The other grandmother

It makes me sad not to know if I would have called her Grandmother or Granny or some other name.

It would not be Nana. That name was reserved for my mother's mother. I never got a chance to call my father's mother, Sophie Lillian Demsky Keene, anything; she died when I was less than a year old. 

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I have to use my imagination to fill in the gaps of my real life knowledge.

I can only guess that she might have liked to be called Babcia.

Through the years, Dad revealed tidbits about my other grandmother, his mother Sophie, here and there. When I was a little girl and I had drawn something my father particularly liked or mastered a new song on the piano, Dad would say "your grandmother would be so proud of you."

She was little more than an abstraction to me, but I liked my father thinking that way.

Sometimes I didn't ask my dad the questions I wanted to because the stories he had told me were obviously tinged with sadness. Dad expressed bafflement by some of the things he experienced, like when Sophie made him allow her to curl his straight hair for a church photo. He could never understand why someone would do that to a little boy, why she would embarrass him that way.

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Each time he brought up this time in his life, I gently reminded him that it was a long time ago. That Sophie, an immigrant from Poland, loved him and surely didn't do it to hurt him.

"You're probably right, Jen," he would say, but I didn't know if he meant it.

When my dad was still alive, I turned to Google, in an effort to try to spare him the hurt my prying questions might provoke. And now, years later, I have found even more info on Ancestry.

Thanks to the 1940 census, I now know that Dad's mother was just 17 years old when she bore her first child. I have tried and failed to imagine what that was like for her, particularly with a husband nine years her senior. While Polish like her, Joseph was born in the States and had a very un-Polish sounding name (alternately Keene, Keen and Kin), a mystery that I still haven't unraveled. I used to joke that we had an Ellis Island name, but I have since learned that was a myth

My father was Sophie's last child, born when his older brothers were thirteen and nine years old and his sister was eleven. He was unplanned. Dad's father was not around much during his childhood and I know that money was tight. 

But two things keep this story from being too sad to bear.

First, there is the fact that I had a wonderful dad. I imagine that Sophie had something to do with that.

Then there is this: Sophie was a painter. Somehow, some way, in a life that was sometimes cruel, Sophie became an artist. One proud enough of her work to sign every last painting with her name. Several hang in my childhood home, and two more in my Brooklyn apartment.

My grandmother found beauty, as well as the time and means to share it. I'm glad, Babcia. Thank you.

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How much do you want to see Hamilton on Broadway?

Whether you have never seen the hit Broadway show Hamilton or you're dying to see if again, you have come to the right place.

I have a pair of tickets - orchestra seats - for January 4, 2017 up for auction on ebay through August 24. You can learn more and bid here.

You're probably wondering why I am not using these great seats myself. Great question! I'm auctioning these tickets because I know that the popularity of Hamilton will allow me to raise money for something very important: Pulmonary Hypertension research. If you've been reading my blog, then you know PH is the terrible disease that took my sweet Dad's life July 17, 2015.

Don't feel too bad for me about missing Hamilton. I have tickets in November. They're way in the back, but I'll enjoy the show just the same, particularly knowing that the good seats were sold for a good cause.

Thank you in advance for your support.

Hamilton: The Revolution
By Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter



All these terrible anniversaries

I knew to dread Christmas. Because obviously, Mom and my first Christmas without Dad would be hard. My body created a buffer of sorts: I was sick in bed with bronchitis for three days beginning Christmas Eve, leaving Mom to fend for herself. I was so ill I couldn't even feel guilty until later.

I anticipated that the month of February would be painful between Valentine's Day and Mom's birthday. Dad was a romantic who enjoyed planning surprises for his wife and took pride in his gift giving.

I had no idea how painful my birthday would be. The first October 16 without Dad in this world, how it hurt. I was heartbroken all over again.

And now Father's Day and the rapidly approaching saddest anniversary of all, July 17. How have we lived for almost a year without this man?


Last year at this time, life, frankly, was terrible. Mom and I were making circuits between Scranton and NYC and Dad's Philadelphia hospital. We were stressed about treatments that didn't go as planned, Philly hotel prices, our jobs and Dad's mounting unhappiness. The three of us had lived with joy for the most part for a long time and suddenly there was none.

The pain doesn't end when a loved one's suffering does. My mother is reminded of her loss daily, weekly, monthly, always. Daily when someone says a kind word about Dad--and it happens every single day. Weekly when she arrives home from golf league and Dad isn't there to ask how she played. Monthly on the 17th.

My pain comes in waves, some predictable, others not. I am still waiting for the memories of ICU and hospice to be replaced with thoughts of our many, happier times together. Someday I hope this peace will come. I'm not there yet.

The monster in me

My mother is crying.

I am sitting with my arms around her in a gesture meant to comfort, but it's a perfunctory effort. My arms may as well be made of wood, and my heart, of stone.

It's February and we are in Florida, attempting to celebrate my mother's first birthday without Dad. Mom is raw and unsteady. As brittle and delicate as a fallen leaf. When I arrive at the airport, I hug her and try to find the right thing to say. Saying the wrong thing, even a sincere "how are you?" brings her to tears some days. But my own eyes stay dry.

I am a terrible daughter.


It is the night of my mother's birthday and we are with friends at a restaurant with a piano bar.

Mom requests a song, and then another. She asks the piano player if he knows "What I Did For Love" from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. It has long been Mom's first request--that is, unless my father beat her to it. Dad often requested Mom's favorite song for her before she could do it herself. He was forever striving to unlock the mysteries of the complex woman he loved. Thoughtful, loving gestures showed his eager to please nature.


The restaurant is loud so I can't hear the pianist's response to Mom's request, but I read the look on his face as annoyance.

Mom requests more songs she and Dad had loved: "Angel of Music" from Phantom of the Opera, the theme from The Godfather and so on. The pianist plays some of them, but denies others, while we wait for our table. I wish Mom would stop asking, stop crying, stop hurting...just stop.

I'm a monster for feeling these things, I know.

Between the piano and the crowd, the restaurant is noisy. I retreat as deep into my own head as is socially acceptable until our table is ready. We get through dinner and Mom's first birthday without Dad.

There's a bubble forming around me--invisible to others, but impenetrable too. A numbness has found its way inside me, creeping inside my chest and curling around my heart. I seem to have stopped crying for my father and the relief I feel at that sickens and frightens me.

But here's the thing: right now, I'm not crying for Dad because I'm running from my memories of him. And Mom, to her credit, is facing her heartache head on.

It's Mother's Day and I worry that Mom will be missing Dad even more than usual. I buy her flowers. I make a reservation at a New Jersey restaurant housed in a former train station, like we have back home in Scranton. At the table, I give her a pretty card.

And then it's my turn to cry. I tell her how much I miss my father and how hard it is to watch her mourn the same man simultaneously, but differently. I apologize through tears for my arms of wood and my heart of stone.

She takes my hand and tells me my heart could never be cold. My mother, she understands.