Here it comes.


Twenty-nine years ago and nine months after my mother had died from ovarian cancer I closed my eyes, gave a final push and became a mother. An hour later, her Dad out making phone calls, the little pink bundle tucked into the crook of my arm, I listened to the joyful racket outside my hospital door — new grandparents, nurses, flower deliveries, baby deliveries, laughter. My room was silent and my heart broke into a million pieces.

I cried hard that day, dropping tears all over this newborn; messy, snotty salty tears of loss and love and blessing and disbelief. My mother was not going to walk though that door, swooping up my baby, crying tears of happiness. She never would. But there I was, given a new life in my arms to cherish. I was so overwhelmed by the roiling emotions inside me, by the incredible magic of lost and found.

And so, one of the loneliest days of my life was the day I was never lonely again.

Here it comes, another Mother’s Day. On Sunday I will brace myself for the rapid-fire emotions — remembering who is not here, feeling that familiar little break in my chest, but smiling, thinking how amazing that my eldest carries her name, how my son has her blue eyes, and how my youngest laughs just like her. These days, with all of us far flung, I will lie back, drink tea, and think about the phone calls and the updates I will get over the phone. I might spend the day in my gardens, filled with decades of Mother’s Day peonies and roses, trimming and fertilizing and staking them up for the impending growing season. I will embrace the sadness and dig deep for the future as I do every year. And this year, I will be thinking about that little pink bundle and her wedding. I will probably cry a little bit and take a beach walk. I will say a prayer.

There is no question I am a little moody, a little tender on the second Sunday in May every year, spending time alone to contemplate.  But I am so full of grateful, too: mothering brought me life and love and peace. And so, with every bitter comes sweet. That is just what life is all about.

We never lose our mothers, they swim in our veins and camp in our hearts and are always there to talk to. Trust me. Mine can visit in the linen closet. We are full of them, every single day, every single minute. Missing them, loving them, wanting them and seeing them run by in little footed pajamas. They never really leave us, they just leave the room.

Look what I got, Mom. Aren’t they just beautiful?


Alexandra Dane and Alexandra Hammer 1960. Milford, Connecticut



Filled to the Brim.


Yesterday I worked in the gardens for six hours, sinking my hands into the dirt, chatting with the cardinals, whisking compost off Olive’s beard, planting tightly-closed plants and tipping my face up to the warmth.  The sun, the birdsong and the simple tasks disconnected me from my head. I needed this.

In brief, a lot has happened in the last twenty-eight days, most of it unimaginable:  I kissed a friend good-bye for the last time. I received a call from a young man asking to marry my oldest daughter. I prepare to graduate my youngest from college. I attended my very last family lacrosse game after twenty years on the sidelines. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t catch my breath.

Have I taken this all in stride? On one hand, there is a hole in my heart the size of Kansas, the loss of my friend from ovarian cancer inconceivable. On the other hand, the love pouring into me from her family, friends and mere acquaintances has filled me to the brim. And while the sadness running out of me has left me wrung out, proposals and wedding plans smack me on the side of the head, reminding me that our lifelines go on, and on, and on, and I am full of joy and happiness AND sadness — a nest of words and emotions exploding in my head and heart.

So there I was, pruning roses and teary, illogically wishing I could call my mother, dead thirty years ago, to tell her all the amazing news and this popped up on my phone screen from a friend:


And I realized, as the sparrows squabbled overhead and the earthworms wriggled below, that there is truly always more room in my heart, that hearts are made to expand —  to have and to hold, to hug and to cherish, to grieve and remember, to love and to lose.

How lucky am I to have all these memories and all this emotion. I am filled to the brim. And yet? There is room for more.

Bring it on.


Tasting Memory: A Night of Paella.


