Giving Up The Ghost
It wasn’t when my mother died that my childhood ended; it was when she came back to life. I was nine years old.
Before that my mother was round and smiling, with long straight brown hair, keen blue eyes, and a soft belly great for warming up your hands. There was happiness. My father would pinch her on the bottom and she’d give a shriek, but you could tell she didn’t mind. They teased each other. At night, I often fell asleep listening to them sing old folk and gospel songs with the guitar. That’s what I’d fall asleep to: my parents’ singing.
Balmertown Ontario is the town of my childhood; it’s full of gold and people mining the earth for it. My father, like all the other fathers, was a miner. Our brown house was on Lassie Road, my bedroom carpet a yellow shag. I was the youngest of four. My dad chased us around that house tickling us until we screamed. We practiced gospel songs to sing at prayer meetings. We ate hamburgers, Canadian Mints and popcorn with rootbeer floats and in summer, watermelon outside on the steps. I planted clover in the back yard, and we made sandcastles before the turf was laid. A moose’s head lurked in the corner of the garage for two weeks after my dad went hunting. There was a gravel driveway and a swinging gate above the basement stairs. There was my mom and I doing dishes and gazing out at the front yard together, waiting for the others to come home from school.
She was strict. She knew almost everything about her children’s adventures and insisted on having early knowledge about our plans. We were disciplined religiously, warranted or not. Like an eagle with her sharp eyes and talons, she could see far into the distance – usually just by the look on my face – so her grip on my conscience was sound and sure, sometimes painfully so. But her nest was a warm, safe place at the top of a tall lonesome tree; I was happy, well-fed, well-rested there.
In Balmertown it was only towards May when the weather turned soft and springy. I started letting my jacket hang open and when I tried to wear shorts, my knees froze. We weren’t allowed to skate on the lake anymore because there were wet, dark spots and no one knew how far down they might go.
During one of these slushy late Aprils, my mother left my father, cut her hair, and moved us twenty-two hours northward to Lynn Lake, Manitoba – back to the dead of winter. Some family friends helped out, piling boxes and dogs and one of my two brothers into the back of their big black truck. The rest of us rode with my mother in her red Camaro on the long isolated highway to our new life. The red Camaro was a fireball of freedom, where behind the wheel my mother normally appeared to be in her warmest, shiniest place of strength. On this drive, though, she was quiet and grim as if speaking might let slip her last reserves.
Curled up in the backseat, I experienced the journey through a haze of colouring books, carsickness, and Amy Grant tapes. I rewound one song incessantly: “The Lord Has A Will.” It was all about not struggling too much. The Lord has a will, and I have a need to follow that will, to be humbly still, to rest in it, nest in it, fully be blest in it, following my Father’s will . . . I knew from looking at the pictures in my children’s Bible that Jesus had died a tortured, heartbroken death, convinced God had forsaken him. He must have been pleasantly surprised, I thought, to find himself waking up from the dead. So there you go; you never knew what could come of faith. I trusted faith.
Regarding the move to Lynn Lake, I dwelled on the excitement of moving away from Balmertown, a rare occurrence in those parts. I felt a certain relief at the opportunity to start over in the social department, since I thought my performance so far had been lacking. My new self was going to be more sophisticated, more cool, less mouthy and less weird and less prone to self-consciousness. I’d be popular and inspirational to those around me. I’d shine forth in glory.
Of course, it was strange to be leaving my dad behind. He was the guy who chopped and stacked wood for the woodstove and kept it going during the winters, and he was the guy who liked peanut butter toast for his breakfast at four-thirty in the morning before trudging off to work. He’d leave his crusts there on the plate. His burps smelled like cola sometimes, and boy could he yell. He had a rough, friendly way of patting me. How were we going to get along without him, I wondered, and this was a new feeling.
Shortly after we arrived my mother was dead, or it seemed that way. I guess she had a broken heart because her husband didn’t love her and there was no help in Lynn Lake, just an old friend named Beverly, who abandoned my mom as soon as she showed up. Actually, they went way back; before I was born, Bev took my lazy hash-smoking parents and shone the light of Christ on them and they answered the call with full and tearful repentance on their knees. A beautiful example of the grace of God. So, when in trouble, where better to find solace than in the faithful arms of a good Christian friend, thought my mom, hallelujah praise Jesus.
