Tag Archives: Memory

To the Ocean

By Colleen

When did I first see the ocean? Well, to be honest, I feel a bit foolish, because I was 21 years old before I finally actually saw it. Before you make your exclamations, let me tell you that I’ve heard them all: “What?! No way! How in the world have you not seen the OCEAN?” Yeah, they’re all the same. But give me a break; I’m an Irish farm girl, and I grew up in very landlocked country in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We had a river (thirty miles away) and we had plenty of ice-cold creeks to splash around in, snapping turtles and leeches and all. But, far away, way across the state, we had a lake, a GREAT lake.

When I was little, the trip across the state to visit my grandmother who lived exotically close to that lake seemed an eternity. The packing of the car itself was an ordeal. Do you realize how hard it is to pack seven to nine children (depending on age and willingness to make the trip) into one car? And we didn’t make it a “light” trip. My two younger siblings, James and Clare,, and I had an ongoing contest of who could pack the heaviest bag for the (at the longest) weekend trip.

We would hold our breath as we each placed our bags on the scale, normally used to weigh squash and asparagus. “Ha! Mine’s twenty pounds!” James would exclaim, Clare and I would clamber over each other to check the verity of his proud statement. “No way!”we’d groan in dismay. James was the victor most often, but that’s only because he packed the most books. We should have just done away the books to even the playing field. There’s no way he could have won if we’d only weighed our clothing. I swear that boy wore the same, striped red t-shirt and tan, cargo shorts for the first ten years of his life, along with the same bowl cut for his sandy, stick-straight blond hair.

After the bags and children were packed, we finally settled down to read all of those books that we packed. The average number of books finished on our way to Grandma’s was 2.3, but if you were a big kid, it was more like 3.2. When we did eventually get to our destination, hands sticky with laffy-taffy and corn nuts, successfully begged from our parents at gas stations along the way, the first order of business (after the dreaded hug from Grandma and awkward hellos, directed more at our shoes than at Grandma) was to go down to the lake.

“Mom! Dad! Can we go to the lake? Can we take a walk ALL the way out to the lighthouse? Please, please, please!” We would dance around mom and dad’s feet in anticipation of an adventure. More often than not, an older sibling would take us down the four blocks or so to the lakefront. Mom and Dad would stay back home with Grandma in her quiet and intimidatingly clean house.

We always wondered how Dad with his knack for making messes came from such an ordered home. How did the man who regularly hacked and slashed away at mysterious cuts of beef and pork on our dining room table (so much so that I was determined to never sit at the first right hand spot from the head of the table ever again), blood dripping down to the floor in rivulets and flecks of fats and gristle flying every which way, grow up on white carpets and sit down to eat in that spotless kitchen? The spaces in between the pink and white linoleum on her floor never even had any dirt in them. I know because I’d seen marveled at it as I bent to hastily pick up piece of chocolate chip cookie, stolen from her cookie jar one time. And nothing ever changed at Grandma’s. It was a rule.

Anyhow, we would sprint down the street and finally, finally see the “ocean”, Lake Michigan, right there before our astonished eyes. The path down to the beach in front of the azure mass of clear, fresh water was perilous, and up until you were about twelve, you’d need an older sibling’s hand to cling to if you wanted to avoid tumbling down the sharp embankment, through the briars and burrs, and onto the cold, white sands before the foaming water.

But once you were down there, down on the beach, it was pure magic. I always thought I was looking at the ocean. I couldn’t imagine anything as beautiful and grand not being what all those writers talk about in books. It was enormous! And I was so small! When I got old enough to realize the reality of the “smallness” of Lake Michigan, I persisted in calling it the ocean. It was. It was my ocean. The water hit the sky at the horizon, perfectly flat and still, and stretched out and out and out. It was my ocean. The waves were always cold.

The blue-green water prickled my skin into a thousand goosebumps, and made me and James and Clare scream when we jumped in. Slipping underneath the waves and into a shock of cold, my hands numb, my hair flowing about my face, I was in my ocean. And then I would resurface with a scream of success.

And so, if you ask when I first saw the ocean, the answer is that, technically, I first saw it after a nineteen hour road trip in college, off the coast of the Atlantic, in Charleston, South Carolina. Really, it was too dark to see much when we finally arrived at the waterfront around two A.M; the air smelled different, though; there was something wilder in it, something raw. The water was quiet that night, and it shone blue-black under a waning moon, all the way out past human sight. I whooped and hollered, and truly, I loved the air, the night sky, the ocean. But some part of my heart asked, “Haven’t I been here before?” It wasn’t my ocean.