Paella night

By the grill, Bainbridge Island, Washington, April 2016

Last weekend I poured a blood colored Spanish into my glass and watched the seals slip through the borage blue water. Behind me, the cast iron pans slid onto the grill suspended over smoldering hardwood coals as a pair of eagles flew screaming into the evergreens above. The familiar hiss and cackle of arborio rice and garlic stirred hard into the hot oil drew our crowd of family and friends, dressed in a kaleidoscope of Seattle April attire — white linen, puffy vests, scarves, caps — away from the sunset on Mt. Rainier to watch the chef. I can map my fifty-seven years by paella: so many paellas in Connecticut, all the paellas in Boston, one amazing paella in Madrid and tonight, a Pacific Northwest paella on Bainbridge Island, overlooking Puget Sound. A dish of summer. A dish of layers. Tonight, a simmering pan of memories.

My mother’s best friend always made my childhood paellas, gathering her ingredients from the Boston fish market on the edge of the Quincy market. She would arrive at our door in Connecticut arms laden with paper-taped bundles of shellfish, flat fish, fish with eyes, peppers with stems, chicken with pin feathers not quite plucked. We would dance around the grill ducking flakes of ash while she layered the ingredients into the expanding rice, fragrant steam rising, the pan nestled into a homemade grill of rock and coals outside the kitchen door. As the eyes of the small smelt laid last on top began to bulge and bubble, we would shriek and run, fast on bare feet, into the darkening light.

1973 in Madrid: Visiting family that hosted my mother decades before, garlic and saffron and smoked paprika as intense as the language flying around me, the fish chopped apart next to the grill, the heads tossed to the cats milling under the tables. Course chorizo flecked with fat sizzled and jumped. I leaned over the pan, trying to be the sophisticated teenager and inhaled smoke straight up my nose. Feigning a deep drink of the unfamiliar sangria, I flicked the tears away with my sleeve, the night soon a blur for too much fruity wine. That week, I hand-carried a cast iron paella pan home to the States, a gift from this family that loved my mother, wrapped in brown paper and tied with butcher twine.

Then in Boston, married, small children, little fingers tossing the chicken, the peas, holding the youngest over the pan so she could place the red peppers in her pattern of choice. Small dresses danced on the lawn and gin and tonic rattled in glasses. Over the next thirty years we adopted some of the old ways, added some of our own. We used more saffron.The oysters and clams were farmed by a cousin from Vineyard sound. There were allergies, and vegetarians, and paellas in the rain.

And last summer: My son bent over the grill, the flat wide spoon that stirred a hundred paella before in his hand. I watched him measure and stir the rice, the garlic, the saffron,  carefully laying the fish, the chicken, the blue mussels, the redolent chorizo, each ingredient nestled into the deeply oiled pan, this pan older than he is, the hardest grains first, the tenderest flesh last. His father standing nearby, passing on each step learned from this deep history of paella, places and hands; the steps learned from the one who has died, who had learned from a Spanish beauty, who had cooked for the one who now sits on our patio, our guest of honor, my mother’s friend who stirred the rice on the rocks while fireflies danced so long ago. She pulls a sweater close, drinks a small sherry and smiles. Memories laid down one by one into the pan, hands reaching back in time.

And here, on Bainbridge Island: New friends and old family. Fresh Halibut and mussels from the Sound. A child who waves a whisk and runs to watch for Orcas. A mountain as old and as stately as the first peasant paella, thrown together from leftovers. We carry the traditions, we change the traditions, we taste our past and adjust the flavors for our future.

Such is cooking. Such is life.

I dig the spoon deep into the chicken fattened rice and remember.


I have an unusual relationship with chairs.

Forty years ago, after falling off a horse and bodily taking down a post + rail jump, I was x-rayed (pre-MRI days) and was diagnosed with a cracked vertebrae. Twenty years later, countless MRI’s, three herniated discs and three children later, I had the cutting-edge surgery that stabilized my L-3, 4 and 5. But for four decades, I have had to adjust to a very different center of gravity.

Which leads me to chairs. And life.