I’m certain Bev didn’t mean to kill my mother. The thing that always makes people bolt is the chance to peer into the depths of another person’s pain. And though in my mother’s heart there wasn’t much to see – just a void, really – it proved to be too much after all. Anyway, she disappeared. One day early on, the door to her room shut tight and I never dared open it. I couldn’t save her. I could not even understand why she was gone.
I don’t know when the ghost started coming around, but it would linger pitifully in the hallways and hover in corners, never speaking unless I was alone and listening carefully. Then it whispered things like: “Just looking for the noodle soups,” “Your father never loved me,” or “I want to drive the Camaro off the edge of a cliff.”
Sometimes I tried to give it a hug and it wrenched away, groaning, “Ugh! You’re sucking the life out of me!” I frowned and replied, “Where’s my mom? I miss your long hair and your soft belly,” for this ghost was pale, weak, thin-armed, bony-shouldered and grey-lipped. I felt a cold draught when it was nearby. I came to understand that opening the bedroom door upstairs would reveal this thing shuddering on my absent mother’s bed, her tender glances lost in the abyss of its shadow.
The ghost never cooked or cleaned, either. My 13-year-old sister took up the slack. Our dinners usually consisted of instant macaroni and cheese, which she would grandly describe as “spare-ribs and rice, beef stroganoff,” or whatever we requested. I often spied her bringing noodle soups to the chilly room upstairs. Once I walked into the living room to find my sister sitting on the floor, embracing the spectre as it reclined between her knees with its soundless moaning head against her chest. The mouth was open and round, the expression in the eyes worse than empty.
To cope with the situation, I did what most nine-year-olds would do: I played. For the first time in my young life, no one hovered over me to ensure I remained nearby the house. No one demanded to know where I’d be and for how long and whose parents were supervising. I ran around, wild-haired, wearing dirty pants.
I made friends with Bev’s daughter, Erica. She was good-hearted and adventurous, with blonde hair. In a latent way we understood that our mothers didn’t talk; it was a distance we tolerated but didn’t need to touch. We liked to explore other things together – especially the Lynn River, which was just beginning its seasonal flow out of Lynn Lake. Jagged ice encrusted the river’s edge and made strange frozen monsters of the boulders rising in its midst. Kneeling on the bank, we dared one another to try and grab the frazils floating swiftly downstream, then drew back our numb fingers in silly surprise when the ice chunks slipped away. We tested our balance on a row of large stepping stones across the river just before Lynn Bridge, which separated the lake from the rapids.
On Thursdays we liked to race each other to Wong’s Chinese Restaurant and eat the wonton soup on special. It took the whole lunch hour to get there, slurp up, and run back to school, which usually made me late, but I didn’t care. All the kids at school hated me. Angus taunted me black and blue, Riley threw rocks at my head when I wouldn’t be his girlfriend, and some kid named Jeff Love once got me in a chokehold up against a back alley fence. My teacher hated me too. I thought she was a witch because she had long black hair, her name was Hilda, and she stole my mom’s African dress that I brought for show-and-tell. She yelled hideous things after she caught me cheating at math.
When I told the ghost about my troubles, it would sigh and slink around me like an ink stain, leaving a trail of sad on its way upstairs. It moaned, “You talk and talk! Do you ever . . . stop . . . talking?” Then I’d feel tired and go away from it.
One afternoon Erica and I tried to cross the Lynn River, where the spring thaw was now rushing silky over the stepping stones. I slipped off with a stab of silent panic: the sky swooped and blared in my eyes. My hair streamed out in the icy current, my jacket tried to float away under my arms. I hooked my knees on the large rock. Numb dread consumed me as I lay there pulled by the river rapids. Where would I float, if I let go? Where would the river take me – under the bridge, over the rapids and then, away? Would it be better to lay still and let it carry me, or should I fight? Erica gingerly made her way back, plucking me and my jacket from the waters. She kept a firm grip until we stood under the bridge. There I was, as cold as could be, and shivering about it.
She made me sit down. “Wait right here, don’t fall asleep,” she worried, and went off to get help. I lay there watching the dark water as it rushed under the bridge. A beaver shuffled along the bank, the first beaver I’d ever seen. It took me a minute to realise it was a beaver. I’m half-frozen and here’s a real live beaver, was my faraway thought. Momentarily Erica returned with a wrinkled brow: “I can’t just leave you like this.”
