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. 

Grandma Keene scan.jpeg


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.

Dad's communion 8x10.jpg


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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The trouble of an idle mind

My plane landed early at JFK Tuesday night, but a hiccup with the equipment meant that we didn't disembark until well after 11 pm. While we waited for a tow, my mind wandered. My phone was dead. Without email, texts, Twitter and Words with Friends, my thoughts were all I had. And they quickly turned sad and dark.

There are a few memories about my father's death that I have tried - mostly unsuccessfully - to tuck away somewhere unreachable. I try not to think about the heart-breaking ride from hospital to hospice. About how I knew that the end was coming, but felt trapped between not wanting him to die and wishing for the torturous in-between to be over. I remember how he had begun to change physically, no longer looking like the Dad I had known and loved every day of my life.

But what forced my emotions to surface Tuesday night was remembering what it felt like to sit with my head on Dad's shoulder one last time. It was July 16, hours before he was moved to hospice. Dad had been in ICU for a while now - days? a week? It's all a blur now - and subject to isolation protocol due to the fact that he had contracted several infections including pneumonia during his hospitalization. Each time Mom and I entered his room, we were required to don a fresh yellow paper gown and blue rubber gloves, all of which we would discard upon exiting. Each re-entry required fresh garb.

On that last day, I couldn't take the gloves anymore. I tossed them aside as I pulled up a chair close to Dad's bedside. My sweet mother worried for my safety, but I couldn't be concerned about myself.

Dad was sedated but sitting up at forty-five degree angle. Carefully, given the monitors and tubes connected to him, I put my head on his shoulder. One of my hands held his while the other stroked his forearm, committing the feeling to memory as I knew it would be one of my last opportunities to touch his warm skin.

Dad's shoulder, which I leaned on throughout my life both literally and figuratively, felt smaller than I remembered. As we sat there, I took in the feel of his bones against my cheek, thinking of the many times he lifted his arms to carry or hug me. I marveled at the strength within.

"My Daddy," I thought to myself, like I was a little girl. Tears fell.


I heard the woman in the seat next to mine rustling in her purse.

"Would you like these?" she asked in a lightly accented voice (Czech, I subsequently learned), offering napkins for the tears that had begun falling from my tired eyes.

"Thanks. I'm ok," I replied before adding "I lost my dad four months ago," so she wouldn't think I was mooning over something dumb. I care too much about what people think of me sometimes.

We talked. She was kind.

And then it was finally time to get off the stuffy plane, return home to Brooklyn for the first time in a week and hopefully let this aching heart of mine get some rest.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

This will be my first birthday without you. You always sent me a sweet card in the mail and called to sing me the birthday song first thing in the morning. How I will miss that.

When I think about you that way, my heart aches. It's better if I try to think about all of the wonderful birthdays you, Mom and I spent together. I am going to need every last one of those happy memories to get me through.

As the day approaches, I keep remembering your version of the story of my arrival. You used to tell anyone who would listen what it was like for you the day I was born, and it never failed to make me smile.


You loved being a dad

You loved being a dad

Yours wasn't a modern birth story. While Mom was laboring, you stayed with Nana in the hospital waiting room except for brief visits with Mom. I hate the idea of Mom being mostly alone for all of that time, but that's how things were done at the time, and it isn't the point of this story.

The point is your story. 

Your version of the story usually began with the obstetrician coming to tell you, "you have a big fat baby girl!" while still wearing blood-covered scrubs. Eek. You were always squeamish and hated even a mention of blood and guts, so thank you for remaining upright on my birthday.

I always loved the way you'd say "BIG FAT BABY GIRL" using your hands to show just how big.

The fact that you and Mom had a daughter was a surprise for I was born before ultrasounds were a routine part of prenatal care. Mom swears that you also hoped for a baby girl. I worried sometimes that you would have loved a son instead given your hobbies, but your love and limitless support let me know you were so invested in me.

[So Many Dance Recitals, Dad. How can I ever thank you?]

Seven or eight babies were born right around the same time as me - all boys. Periodically, the curtain of the newborn nursery would be opened to signal that parents could request to see their babies. You used an envelope to make a sign announcing KEENE so you could avoid the scrum. Whether due to the smart sign or your sweet smile, I was usually the first baby brought out by a nurse.

