the house since then getting it cleared out so it could be sold.

Eloquent birthday poem I wrote for my dad

Going through the closets and boxes was like opening a time capsule. We discovered that my mother kept EVERYTHING. In neatly labeled boxes in nearly every room upstairs, we found drawings, music programs, and elementary school report cards (my teachers wrote things like “Susie is trying to control her silliness!” and “Susie will have to be careful of ‘attitude’ and ‘behavior’ in the future”). There were poems, postcards, letters home from college. I even found the book of cut-out letters and pictures that my mom and I made together when I was learning the alphabet in kindergarten.

In addition to the volume of memorabilia, I discovered that my siblings and I are remarkably in-sync as adults. Even though we have very different personalities and have been spread out over the Eastern Seaboard for the last 30 years, as we’ve come together to clear out the house, we have been in lockstep about what is important and what is not important. Important: supporting my dad, trying to ensure that my mom is being well cared for, breaking down the house efficiently and respectfully; not important: claiming furniture, jewelry, and other material goods from the house.

If you had told me when I was a kid that my siblings and I would be so aligned as adults, I might have been surprised. After all, some of my clearest memories in the house are the epic fights I had with each of them.

Banished to the basement

My brother Charlie was in the room next to mine and hated listening to me practice my saxophone. He claimed he couldn’t concentrate on his studies over the sound of scales and repeated renditions of “The Pink Panther.” My parents took his side and I was sent to the basement to practice so he could concentrate on his homework. That lasted a few weeks. Then he got caught listening to records instead of studying, and the jig was up. Every time I see a picture of the band KISS or hear a song from Frampton Comes Alive, it brings a huge smile to my face. Show me the way, Chibs!

My sister Kathy and I fought bitterly about the telephone. Whenever I was on the phone, she needed it. To get some privacy, I would pull the phone across the breakfast table and squeeze into the powder room, closing the door hard on the cord. Inevitably, my sister would pick up another extension and shout, “I NEED THE PHONE!” and I would shout, “I’M ON THE PHONE!” and then my mother would shout, “GIRLS! STOP SHOUTING!” Whoever I was talking to would get an earful – usually my friend Sandy, who would say, “Your sister always needs the phone!”

On days when I got in big trouble at school, my siblings were eager to get away from me. Most nights we ate dinner as a family at a small table, and you could really feel the tension when something was awry. The night after I got suspended for smoking cigarettes in 8th grade was especially unpleasant. My father dismissed my brother and sister from the table so he and my mother could interrogate me about what on earth I was thinking. I can still hear the clanging of the dishes as my siblings jumped up to get away from the table and out of the line of fire.

Apart from leaving me alone to clean up my own mess, they were generally very kind to me and the three of us were on the same side. We were The Kids and my folks were The Parents, and there was never any confusion about who was who. My parents didn’t involve us in their adult concerns, which allowed us to just be kids together.

After we finished high school and went off into the world, to college and semesters abroad and living in other cities and towns, we always came back to the house, and to my parents. The place continued to be the hub of family activity. When each of us got married and had kids, we brought other people around, and they became part of the history of the house as well. 

Because I live the farthest from New York and have the least flexible job, most of the work in breaking down the house has fallen to my sister and brother. I honestly have never admired them more. They have selflessly worked to take care of detail after detail. They are reflecting back the devotion that my parents showed to us during our childhood.

One of the few things I could do remotely was to go through the many hundreds of pictures that were in photo albums and boxes. Doing that has given me a sense of the continuity that comes when a family lives in a house for 45 years. The photos showed how rituals and traditions passed from one generation to the next.

My dad was always up for having a catch with any of us in the back yard. When we had kids, he had catches with them in the back yard. Then the grandkids grew up and had catches with each other. My mom and sister did puzzles together a lot, and then my mom did puzzles with the grandkids. At Christmas we always hung the stockings my mom had made for the five of us; in later years, when spouses and children joined the family, she knitted a stocking for each of them.

I also remember watching mass on TV with my grandmother when she came to stay with us after a fall. In the last few years, I have watched mass on TV with my parents when my mom was no longer able to go in person.

When the time came to move out, the house was staged and made into a blank canvas so that others could picture how they would make a life there. Though it was very tastefully done, seeing the house on the internet as a real estate listing felt a little jarring. 

When I was looking through the MLS pictures online, I caught myself clenching my jaw involuntarily when I came to the photo of what we called the “family room,” a place where we spent so much time together. It was strange to see a picture of the room all cleared out, without my parents in it. 

“Wow,” I said to my dad a few days later, “Another family is going to live in the house. That’s going to be different.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “but that’s what these houses are for. They aren’t for a couple of 88-year-olds who have trouble getting up the stairs.”

He’s right, of course. Nothing gold can stay, as the poem goes, and it is time to let go and pass the house along to someone else. It’s been such a great house for our family, and hopefully the next owners will love it as much as we have.

Off to a Yankees game with some visitors from Holland
In the back yard shortly after we moved in
With my grandmother, Aunt Pat, and cousins – part of the Maine contingent
Mr. Snazzy Cumber Bun before his prom
Kathy in her high school graduation gown, with a cat who doesn’t care
The Sibs
KTG before her wedding
Awkwardly displaying a wine glass at wedding shower #1 with my sister-in-law Chris, sister, and mom
Aunts, uncles, and cousins joining the immediate fam to celebrate my dad’s 65th birthday
Invasion of the garden helpers
All seven grandkids carefully posed in the backyard
Trying on Nonna’s jewelry
Little Rachel all glammed up
Grandad fielding a serious question in the driveway
Young O’Connors in the family room
Danny and Nonna doing a Scooby Doo puzzle
Teenage O’Connors and a pandemic birthday celebration
Measuring Chibs one last time before the house clearing started
So long, 138


My Mother’s Struggle with Dementia

My sister warned me that my mother’s face would probably look bad, but I still wasn’t prepared. When I arrived at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving last month, I saw from the side that she had a black eye. When she turned fully towards me, I almost stepped backward. The other side of her face was completely black and blue, including the eyelid, with bruising on her forehead as well.

My mom had fallen the day before as she got out of bed. Apparently, she didn’t react quickly and consequently landed on her face. She didn’t remember what had happened or the trip to the emergency room where she had X-rays that confirmed nothing was broken. Each time she touched her forehead that day, she noticed it was tender. “Did I fall?” she asked my father.

She was quiet the rest of the weekend, though that wasn’t unusual. The house was full of kids and grandkids and she seemed overwhelmed by the banter and activity around her. Once very sociable, she’s now reserved in a group setting, only chiming in occasionally.

After I returned to my own home in Virginia from the holiday weekend, I called my father to tell him I had arrived safely.

“Hi, Toots,” my mother answered, “How are you?” I was taken aback. She sounded completely normal. If I hadn’t seen her the night before, I wouldn’t know anything was out of order.   

This is a pattern that has become familiar to my family over the last decade – moments of clarity followed by moments of startling confusion. 

I first became aware that something was really wrong with my mom in 2011. She mentioned that she’d like to travel to Ireland someday. My parents had taken a 10-day trip there in the late ‘90s and we had discussed that trip just weeks before her comment.

Like more than 50 million others across the globe, my mom was eventually diagnosed with dementia, a diminishing of cognitive function that isn’t a normal part of the aging process. Because the number of people who have dementia is accelerating in every U.S. state (and is expected to triple by 2050), my family has joined scores of others who have had or will have the experience of losing someone who is still physically present.

The signs were subtle at first and got progressively more pronounced: not remembering a name became forgetting how to get to a place she’d been to dozens of times. Then she started to forget entire interactions with people on the phone or in person. Today, my father is her full-time caretaker, along with home health aides at night, and she is completely dependent on others.

Dementia has robbed my mother of things she loved and did well. Friends were always an important part of her life, but her social circle has dwindled because it’s now nearly impossible to have an extended conversation with her. She enjoyed painting for decades, crafting portraits and scenes of the Hudson River. Her painting supplies have been collecting dust in the basement for years now. Math was a strong suit from an early age and she graduated from college with a math degree. She now struggles to tell time. 

