The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

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Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

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Summertime and Time

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: This first appeared as a blog in Skirt Magazine)

When I was a child, the first day of summer was a day of extraordinary luxury for me. My mom would take me to the library right after the last school bell and I could get out as many books as I wanted.

The deliberations could last all afternoon. What to get? Mysteries featuring Nancy Drew? Adventures featuring nurse Cherry Ames? Or the Judy Blume books with the angst of the teenager I hoped to become?

The best part was the official first day of summer. I was allowed to stay in bed as long as I wanted. No miser counted gold with more avidity than I paged through my library books, reading the synopses and the first pages to decide which book I’d start with. The slick plastic-covered books, the slightly musty smell, the stamped library card that became my de facto bookmark…library books were a sensory door to summer.

Eventually, the smell of bacon would tempt me from my lair. But after a quick breakfast, I’d slip on shorts and an old t-shirt, tucking my bare feet under the covers to keep them warm in the air-conditioned room, and immerse myself again in whatever faraway world the chosen book was creating.

I was allowed to bring the book to the lunch table on that first magical day of summer. And I would keep reading until I needed to flip on my bedside table lamp.

I owned time.

My dad died on the last day of June this year. It was not an anticipated death: he was healthy, and longevity ran in his family. Suddenly, there was no more time for the planned visit this fall, the Christmas together, the smoothing out of recent relationship bumps. Would my dad have lived differently if he had known he had so little time left? I doubt it. After my mom died three years ago, he became the most carpe diem of carpe diem dads. He had seen mortality and it made him a dessert-first kinda guy.

His death – and the scorching day it took place in New Orleans — made me think about summer. About the fact that true luxury isn’t a tottering stack of library books or a stuffed closet or even a burgeoning bank account. Luxury is the feeling that there is so much time that you can waste it, can consume it in great careless gulps without worrying about saving little sips for later.

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GREETING CARD SENTIMENT

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I was standing in the greeting card aisle of Harris Teeter and crying. Not a lot, but the tears had definitely spilled over. You rolled your cart to the end of the aisle, saw the tears, and did a brisk about-face to roll away. Whatever sentiment you wanted to express with a greeting card could wait until this awkward live display of sentiment was over.

I understand. You had no idea I was crying because I was trying to pick out a Mothers’ Day card for my mother-in-law, and all the cards with all the sentiments for mothers stabbed me with words I won’t get to say to my own mother anymore.

I don’t blame you for running away. You came to the grocery for tomatoes, not a crying stranger.

Still, being able to say my mom’s name aloud, even to a stranger, might have been nice. Especially to a stranger, because this is my second Mothers’ Day without my mom and I feel like I may have used up the tears I can share with friends who were there for me through the year of motherless firsts.

Reaching out to a stranger in need is so hard for so many, although it wasn’t for my mom.

I remember one weekend in high school, the age where being noticed or different was excruciatingly embarrassing. My parents were treating my boyfriend and me to a day at the Great America theme park. Inside of the park, shortly after our arrival, we saw some commotion. A young woman sat on the ground crying, her hands hovering protectively over her boyfriend, who lay next to her, jerking spasmodically. Park attendees swarmed past this couple, sneaking glances at the freak show, then parting like ants and continuing on their way. I would have been one of them, but my mom dropped to her knees.

“Is he having a seizure?” she asked. “Is he epileptic?”

My mom stayed with the couple, sacrificing a wallet to put between the boy’s gnashing teeth because she had read he could bite off his tongue otherwise. She waited until medical help arrived, talking calmly to the frantic young woman.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the day. What sticks is the boy’s movements on the ground, ugly and somehow embarrassing even to be around. And my mom, stopping because that’s just who she was. For my mom, there were no strangers when a person was in need.

Last night, my husband called from the ball park. He had been waiting an hour and a half for the trolley and it still hadn’t come; could I pick him up? As I rolled to the curb by the baseball stadium, my husband gestured to a man who was 80 if he was a day.

“He needs a ride too,” he said.

As we pulled away, I remembered that strangers still help strangers, and that the kindness didn’t die with my mom.

 I hope that, if omniscience is granted after death, she knows that kindness continues. Maybe that’s better than any card I could have gotten her.Image

I’d Rather Be Weak

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I think, all things considered, I’d rather be weak.

 I decided this after talking with my dad today.

 There are studies that show that athletes who repeatedly jolt their bones – like gymnasts who land hard, or martial arts experts who strike boards – build up the density of their bones through the tiny fractures and resulting repairs of the bones. It is the breaking down that is the building up.

 I was talking with my dad today because it has been one year since my mom died of MDS, the same disease that almost got Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts.

 Mom’s death has rocked my world. She was my soft place to fall.

 I have had an extraordinarily lucky life, ducking the larger of life’s tragedies and dodging the worst consequences of stupid choices. But whenever I did land with a thud, my mother, with her boundless love, was the cushion that kept the hurt from being fatal, kept me from breaking down. Her faith in me got me back on my feet.

 So I had not developed the bones to bear great grief that so many of my friends did, because I was never forced to.

 In her last couple of days propped up in her hospital bed, Mom asked me, “Are you going to be okay?”

 At the time, I doubted it. But her question left me no choice, and my last gift to her was to reassure her that yes, she had raised me strong enough.

 In the year since Mom’s death, I have made some big life changes (semi-retiring and moving to Charleston, SC) but mostly, I have simply kept on. I think and I hope Mom would be proud of any strength I have demonstrated.

 I’d choose to give the strength back in a second if I could have her back. But fractures mend, even imperfectly, and, like her question to me, I’m left with no choice.

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Resolving to Be Human

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There is a long letter, full of photos and cheery news from the past year that I write this time each year to friends and relatives. This is also the time I create my list of resolutions.

 

But this year, I just haven’t had the energy to write a long letter detailing 2013, which was shadowed with trying to regain my footing after my beloved Mama’s death in January. Every few weeks last year, another friend’s parent seemed to die, sending me back into the black. So, I haven’t written a letter. And there goes one of my resolutions already, the one to do a better job of staying in touch with friends and family.

 

In searching for resolutions, I found a long story about the best way to make the year matter, most of which involves asking yourself the big questions like, “Why Am I Here?” All good questions, but none of which I think I can consider in the hurly-burly of daily life. Maybe if I scheduled a trip to an ashram… (which probably should be another resolution!).

 

Another list has some really great suggestions that would certainly make me a better human being.  Unlike the grand questions on the previous list, this one details the person I would like to be, maybe even the person I think I can be. The list seems to boil down to two themes: spend more time being by yourself and spend more time being kind to others. The trick, of course, is how to balance those two. Some mornings, I can do both at once; on those mornings, the kindest thing I can do for others is to be by myself since I am not fit company for anyone. My eye keeps finding #22 on the list: Stop shaming yourself for doing things that are perfectly, normally human, but happen to be deemed imperfect in society.

 

This actually hews closer to another philosophy I discovered, a parenting philosophy that might be the best resolution of all for me this year. Called the CTFD Parenting Method, it urges parents to just Calm The F**& Down. Here’s something I can get behind. Every time I get anxious that I am underachieving, every time I fall short of my arbitrary measures, every time the harshest judge – myself – sneers and shakes her head at my shortcomings, I need to CTFD.

 

Come to think of it, maybe this would be a good resolution for our politicians as well. What about you? Any one resolution resonate this year?

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Maybe we should resolve to break resolutions…