She made me undress and for each article of clothing I gave her she handed me her own, everything except our panties. I was incapable of refusing such brisk logic. We embarked on the half-hour walk home, during which my wet clothes froze and crackled on Erica’s body.
When we arrived home, the door to my mother’s room opened and out she came. Alive, alive! She hugged us. She made hot chocolate and drank some herself. After Erica left, my mom turned and looked straight in my eyes. “That girl,” she said, “is kind.”
She was right. In a matter-of-fact way Bev’s daughter had saved my life, just as Bev herself had rescued my mother from the fires of hell. Only, now that my mother had fallen down and lost her life, her husband, her sanity, the friendship had gone dark too. Maybe it was this darkness making Erica look so bright. I didn’t know. I was just relieved that the ghost was beginning to materialize into a piece of flesh again, something I could cling to.
But I couldn’t get a grip on her. Something about my mother was sharpened now, and not just her bony shoulders. She and my dad were reuniting. They’d spoken on the phone and he would be coming to Lynn Lake to get us. A heightened feeling pervaded our house. Buoyed by the promise of upcoming support, my mom happily gave us our first weekly allowance in a long while, with strict instructions not to spend it at a certain store that sold immoral magazines.
I went directly there and proceeded to buy a load of candy small enough to shove under my shirt. Returning home, I found her by the stairs. I lied regarding my whereabouts, crept up the stairs, fell over my guilty feet, and sent my candy flying in a glorious spray of bits and packages. Then we went to the bathroom together and as I stood in front of her, she hit my hands over and over with a wooden spoon until they were bruised and I was crying real hard. I wondered why she didn’t stop sooner. I did not see the candy again.
Lynn Lake’s spring shuffled in sloppy and reluctant over the next weeks, and I remained a pariah at school. Mostly I was ignored, but one of the bullies took a peculiar delight in tormenting me. At times, my siblings were there to help. Otherwise, he pushed me around and I stood there gulping with fear, my arms weak as noodles. I saw no point in fighting back, partly since I enjoyed the rush of helpless martyrdom. Secretly I hoped he’d give me a horrible black eye; it would be more comfortable than walking around my new life with everything appearing intact.
Two weeks after the river incident, I came home to find Erica in my living room, sobbing about a problem with her parents. My mother held her in her lap. The guitar stood against a chair; they’d been singing together before Erica’s upset.
“We’re practicing the Amy Grant song for church,” my mother said over Erica’s blonde head.
“‘The Lord Has A Will’.”
My throat closed.
“I asked Erica, since it makes you so nervous to perform. You don’t mind?”
The Lord has a will, and I have a need to follow that will, to be humbly still . . . Even after I went to my room, I could still hear their voices singing. My heart crawled one inch closer to shut. It was my song; I’d been repeating the beloved lyrics enthusiastically for months. They stirred my sentiments toward poor dogged Jesus, working miraculous wonders, praying in the garden, suffering on the cross, who must’ve believed in what he was doing all along, really believed it. Then, the darkness. I wanted to know: deep inside the moment when he relinquished his spirit to God, did he even desire to live anymore? Was it a matter of will or grace that woke him up from the dead?
I was still at school when my dad arrived in Lynn Lake to bring us home. During lunch hour I went by myself to Wong’s to meet my parents, and the bully was there. My mother looked glorious and remote; I didn’t know which parent I missed more. I hugged my dad, who felt very solid. He patted me. The bully watched me sitting next to him and smiled.
“Is that your daddy?”
“Yes, we’re going back home,” I said suspiciously over my soup.
I remember nothing of the ride back to Balmertown, where the weather was green and warm. Everyone at my old school welcomed me heartily and I enjoyed the fame, all the while feeling homesick for everything I’d hated about Lynn Lake. I bragged about the boyfriends I’d had, my miserable failure at math, falling into the river ice, wonton soup. Singing the national anthem on that first morning, I noticed I’d grown two centimetres taller than my peers. Looking down, it was as though I still lived far away.
And often, although my mother was alive and we were all together in a new house with my dad, I’d catch unexpected glimpses of the ghost sighing, whispering, singing, haunting. Only now, its face looked more like my own.
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