I am sitting in my sister’s lovely home near Moody Beach, Maine, the pellet stove firing to my left. To my right, I see out the front door, a powdery grey bank of cloud cover over a steely blue at the horizon. It’s cold and rainy and I am hunkered down.

And bleary-eyed. And jacked up. What should have been an 8.5 hour trip yesterday from Rochester to home turned into nearly 10. I listened to Serial the whole way (now hooked on these weekly podcasts thanks to my friend Amber Hunt!) and thus, yes, kept myself driving and alert, but also detached from my own thinking and the processing I must do. I sleep like the dead once I’m able to fall asleep, but I am not calm, relaxed. So much stirring.

I think I am relaxing myself when I lie down to sleep and watch Friends reruns until my eyes roll back. But I figured it out last night as I lay staring at the ceiling for hours again: The only way to clarity and rest–to peace of mind and any semblance of my regular old life; that is, when this thing that’s got me now by the throat, that I’m living in deeply 24/7 unhinges its hold–is to walk through this fire, reflect, digest, and write.

I will have to find ways to do this even as I spend whole days in a row gathering research, even as I spend 10 hours behind the wheel.

I close my eyes, and now I see her. I see her face, clearly, the little tilt at something interesting she’s just heard. The wavy, thick shock of white hair. The piercing blue eyes. The neckline of that blue polyester dress, its small buttons just under her narrow chin. Her hands as they hold a score or gesticulate the point she’s making, the flow of the music. I hear her voice, the tone and pitch of hello as I entered her studio, the well wishes as I left an hour later. The soft yet urgent sentences of instruction, invitation, praise. Now, it’s as if the recording of her existence plays endlessly on the curves of my brain.

I tell you this now [I tell myself this now] because I didn’t have Jan like this all these years since her death. I had thought-memory, I-loved-her-once-she-was-an-important-person-in-my-life remembrances, but I did not have her like this: in my veins, under my skin, above my sight line. In the air.

This is good news. I’ve known for a year that I am writing this book now because now I can write this book. Because I’ve grown up enough. Because I’ve learned just enough about language and structure to do so. But now I know I can do it and can rightfully do it because she is here again, with me, in me.

This is in large part because of the people I visit who talk with me about Jan.

Being with Tom and Esther Paul, with Werner and Susan Kunz, with Barbara Starpoli, with Joanie and Gerry Floriano [every night at their dining room table talking fast and animated about it all] this dipping in and back has changed me, deepened the layers and fattened the fabric from which I am writing. To be in the presence of so many who lived and collaborated with Jan, who loved and lost her has drawn her closer. To be in the spaces she occupied for so long, to be touching documents and sheet music and scores she held and wrote on brings her near. [I sat in Kilbourn hall listening to a student recital, glancing at the grand work of the ceiling, the heavy wood paneled walls, wondering what happens to all the sound she spent in this room? A painting, a sculpture, a score, forever, but the singing she delivered right here, where? A canvas drinks and holds oils; these walls?] Somehow the memory of all her living and doing released every time I turn a page, open a new box. I am affirmed I am getting it right. I am remembering. I may be truly mourning Jan for the first time since her death. I miss her.

If you’d seen what I saw in Rochester this week!

Sergius Kagen’s handwritten scores of songs Jan sang in a New York City concert in 1958.

Her markings [always very few, I tell you] on her original Ancient Voices of Children scores.

Lou Ozer’s negatives of the Mahler/Berlioz recording sessions shoot in Eastman Theater in May 1989, her last.

Her beloved home at 165 Trevor Court Road; the condo on East Ave where she was forced to move ; the hospital–Genessee–on Alexander Street [just blocks from my summer rental on Meigs Street] where she died. Closed and now defunct.

Her studio door.

It is all coming back to me, now.


Probably taken in the 70’s. I found this one shot from a contact sheet all of Phil (West, her husband). I love this image of Jan.

I leave you with some photos. I have work to do. And thanks for reading and following this journey.



Joanie, Gerry and I saw Kelli O’ Hara’s Carnegie debut (tonight!) practice run at Eastman Theater on Wed night. Um…not too much goober fan girl love going on, ya think?



Yep, 18-year-old me. With Betsy Fulford. 1980 or 81.



Sergius Kagen song


Joanie and Gerry Floriano.

About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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