My sister got her a clock that reads NOW IT’S MONDAY MORNING on one setting. On the other, it displays the day, time, and day of the week. Lately, she has been setting and resetting her watch (or her “clock,” as she has started to call it), but can’t remember that 10:15 is said as “ten-fifteen,” instead calling it “ten-one-five.”

The details of my mother’s decline are not unique; all of the elements of memory loss that we have witnessed with my mom seem to be commonplace for those with dementia. What has surprised me is how much shame she seems to feel about her condition. 

From the onset of her symptoms, my mom has not wanted to discuss her progressive memory loss. In fact, the only direct conversation I’ve had with her was a number of years ago. I was hoping to talk about what was happening to her, not to be nosy but to let her know she didn’t have to face it alone. So I asked if she sometimes found that she didn’t remember things.

“I guess, sometimes …” she trailed off as she looked away. Another question received a similar answer that clearly signified she was done talking about the subject. I felt as if I was invading her privacy.

To this day, she tends to chalk up any lapse in memory to momentary forgetfulness, and we have all politely obliged.

On the phone, I’ve learned to steer away from questions that require recall, such as what she and my father did during the day. Instead of acknowledging that she doesn’t know where she’s been, she asks my father. (“Paul, where did we go this afternoon?”)

I now only ask questions about what is physically in front of her when I call home. We always talk about the weather. She spends most of the day in a chair by a big window, and she can look outside and answer. 

My mom’s self-consciousness about her condition does not seem to extend to her appearance. As her ability to keep up with personal hygiene has started to fall away, it’s hard not to feel that she has lost some of her dignity. 

This was a woman who would touch up her nail polish in the car on the way to church, who always had makeup in her purse, who always carefully chose what she was wearing, whether she was going to a party or out to do errands. The mother I grew up with would be upset about her appearance these days.

My mom’s condition has left my father with agonizing decisions. In an effort to keep my mom at home and not move her to a nursing home, he has taken on a daunting list of  responsibilities. He does the day-to-day household tasks such as paying the bills, doing the grocery shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up meals, and organizing the laundry; he also helps my mother get downstairs in the morning and fields repeated questions from her all day.

My siblings and I (or “The Syndicate,” as he refers to us when we’re out of earshot) have had many conversations with him about what would be best for her and for both of them. Like many families, my family has struggled to find a solution that feels right. There are no easy answers.

The events over Thanksgiving weekend made it clear, however, that her needs exceed what can reasonably be provided through in-home care. Though it feels like a betrayal to my father to bring my mom to a facility, which will likely leave her even more bewildered and out of sorts on a daily basis, she needs to go and he wants to be with her. 

And so, my parents, who got engaged the Saturday before JFK was assassinated in 1963 and who have been navigating the world together ever since, will take their next journey together. Next week they will move out of the house where they’ve lived for 45 years and into a memory care and assisted living facility a few miles from their home. They will be on separate floors but will be able to see each other and eat together every day.

A few months ago I was sitting in my parents’ living room with my mom when she asked, “If I wanted to go to the kitchen, how would I get there?”

I tried to hide my shock and was explaining where the kitchen was when my dad walked through the living room.

“Are you going to the kitchen?” my mom asked him.


“Can I come with you?”

“Sure,” he responded.

“Ok. It will just take me a minute to get up.”

“That’s fine,” he told her. “Take your time.”

And then he slowly walked with her into the kitchen, making small talk along the way.

As the move date comes closer, I see that my father will once again be gently shepherding my mom through a world that is no longer familiar to her. She doesn’t know where she’s headed or what day or time it is. Thankfully, for her sake, she doesn’t have to make the journey alone. 

My Month in the Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes (Round 3)


My third and fourth weeks in Ireland were the “sightseeing by myself” portion of the trip. I made two separate treks during those weeks where I left most of my stuff at the Airbnb in Dublin, threw on my backpack, and took the train across the country to see new things.

The first trip was to Galway. I saw the gorgeous Cliffs of Moher, one of the country’s most-visited sights, and spent two nights in pubs listening to traditional Irish music. I really enjoyed my time there.

But it was in Kenmare, a small town in County Kerry, that I had some of my best days in Ireland. Along the way, I was reminded that sometimes the most memorable experiences can result from not having everything planned out ahead of time.

My natural inclination is to make sure things are in order. I make lists. My house and my classroom are organized down to the inch. I am most comfortable when I know exactly what to expect. I know this is connected with anxiety – controlling the circumstances and environments around me makes me feel calmer.

This presents obvious problems. It’s one thing to have a maniacally organized closet; it’s another to be thrown off when you’re not able to prearrange the details of every situation.

I kept a journal in Ireland, and as I reread the earlier entries last week, I was surprised at how many times I mentioned feeling unsettled that I didn’t know where I was going for the third and fourth weeks of the trip.

And yet, forcing myself to sit with a little bit of uncertainty paid off.

My original plan was to go to the writer’s retreat in Donegal, then spend one week in Dublin, one week in Galway, and one week in Cork. It would’ve been easy to map out my steps for each city before arriving in Ireland.

But then a friend suggested getting a place in Dublin for three weeks and using it as a home base for short trips to other cities instead of dragging all of my luggage around and moving each week. That sounded like a better idea.

I also decided it would be best to wait until I arrived in Ireland to determine where to go during the last two weeks. That would allow me to get a sense of what else I wanted to see besides Donegal and Dublin. It seemed logical at the time, but as the trip grew closer, I started to worry about it.

The night after I arrived in Ireland, I asked my new Irish friend Catriona and her husband Jim where they would suggest going, and both spoke highly of a town on the Ring of Kerry called Kenmare.

I was only vaguely familiar with the Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile route around the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwestern part of the country. I first learned of it last year while reading Dave Grohl’s memoir. I was intrigued to hear a shaggy-haired rock ‘n’ roll drummer call the place “a corner of the earth that I have always adored: a place of serenity and natural beauty.”

After hearing what Catriona, Jim, and Dave Grohl had to say about the area, I decided to spend four days there during the last week of my trip.

A common way to see the Ring of Kerry is to take an all-day bus tour. The weekend before traveling to Kenmare, I tried to line one up. I called a local bus company and spoke to a driver named Andy.

On their webpage, the company advertised tours of both the Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Beara. I had never heard of the Ring of Beara and asked what the difference was. He was covering the phones for the owner and couldn’t speak to availability, but was helpful in answering questions about the two peninsulas and suggested I call back on Monday.

If I couldn’t line up a tour, he told me, he could give me his number and he’d be happy to take me out to see either route on Tuesday or Wednesday evening. Because it stays light out until well after 10 p.m. in Ireland, timing would not be a problem.

I was hesitant. This guy was very friendly and knowledgeable, but would it be safe to be in a vehicle one on one with a man I had never met?

I called the owner Monday morning before my train left for County Kerry and there were no tours I was able to join. I had not been able to set up anything else with other local companies either.

I decided to call Andy back.

I was still unsure about trusting a stranger but decided to go with my gut feeling, which was that he was a driver for a well-established company in the area and it would be fine.

So Andy and I chatted and agreed to meet up on Tuesday night.

When he arrived in his Range Rover, we introduced ourselves and I hopped in. We had texted a bit about specifics, but we didn’t decide to go to the Ring of Beara until just before we pulled away.

After we crossed over from Kenmare onto the Beara Peninsula, the views were stunning.

Andy told me a lot about the area and pulled over anywhere there seemed to be a good place to take a picture. Since there were very few other cars around, we sometimes stopped in the middle of the road.

At one point we came across a bar and café and Andy suggested we could stop for a beer if I wanted. I was thinking it over, but felt we were getting a little short on time. He had to be back to another town by 9 p.m. to pick up some hikers, and we were a good distance from where he needed to drop me off.

