“The estate auction was a total disaster in almost every way with the exception of one wonderful act. A distant relative I'd never met bought a wooden statue and gave it to my niece. The woman didn't know my niece, didn't know that the statue had been carved by my grandfather and was much loved. She only saw the tears in my niece's eyes when she had to stop bidding. The price had gotten higher than my niece could afford. So this woman picked up the bid and hung in there till she got the statue. I'm sure she doesn't have much money but she has such a big heart. It was such a generous, kind thing to do.
“I know this second hand because I had to work in the house, missing most of the auction and the opportunity to bid on so many things I would have liked to have -- the woodpecker carved by my father, the beautiful quilt my dad's cousins made for my parents 50th wedding anniversary. I keep telling myself they’re only things…..” from a reader who recently lost her beloved father.
“Yes, it's only things but I always feel there's a little part of someone left in their possessions. That's why I treasure your gold scarf, Susan. I've draped it over the chair in our Balinese sitting room. I think of you whenever I see it,” Carolyn.
“Great minds and all that! My scarf is too beautiful to hide in a closet so I hung it against a white door in my Cone sisters room. One wall is covered floor to ceiling with paintings by friends and there are drawers with antique linens and beads and stuff like the Cone room at the Baltimore museum of Art. Thank you, Susan!” Marilyn.
We hold on to a loved one’s possessions because, as Carolyn says, a little part of that person is left in those possessions, especially the cherished ones. They are like ancestor totems in other cultures. We touch them and feel connected to the good spirit (not the scary ghost.) I hope you all feel that way about my books.
We believe in ghosts because we have a few walking around in our heads. If you can’t keep Mom in her grave, accepting that someone else’s meaner Mom haunts a house seems like not really such a leap. People do love to make big, unsupported mental leaps.
I know the truth about ghosts: they can’t live outside our heads, but inside our heads, they haunt us, very private hauntings. Their possessions that we somehow lost along the way taunt us like those glittery baubles we can’t afford, sending bling signals from shop windows. Who says you can’t take it with you? Our ghosts set up furnished rooms in our minds. Their portraits hang on the mental walls; their favorite quilt lost at estate auction tossed casually on a bed or chair.
My paternal grandmother—and regular readers know that she wasn’t my biological grandmother—was Lyda Crain, a famous-in-her-day spiritualist clairvoyant/medium and a minister in the Spiritualist church. She faked the contact with spirits so you don’t think I could believe in ghosts after being privy to all that, do you?
I was a little girl when she died; and I don’t remember a lot about her, except that she was an imposing figure. She was also an officer of Eastern Star—Grandpa was a Mason—and her enormous funeral procession followed a full three-day wake where floral arrangements kept arriving ‘til the end, replacing those already donated to hospitals and nursing homes. Her rose-covered casket was poised over the grave, under the June sun. Wearing a crisp white cotton eyelet dress tied with a blue satin sash and holding Ellen’s hand, I coveted the flowers. The entire family had grown restless by the time the last cars pulled into the cemetery.
I do recall playing paper dolls under the rising table and inspecting the room where Grandpa Crain, like a sweet Wizard of Oz, ran the special effects. Grandma told me that I would have two husbands and no children—wrong!—her only prognostication for me that I recall.
I wish she’d lived until I was old enough to get her real story—but, like most of the family dead, she sleeps peacefully in my memories, in her case, she really sleeps in a St. Louis columbarium, where Grandpa’s and Daddy’s ashes flank hers. You’d think she’d be the obvious ghost in the head, wouldn’t you? No. I have no unfinished business with her.
Some readers have asked me: Are you working to effect “closure?”
If “closure” means telling false “friends” and phony “admirers” to go away, yes, I’ve been good at effecting that. Cancer gives you laser vision but no patience. The posers and pretenders are easy to spot, easier to shut out. They are annoying like ants at a picnic; and sometimes I laugh at how impotent and ridiculous they are. On the other hand, the goodness of so many others shines brilliantly. Cancer also permits you to hear other hearts speaking.
Closure—whatever that means and I suppose it means peace—is a process made more difficult because the word sticks in my throat. Closure—like another therapy phrase “holding a space’—feels like a leftover from the age of Oprah. Apparently once again affecting her own closure with a former self, Oprah has moved on.
The rest of us are stuck in her old language and live with our own ghosts, for me, Mama and Ellen. I was not with them as often as I could have, should have been. I was not there when they died. No “closure?”
I was afraid of their deaths, but not of my own.
You can wrap up your financial and business affairs, compose a warm farewell message to be posted on Facebook, Linked-In or your website on the day you die, and, if you are lucky and there is time, say your personal good-byes to the people who matter. But it’s doubtful that you will leave every conflict resolved, say every word that needed to be said and heal the hearts you wounded. You will live on—not only in the good way, for example, in scarves held dear by Carolyn and Marilyn—but in the bad way, as a ghost in someone’s head, mostly a benign specter, but sometimes tripping you up, bringing tears to your eyes.
I cannot see a prepared chicken soup commercial without regretting losing patience with Mama in the soup aisle of the grocery when I should have been making pots of the stuff for her.
I know I will be the ghost in my son’s head; and I am throwing this out like a message in a bottle: If you ever run into him, tell him I forgave him long ago, I know that he will forgive me someday and it’s all good.
Sometimes I wonder why other families, filled with people as imperfect in their own way as we are in ours, stay together clutching their totems safe to the chests, through secrets and lies, bouts of mental illness, through poverty and relative riches—while my family is fractured. Harry and Shawn and I only recently traced the obituary of a cousin we should have held dear.
My mother was orphaned at age five, passed from one family member to another before landing permanently with her Aunt Maude. Her brothers and sisters were scattered, with one boy dying of tuberculosis in an orphanage. She married out of the need for a home, probably suffered undiagnosed post-partum depression following the births of my sisters and me, and rarely told us how she really felt about anything.
She needed Daddy’s help, eventually our help, to make a cohesive family, but none of us knew how to give it. We were not uncaring. If anything, we cared too much. Like burn victims with no protective skin, we held ourselves stiffly apart.
Her unwitting legacy to me, her “love child,” was a sense of shame, a homelessness deep in my soul. I passed along the shame to my own offspring. And I didn’t know how to create a family either—Or to hold onto many of my possessions.
I have been spending as much time as possible with The Five Grands, my own three little ones and Ellen’s two. Lorraine has shared her granddaughter with me too. I will leave them all totems where parts of my spirit will happily dwell. The penis collection, however, will be divided between Marilyn and Carolyn.
I am thinking about possessions, what is left of the things I loved, because the cancer is growing and creeping into my neck and hipbones. This weekend I am making what is surely my last trip, back to Illinois for a family wedding. I know the big bag of M&Ms will be waiting for me when I arrive.
IF YOU'VE MISSED THE PREVIOUS POSTS--
Dying, The End Game, Part Six: A Quickie on Questions People AskDying, The End Game, Part Eleven: Are You Partnered? Are You Happy?
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