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.
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.
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 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.
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.