“Or you can get a Guinness to go,” he said.

That sounded like a perfect idea, so I agreed, and he turned the vehicle around. As we walked into Helen’s Bar, I said, “You’re going to be the ambassador for this Guinness to go business, right?” He assured me he would.

Helen’s Bar

Andy knew Helen and introduced me. We talked with her for a while and then headed outside to hear a bit of the music “session” in progress (what we might call a “jam session”) before continuing on.

Several musicians and a three-legged dog were seated at table on the right for the “session.” The dog didn’t have an instrument, but several of the people did
Guinness in the wild
Final shot of the first evening
The iPhone map of photos gives an idea of the route we took on the Ring of Beara. The numbers indicate how many pictures I took at each spot

We ended up driving around for about 2 ½ hours, which was a perfect amount of time. When it was time to wrap things up, Andy offered to take me out again the next night so I could see parts of the Ring of Kerry, and I was happy I would get to see both routes.

Our first stop the following evening was the Blackwater Bridge. As I got out of the car to take pictures, Andy pointed out that he was in the poster on the side of the road.

Andy also works for an adventuring company. He is the second from left in the red helmet

The weather on the second night wasn’t as clear as it was the previous evening, but I still got to see the parts of the Ring of Kerry that were close to Kenmare.

I couldn’t believe how blue the water was.

We eventually turned around because the clouds were moving in and the visibility was poor. On the way back to Kenmare, we stopped into a pub that Catriona had mentioned.

I love the Guinness sign
The Ring of Kerry towns we drove through before turning around

Part of what was great about both nights was learning about the area. Andy was very knowledgeable about the history of Ireland and County Kerry in particular.

In addition to the spectacular views, doing the tours at night allowed me to explore Kenmare during the day. It ended up being one of my favorite places in Ireland.

The atmosphere of the town was relaxed and friendly and the triangular shape of downtown made everything walkable – restaurants, bakeries, pubs, and other shops. The Kenmare Stone Circle, Reenagross Park, and Kenmare Pier were also within easy walking distance.

This map captures the highlights
Looking down Henry Street — one of the three streets of the triangle
My Airbnb was the middle floor above the Purcell Gallery on Main Street. I was pleased when the owner of the gallery and the unit told me I had an “Irish face”
Kenmare Stone Circle
Kenmare Pier
Reenagross Park

An added bonus to the week was the fun night I had at O’Donnabhain’s Pub listening to music and yukking it up with a group of people I met from Donegal who were there on vacation.

My Kenmarian companions

Kenmare was the perfect place to close out my travels within Ireland. The pictures of both peninsulas speak for themselves, but even they don’t do the area justice. It was honestly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and I would’ve missed it altogether if I had insisted on planning everything ahead of time.

I’ve had a blank wall for a long time in my “writing room” that I was hoping to fill with pictures from Ireland. Framing my favorite photos from my time in County Kerry seemed only fitting – an extended reminder of what can happen when I loosen my grip and allow things to unfold.

My Month in the Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes (Part Deux)

Week 2: Friends and Family

Each week of my month in Ireland felt like a different chapter. Chapter 2 began in the lobby of the Fleet Hotel in Dublin.

My friends Christine and Gwyn had flown over to join me for the Pride parade, an idea I had proposed in late March the night I got confirmation I would be going to the writer’s retreat.

They arrived the Wednesday before the parade and I met them at their hotel that afternoon. It was weird and wonderful to see them across the lobby, so far from our usual surroundings.

That was the beginning of five days of laughter and conversation. If the first week of my trip initially involved adjusting and being out of my comfort zone, the second week included a handful of days that felt a little lighter, where I could relax in the company of old friends.

Highlights of our time together:

Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness Storehouse is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, and it was easy to see why. We joined the herd of visitors the first afternoon the ladies were in town.

The place is enormous. It’s also carefully laid out.

The tour of the Storehouse is mercifully a “self-guided experience.” Visitors walk up six stories without a rambling tour guide, so everyone can decide how interested they are in the details of milling, mashing, and boiling ingredients.

Along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to check out old Guinness advertising campaigns and pose for pictures.

The view from the top almost makes circling the building six times on the way up seem worth it. You can sample the “black stuff” while you admire the clear view of Dublin and its surrounding areas out the windows of the Gravity Bar.

On the way out of the building, you and the other mildly inebriated guests are funneled through a well-stocked retail store.

We participated in all of it, and I have to say it was a lot of fun. Hats off to the marketers at Guinness.

P.S. My dad and I enjoyed drinking out of his new beer glasses last weekend.

Gravity Bar view

Trinity College/Book of Kells

Thursday morning we walked around the campus of Ireland’s top-rated university, which is located in the middle of Dublin. The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the Bible, is housed on campus and is considered a national treasure.

We relaxed on the lawn in front of the Old Library while we waited for our entrance time to see the Book of Kells. That gave me time to recover from my harrowing trip to the men’s room. Long story, but as it turns out, “leithreas” does not mean “ladies,” as in “everything beyond this point is a ladies room.”

But anyway, back to the Bible.

Picture lifted from the internet — visitors are not allowed to photograph the book

The Book of Kells is kept in its own darkened room, like something out of a Dan Brown novel. I don’t know why, but I was surprised that we could only see two pages. (Did I think we’d be allowed to leaf through a book that was created in 800 A.D.?)

Hopefully it’s not sacrilege to say I was much more impressed by the library upstairs than I was by the famous book.

The Long Room was one of my favorite places in Ireland.

The Long Room – a working library

We did almost have a minor international incident in the Long Room.

Christine and Gwyn were ahead of me when one of their phones spontaneously started blaring the Indigo Girls. Loud lesbian folk music is generally not appreciated in a library built in the 1700s. It wasn’t clear which person’s phone was the source of the music, so angry accusations were exchanged through gritted teeth until it was determined whose phone was to blame.

Like a good friend, I kept my distance while that got sorted out.

Blitzkrieg Tour of Dublin on the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus

Because time was limited, the Hop-on/Hop-off Big Bus tour seemed like an efficient way for the Virginians to see as much of the city as possible. It did end up being a good choice, especially after our Trinity College/Book of Kells extravaganza. We kicked back on the upper deck of the bus and rode all around the city, hopping off only once to get some lunch.

(In fairness to them, the ladies did hop back on the next day to take in some additional sights while I relaxed at my Airbnb.)

The Big Bus gave us a chance to experience imposing views of cathedrals like this
Hop-off destination

Dublin Pride Parade

This picture captures the tone of the day

There’s a lot to be said about the Dublin Pride parade. It was colorful, well organized, relatively easy to navigate, free of protestors and commercial organizations, and generally well done.

But more important than the nuts and bolts of the event was the atmosphere. I would actually call it joyous. All three of us were taken with how friendly and supportive the crowd was. As Gwyn said, it seemed like the whole country was there and ready to celebrate.

There were rainbow flags all over Dublin, and the general sense of acceptance was really touching, especially when I think back to what things were like when I was in my teens and twenties. Being gay at that time was considered strange and embarrassing. Now it’s really not a big deal for most people.

The shift in public perception on this topic has been incredible to watch over the last 20+ years.

The parade was a lot of fun. We saw some of it from O’Connell Street and then moved to an establishment right on the parade route on the banks of the River Liffey.

The most photographed dog on O’Connell Street
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A block-long flag
Bagpipes on Eden Quay along the river
Merrion Square post-parade concert, where Christine got us a loaf of sourdough bread at one of the concession stands.
Move over, corn dogs and funnel cakes

The day after the parade, the ladies’ last in Dublin, was relatively low-key. They toured an art museum and the Jameson Distillery and then I joined them in the late afternoon for dinner, swapping pictures, and rehashing our adventure.

What a great week it was. There’s something to be said for making memories with old friends in a new place far from home.

After the Virginians headed home, I took a day trip to Dalystown, about an hour west of Dublin, near where my great grandmother was born and where my grandmother spent some of her early childhood years.

