River Muse

Irreplaceable (but not lost)

Posted 11/2/21

In a writing workshop recently, we were asked to consider five irreplaceable things. Mine were my daughter’s love, art, music, the ocean and sunlight through trees.

Then five things lost …

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River Muse

Irreplaceable (but not lost)


In a writing workshop recently, we were asked to consider five irreplaceable things. Mine were my daughter’s love, art, music, the ocean and sunlight through trees.

Then five things lost to us: my father, my brother, love (it can be lost and retrieved many times), the Yale Younger Poets award (because it’s only given to those under 40), and my connection with my aunt.

Nellie was always there for me. Like a mother but better, she was the beautiful younger sister to my mother Jane. In the earliest photo of us together, she is dressed in blue taffeta for her wedding to my Uncle Hal. She was the Grace Kelly of our clan with her slender figure and graceful posture, which she used to good advantage modeling as a young woman. Her cerulean blue eyes belied her intellect, which was sharp. She spoke to me always as a peer, even when I was a child, never belittling me.

I don’t remember ever being on the receiving end of her anger, although I saw it directed to others many times. Maybe I never dared risk it. I always said “Yes” to her requests for me to babysit for my two cousins.

“Is it too much trouble?” she would ask. “No, I can get there,” I said, even when it meant cutting a class at the end of a school day to do so. I had to sneak out of the building before the bell rang and catch the #1 train at 110th Street down to 14th Street to pick up Jenny and Michael at City and Country School on 12th Street. I wondered years later what she was doing those afternoons, but I never asked.

In high school, I lived with her and my uncle. When I came home from school, driven by the dean, with whom I was infatuated, in his little faded blue VW bug and flushed with the kiss he gave me, she knew exactly what was going on. But she didn’t appear to judge me. She never did. Or if she did, she didn’t unload her judgment on my fragile adolescent self. She accepted me, supported me, listened to my romantic misadventures over a lifetime.

She left her doors open to me, literally and figuratively. I was always welcome in her home as a teenager, whether on 10th Street or on Fire Island in summer. When I moved back to New York after living in Boston after college, she and my uncle rented to me an apartment that they owned for an affordable rent.

For all the years I lived in the city after that, we saw each other almost once a week and talked. She went from being a mother to earning her Ph.D. in psychoanalysis and having a private practice, as well as lecturing at psychoanalytic conferences. Although she wasn’t my analyst, she directed me to one when I was looking for guidance during my childbearing years.

In 2012, almost a decade ago, Nell had a stroke in her dining room. Her husband was nearby but couldn’t manage to call 911. By the time he got help (by standing in the hallway, yelling), the stroke damage was severe. With therapy, she learned to walk haltingly but never regained the ability to speak clearly, as she had done professionally for so many years.

She continued to live in New York City and we saw each other regularly but it was never the same. I could still rant on about my life, but she could offer nothing in return. I know those times were valuable to her but they grew less frequent after we moved to Narrowsburg and she then moved nearer to her children. The last time I visited her was in February 2020, just before the pandemic.

What I got from my relationship with my aunt is both irreplaceable and lost to me. But maybe she doesn’t feel the same. A visit now, post-COVID, could at least bring her some joy.

loss, River Muse, Cass Collins


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