TRUE STORY

On 11 May 1968, when I was 8 years old, I made my First Communion at St. Paul’s Church in Rome NY. My first cousin Celine was next to me, wearing an identical outfit of starched white linen shift and a lace mantilla secured with a satin ribbon tied under the chin.

All the other girls wore “poofy” (Celine’s word) dresses with miniature bridal veils. We were both green with envy.

As heavy as iron, our homemade dresses had cotton lace sleeves so tight that neither of us could bend our elbows all the way. The mantilla kept sliding back on my head, causing the ribbon to cut off my air. Celine spent most of the ceremony pushing it back in place, basically keeping me from choking to death, at the cost of losing the circulation in her arm.

BFF FOR KEEPS

It wasn’t the first time we dressed alike. Born within a few months of each other (our mothers are sisters) we were each other’s first BFF in matching shorts and tops for years. My memories include the huge sandbox at the playground near our house, extended Italian family celebrations, and going to the movies for the first time. (We saw Oliver!)

I recall being very confused why she didn’t go to the same school for kindergarten. But weekends during our elementary years meant sleepovers. Celine was the oldest of 4 kids in a house that (unlike mine) allowed Saturday morning cartoons and Tiger Beat magazine. We loved HR Pufnstuf, the Monkees, making clothes for our Crissy and Tressy dolls, and swooning over British actor Jack Wilde and the stars of Alias Smith and Jones.

The summer after our First Communion, we took a batik class, along with her younger brother, at the local community center. My final project was a thing an 8-year old would make. Celine won a regional art award.

For reasons that escape me now, as neither of us had any proclivity toward medicine, we planned to become doctors and open a hospital called the Kelton Sisters Hospital. That funky name mashup still makes me smile.

She hated peas.

SCHOOL DAZE

We both attended the local Catholic high school in plaid skirts and white blouses. Celine was a swimmer, both racing and synchronized swimming with the grace and talent of a mermaid. Her high school jobs as camp counselor and lifeguard seemed very glamorous while I drudged in the local hospital’s kitchen.

College sent us in different directions again. Freshman weekend at her college was a surprising introduction to peppermint schnapps. She still holds the Morrisville College 1650-meter freestyle record. She and my mother drove to Virginia for my graduation from UVA but the best part was what happened at the Busch Gardens theme park afterwards. (Sorry, sworn to secrecy.)

Celine became a mechanical engineer and I became a CIA intelligence officer. Her career kept her in upstate NY while I was in Washington DC and overseas.

LOCKSTEP

But distance didn’t matter. The Kelton Sisters stayed in lockstep.

When I got married, Celine was my maid of honor. My attendants wore black taffeta skirts and white blouses. We honeymooned in Nova Scotia. When she got married the following year, I was her bridesmaid. Her attendants wore burgundy taffeta skirts and cream blouses. Celine and her husband honeymooned on Prince Edward Island.

Celine's wedding

With Celine at her wedding

 

Celine and I always had lots to talk about, no matter how much time elapsed between conversations. She didn’t have hidden agendas but was a happy, optimistic person juggling multiple roles: daughter, wife, mother, big sister, neighborhood coordinator, engineering professional. She was highly intelligent in a mathematical way I admired. Her mechanical abilities were considerable, from installing a garbage disposal to sewing her daughter’s fancy prom gowns. Celine loved birthday celebrations, making Christmas dinner, and her mother’s homemade baked ziti.

As a mom, her two talented and beautiful daughters were her pride and joy. Her husband Jim, an architect, was truly a life partner for more than 29 years. Jim went gray. Celine never got the chance.

HEART-NUMBING

She passed away on April 6, 2020 from leukemia, and we are all bereft. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It seems like yesterday that I flew to NY so we could go to our high school reunion together–a fun girl’s night out. Last summer, Celine and Jim visited us and talked about retiring close by. They even toured a model home.

Since she passed, my writing deadlines have become insignificant. Mostly, I’ve found myself replaying our last few conversations.