My initial plan was to see if it was feasible to hire a driver from Dublin to bring me there and drive me around; when I couldn’t line that up, I decided to just get to Mullingar and figure it out.

Train to Mullingar

I took the train to Mullingar and then got a taxi to Dalystown, about seven miles away.

It did take the taxi driver a minute to understand what I was trying to do. I’m guessing he doesn’t get mumbling New Yorkers popping into his cab every day, looking to roam the area in search of old relatives.

Once he did understand, he knew exactly where to take me. First, we went to the pub where my parents visited in the late 1990s.

My mom and Mr. Wallace in the 1990s
A wider shot in front of the same building
The building today. The post office is gone and the façade is updated; otherwise, it’s basically the same after 25 years and is still surrounded by farmland. It seems to be the hub of the village

Next, the driver took me to Clonfad, my great grandmother’s birthplace. It was also farmland with no central village. He brought me to the only church in the area.

Church of the Sacred Heart, Meedin, built 1831

I got out and walked around. The only sound was the wind and the bleating of the sheep on the farm next to the church. It was incredibly peaceful.

Farmhouse next to the church
My great grandmother, Katherine Farrell

I thought about trying to find gravestones marked Farrell in the cemetery next to the church, but we had already been out for 30 minutes, and I sensed the driver was anxious to leave. The church was closed and the cemetery was large.

The only Catholic church in an area that small was most likely my great grandmother’s family parish, and that alone felt like a valuable discovery. I was happy to have come to the area.

The cemetery beside the church

This was the first of several experiences that worked out better because I didn’t have the details all mapped out ahead of time.

The taxi driver, James Farrell (a possible relative? I knew better than to ask), was from Mullingar and knew the area very well. A driver from another city wouldn’t have known the back roads or where to find the old Catholic church.

The second week of my trip was obviously a very mixed bag, with a nice balance of connecting with friends and time for exploration on my own.

I had deliberately left the remaining two weeks unplanned, and though that gave me a pit in my stomach heading into the third week, it proved to be the best approach.

My Month in the Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes

Week 1: Arrival and Retreat

I was more than 3,000 miles from home, at the writer’s retreat that had brought me to Ireland, when I heard a saying that stuck with me:

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine – We live in each other’s shadows.

Other translations or interpretations: Through the shelter of each other, people survive. We shade each other from the sun.

The takeaway: Humans rely on each other for support.

When I heard it, I was reminded of the importance of connection and the fact that the best times of my life have always been with other people. And yet, I had chosen to spend a month in a place where I didn’t know a single soul.

I had been in Ireland for five days and had already questioned my choice to travel alone. Quite a few of these unsettling moments came the morning I arrived. 

After an easy trip from Washington, D.C., to Dublin, I checked into my hotel in the early morning feeling good.  

“I’m doing this!” I congratulated myself, looking around the room confidently, “I’m in Ireland!”

Two hours later, after settling in for a needed nap, I woke up feeling nauseated and terribly anxious. 

The rest of the day was a struggle.

I was surprised at how familiar the feeling was. It was almost identical to how I felt the morning I arrived in Japan some 25 years ago – something just short of wanting to stay in bed all day and pull a blanket over my head. However, that time I was with my spouse, and he would be handling many of the details of our one-year stay because we were there for his job. This time I would be handling everything solo.

I tried to calm myself down by turning on the TV, but I kept finding channels where everyone was speaking with Irish accents. Worse yet, some were speaking Irish, a language I couldn’t comprehend at all. It served as a glaring reminder that I was in a foreign place.

I also had to figure out where I was going to eat. I had been told that breakfast was served at the hotel restaurant from “half 7” to 11 a.m. I didn’t know what “half 7” meant, but it didn’t matter. It was already 10:30.

Floors -1 and 0 threw me for a loop

My room was a weird distance from the lobby and I was wishing I had left bread crumbs to help navigate my way back through a series of hallways and two different elevators. 

Nevertheless, I persisted, and made my way towards the lobby. Just ahead of me around the last turn was a man in a skirt. 

“Wow,” I thought, “I’ve heard Ireland’s gotten very progressive. Well, OK! Well done, Ireland!”

Then I turned the corner and came across a pack of burly, tattooed men in skirts. Or, as I quickly realized, kilts. And matching navy blue jerseys.

Oh! Right. Sports fans. (Scottish soccer fans going to a game in Dublin that day, as it turned out.)

This specific guy wasn’t in the lobby of my hotel, but he could have been

I had to slip through the burly men and their matching ladies to get to the hotel restaurant. I was the only customer. 

It was 10:45 and the buffet had clearly been out for several hours. I was looking for something simple like eggs and toast. The eggs looked suspect.

This was hardly the time for food poisoning, so I took a couple of oddly curled pieces of meat (ham? bacon? I wasn’t sure) and the waitress brought me toast and tea. 

And that was my first meal in Ireland, sitting alone in an empty restaurant.

After I finished (six minutes later), I retreated to the safety of my room to lay down again and watch TV. I knew it was absurd that the Irish accents on Irish TV were throwing me off, but I couldn’t help it. My heart thawed when I came across a couple of channels showing American programs. 

I watched an episode of Friends (which I never liked in America, but now Joey and Chandler were really hitting the spot), then the movies Dirty Dancing (Baby, still not in a corner) and Beaches (which I hadn’t seen since 1989). 

Around 4 p.m., it was time to find food again and I decided I really did have to leave the hotel and walk around the area a little.

I stepped out onto O’Connell Street – a busy road with lots of shops, people, busses, and trams – and had some bright moments while heading towards the river. It was cool walking around in a new city, and I had an inkling that I would enjoy the place once I settled in. 

The sky cleared minutes before this photo

After crossing the bridge over the River Liffey, I walked through a touristy section called Temple Bar, which felt like a frat party on a city street. Enough of that! I crossed back over the river, and once again, seeking out familiar things, I ducked into a music store full of guitars. 

After about an hour I felt I could check the box that I had “explored” the neighborhood. On my way back to the hotel, I picked up another nutritious meal – a sandwich from the Subway inside a Circle K. 

On the way back to my hotel after my lengthy jaunt. I liked how all the lines intersected on this part of the street

Not surprisingly, the first day in the new place was challenging. I was exhausted from jet lag. I’m also a creature of habit, so having to get my bearings, make sense of new sights, navigate new streets, and forage for food, all alone, was tiresome. I just kept reminding myself that it was going to be worth it.

I was here to grow. 

I would need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

The tradeoff was this, I felt: Traveling solo would open possibilities and connections that wouldn’t happen if I were with a partner or a friend the whole time. 

And fortunately, the next day, things got much better.

I met up with my sister’s friend Catriona, who lives in Dublin and who had kindly offered to show me around. 

I was nervous to meet her, but she set me at ease right away. Chatty, warm, smart, and fun, she brought me to the Museum of Literature Ireland, which had a ton of interesting information about Irish writers, and then to her house for dinner.  

Though I had only been two days away from my own home, it was so nice to be in a house, with a family, having a home-cooked meal. Catriona and her husband Jim told me lots about Ireland and answered my many questions. I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon and evening.

On the way back to the hotel, Catriona drove past Dublin Bay and explained a bunch of other things about the city. I ended the day feeling much more comfortable about where I was. When I got back to the room, I ended my journal entry for the day with this simple note:

Grateful for today. 

The next morning, I flew to Donegal, where my writing retreat would take place.

In addition to my first-day nerves, I had felt plenty of anxiety about the retreat in the weeks leading up to the trip. I was happy to start my month in Ireland with a week where I would be interacting with other people rather than sightseeing by myself, but I was also unsure of who else would be there and what we would be doing each day. There were only ten participants, so I knew we would be in close quarters. 

I met most of the other participants after we had landed in Donegal. I introduced myself at the tiny baggage claim area and we loaded ourselves into a van to the hotel. 