From Behind the Woodstove- Growing Up

by Colleen

All during the drive up this past weekend, in the midst of the never ending plains of Iowa, snow covered with misty, milky sunlight seeping through the clouds, I had time to reflect on the concept of coming home.  As seventh in a family of nine, it’s completely odd for me to be the one arriving with exotic friends in tow.  Odd because the light and excitement of my childhood was the arrival of my older brothers and sisters doing just that.

I remember the flustered activity, cleaning the house from top to bottom under mom’s strict “list” system.  Once you finished all the chores on your list, you were free to go, and in my case, run back up to my room and curl up in a patch of sunlight with a book, made even better with the knowledge that someone new was coming to visit.  The guests would burst into the door, and I always made sure to be right there, peeking out from behind the sanctuary of the wood stove, shy and curious.  They were part of “the big kids”, the highest level in our strict cast system.

I am at the lowest section of our cast system, firmly embedded in the title of a “little kid”, and this is why it’s so odd for me to be doing what the older kids did over the years.  I’m growing up, and I can’t really believe it.  Last night, my friends and I went out to Leo and Leona’s, the bar down the road, and I got to spend some time just talking with Cale, Mary, Rob, and Nicole.  I know I’ll never become a “big kid”, but being able to spend time with my older siblings as less of a little puppy dog and more like an equal is one of the best feelings in the world.  I must note that I am most certainly not entirely grown up, and my friends and I ended up playing piano and dancing around in the empty dance hall.  Plus, even if I had the choice I would never have gotten something to drink.  Alcohol is nothing compared to coffee.

Coming home has been simply wonderful.  Everything is the same, but it is also so different.  Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I am just growing up.  I’m not the one peeking out from behind the stove anymore.  Now, I am the one bursting in the front door, with the winds of different places and people blowing in behind me.

The First

by Kate

Dominic Kieltyka was the first boy I ever kissed, in the midst of a early Northern thaw. Winter still held sway and would for months, but a warm wind rushed over the deep snow and icy snow melt surged down ravines tearing down the sides of ridges and filling the valley creeks under the bright sunny sky. At night though, the fleeting warmth fled under the bright stars and the world froze again, with rough ruts and channels of ice and frozen mud everywhere.

I was visiting close friends and fellow home-schoolers in a rambling owner built home in a beautiful valley about an hour from my ridgetop home. I was 14 years old, and restless and reckless like that snow melt tumbling down the hills, looking for an adventure. I wanted to get that first kiss out of the way. According to my friends, Dominic was a perfect match for this first kiss business. At 14, Dominic was tall, slender, and gangly, with a shock of white blonde hair, kind blue eyes, a prominent beaked nose that would take years to grow into, and with both gentlemanly manners and courage beyond his years. I took a deep breath, and agreed to the match. A quick phone call was made to set up the details, and late that night I slipped down a pair of creaking back steps with my intrepid friend, guide, and amateur matchmaker, and we wheeled a pair of bikes over the frozen ruts of the gravel driveway and onto the lonely country road. I vividly remember that late night ride in that still, silent, frozen night under a sky full of stars burning brightly. My breath froze and trailed in clouds behind my bicycle as I pedaled to the rendezvous point miles away, full of mingled anticipation and horror.

We met under a tiny bridge on the sandy slope above a small creek. Dominic slipped under the bridge and joined me on the cold sand, and we were both frozen with nerves. My friend helpfully struck up a tune from her perch a discreet distance away, launching into country crooner Garth Brooks melancholy love songs. We sat in silence until Dominic quietly asked “May I have permission to kiss you?” His manners were impeccable, which somehow made me even more mortified, but I acquiesced. Our kiss was awkward and fleeting, and to our mutual relief the deed was done.

I was too embarrassed to talk much to Dominic for a year or two, and tended to flee if I happened to see him. Our kiss had clearly not fated us to a great romance, or any romance at all. I do remember attending a performance of Russian Folk dancing in which Dominic had a starring role. He leapt nimbly and with grace. It was impressive, but in Western Wisconsin in the early 1990’s Russian Folk Dancing was far from the epitome of cool. Dominic was on his way to becoming very cool, however, along with my brother Gabe and their best friend Hansel. In their mid to late teens, these three were quite the trio of juvenile delinquents, running the ridges on motorcycles with bandannas on their heads, cigarettes in their lips, and often policemen in close pursuit. Dominic was famous for the great cornfield chase, with cops shining bright lights into the dense seven foot leafy rows as he silently sweated to push his bike further and further into the deep concealment of the corn. He got away that night, at least that’s how the story goes, but a series of such adventures and mishaps in his late teens led to some furious fights at home, and eventually Dominic ended up staying at the Slattery household for extended periods of time, and slowly becoming the sixth Slattery brother.