I sit on the edge. Otherwise, my left leg goes to sleep or my sciatica barks. The trick is to sit at a certain angle, with butt bones hard against the edge, feet planted flat, straight upright. No slouching for me. In restaurants I make a beeline to the seat against the wall so I don’t trip the wait staff. At home, a very odd assortment of hard backed chairs, usually designated to the kitchen table or hallway are my choice for movies. In the kitchen I mostly stand. On airplanes I suffer and fight tooth and nail to book an aisle seat for stretching breaks.

Sometimes at dinner parties I switch the placecards.

I have to make demands for the best arrangement and be fearless about getting my way. So I don’t suffer. So those around me enjoy my company. Apply a little fearlessness so I can accommodate this alternative center of gravity and find peace.

Today, I worry for a friend and feel a sense of vertigo. I find myself on the edge of a high-backed red stained wooden chair, perched, searching for fearlessness, to find my center of gravity and core of faith. I watch my bird feeder teeming with birds and cast a prayer out to my friend, her family and the doctors that make her care team who are making difficult decisions.

I wish them fearlessness: Because even if no one agrees or you change the seating arrangements, you must sometimes be fearless to make things right.


Olive prefers the couch.




How To Be Fearless



Today is February 29, 2016. Leap day. I would like to think today was full of activities making this an extra-special extra day in the year — more coffee, walks, decadent chocolate, perhaps  a fresh sumo mandarin orange peeled wide — but the reality is I am presenting my book outline on Thursday. This will be a bonus day of work, moving post-its and staring out the window contemplating words until the letters twitch. And besides, the rain is pouring down.

Food keeps sneaking into my story, my narrator escaping into the kitchen and baking  gingerbread and soft-curd scrambled eggs, furtively eating entire boxes of chocolate, skimming the crackling fat off roast beef. I feign and block this diversion and intrusion daily; this isn’t a food story, this is a coming-of-age during the worst of times story! Just eat and move on!

But for my writing group this week I gave in, set the scene where it belonged in the kitchen, where spices and thick batter filled the house with scented memories, where four generations of women kept me company in the kitchen while I baked from the recipe they passed down to me, written on a yellowed slip of stationary. Recognized that the square pan of moist crumb was essential for me on the last week of my mother’s illness as much as wine, friends or sleep.

The more we write the more this happens, the pull of the senses, the surprise at the end of the page. Just like I cannot leave out my brother in my story, I cannot leave out the intricate layers of pleasure that were necessary to survive the trauma of 1982-1986. As my mother slowly died, I lived by slipping into the kitchen and more. That is the complicated equation of  survival.

Today I will peel a thick skinned orange while standing up over my writing table, look out the watery windows, and later, make cream scones for tea. And remember. There is no stopping these memories leaping from heart and pencil.


My father, Richard Grave, eating scones and eggs  under the Shagbark hickory tree.  1981





Party on.

A few minutes ago I did the unthinkable. I changed my political party.

Politics have always been a hot button issue for me in different ways than most other people. I was the granddaughter of Senator Lucy T. Hammer, Republican, Connecticut. I attended rallies young enough to get bounced on Senator Lowell Weicker’s knee, sat at endless chicken dinners with my white gloves tucked under my thigh, stumped with her at county fairs handing out expandable sponges that read, in large black letters, Vote For Lucy T. Hammer!

She was larger than life, all five feet of her, the wife of a small-town factory owner who wanted to make a difference. Politics were the only topic of discussion at the dinner table: Political squabbles, bills for education (her passion), the upstarts on the House floor, the ones who had promise (“this new man Lieberman will go a long way,” she had exclaimed one September). We were all Republicans and there was no other option.

And just like I promised her I would never, ever, take her from her home and put her in a nursing home, I promised her that I was Republican for life.