This fancy photo slide shows where I landed — completely different terrain than in Dublin

It may sound corny to say “we came in as strangers, we left as friends,” but I believe that’s what happened. Even though we ranged in age from 30s – 70s and came from England, Ireland, Germany, and a wide variety of U.S. states, the group seemed to gel almost immediately. A workshop where people are writing about their lives lends itself to getting to know people well in a short span of time.

The retreat was thoughtfully organized. Starting with the first night, we got a writing assignment each evening. Mornings were spent sharing our work and giving each other feedback. From our first morning, I was so impressed with the writing of my classmates. Each day there were pieces that blew me away, and I felt I learned a lot just by hearing the writing of others and the feedback given by the group.

We also had instruction and discussions each day about specific aspects of writing – things like story arc, dialogue writing, and ways to make writing clearer. 

Class time
View from the van on the way to one of the field trips

On two of the afternoons we took trips to local places that highlighted the culture of the area. The first was to a thatched-roof cottage, the home of a traveler and author from the 1800s. We had a big lunch of Irish stew, brown bread, and scones and cream, followed by a lesson in the Irish language. 

The group outside and inside the old house
My notes from this session: “How were ppl not angry and irritable living in these damp conditions?”

The second afternoon we went to Dunfanaghy Workhouse, where we learned about life during the Irish Potato Famine. We walked through a narrated exhibit about a woman from that area who lived through the hardship of the famine. The museum was on the site of an actual workhouse, a place where people could go if they had no food. It was an enlightening and very somber afternoon. 

The replicas of people in this museum were haunting

After the Workhouse, we went to a castle in the area, which I found peaceful and interesting.

View looking out from Castle Doe onto some water

Evenings were spent at the pub in the hotel, which was not only a ton of fun – I really enjoyed getting to know this diverse group of people – but also served as my first view into how pubs seem to play an important role in communities. 

The awesome retreaters. Missing three people in this photo, unfortunately

Because the Teac Jack hotel was set in a rural area, it was clearly a gathering spot for people from the surrounding towns as well as hotel guests. And perhaps most importantly, it’s where I broke my strict allegiance to Coors Light and ventured on to Carlsberg and Guinness.

I didn’t think it was possible to supplant my CLs, but we all have to grow up sometime

During the first week, I was already getting a taste of the experiences that would tower in my memories of this trip: although I purposefully chose to travel alone, the best parts of this adventure were when I found connection with others.

The Irish are known for their culture of hospitality. You can go into any gift shop and find the saying Céad Míle Fáilte (One Hundred Thousand Welcomes) on a variety of plaques and cards. I don’t know how many Irish people walk around actually speaking these words, but the saying represents something I experienced firsthand, especially that first week.

I was left with the strong sense that I was genuinely welcomed and that people I had just met were looking out for me. What a great feeling to take with me as I began my solo journey.

May the Road Rise Up to Meet Me

… for all of us who travel, there are always two cities: the one we see in front of us, take notes on, and file copy for, and the one that exists in our mind’s eye, populated with childhood associations and memories of lost love, paved with streets whose names we whispered to ourselves as children.

Tara Isabella Burton, “The Countries We Think We See”

In her article on travel writing in The Paris Review, Tara Isabella Burton points out that travelers don’t only see what’s in front of them; they also see what they expect to find from a given place, especially one they’ve been thinking about long before they arrived. 

The place I’ve been thinking about for many years is Ireland. Next week, I’ll leave for a month-long trip to the island I first became aware of as a nine-year-old, when my grandmother gave me a book she had used as a schoolgirl outside of Dublin.

I was thrilled with the gift and took a shine to two of the pieces in particular: the poem “Try, Try Again,” and a Christmas story called “Little Jack.” In the story, Jack lives with a cruel aunt and gives one of his shoes to a child whose circumstances are even worse than his own. In the end, Jack’s generosity is rewarded by a kind stranger, and his aunt’s heart softens as she is overcome by the Christmas spirit.

This was the first time I remember wondering about Ireland. Thankfully, the stories I read in Blackie’s New Programme Reader didn’t entirely shape my view of the country. If they had, I would simply have viewed it as a place where people weren’t very good at things but tried really hard, over and over again; where kids lived a dreary life, some sleeping in doorways without shoes; where adults were heartless (aunts, specifically); and where children could only rely on Christmas to improve their lives. Sheesh. And this was reading instruction for five-year-olds!

My grandmother (left) and her older sister.

As I got older, I did more reading that was also dark at times but equally as intriguing. My favorite course in college was Irish Literature with Dr. Fitzgerald. She introduced me to the work of Edna O’Brien and Seamus Heaney, among others. I was really taken with both writers, whose work created an impression of the landscape (green and lush, with white washed buildings and lots of farms) and an impression of the people (smart, strong-willed, religious, understated).

I went to see both writers speak at different times after I graduated, Seamus Heaney a year after college in Upstate New York, and Edna O’Brien in 2016 at a synagogue in Washington, D.C. O’Brien was promoting her new novel at age 85 and the feisty spirit that I saw in her writing was on full display that night.

After college, I was introduced to Irish music during my time in the bars of downtown Boston. I quickly progressed beyond just shouting “No, Nay, Never!” with a bunch of sweaty post-college kids and discovered I really enjoyed The Chieftains and other bands. I grew to love a variety of Irish music and listen to it regularly. 

I came close to traveling to Ireland a couple of times. Before each of my marriages, my soon-to-be spouse asked if I’d like to go to Ireland for the honeymoon. Both times, I said I wanted to make that its own special trip.

Fast forward to a few months ago, when I had just dropped off my 20-year-old for his first semester away at college. A friend asked me what I was doing for myself and my own growth now that my son was living in another city.

I thought about it. I’m 53. Twice divorced. Transitioning out of my role as a caretaker. My son had said he might not be coming home for the summer. What would I really like to do?

The first thing that came to mind was to finally take a trip to Ireland. I quickly decided that I wanted to visit for an extended period of time so I could see the country in an authentic way, as I did when I studied abroad for five months in Spain and lived and worked in Japan for a year. Since English is spoken everywhere in Ireland (I think), I figured it would be feasible to travel there solo without too much trouble. 

I don’t expect that I’ll have the same kinds of language snafus in Ireland that I experienced in Spain and Japan, but I understand that I’ll come across different ways of expressing things and probably some big cultural differences. Like many Americans of Irish descent, I’ve always “identified” as Irish, if you will, but on the eve of my trip, I recognize that I’m fully American. 

In hopes of being slightly more informed before arrival, I got a copy of Irish History for Dummies, which in itself feels very American (just the Cliffs Notes version, please!). Actually, I picked it up because it was funny, with chapter headings like “I’m Irish – But Who Isn’t?” and “The Romans: They Came, They Saw, and They Didn’t Bother.”

Humor aside, I know there has been a tremendous amount of conflict in the country, especially within the last century, and I wanted to understand that better. I’ve only gleaned a superficial knowledge of what has transpired and why, and I will be interested to know more through my visit.

The great-great-grandparent column on Even a couple of the names marked “Unknown” are from Ireland

I also re-opened an account that I had set up for my dad several years ago and learned that 11 of 16 great-great-grandparents were from Ireland and came to the U.S. around the time of the Irish Potato Famine. My parents had told us that we were Irish, English, French, and Welsh, but I was surprised to find out just how many relatives came from Ireland. The one strand of the family that came from England is the one whose name we carry—Phillips. More prevalent were names like McQuiggan and Doherty.

It occurred to me that most of them likely left the country because of the famine. I wondered if, like many of the immigrant students I teach, my relatives felt a deep sadness about leaving behind family, friends, and home and did so only because circumstances had become unbearable. My parents visited Ireland in the 1990s, and my father told me recently that when he saw how beautiful the country was, he thought, “They left this?” 

I’ve planned my trip to take in as much as possible in the month I’ll be there without rushing around trying to see every single sight. 