Celine liked the choices she made in life. I never once heard her say she wanted things to be different. She was a remarkably happy person. Even in the hospital with leukemia destroying her blood’s ability to clot and family prevented from visiting due to coronavirus protocols, she joked and responded to my texts with humor.

So I console myself knowing that Celine lived the life she wanted to live. She had a complete life. She loved and was loved.

May we all be able to say that.

LOVE LIVES ON

By now, I expect that Celine will have inspected Heaven’s ductwork and told St. Peter that it is not up to code. After she fixes it, she’ll put new brake pads on his Pinto. (Celine had a red one. Drove around in the winter with cinder blocks in the back for traction. A story for another day.)

We are all posting photos of her, creating a family montage of love, grief, and acceptance. Although coronavirus keeps us physically apart for now, we still celebrate her life together.

Incidentally . . . Our daughters (her oldest, my youngest) were born within a few months of each other.

Both of them wore poofy dresses for their First Communion.

 

Celine

In my heart forever

18 Comments

  1. Anne Kelly Fonseca

    I am a cousin to Celine ; our fathers were brothers. Physical distance between homes made getting together a rare event, but when we did, all the children seemed to effortlessly get along. Ashamedly, I don’t know much about my cousins. It seemed like we were one of a few families that didn’t have family in the vicinity. I have missed that in my life. I say this because I am reading about someone I loved, but didn’t really know. Thank you for these beautiful memories of Celine and your sharing of them.

    • Carmen

      Anne, thank you for taking the time to read and introduce yourself. Celine had a great sense of humor, very direct. She would have made you laugh.

  2. Kristin Kelly

    I’ve received many beautiful comments on this piece. Thank you for sharing on FB.

    • Carmen

      Sending hugs here, there, and everywhere.

  3. Jim Katie and Emily

    If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you

    • Carmen

      Ah, Pooh. I cherish these words.

  4. Jim,Kate and Rmily

    If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.

  5. Ersilia Ash

    Carmen
    Sincere condolences on the heartbreaking loss of your cousin Celine.

    When (she) shall die, take (her) and cut (her) out in little stars, And (she ) will make the face of heaven so fine, That all the world will be in love with night.

    Paraphrased from Shakespeare

    • Carmen

      Ersilia, I love the thought and will now think of Celine whenever I see the stars. Thank you so much.

  6. Mike Faricy

    Heartbreaking and, at no surprise, so very wonderful. God Bless Celine. No doubt she’s checking the ductwork right now. You were very fortunate to have one another and now, the wonderful memories. I’d send you a hug, Carmen, but not sure that’s allowed in these times. God Bless, stay safe, and know, how very fortunate you were to have Celine in your life and, she, you. Be strong.

    • Carmen

      Thanks, Mike. What can I writer do in times of stress, but write? Virtual hug right back at you.

  7. Jim

    Thank you for sharing!

  8. Allison Huff

    Beautiful tribute to Celine. We all loved her at the dance studio where her daughters took class and where she helped us on our costume committee. I always looked forward to catching up with her when she’d come in to work on a project or to try her hand in our adult tap and barre fitness classes. Celine was so fun to talk with -I will miss her dearly❤️

    • Carmen

      Thank you Allison. She told me about tap dance lessons, always making it seem like so much fun. Her girls inherited her sunshine.

  9. Tracy oshaughnessy

    Yes Carmen, a life of loving and receiving love is what we all hope to attain. Celine did it with joy and grace. I have good memories of her in high school always with a welcoming smile and eager to help. As I recall quite clearly I took her up on that many times in French class. I know she will be sorely missed by family and friends. Thank you for sharing a most moving tribute. I’m sure your tears of joy and sadness fell equally on the page.
    Prayers to all her family.
    Tracy OShaughnessy (Coniglio)

    • Carmen

      Tracy, thank you so much for your kind words here and on Facebook. I’m glad you and I have reconnected after so long and can say “adieu” to Celine together.

  10. Amalia Melis

    Not sure words will do but what a moving tribute to the delicate yet strong bond of cousins who are best friends. I am so sorry you lost someone so special to you. X x

    • Carmen

      Thank you, Amalia. Sending hugs across the ocean to you.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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