So I have played a little cat and mouse game at dinner parties over the last three decades, championing who I agreed with but skirting the party issue, claiming independence. All the while gone cold in my heart that she would somehow hear me lean towards the ultimate disloyalty — lose faith in all that she believed in and championed. All things Republican.

But today, would she agree?

I don’t know that, but I do know I cannot skulk into the voting booth and see Republican next to my name another year. Not with the rotten whiff of Donald Trump’s cologne exuding from the newspaper pages. Not with the Republican Party’s inability to be non-partisan and represent common, basic human understanding regarding abortion, immigration, and education.

I would like to think this afternoon Lucy T. Hammer is applauding me, that she is as disgusted about her party as I am. But just like I had to ultimately move her to live near me in an assisted living facility for the last three years of her life to keep her safe, I had to change my political party to keep my politics safe. And as my finger hovered over the ‘send’ button on my computer, I had to reassure myself that deeply and truly, I was preserving her legacy of fairness and integrity with my decision.

Hello, Democrats. Let’s party.


Alexandra Dane, Benjamin Cornell and Lucy T. Hammer, photo shoot, 1969.


This is Alexandra.

A guilty pleasure turned into a thought-provoking exercise a few days ago. Over morning tea, slightly mad from endless torrents of rain on the roof, I clicked on one of those Facebook personal ‘analysis’ sites using my name. Here is what popped up:Version 2

I want to point out a few trails of thought from this (creepy)(not-so-wrong)random device:

For one, how does this search engine find these descriptions? I post my blog, WordNest, on Facebook. Ok, there (here) are my opinions out in the open air. But how does this searcher know how often I have been skewered in writing groups for showing the underbelly of caregiving? And kept going?

Memoir is the writing version of the ‘Janet Jackson‘ moment — the bodice ripping moment where writers show intensely private pieces of their story to the public. I have been criticized/questioned/confronted for my dirty underwear truthfulness, taken to task that this story is about being Florence Nightingale and also her ugly cousin. Inevitably, the words go viral through the writing groups and beyond (“she’s writing sort of a revealing book…”). And how does that search engine know I go back to the Nest, pour a (large) goblet of white Bordeaux and instead of crying in my glass say “HAAHA, THAT got their attention!”

Is that “not giving a shit?”(Sorry. I quote. I try to avoid that kind of language here.)

Actually, reader, that is me really and truly caring. About you, about my story, about the sanity of caregiving. Because we try so hard to make ourselves perfect when in fact the bodice can rip at any moment and, truthfully readers, does rip — alcohol, anger, disassociation, bad decisions, challenging medical advice and care, words we regret happen as often during illness and caregiving as those life-affirming moments we never forget and carry us through the rest of our life.

Illness cracked me at the root at twenty-one. But I came from strong, vital root stock. So here I am, facing the beasts, tipping over the laundry basket of the story.

But Alexandra is smart. She has listened to many caregiving stories and lived them herself.

She keeps writing.



Hellebore I planted outside the Nest, January 2016.



Look Both Ways.

Put together a small, historic street edged in snow, ten degrees, wind blustering through, add a sprinkle of ice with a major snowstorm on the way and presto: terrible drivers. This is giving the benefit of the doubt that Massachusetts drivers even know on a good day that the white, blocked out area glowing in the dark means pedestrians crossing.

Today I stepped out onto one of those very white, obvious crosswalks — a third of the way into one to be precise  — and a small red car blew right in front of me by inches. I couldn’t help myself.

“HEY” I shouted in a most unladylike manner. She never hit the brake or looked at me. “I get so angry when this happens,” I said, turning to the gentleman walking a few steps behind me.

The hood turned. Dark eyes looked at me solemnly.

The beard spoke softly, “You got to let that go.”

Long hair blew across his chin, wrapped around his jacket.

He continued, “Anger is the red bull, it does not give you wings.”

I stopped on the other side of the road and thanked him.

