Moonstruck and Jan DeGaetani

I know. I’ve been mighty silent.

Writing is hard for me. Always has been. Lay a new full-time high school teaching job on top, and well, you get the picture.

But I am surfacing. Honestly, I’ve never slept better. It’s been years of turmoil at night doused by troubles, aging–a rescue puppy. A separation. Now, a divorce. It’s done. I am a divorced person.

Everything is different and not different.

I’ve found a wonderful group to ride with on weekends. Artists and retired professors and Mississippians who make me want to know more about this here and now; maybe even stay.

I’ve been to Oxford Treehouse Gallery, happy hours, concerts, Thacker Mountain Radio Show. I’m making friends. I’ve been welcomed into a lovely, lively, oh-so-fun writer’s group that meets once a month.

Jan was divorced once, and under similar circumstances to my own. Another coincidence. I think of her all the time, those lean years she was raising on her own two children under the age of six. I am looking as I type this at the small, teak recipe box Jan sent to me in 1987. A wedding present. It has followed me to every home Brian and I ever lived in. And now it’s here in Water Valley.

I remember the summer of 1988, asking Jan to save me a space in her Aspen studio, that I wanted to come spend the season there with her, singing, hiking, studying. Of course, she said yes. But I didn’t go. Brian, a submariner then, was about to leave for months; I called Jan and told her I was conflicted about Aspen. She said, If I were just married and I knew I only had a short amount of time to be with my husband, I’d stay with him.

So I did.

I promise myself I will get back to work on Close to Water in a concerted, finish-this-thing-kind-of-flurry. Because I want to. Because I have to.

It kills me that someone out there is reading this blog every single day. I am so grateful and somehow buoyed by knowing this.

Here’s a short piece I wrote a few weeks ago after my aborted trip to Ocean Springs, MS (the Gulfport) the very weekend Hurricane Nate turned from a tropical storm to a Cat 2. Not focused on Jan, but on me, right now, in this season of letting go, nature’s tricks and fury, beauty and calm. Thanks for reading.


He would say, Moonstruck after Cher’s film was released nationally on January 15, 1988, during our first year of marriage.

1988. Size 9. My lowest weight ever, my hair, long and wavy, pulled up and held in place by the metal clips we found in a Mystic, CT gift shop, a row of small cats or alligators, ornate and cool.

I hostessed and waited tables at Noah’s restaurant in Stonington and took literature classes at Connecticut College.

Wait, not yet. January,1988 we were living in South Berwick, Maine near to where his submarine was in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.  I subbed nearly daily at all the local primary schools. We’d move to Connecticut that March, weeks after my brother-in-law died in a car crash. He was high, loaded, had hit a tree, the car slowly rolling off the dirt road along the river. Quietly entering the waist-high muddy waters upside down. It was found tires up the next day. We don’t know if he died on impact or if he drowned. My sister wouldn’t allow the autopsy.

January 1988, Brian would still be on land, and though I can’t remember seeing the film with him, I think we would have gone together. And he would have immediately appropriated the story as ours, saying about that night, our first, at Groton Long Point in June 1986, that we, too, had been moonstruck.

That June evening, he’d driven me in his treasured Fiat to the famous Connecticut enclave where we sat at a picnic bench, the only ones there, at dusk, flirting, talking after a day at the beach. We’d met up that morning at the motel where his sister and I were staying. I’d not seen him in at least two years. Brian, the little brother of people I’d known nearly all my life. He was 20. I was 24. Now, here we were, sitting side by side, watching the perfectly round, huge, orange moon lift off the horizon at the edge of this inlet, into the night sky. He leaned over and kissed me, and I liked it.


I drove toward the storm.

Hurricane Nate was named and had already decimated Central America, killing more than 30 people.

Even though I knew what was coming.

Friday, October 6.  I packed my bike, my work, one book to read. Hope against hope. I had a four-day break from teaching and had planned to go down to the Gulf Coast.  I wanted to ride daily out toward the national seashore, through town, visit the Walter Anderson museum again. Drink coffee and grade papers. Journal. Eat dinners out.  Surely the storm would weaken and move quickly as predicted.

When I arrived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Nate was still only a tropical storm. My hosts knew it was coming but believed it would be an insignificant one. By the time I ready to sleep, it’s a Category 1 hurricane coming fast and headed right for us.

Three days earlier, I’d signed my divorce papers.

Nature wins.

Saturday morning. October 7. I learned upon waking that the storm was going to be bad, probably a Category 2; the rains would start in hours. I threw on some clothes, didn’t bother to wash my face or brush my hair (or teeth) and went out to hunt for food. And coffee.  At Starbucks, I learned from several locals that the town would simply shut down and soon. It suddenly occurred to me that spending my vacation in a lovely but small Airbnb with lovely (but veritable stranger-) hosts who were sure to lose power, water, and internet was dumb.

