A different kind of haunting

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 25, 2002

It's less than a week until Halloween. Time for a ghost story. A true ghost story. It is a funny one, but it is not always happy.

My little yellow house is haunted.

It wasn't there when I first moved in, or at least I didn't notice it. Only after the movers left, and my family left, and I was alone with furniture at last, did the ghost make her presence known.

I didn't recognize her at first, just the feeling that surrounded her. Warm, homey. Loving. I sat at the round kitchen table, the same one where I had done homework thirty years ago, and stared at the artwork now hanging on my walls. Over the bookshelf is a batik lion I made in high school. Over the couch, a large mirror. In the bedroom, I had hung three elegant needlework portraits of elegant ladies. A fourth was propped on the mantle.

And over the kitchen table? A framed poem I wrote when I was fifteen, after my father died. It is done in black calligraphy (not mine, as any one who has seen my handwriting can assure you) on cream vellum, with a darker cream matte and a gold frame. The poem is about Christmas angels and the friend who framed it added cut-outs of Victorian cupids around the text. The poem has survived 20 years, seven grandchildren, a terrible housefire, and traveling almost 400 miles. The last time I saw it, it was hanging, like everything else, on the walls of my mother's house.

That was not a good night. I did not feel her presence, surrounded by her artwork, her furniture, her books, so much as I felt her absence.

But as time has gone by, I have come to recognize her essence.

I first realized she was still with me when I caught myself reading Southern Living and clipping out the recipes instead of the vacation articles. I am only a half-hearted cook with two or three dishes I've perfected and a heavy reliance on Clarence Birdseye's wonderful invention for the rest. At a kitchen shower before I married, my mom, knowing me too well, did not give me the required recipe the other guests offered – she gave me the phone number to Domino's Pizza. A major "chef event" for me is fixing a meal in which nothing came out of a can or the freezer first.

But there I was, wondering just how hard an apricot glaze would be to make for a baked ham, and jotting down a shopping list.

I froze. It was almost as if I could see her hand turing the page, her finger underlining the ingredients.

"This is not me," I said out loud. "This is my mother."

More and more lately, I have felt her presence get stronger and my grief grow less. I can almost hear her voice sometimes, usually encouraging, occasionally scolding, even as I did the day she died six months ago, when I wailed "I'm not ready!" and I heard her voice in my mind saying "For Pete's sake, Mary, you're 39 – when are you going to be ready?"

We will be making Halloween cookies this weekend for Buzz's daycare party and he asks me every day "Make cookies?" It was his favorite thing to do with his "Mee-Maw" and in this little way, I can share her presence with him. As I hold my hands over his to guide the rolling pin, her hands will be over mine, as they were decades ago, and I will only see the sugar cookie pumpkin shapes, not the easter chick cookies that dried out on the cookie sheet on that terrible day.

So she haunts my house, and it's not a bad thing. I don't mean the floating image in the mirror or the rattling chains in the basement. Ghosts are not so much supernatural beings as they are the continued existence of one who has gone – a haunting memory, a ghost of a smile, a shade of yesteryear.

My mother's existence surrounds me every day and I welcome her with open arms.