Well, readers, I have certainly been thinking about that red bull all afternoon. Am I getting to that age — that ‘freeing 50’ — that somehow gives me the right to tell off strangers? That I know what is right or wrong, absolutely?  Horrifying. Maybe. Sometimes.

But I am really thinking about those wings. What transcends us out of the dark days of January, the dangerous crosswalk, the difficult days?

I like to look at this photo and remember: My mother had a year left when I photographed her that day. Would you know that in this picture? She had her lamb, her scottie, chickens were squawking at her feet and the sun was beaming down on her. She was a master of staying in the moment, especially in 1984, chemo options exhausted. She was looking at the bright side, the wonderful day, her beautiful farm.

“It’s a good day,” she would say when I got grouchy about something that spring.

“So shut-up about that.”

Take the moments. Let that red bull out to pasture. Feel the sunlight of family and friends. Keep each other safe.

Thanks, strange guy. I will not forget you.

I will look both ways, everyday.

Mom 1984

Mom, Lambert and Lily, 1984.





Love Letters.

January is the month I resift and reorganize and revisit stacks of boxes in the garage.

Not to horrify the relatives that may be reading this, but I was bequeathed with way, way, way too much stuff. My mother was an only child. I was the only granddaughter. Both emotionally and physically these boxes taunt me every time I pass through the garage, twelve months of the year. They whisper,

Read us. See us. Remember us. 

So January is the month I sift through, sort a little more, discover and read a few more letters — business letters, fun letters, love letters —  from as far back as 1834 and some, earlier. New ideas bubble up from this, sitting on an upside down box in my parka, transported to the land of garden tea parties and horse and buggy, to Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Yale, to the houses I remember in my dreams. My roots dig deeper into the earth with each envelope.

For those of you who follow my winding path, I have been working on a memoir about caregiving in my twenties. Not singly, but collectively, with friends, family, and strangers after my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 47 years old in 1982.

This is not a straight line process, or an easy process, but to me, has been a completely satisfying career choice: Writing to making words show how I survived the good, the bad and the beautiful while taking care of someone I loved with every cell in my body, who was diagnosed with an incurable illness. Some of this is messy. Some is obvious. Some is scary.

Memoir is a maze, and some of the time, over the last two years, I have gone down the ‘rabbit hole’ of story lines. I keep a stack of photographs on every work table from here to Seattle and I am adding to the pile this week. They keep me focused.

Organizationally, I know there are better ways: Pay someone to scan and put the photos on disc. Buy some fancy boxes and sort by year, person, decade. But I like one box per person, and I like my stacks. I like to touch the words, the nests of old dusty letters, and think about what they mean to me today, trace the significance over the decades.

This morning I went from 1834 to 1959 when I came across this black-and-white. And I remember why I write and write and write and try to make sense of all that was given and all that was lost.

Our love affair began early. I’m beginning to think my manuscript is a love letter that I started writing right here, on this summer day, so long ago.


Alexandra Hammer and Alexandra Dane, Summer, 1959. Milford, Connecticut.


To You.



Christmas Scene, Marblehead MA 2015

It’s beginning to look a lot like…

…Family holidays become absolutely more precious and priceless with each year we can still be together.

…I can survive on five hours of sleep. Once in a while.

…June. In December. Global what?

…I do like snow, especially when there is none.

…I may be eating all the Assumption Abbey fruitcake by myself. All two pounds of it. Bring it on.

…Handmade gifts rock.

…A walk on the beach with a dog is good for the soul, especially in December.

…Star Wars will never die.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas is a wrap and the new year is ahead, despite the world, the news, the weather and Scrooge.

I am grateful to you, all my readers, for clicking on AlexandraDaneBlog and reading my WordNests.

Cheers to Words, Thoughts and You. I hope to be worthy of your reading time again in 2016.

Thank you.

Alexandra Dane


Christmas Scene, Branford CT @1967. Ok. My brother got to put on the star. I was pouting. With Lucy T. Hammer supervising.