I repacked my car, drove to the ocean just a few streets from my Airbnb, took photographs of Pelicans dive bombing in the turbulent surf, the sky greying and darkening. Studied the outline of the Biloxi hotels which in a few hours would fill with water. 20 minutes later, I headed north out of town.  pelican

I was too tired to be mad, but I wasn’t mad. Not really. I’d seen the moon after all.  And maybe this leaving was another iteration of my now growing-up self who continues to be brave enough to listen, make decisions, and act. To do the right thing. Staying may have been adventurous, interesting, challenging, but leaving was also a right thing to do.  I’d been doing this now for over a year, packing, leaving, knowing when to stay, when to go. Since the morning I’d driven away from my 30-year marriage. Bike and books and work in tow.

There had been no warning.

It had been always only warnings.

People leave. They stay. They put up boards. Take them down. Fill sand bags. Friday morning, at my local coffee shop hours before I headed south, I met a couple living near me now who had moved from Ocean Springs thirteen years ago. Katrina was their breaking point. They just couldn’t do it anymore.


When I’d arrived that Friday evening, I first dumped my stuff with my hosts and then proceeded to walk to a nearby bar and grill on the water, the sun setting over me.  I stopped along the way to photograph the sky: sweeping pinks and roses, terra cotta on the edge. At the intersection, I questioned the intelligence of walking on this major vein on which the bar sat because cars were flying by, and as with every Mississippi road I’ve witnessed since moving here, there were no shoulders, no sidewalks.sunset

As I stood contemplating this, a truck stopped and a fellow with his sweet dog offered to drive me down to the bar. I hopped in and decided to worry about the walk back after I ate.

I sat at a picnic table facing the water, the restaurant’s strung lights dropping into every picture I took on my cell phone.Ocean Springs, MS

The sky darkened; I listened to a couple of retired teachers who played and sang the blues on the small stage inside. I ordered wine in a plastic cup, a chicken sandwich, sweet potato fries. I texted some folks my location, just so they’d know I was here. No one really knows where I am, I think, except for my two Airbnb hosts. I tweet my location accompanied by one of the photos; as I do, I am totally cognizant of this fact: Brian and I are still linked on Twitter. One last remaining thread.

What will he think? I know I ask myself, though I’d like to pretend that I don’t notice these thoughts. He’d be scared sick with worry. But there is no communication from him anymore. And there won’t be.

The sun is gone. I eat. I feel happy. That I came anyway, knowing the approaching storm will mess with my weekend. Alive. It doesn’t take much. Get in a car. Drive. Just go and see what’s out there. Look at people in the eye. Remember what you came here with to give.

I strap to my back the bike light my hostess loaned me.  I pay my bill at the bar and ask the young man behind it about the road. He tells me he walks home along this road every night.  “You’re fine. Don’t worry.” But I do, because standing in the parking lot, there appears to be a steady stream of traffic, headlights coming right at me. I look to my left, and then I see it. Of course. This huge, orange, perfectly round moon on the horizon readying to take flight. Moonstruck. I stop and face it directly across from where I stand.

October 6, 2017. One month, one day and thirty years after I married Brian Haines.  72 hours after I’d slipped the 8.5 by 11 envelope in the post box.

“Moonstruck,” he’d always said. And for a long time, too.

I am slightly buzzed, and exhausted, and mostly worried about navigating those yards ahead on this busy road on which I, 1. Do nearly step on a black snake, either dead or alive, I don’t linger to find out, 2. Dance at the grassy edge, not wanting to invite another chigger infestation or worse, and 3. End up running most of the distance, giggling and stopping when a line of cars passes.

Almost immediately after leaving the parking lot, I look left again. Trees, bushes, houses obscure the view.  I can’t see it anymore.

It will rise, and I will keep walking.






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, Images, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Moonstruck and Jan DeGaetani

  1. John Kramar says:

    You are loved. I can never thank you enough for what you rekindled in my heart and soul through your words and spirit.


  2. Cheryl Wilder says:

    This: ” It doesn’t take much. Get in a car. Drive. Just go and see what’s out there. Look at people in the eye. Remember what you came here with to give.”


    This: “It will rise, and I will keep walking.”

    Thanks for resurfacing with this beauty.


  3. Amy Lieberman says:

    what a powerful posting. loved reading every word. love you xoxo



  4. Meg Kerr says:

    Loved it Dawn. You took me right there with every word. XO.


  5. Edward Scalzo says:

    Hi Dawn for some reason you popped into my head so I googled you and found this blog. You always were a gifted writer. Great blog. You knew me as Eddie Green in Tucson.


  6. Julie V says:

    Love reading this! I one day hope to be as strong as you are.


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