Mamaw sits with her eyes closed, eyebrows raised, head tilted back so slightly. She is leaned back in her recliner. “I ain’t the onliest one that saw ’im,” she says and licks her lips and opens her eyes, dares us to argue with her. Mom sits in the other recliner, near her. Aunt Cindy is in a chair on the other side of Mamaw. I am on the floor. I don’t think Mamaw knows I am here. I don’t think she sees me.
But she sees spirits. She has seen them all her life. She sees them when she closes her eyes while she’s telling stories. She sees them in her memories and dreams and closets and kitchens. She believes in their power and their presence, in their capacity to do good and evil. She believes ghosts haunt houses and roam the earth. She believes they can hear us.
Now in her small living room, she tells us a ghost story. We are here to check on her, make sure she is taking her medicine, see how her knee is doing, how her chest is doing, how Papaw is doing. He works outside with my sister while we stay inside and listen to his wife’s stories.
“I’m so sorry the house is such a mess,” Mamaw interrupts her own story.
“It’s fine, Mamma. It looks great,” my own mother says. I search for the messiness my grandmother refers to. Everything is spotless. Papaw has been doing the cleaning lately. Framed photographs of grandchildren rest on the many curio cabinets and tables around the family room, all without dust, all perfectly placed. Behind Mamaw is a wall filled with huge framed photos of her children—baby pictures, graduations pictures. But nothing more. No wedding pictures. No family pictures. There are no pictures of her children all grown up, and they’ve been grown up most of their lives, the ones who are still alive.
“It watn’t no man. It was a spirit.” She continues her story. I wonder how she knows it was a spirit, what distinguishes flesh from spirit, where the two separate. How can one tell if they are visited by life or death? If someone is alive or dead? We listen as she tells us of the other eyewitnesses—her sister, her neighbors. She tells the story out of order. “They’d be comin’ down the road. I heared that there was a light.” We don’t know what she is referring to, but her eyes are closed again, and we just keep listening.
She looks especially old today. Her coarse straight gray hair lays clumsily above her wrinkled face. Every now and then, she runs her hard, gnarled hands through it and tussles it about. She coughs and sputters a bit. I wonder how much longer she will recognize me. I wonder if she can see me now.
“If I’d knowed y’all was comin’ I woulda cleaned the house. It’s such a mess” she says.
“No, Mom, it’s really fine,” Aunt Cindy says. In a few days Mamaw will be diagnosed with dementia. The doctor will tell us not to argue with her. But we don’t know that yet. The doctors will tell us the dementia will kill her eventually. But we don’t know that it is a dead woman talking to us today.
Mamaw now holds her pill bottle. “I gotta take one a these here pills. They don’t do no good, but that doctor said.” She pulls down her lips in a sour expression. I wonder how many pills she has forgotten she has already taken. No one knows.
“You know, I watn’t the onliest one that seen ’im.” It takes me a second to realize she is talking about spirits again. She pauses. We wait. “I was hanging out the clothes, y’know, and just a-singing” Her eyes are closed again, and she is quiet, like she is trying to think of the song but can’t. The pill bottle is still in her hand. “When I seen it, I stopped singing, y’know. I asked ’im if I could hep ’im.”
Later my mother will tell me that she can’t remember Mamaw ever singing when she hung laundry. My mother cannot recall a time when her mother sang when she did any housework at all. But how does she know? Maybe my mother is forgetting, too.
“What did he say?” I can’t help but ask. Maybe I am reviving some childish imagination that yearns to believe in ghost stories or I’m testing the veracity of her tale. Or maybe I want her to see that I’m here.
“Bud seen ’im too,” Mamaw says. But he’s not here. Her youngest son, her only living son, lives hundreds of miles away and doesn’t know his mother is telling this story today. He doesn’t visit. Maybe because when his mother comes down south, close to where he lives, she visits the cemetary where two of her three dead children are buried, but she doesn’t go to his house.
When I was a child, several times we visited the cemetary where her oldest daughter, Barbara, is buried. She died when she was barely a toddler. She choked on a dried bean Mamaw had spilled on the floor. At her funeral, when they were putting the tiny casket into the earth, Mamaw went into labor with her oldest son, Wayne. That son has been dead for fifteen years. Another son, Wesley, for more than five years.
I know the story of Aunt Barbara because I have heard it all my life. Mamaw talks about Aunt Barbara like she is still present. Aunt Barbara has been a ghost for more than sixty years, following my grandmother around, filling her stories and memories with sweetness and guilt. Mamaw dropped the bean. She left one behind. She was not careful. She did not see. She twists the details of the story around in the telling, but the root remains—she is forever haunted.
“I tell you what,” She continues her story of the ghost, ignoring my question. Maybe she really does not know I’m here. Maybe she can’t see me in the same way she sees the spirits in the bristling of the clothes hanging on the line to dry in her story or hears them when she sucks in breath between notes of her song in her memory.
Her daughters pretend to believe her completely and believe in spirits themselves, as she continues to recount the memories and live in her own lies. They nod their heads in false agreement, say nothing is quiet acquiescence. They shield their mother from their concern. They will wait until later to express their worry to each other. For now, they partake in the fairytale that is becoming their mother’s memory. She is becoming a living ghost right before their eyes.