Jan DeGaetani and Water

Good Morning, Friends,

Here’s a little piece I worked on this morning:



Baritone Tom Paul, asks me, “Did you know Jan was fascinated by Osprey?”

I shake my head no.

“She loved them.”

I find this question scribbled on a torn off page of yellow legal pad, sporadic notes across half the long page. It was a four-hour interview in Tom and Ester’s rambling country house in an old Rochester, New York suburb. I have written less than ten lines.

I’m looking for interview notes with Gil Kalish because I have to start this story about Jan and Gil, but I have been putting off this story about Jan and Gil because I have to get it right. I’m intimidated.

Jan DeGaetani Gil Kalish Eastman School of Music

Jan and Gil at Eastman School of Music, 1980’s

I grab the page and bring it with the Gil folder back to my writing desk of late, a long distressed- white dining room table my sister has given me for my move to Mississippi. Birds chatter and speak all day long here beginning in the early morning hours. Once a few weeks ago, I witnessed a blue hummingbird speed through the tree leaning into my back porch.

I pay attention when birds come to me. [I once wrote an essay about my mother’s death a few weeks after she left us when a family of newborn cardinals attempted flight from their nest precariously sprung among the slender branches of a lilac tree outside my bedroom window.]

I should be thinking about Gil, but instead I look up Osprey online at the Audubon Society site. The homepage for Osprey comes up. Nearly the entire page is a bright photograph of this bird, either landing or taking flight from a stick nest, wings spread, curled talons curled at rest, but no less intimidating. Of hawk, not falcon or eagle, but some part of all these together, its body dominates the screen. Thick, log-like, solid, its haunches symmetrical, sleek and muscular: thigh then knee joint then falling, quiet calf. [I don’t have words other than for humans to use here.] Its beak is black and pointed downward, talon sharp. Sharper eyes, yellow spheres, black yolk. This animal is strong. Fierce. And beautiful, its feathers striped white, gray, black, and downy; you want to stroke where ligament attaches at the bone.

Of course, I think, It’s Jan.

Regal. White. Piercing. Serious. Strong. Beautiful.

I read the osprey is “a very distinctive fish-hawk, formerly classified with other hawks but now placed in a separate family of its own.” [My italics.]

In my notes of my third interview with Gil, I read, “There was an aura about her. She was unusual.”

The osprey travels “along coastlines, lakes, and rivers almost worldwide and is often seen flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons.”

Gil says, “She didn’t know what it was either.”

[He also says, “She’d be amazed that you are writing this book.”  Humble.]

The bird is only doing its work. What it was built for.

[You would not go so far as to say Jan was hawkish.]


“After a successful strike, the bird rises heavily from the water and flies away, carrying the fish head-forward with its feet.”

Jan loved the ocean. Loved her little cottage on Shelter Island. I have a photograph of her walking along the shore in winter, bundled up, scarf over thick hair, her little dog at her feet. Looking down. At shells? Looking up. Sky.

Jan DeGaetani Shelter Island

Jan and Phil walking on the beach at Shelter Island

Gil Kalish tells me, “She was one of a kind.”

Jan readily told people she must have been born close to water.  By the time I hear her say it, I know she doesn’t mean of the religious bearing, not anymore, but of something else, earthbound and human and emotional: she cried. Jan cried at everything beautiful: a student’s soaring sound and phrasing, what a friend just shared, the symphony or quartet washing over her, the funniest thing that just happened and I have to tell you—we all know that image, sparkling blue eyes under salty water—and it was because she was happy. At beauty, at connection, at divine human experience.

Osprey. Tom Paul said this to me during our long, fast, emotional reckoning. I wrote it down. I remember sitting at his kitchen table thinking in that second that someone else had mentioned this to me, Jan’s adoration of some genus of bird. It was Jane, Jane Adler, a little story about a bird.

I open my notes from my interview with Jane and read: Jan had said she wanted to come back as a kind of bird, a seagull. Jane says Jan’s son Mark told her this once when they drove from the city to the cottage on Shelter Island for a party. Jane tells me she later learned that Mark took some of Jan’s ashes to this beach where he threw them into the wind,

flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging

I have been told again and again how Jan loved the shore, her little island cottage [close to water]. It is something else I never knew about Jan. She said she wanted to come back a bird. I have a hard time thinking it was a seagull. This is what happens with the telling. The thread. The broken connections. [Remember that game Telephone?] We all have to decide to accept this, that the essence  ashes in the wind  of the truth is what rings true. That ocean and flight and fierce beauty is enough.


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.
This entry was posted in Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Images, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Jan DeGaetani and Water

  1. Amy Lieberman says:

    Just drove by a giant osprey nest by the Assabet River in West Concord!!!!

    Sent from my iPhone




    What a beautiful story of Jan and her passions, her loves.
    I truly enjoyed it.
    TY for sharing your gift of pen and the written word.
    I’ll be looking and hoping for more.


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