It wasn't long ago that you gave me the sign, and I'm so grateful to have it. You kept the sign with a cache of cards I had made and given you throughout my life. My sweet, sentimental Dad.

Today I think of that hopeful man, waiting for his baby to be born, and cry because I know how the story ends. I wish I could un-read the last page.

Someday, our many happy memories will mute the pain of losing you. But I'm not there yet. Not even close.

This will be my first birthday without you. I would try to pretend that it is just another day, but I know that would make you sad. And in the terrible months since we lost you, I have been trying to balance mourning your absence with living my life in a way that would make you proud. I hope I am doing a good job.

ETA: I am raising money to find a cure for Pulmonary Hypertension, the condition that ended Dad's life. Details here.


Into the woods

It's really hard to hate a tree.

I thought I would hate this tree

I thought I would hate this tree


I know because I tried. But as I stood in front of the beautiful cherry tree my father used to climb to hunt deer and otherwise be among nature, I couldn't find it in my heart to hold a grudge.

Instead I stood there with my mother, aunt, uncle, and four close family friends, imagining that Dad was there with us. I breathed fresh country air and visualized the pre-dawn mornings Dad had spent in a tree stand on our friend Ivan's property, waiting for a mature buck to appear.

Although Dad died from complications Pulmonary Hypertension, a hunting accident he suffered back in 2007 exacerbated his health problems for the next eight years.

My dad's hunting had long been a subject of father-daughter discussions and even arguments. In the part of the world where I grew up, hunting was and is the norm. But as a little girl, I hated the idea of him killing animals. Dad was an animal lover so it was hard for me to reconcile the idea that a man who befriended every dog he encountered and could identify distant wildlife while speeding down a highway could also take the life of a deer.

Dad and Snoopy 20150909_202657.jpg

Worse, I was scared he could accidentally be shot by another hunter.

When Dad did get a deer, I hated seeing the buck hanging in the backyard until the butcher could take it, but I also felt guilty for not celebrating Dad's success as a hunter.

Through the years, Dad and I must have had a dozen conversations about the ethics of hunting and how he made sense of hunting in the context of his reverence for nature. While we may have ultimately disagreed about hunting, I always appreciated the dialogue.

Early in 2007, Dad underwent open heart surgery. When hunting season rolled around in November, Dad was determined to participate. It was as if he needed to show the world that he was strong again after the physical and emotional pain of heart bypass surgery and recovery. The weather was terrible for hunting. Instead of the usual blanket of snow covering the ground, helping Dad look for hoof prints, it rained the day Dad returned to hunting. My guess is that many hunters stayed home, but Dad had something to prove.

He climbed the ladder leading to his tree stand, placing a rifle on the platform and returning to the ground for his other gear. But on his second ascent, the ladder failed and my father fell ten or so feet.

Later Dad estimated that he spent 45 minutes on the cold, wet ground, catching his breath, before getting up, hobbling to his car and driving himself to the hospital. Keep in mind that he also drove himself to the doctor as he was having a heart attack back in 1997. There was no cell service in the woods--not that Dad reliably carried a phone.

At the hospital, Dad was found to have torn his rotator cuff, fractured his wrist and most significantly, fractured a vertebrae in his back. Again, I cursed hunting. 

Although Dad was fortunate not to be paralyzed, his back would cause him pain for the rest of his life. He tried all manner of therapies - Eastern medicine and Western - but nothing offered lasting relief. Worse, when Pulmonary Hypertension caused him to retain fluid, the added weight increased Dad's back pain.

That was the end of Dad's hunting, but he still loved the woods and spent time on the same property where he used to hunt.  

And so it was that we gathered beneath that same cherry tree last Saturday. The tree represented so much to us--a place that gave Dad joy in spite of the pain and memories of a life that he had loved.

Our friends Ivan and Elaine who own the land had placed flowers beneath the tree before we arrived, along with a few photos of him from easier days.

We cried, every one of us. Someone spoke and someone else said a prayer. We wrapped our arms around each other and then Ivan launched into "Happy Trails." 

