The season of loss

The season of loss

Spring has become the season of loss. Four years ago we lost my first cousin Celine. This year we lost Uncle Joe.

My mother’s younger brother, Joseph N. Sestito passed at age 91 after leading a “storied and adventurous life,” as my son so accurately phrased it.

A Catholic priest and a decorated Navy veteran, he inspired the priest in my political thriller, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, who tells Luz de Maria that he cannot give her absolution if she wishes to commit the same sin all over again.

My grandfather always called him “Sonny,” which led to the character of Sonny Zambrano in the Galliano Club historical fiction series. In REVENGE AT THE GALLIANO CLUB, Sonny recites “The Cask of Amontillado” for a speaking contest, the same as my uncle did in the real 1949 Slingerland Speaking Contest. 73 years later, he could still recite Poe’s classic from memory.

Uncle Joe was ordained a priest in 1959. It should have been earlier but, ever the jokester, he was booted out of his first seminary for rolling a bowling ball down the hall of his dorm and hitting a teacher’s door.

After a few years as a parish priest with the Ogdensburg diocese in upstate New York, he joined the US Navy as a chaplain. Uncle Joe served with the Marines in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star with V for valor. Among other duty stations, he served in the Aleutians and aboard the nuclear-powered USS Bainbridge.

After retiring, he resumed parish duties in upstate New York and jumped into high-end woodworking. We all have furniture, lamps and trays that he made. Everything is finished in the same mid-tone stain with quirks reflecting the maker’s impatience. For example, my gorgeous reeded buffet lamps have plugs but no switches.

Uncle Joe was a never-ending font of genuinely funny jokes, magic tricks, and tall tales. His vocabulary was prodigious, he was annoyed by sloppy diction, and he knew the basics of at least a dozen languages. He played the piano and the saxophone, delivered a mean sermon, and was a terrible driver who named all his cars.

He was the wonderful and funny Uncle Joe to me, my siblings and my cousins, and how rich our lives have been because of him.

Uncle Joe playing the piano with my son (who is now 31.)

For Celine, With Love

For Celine, With Love


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.


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'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.


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.


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.



In my heart forever

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


The Enduring Magic of Book Night

The Enduring Magic of Book Night

Other families have Game Night or Movie Night. We have Book Night.

It started out as a means of self defense. We had two kids under the age of 5. My husband and I both had full time, demanding jobs, and he was pursuing a college degree at night.

Reading for Survival

I felt stretched, especially at bedtime when I tried to read a book or two to each child before they went to bed. But I was always racing from one bedroom to the other; the youngest wasn’t asleep yet as she heard me read to the older; he complained when I stopped reading to go soothe his sister. Bedtime was chaotic and I was exhausted.

So one Monday, as Dad studied, I let both children select 3 books and we all piled onto our big bed. My 5-year-old son tolerated the bunny and alphabet books his 2-year-old sister loved and she stayed quiet as I read about monster trucks and airplanes. By the time all 6 books were read, everybody was ready to go to bed and no one felt shortchanged.

bear and bookBook Night quickly became a Monday tradition, then a Tuesday tradition, then virtually every night became a Book Night, except Thursday, the night I took the kids to an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet restaurant while my husband had a 4-hour class. The week developed a rhythm, punctuated by the excitement of choosing Book Night books at the library on Saturday. I still had a lot to handle, but Book Night enforced a structure that removed a lot of stress.

Related post: The Power of Daddy

When Tradition Grows Up

We read together like this for several years, until my son said I read too slowly and would rather read on his own. Mind you, this is the kid who started reading Dale Brown in first grade! My daughter and I gradually moved on to reading classics together and the last book I read aloud to her was The Secret Garden when she was in third grade. Then she could read faster to herself than I could read aloud, too.

But Book Night stayed with us. As we gathered in the evenings for dinner, everyone had to be reluctantly parted from their books for a time. At some point someone asked if they could read at the table and Book Night morphed into a dinner rather than bedtime event.

“Is it a Book Night?” someone would ask and invariably we’d each come to dinner with a book. The conversation always started by taking turns asking each other what was the best part of their day (sort of like the Waltons telling each other good night.) Once that ritual had been completed and discussed, we’d each read a bit. But far from being silent meals, we’d end up discussing the books we were each reading. Parents and kids alike learned of new books, (husband and son still regularly swap sci-fi) the kids learned to describe what they read and support their opinions, and we swapped our enthusiasm for all-family favorites like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Related post: A Lesson From The Great Gatsby

Not Just Survival, But Success

My kids are mostly grown now and thanks to Book Night are voracious readers and literary critics. Their love of reading has bolstered their performance at school, helped their SAT scores, and allowed them to become critical thinkers with interesting things to say.

So if you have kids, read to them. For all of you.

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book night


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


book night

Author Carmen Amato

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