Write up in The Guardian from a few years ago

The first week of my trip will be spent at a writer’s retreat in Donegal. The workshops will focus on creative nonfiction writing, but the week will also involve learning about Irish culture and language. 

For the remaining three weeks, I’ve rented a one-bedroom cottage in Dublin. Two close friends from Virginia will be meeting me for five days, timing their visit to coincide with the Dublin Pride parade at the end of June. We’ll also do some sightseeing in other parts of the country together.

122 will be my home base for three weeks

Other than that, my plan is to ask people at the writer’s retreat and elsewhere for recommendations of where to go and then just wander using public transport. I have never traveled solo with this much unstructured time, and right now it feels both exciting and terrifying. As someone who rarely plans to “wander” and who tends to have a good deal of anticipatory anxiety about anything unknown, I have lots of questions.

Several friends who have been to Ireland have said they felt at home there and assured me that I would find the same thing. Will I? 

Will I feel some affinity for family members who came before me, the Farrells, the McQuiggans, the Donnellys, the Dohertys? 

How will the real Ireland compare with the one that exists in my mind’s eye? 

I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

I wonder if my grandmother was working on recognizing vowels — the pencil marks are hers
My mom and a friendly pub owner in Dalystown, where her mother lived before she moved to the United States in the early 1900s

On the Road to Find Out

On his show Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David often notices small, annoying things another person is doing and then can’t concentrate on anything else.

The same thing happened to me last week. I was waiting in line outside my local library to pick up an at-home Covid test kit and noticed the woman behind me kept inching closer to me. Everyone else was about six feet apart and many people were wearing masks. This woman was not wearing a mask or keeping any distance, and it was annoying me in a Larry David kind of way. 

Each time I felt her behind me, I would turn around and glare and then move a little further away. She was gabbing on the phone (changing travel plans), and every time I moved away from her, she would step closer. I was wondering whether she was oblivious to my angry glances or if she just didn’t mind being disliked. Both, maybe?

My mental gymnastics on this issue were interrupted by a call from my son, who informed me that he was getting a tattoo in Washington, D.C. that afternoon. 

We were three days away from traveling to the University of Michigan so he could begin his first semester, and I was desperately trying to avoid getting sick just before we left.

“Uh, that’s not a good idea,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“Because you are going to be exposed to additional people.”

“Well, I have an appointment and I’m going. I want to do this before I go to Michigan …”

As he was emphasizing the importance of keeping his tattoo appointment, I pressed the little red button on the bottom of my phone screen. 


End of conversation. 

“Wow,” I thought to myself, “I guess I’m a little more stressed than I realized.”

When I got home, he let me know he didn’t appreciate being hung up on and asked if I was going to apologize. 

My response: “What???”

Then I yelled myself hoarse. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of how I had canceled all kinds of plans and stayed in the #$%^ing house for ten days to make sure I was able to go to Michigan with him and he didn’t seem to give a #$%^ about avoiding Covid. At the end of my speech, I slammed the door to my office and sat down at my desk.

“Nice apology!” he yelled.

After briefly considering homicide, I took some deep breaths and decided to move on.

The lease on the apartment where my son lived for the last year ended a few days before Christmas, and he had moved home on the 22nd. His classes at Michigan would start the first week of January, so our plan was for him to drive with his dad and his things to Ann Arbor. I would be flying to Detroit that same day and meeting them there. 

The two-part move during the holidays and the surge in the pandemic made for a tense ten days. We’ve had a lot of conflict over the last few years; that pattern was compounded by the strain of living together again – even briefly – and the nervous anticipation of the upcoming move. 

Part of my stress was about fear that something might go wrong for him in this next grand adventure. When I saw this ceramic sign a few weeks before Christmas, it dawned on me that I was more worried than he was. I decided to buy it for him, but in truth it was really more of a reminder for myself that my glass-half-empty approach was not serving either of us. 

Mercifully, we were all able to avoid getting sick, and last Sunday we traveled safely to Ann Arbor.

Even in freezing weather in early January, the campus was striking. Ann Arbor is a cool town, with lots of little shops and restaurants and things to do. As we walked around, I was pleased for him that he will have any number of places to explore over the next two-and-a-half years.

I was also so proud of him. If he had listened to me, he would’ve taken a gap year after high school to work and mature and then started college last fall. When I made that suggestion partway through his senior year, he asked, “What’s a gap year?” and then flatly rejected the idea.  

Instead, he enrolled himself in the local community college, worked harder than he had ever worked before, and earned excellent grades. He researched four-year schools and decided where he wanted to apply, then worked with a friend of mine who does college planning to fine tune his applications.

After getting into Michigan, he lined up off-campus housing for himself – an independent unit in a large house with 11 other guys, where he will have his own kitchen, bathroom, and living area.  As his dad and I helped him settle into the house, it became clear that it was a great place.

We had not spent this much time together since we were a family of three 17 years ago. As my ex-husband worked to fix a frozen pipe and I arranged things in the kitchen, it felt like the best parts of what we had been as a couple were on display. My ex-husband and I both wanted to be there to send our son off. It wasn’t discussed, but I sensed that all three of us were comforted by the time we had together as we quietly worked to set up the apartment.

After I got back to the hotel that night, I happened to hear Cat Stevens’ On the Road to Find Out, a song about a young man leaving his family to launch his life. I immediately felt a lump of emotion in my throat as the significance of the moment started to hit me. 

The next morning my son and I spent a little time together before my flight home. As I was saying goodbye, I started to tear up. Not wanting to do that in front of him, I told him I loved him, gave him a hug, and left quickly. 

I cried the whole way to the airport. I was grateful that I was alone in the rental car so I didn’t have to feel self-conscious or explain the groundswell of emotions to anyone. I wasn’t even sure I understood how I felt. 

After all, my son moved out a year ago. He’s almost 20. He is at a great school in a vibrant town, and his housing situation seems perfect for this first semester. This is the right step for him. Plus, embarrassingly irritable middle-aged women and 19-year-old young men with ants in their pants do not make good roommates, so I was not questioning the wisdom of his leaving home. 

But there is something primal about leaving your child in another part of the country and heading home on your own that drives home the point that a life stage is ending. 

Parenthood is a humbling experience. We care about these little people, expending more time and energy and angst and hope and love than we knew we were capable of, and then eventually we have to stand back and let them make their own way in the world.

Linda Pastan’s beautiful poem captures the experience of these watershed moments when we watch our children wave goodbye.

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

The house where the boy now lives now with 11 others
The middle of campus. There is a superstition that stepping on the M leads to bad grades
Downtown Ann Arbor — a stone’s throw from Central Campus
Graffiti Alley in downtown Ann Arbor
One of the many places to get Michigan gear. I do love the colors and the football helmets

Put on Your Old Green Bonnet

Last week I was in the Albany area in New York on my way to spend the evening at the home of a friend from college. I had arrived in town early and decided to walk around the campus where we went to school — Siena College in Loudonville.

My visit coincided with the start of a college search for my son, who is looking to transfer from our local community college to a four-year school in another city next spring.

As I walked around campus, so many good memories washed over me and I found myself thinking that wherever my son lands, I hope he finds what I found at Siena.

I was on the low end of the maturity scale at 17 when faced with the decision of where to go to college. More than a little apprehensive about leaving home, I actually announced to my parents that I might not go to college at all. Their response: I was more than welcome to take a year off and work … and then go to college. That did not sound appealing so I quickly rethought the idea.

As we began looking at colleges, my main goal was to find a place where I felt comfortable. I was looking for a small school within a few hours of home, with access to public transport so I could easily come home for long weekends. I looked at a handful of schools, getting a cold feeling at one college in Connecticut (no one even looked at us or said hello as we walked around campus), and a slightly warmer feeling from a couple of schools in Pennsylvania, but I didn’t like how difficult it would be to travel home without a car. I visited Siena and stayed over with a friend from my hometown who was a sophomore there. She and her friends could not have been nicer, and I finally felt I had found a school that was a good fit for me. I applied, was accepted, and decided to enroll.