No, I'm not kidding.

And then I began scattering Dad's ashes around the base of that beautiful tree, tears streaming down my face. 

When it was all over, we went to Crystal Lake, another place Dad loved. 

Oliveri's Crystal Lake

Oliveri's Crystal Lake

As our dinner ended, there were fireworks. Dad would have loved it.

My first post about Life After Dad

My worst fears came true: my sweet, kind gentleman of a Dad died on Friday, July 17.

I have so many thoughts and feelings on this sad time, but need a little time to pull myself together and get my life back in order. Dad spent most of the last five weeks of his life in a Philadelphia hospital so much of my non-family life has been on hold. And I wouldn't change a thing (except, of course, if I could strike a deal to have Dad back and healthy).

For the time being, here's a pic of my father that I love, as well as the text of the eulogy I gave for him at his funeral today.


Last year, my friend Katie found herself in a Scranton hospital, far from any of her friends or relatives. I was traveling somewhere on business and unable to help or visit her, and my mom was also out of town. In passing, I told Dad about Katie’s predicament. Not long after, Dad figured out which hospital she was in and visited. Keep in mind that they had never met. But it’s just the type of kindness Dad was known for. His heart was so big.

As some of you know, Dad suffered from a terrible, incurable condition called pulmonary hypertension with right heart failure. His doctors, particularly Dr. Paul Forfia of Temple University Hospital, worked so hard to keep him not just alive, but living. My mother was an absolute warrior, frequently getting Dad to Philadelphia for the interventions that kept Dad’s heart and lungs functioning.

Eventually Dad’s body stopped tolerating the various medications and we realized that we were going to lose our sweet, wonderful guy far too soon.

While the days leading up to my father’s death were terribly sad, they did give us a chance to reminisce.

Mom, Dad and I recalled our wonderful annual trips to Nags Head where he taught me how to fish, even if he never did persuade me to bait the hook.

At one point, I teased him about how it usually took him longer than Mom and me to get ready to go places, mostly due to his need to get his gorgeous hair just so and to pick the perfect tie.

Dad looked me in the eye and said “you never gave us any trouble at all.” I was touched, but couldn’t help but laugh, reminding him of the time I broke curfew in a BIG way right after I got my driver’s license.

“Almost never,” Dad added.


Four months ago, I had the honor of speaking at the annual gathering of Scranton’s Society of Irish Women—in spite of not being Irish, I should add.

Both of my parents were really proud—but it was Dad who went the extra mile, having a pin made that announced he was “Jen Keene’s Dad.” He wore it throughout the event and told anyone who would listen “that’s my daughter!”

After my speech, Dad, with his beautiful blue eyes twinkling, asked me, “Where did you come from?”

I told him the truth: “I got the very best from you and Mom. You gave me everything I needed to face this big world and for this life.” And it was true.

While my parents and I had lots of wonderful adventures together, some of the simpler times have become the memories that will sustain me: lunches with Dad when I had a half day at school, conversations with Dad as he drove me to ballet class after school, and hearing him whisper “go ahead” as he courteously waved a driver in front of him at a tricky intersection.

My dad thought of himself as a simple man. I did not. He was humble in spite of many talents. Dad was an expert marksman, and a skilled craftsman with a variety of materials. In his sixties, Dad decided he would like to shoot a bow and arrow, and ultimately did so competitively. Had reality television become a “thing” earlier in his life, I told Dad he surely would have hosted a show about the outdoors and wildlife called “Nature Dave.”

Even in his final days, Dad’s magical way of connecting with others was evident. He dusted off his Polish language skills to converse with an ultrasound technician, and impressed a Korean-born nurse with the vocabulary he picked up while stationed there in the Army. Keep in mind that Dad had virtually no opportunity to speak either of these languages for more than forty years.

And of course, Dad used his last days to make sure Mom and I knew how much he loved us.

In closing, Mom, thank you for choosing such a kind, gentle man to be your husband and my father. Because of Dad, I’ll always find beauty in nature, feel delight upon spotting a bright red cardinal and be quick to love and encourage others.