The year that we turned 21 (an extremely exciting event for Dominic, and in fact an epic tale for another time) we both ended up living in the big battered farmhouse with my parents and the seven younger kids who were all being home-schooled at the time. We were both working through some disgrace, as Dominic had just been discharged from the county jail for a series of infractions and I was pregnant and planning to place my child for adoption. That winter, my Dad invited another large family of home-schoolers to come over for pizza and help us tear off the back of our house, leaving a heap of rubble in the wake of the party. I suppose it makes sense, as children do make an effective if messy demolition crew. The entire rear section of the house was ripped off in preparation for an addition project to enlarge the space. The rear section of the house included the one and only bathroom, so for the rest of the winter and early spring while Dominic quietly and competently worked on building the addition we all used a bucket and sawdust for a low tech composting toilet. Mary Brigid also rescued a tiny baby goat that winter, bringing her into the house to warm her up and save her life. Bella was a lively and charming house guest for a solid couple months, and added to the already high level of excitement in our home. Dominic had some wild nights on the ridge that spring, but mostly I remember him speaking quietly of the future, dreaming of building an airplane and learning to fly, laughing, wielding a hammer, and helping to build our home. Without Dominic our farmhouse would never have expanded to offer so much hospitality and beauty to so many people.

After helping to build the Slattery home, Dominic was part of the great migration south, where several northern Slattery sibling seekers in their early twenties headed to North Carolina to search for jobs and adventure in a warmer climate. For my brother Robert and cousin Cale, Dominic was an extra big brother who did the practical work of finding a place to live and work. For me, Dominic was a sweet and reliable friend who not only stopped by to chop my firewood on a regular basis, but amazingly agreed to be my partner so I could take a tango class. I told him that perhaps a bit of ballroom dance would sweep the women off their feet, and so once a week after a rough day of chewing tobacco and building houses he would put on a clean shirt and comb his hair and show up for class. Sadly, I was clumsy and deeply lacking talent for tango. I also insisted on wearing an ancient and disreputable pair of cowboy boots with the soles worn clean away, and one night they slipped right out from under me. I pulled Dominic down on top of me in a loud and awkward crash. I don’t think that is what he imagined when I promised he would sweep women off their feet.

Dominic Kieltyka was the first friend I ever lost. The season turned too quickly, and the mild March spring of Eastern North Carolina blossomed into hazy heat and burning blue skies. Dominic headed out onto a lake with an old canoe and my brother Rob, with no life preservers on board. Far, far from shore the canoe overturned and the two were submerged in the icy waters of early spring. They swam for their life, but that cold water took Dominic and there was nothing Rob could do but keep swimming, and start screaming when after an eternity he reached the shore.

Dominic was fearless. He wasn’t afraid to take wild risks, ride wild horses, race fast cars off cliffs. He was fearlessly generous and gentle in his love for his friends and for his family. He wasn’t afraid of living, and he was the least afraid of dying of anyone I knew. I don’t think Dominic was scared to go on ahead, but I know that for a long time we were all scared to keep living without him.

Dominic Kieltyka died on March 6th, 2004, in the early spring. His season ended far too soon.

Christmas and Coming Home

by Kate

This Christmas I am coming home.


The past two years we have spent Christmas with our in-laws, who are warm and gracious and welcoming- as is their adopted home state of Texas. Christmas with Casey’s family is calm and quiet and luxuriously restful….. but…….

I missed the blizzards and the beer and my big strong brothers.

I missed the heat of the wood stove and the contemptuous commentary of my little brothers.

I very much missed seeing my little sisters grow more beautiful every year.

I miss my cousins, and sledding down steep driftless hills.

And I miss being surrounded by friends and family.

I miss the church that is just across the country road from our big white farmhouse.

And the view from the choirloft.

I know that my mother has been desperately missing Colleen’s accompaniment on the piano since she left for college.

I have cried in church during the carols every Christmas far from home, missing the other two members of the alto section. Oh Julia Ugo and Mary Weber, I am so excited to sight read complex harmonies and belt them out badly with you between fits of giggling.

And so, this Christmas, I am coming home.