Ghost stories that we tell ourselves…


At age 54, I feel a pull towards my childhood home. When I drive the mountain freeways near Silicon Valley to visit my sister in her house, in the rosy gray of twilight, I feel that instead, I’m supposed to head home. I feel that my parents are there, that I’ll park and bound up the brick steps to the massive front door in Atherton. I feel that the old man there, my dad, will have aged since he died at 61 when I was 25. I sense that he’ll come out into the warm glow of the porch lanterns to give me a deep hug by the picture window, as he always did when I came home from college.  He’ll put his head on my shoulder as I put mine on his. His voice will crack and he’ll say what he always said, “I’m so proud of you, Mary.”

My mother will stand up from the bench at her shiny black grand piano in the softly lit living room where she was playing nocturnes for their late evening relaxation. The same age that she left me, 80, she’ll offer me a bowl of ice cream, butter pecan, her favorite.

They’re not ghosts in this fantasy of mine. They want me to pull off the freeway every time I drive by, if I drive in that other-worldly space at the end of the day.  The gift that they hold dear for me is one that they alone gave me: an abiding sense that all is right with the world.

Like a phantom limb reached for by a semi-conscious wounded soldier, I reached out for my parents during my acrimonious 3-year divorce and in my sole-custody single parenting since then. My mother lived 23 years beyond my father, but I lost her just as my divorce settled 6 years ago.

I’ve invoked them, especially in places where I have deep memories. They’d held hands at daily mass for much of my life, so though I don’t have faith in the hierarchy of the church, I do sometimes sit in pews in chapels I come across, conjuring them to sit with me. They sit on either side of me and their quiet support refills my depleted faith that I’ll get through these years alone.

Always on the verge of tears in churches, I sit and imagine the softness of their hands, the gentleness with which they shepherded me through childhood, my teens and my early 20s. When I am recharged, I bid them goodbye. I genuflect and walk out of the mighty church doors that mean so much more to others than they do to me. Churches are a place that my parents reside, as are forests. I hike in the mountains near my home and I feel my parents in the redwoods. Their wisdom was as ancient and steadfast as the tall trees that I meander through. Sometimes I sit on benches by the watershed lakes and I close my eyes, calling my father to sit next to me so I can run things by him, share my burdens. My father and I go through all the things I’m doing right in my life, all the good stories about my children who have risen above childhoods overshadowed by their father’s alcoholism. My father once told me, in my reveries on such a bench, with ducks and river otters playing amongst the cattails in the swampy water in front of me, that he would watch over my ex-husband. They’d never met, but I always knew my father would have loved my ex before he went behind the veil of alcoholism. I felt a deep sense, in the tree dappled sunlight on that bench, that I no longer had to worry about my ex, who has been sober since the divorce. I felt that my father would provide needed support so that I could begin a new life of my own.

Before she died, my very Catholic mother told me I was right to divorce. I confided to her that the reason I’d held on to a dead marriage for 3 years was that I felt conscripted by the vow I’d made within my religion, the one she honored every day by going to mass. While she was alive, she loosed me from that vow, told me I had a right to be loved and cared for, to not drown in the poison of someone else’s addiction.

When I am in a car, heading south on 280 to visit my sister, and I pass the freeway off-ramps that were part of my youth, I feel an undercurrent pulling me to the old mansion, to the acre of treed land around the Edwardian beauty that had been my safe place for so many years, where I lay on the carpet by huge windows, reading fantasy books of myths and fables.  I have had to move my own children four times since my divorce.  They did not have the one solid family home that I grew up within.

I feel a ghostly door opening to an alternate universe, where if I turn the car around and take the exit, I will be able to drive peacefully back into our driveway, to be safely ensconced in the love that I no longer can access in my real life. When I’m in a car, heading north on 280, heading home towards the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County where I’ve raised my own kids, as I pass the old off-ramps again later in the dark of night, it is ALL I can do not to pull the car to the right, to head into the arms of my parents in the gloaming, into the shadows away from the loneliness and hardships I work to rise above day to day.

Can I take the exit, can I drive home? Would I find my parents? The house has changed ownership many times since we sold it after my dad died. When the ghostly pull happens, I’m not sure whether or not I’ve been thru too much… am I going crazy? If I pull over, will I have a heart attack and lope up the brick steps into their arms after my death? Where is that place that they wait, anticipating my return, eager to hug me and to invite me in to my warm family home?

When I’m on the freeway, they are at my childhood home. The lights are on, a fire is in the fireplace, the house is inviting.  They are waiting for me, to tell me all will be well, that they see my challenges and are proud of how I rise to them.

Melancholy overtakes me as I stay on the freeway, driving past the old off-ramps. Am I missing a chance to see them again?

Leave a Reply