Fortunately, I played field hockey and that made the transition from home to college infinitely easier. I had to report to campus a week before other freshmen for preseason practices. Though I struggled to introduce myself on the first morning of practice (I mumbled my name and hometown and was mortified when I was asked to speak up and repeat myself), the people on the team were very welcoming, and it didn’t take long before I felt that I was going to be ok. 

That was the beginning of four happy years in Loudonville. What I had seen on my overnight stay as a high school senior was exactly what I found as a student. As a downstate New Yorker, I was amazed that it was the norm for people to make eye contact and say hello around campus — even when they didn’t know each other. Stunning!

Two young pups on the first day of freshman year

Because the school only had about 2,600 students, including commuters, and most people were friendly, it was easy to meet people and settle in. Life on campus was simple and manageable: classes during the weekdays, mostly in one building; meals in the one cafeteria on campus; and studying in the library at night. 

On weekends, the social life mostly centered around parties in the dorms followed by trips down the hill to a cheerful establishment called Dappers. Fake IDs may or may not have been required.

It was in this environment that I not only had a ton of fun and learned a lot, but also built friendships that have lasted for more than three decades. 

I know I am not the only person who went to a college, big or small, and came out with fond memories and lifelong friendships. I’m not exactly sure what it was about those four years that created such a bond, but Siena did feel special, and I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the time and place.

Not only did we not have Smartphones or the internet, most of us didn’t have cars or TVs, and we didn’t have phones in our rooms. We got to know each other so well in part because we interacted and connected for longer periods of time than many people do now. I usually called my parents on Sundays from one of the payphones in the hallway on my floor and occasionally wrote and received letters. Otherwise, there weren’t a lot of outside distractions. We lived in small cinder block dorm rooms and we figured out how to keep ourselves entertained. 

As an aside, rooms seem especially small when your roommate tips over the dresser while curling her eyelashes and a bottle of Obsession perfume smashes all over the floor. But I digress.

Part of our entertainment involved music. We arranged the beds to accommodate my giant 1980s stereo system. We occasionally removed one of the windows so a speaker could face outward and play music for anyone below. (You’re welcome, everyone who lived on the quad from 1987-1989. I hope you enjoyed Sweet Home Alabama.)

Today I would be hard pressed to live with that many people in such a small space. Share a bathroom with 70 women? No thank you. But at the time, I felt I was living large, staying up as late as I wanted, cooking noodles in a hot pot at midnight, and looking for high jinks around the dorm. We were a bunch of Catholic kids away from our strict parents and there was a lot of fun to be had.

Some of the best times I had at Siena were playing sports, field hockey in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. In addition to the games and practices, it was hard to beat driving around upstate New York in a van on the way to games at other schools scream-singing Build Me Up Buttercup, Sweet Caroline, and other classics. I still miss being on a team.

I wore number 56 in honor of Lawrence Taylor, my favorite linebacker

There were other parts of my four years that enriched my experience. I spent the spring semester of my junior year in Spain, and though I was insufferable when I came back for senior year, thinking I was sooooo worldly after having lived in EUROPE, it was an incredibly interesting experience that helped me grow up and expand my point of view. 

I also had an on-campus internship during my senior year with the sports information department that involved writing articles for the basketball program, compiling statistics, and working in the office. One of my most profound takeaways at the time was a fascination with this newfangled thing called a fax machine, but it turned out to be valuable preparation for the work world and led to a job immediately following graduation with an Albany-area branch of GE.

The friendships I developed are what I appreciate most from my time at Siena. There were so many great people, and though I have lost touch with many of them, I still smile when I remember things we did. I’ve maintained close contact with most of my roommates and a few others. I had the good fortune of meeting a bunch of Chatty Cathies who were fun, smart, and loyal. Over the last 35 years, we have seen each other through all of life’s events — weddings, births, new jobs, moves, divorces, illnesses, and deaths. I always know I have a crew behind me for whatever comes up.

The ladies of Townhouse 2

Places change over the course of 30 years; there are new buildings on campus and other shifts in the landscape, but I was struck by how the place basically felt the same as I strolled around last week, even in late July when the campus was nearly empty. There still seemed to be a palpable sense of belonging that was so present while I was a student.

After I left campus last Monday I spent the evening with two close friends from Siena. We did what we always do — laughed really hard and told stories and gave each other lots of free advice. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, we pick up right where we left off and it’s as if no time has passed.

Picking a college can end up being a pivotal decision in a young person’s life, setting a course for where they’ll live, who they’ll marry, and friends who will stay with them for the long haul. Siena was the ideal school for me at that point in my life. My wish for my son is that he finds a place where he is enveloped into a community as I was, one that grounds him and provides him with a foundation that has a positive impact on his life.

Minnie Mouse, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Cher from Moonstruck. She’s just kicked a can down the street.
(I’m Tammy Faye)
Coffeehouse with my talented friend Jimmy
Trying so hard to follow the example and sit like a lady
Crushing it with our signature celebration move
Birthday celebration a few years back with fellow Arlingtonian and Siena grad
The crew in town for a bachelorette weekend prior to wedding #2
Rochester get together in 2019
The fight song might be asinine (see first line in the title), but it’s a pretty campus
The dove over the altar in the chapel, the most peaceful spot on campus

True (Part-Time) Companion

If you’ve ever sat through an online meeting and learned after the fact that your microphone was on, you know that feeling of horror. It’s especially terrible when your boss is speaking to you and more than 60 of your coworkers and you learn that you have just interrupted the discussion by yelling, “Hey! Hey! Keep it moving!” 

This was what happened to me a few weeks ago during a virtual faculty meeting. My cat walked across my keyboard and turned on my microphone. I’m still not sure which key he stepped on, but it isn’t the first time he’s discovered things about my laptop that I was unaware of.  (Who knew it had airplane mode?)

To let the cat know that this was wrong behavior, I shouted and quickly scooted him off the keyboard before adding (loudly), “Not on my computer!”

It didn’t take long for my work friends to start blowing up my phone. The first message I received is below. Mercifully, the assistant principal (a cat owner herself, as it turns out) immediately muted me, so the only comments that went public were brief. I’m told there was an awkward silence after my outburst and then my principal continued on with his remarks.

The next day I was in school laughing about the event with a coworker before things got awkward again.

“Your cat is so funny!” she told me.

“Yeah, and the thing is, he’s not really even my cat!” I answered.

She looked confused. “Huh?” 

It was then that I explained the unconventional cat-sharing arrangement I am part of these days. Last fall, my friend Kelly was debating getting a cat but had concerns about her busy (pre- and post-Covid) travel schedule. I offered to be the permanent, free pet sitter any time she went out of town, and voilà — a plan was born. Kelly asked her niece, who fosters abandoned cats in New Jersey, to procure us our new best friend — something very young and very cute. The one condition of his adoption: Kelly was asked to keep the name given to him by the pet adoption group.

A couple of months later, a kitten named Stuey arrived. He had been found in an apartment complex just across the river from Philadelphia. Apparently, he was one of the most sought-after kittens in the litter because he didn’t run away from people like some of his siblings.

The origins of his name are unclear, but I personally hope he’s named after Stuart Little, the charismatic little rodent from the book and the movie, and not Stewie Griffin, the smug baby who speaks in a British accent on the TV show Family Guy. But who knows. He could be named after somebody’s grandpa.

Either way, for reasons even I don’t understand, I find myself calling him Bubbe (pronounced Bubbie), which is the Yiddish word for grandma. Hopefully this does not offend any Jewish grandmothers.

Should I not be climbing inside a lamp?

Though Kelly has not traveled much because of the pandemic, we have gotten into a routine where Stuey spends a week or two with me each month. Our running joke is that Stuey has two moms and that Kelly and I are like exes sharing custody. But unlike the moms in the classic 1980s book Heather Has Two Mommies, Kelly is not interested in women; I am the only one of Stuey’s moms who dates ladies. 

Regardless of the fact that this was never a coupling, it is remarkably close to joint parenting. We incessantly discuss every aspect of Stuey’s behavior — his sleeping habits, favorite foods, etc., etc.  In fact, we talk about him so often that friends and family who are much less intrigued by the cat’s every move are politely begging us to take it down a notch. Stuey himself seems well adjusted to having two homes. He may be the only cat I know who willingly walks into his pet carrier when it’s time for him to travel to his “other house.”

What? Too loud?

I love cats and always thought that I would get a kitten of my own as soon as I was able, but as it turns out, I’m perfectly happy with this rather bohemian arrangement. My son is allergic to pet dander, so it didn’t make sense to get a cat while he was living with me. However, he moved into his own apartment in December, so that’s not an issue anymore.  

I am finding myself surprisingly comfortable with an empty house and a quiet period, especially after a year and a half of full-time single parenting and a tumultuous few years before that when I was preoccupied with the beginning and shortly thereafter the ending of a marriage. As self-absorbed as it may sound, the idea of not committing full-time to anything right now as I decompress feels like exactly the right move. 

The time I do spend with Stuey is everything I had hoped for. He makes me laugh. I never quite know where he is going to pop up around the house. He loves to sit on my lap purring while I watch TV.  He splits his time evenly — 50% snuggling, 50% biting, scratching, and running around the house like a maniac. I’m hoping the percentages will shift a little as he gets older.

Helping with my morning class
After being dismissed from my afternoon class
What’s for breakfast?
Is this the elevator that goes to the basement?

Biting and scratching aside, Stuey has helped me understand why so many people have pets. The statistics vary depending on who you ask, but most groups agree that more than half of American households include a pet, and it’s not hard to see why.

There’s something primal at work with pets. Having somebody or something to take care of gives us a sense of purpose and makes us feel needed. Doctors say humans are mentally and physically healthiest when they have secure attachments to others. Pets can provide the love and companionship a person needs, especially people who find human company taxing. 

My occasional Friday night boyfriend

Even those of us who don’t like animals more than humans understand the appeal. Relationships with pets are simple. They’re happy to see you every day. Most enthusiastically greet their owners each time they arrive home. They’re happy with simple pleasures like spending time together without conversation. And odds are better than half that you’ll win any argument that arises.

They’re also great for kids in terms of building empathy and teaching responsibility. They become important members of the family. I grew up with a cat named Boo and a three-legged dog named Inky, and I loved both of them with all my heart. 

I have to admit that I began to sour on dogs about a decade ago, but that was mostly out of jealousy. When I switched teams I had no idea that the lesbian community held dogs in such high regard – so much so that several of my girlfriends seemed to prefer the company of their dogs over my company. In retrospect, I probably would have done better if I had acted less like a Grand Poobah and been willing the share the road a little more with my canine competition. 

As my skin grows thicker, I’m slowly pulling out of my unjustified bitterness towards dogs. I don’t feel I have the time or energy to manage a dog on my own right now, but I am considering getting one dog or maybe even two once I retire. If I do, I plan to name them Charlie and Kathy, regardless of gender, in honor of my siblings. You’re welcome, Chibs and KTG.

And at some point, I hope to have another human companion. In the meantime, I’m good with my part-time commitment to a little furry guy from South Jersey. 

Hello, Old Friend: Anxiety Returns

I was halfway over the bridge when I realized my stomach was in a knot. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard that my hands hurt. My palms were sweating. My jaw was clenched. I was in the right lane but found myself leaning left onto the door and driving on the center white line to feel as far away from the edge as possible.  

After what felt like an eternity, I made it to the other side.  

My first thought: PHEW!

My second thought: I have to get home on Sunday. I’m going to have to do this all over again.

I was crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland on my way to spend the weekend with some friends in Delaware, my first foray out for a non-family get-away in more than a year, and my sudden burst of fear caught me off guard.  

Apparently, I’m not the only person who has this response to the Bay Bridge; it is high, long, and narrow, with ridiculously low guardrails. It has earned votes as the “scariest bridge in America,” causing so many to panic that there’s actually a company that drives people over the bridge in their own cars (one way) for the low, low price of $25.

Irrational fear on display at age 6

Still, I was surprised and annoyed at my reaction. Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from day-to-day excessive worrying and catastrophizing to phobic feelings about bridges, tunnels, heights, and doctors. But for the last three years, I have experienced much less anxiety, thanks primarily to meditation.

I actually owe some of the shift to Ellen Degeneres. I happened to be watching her show the day her guest was Bob Roth, a Transcendental Meditation expert who taught Ellen and her wife how to do TM. She said it made a huge difference in lowering her stress level.   

Though I thought the name made the practice sound weird (I somehow associated “transcending” with levitating), I knew that science had long supported the positive impact of meditation. I was struggling in my marriage at the time and was desperate to find a way to quiet my mind and make sense of what was going on. I decided to do the TM training and began meditating each morning before starting my day.

Soon after I felt a noticeable drop in my anxiety level. There was nothing magical about it; I just felt I was able to slow my thoughts and function with a greater sense of calm. I eventually found that I was doing things like crossing bridges without really thinking about it. And generally speaking, since I started TM, I have felt less angst when dealing with stressful situations. This is why I was taken aback by my experience last weekend.

I was having a great time with friends — chatting, laughing, drinking beer — but was surprised at how many times my mind kept coming back to the return trip across the Bay Bridge. I knew I was overreacting and unnecessarily expending a ton of mental energy on something that was going to last about five minutes. I just could not shake my sense of dread. It was like having a great time at a party but noticing a man in a trench coat in the back of the room with a grim, knowing stare waiting for you.  

I seriously debated dodging the event altogether and taking a longer route home to avoid the bridge. Ultimately, though, I knew I would create a bigger problem for myself if I avoided it and decided against the alternate route.  


It was not an easy trip home. Every time I saw a sign for the bridge my stomach sank, and for a good half hour as I approached, I felt the same tightness in my body I had experienced two days earlier. But I jackassed my way over the bridge by talking to myself loudly and making note of my progress. (“I can see the other side now!”) I can only hope that nearby drivers thought I was either singing along with a great song or enthusiastically talking with a friend on speakerphone. It was an ugly win, but a victory nonetheless. I felt a tremendous sense of relief once I made it across, something that almost approached euphoria.  

And away we go — driving onto the bridge on the way home

Part of me is embarrassed to write about this. There is such a gap between what I understand intellectually (I’m going to be fine) and what I feel (my last memory will be of this bridge) in certain situations. I know I have an irrational sense of danger about a number of things. I have been driving for 36 years and I’m quite good at driving in a straight line, for example, so I should not feel a sense of terror while on the road. But knowing you’re being irrational and stopping the thought are two different things. I have felt the sting of a dismissive eye roll many times over the years when I have expressed fear, and that doesn’t make anything go away, it just drives it underground. 

A lot of this doesn’t make sense to me, including why fear would crop up again so fiercely after a period of marked improvement. Or why people are afraid of some things but not others. Doctors drive me to distraction, but spiders don’t bother me in the slightest (if I come across one in my house, I get it to crawl on a piece of paper and bring it outside). Don’t bring me to the top of a skyscraper to sightsee, but I love going to parties and don’t even mind going by myself. It seems that one person’s nightmare can be another person’s oxygen. 

I do know that I am hardwired for anxiety, and I can either continue to work to manage it or become increasingly debilitated by it. Last weekend I was reminded that it is not possible to declare a final victory over something just because there has been improvement. Daily meditation has been tremendously helpful but is clearly not the only step I need to take to deal with this issue, especially since it is not limited to one situation but fans out into many aspects of my life.  

Anxiety has made my world smaller over the years. I hope I can reverse this and live more fully by simplifying my goal — to something like “better, not fixed.”

It’s actually pretty when you are not trying to cross it