Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Spirit Visits

At night when the murmur of beloved voices has whispered to silence, I sometimes sit musing in the near dark by a fire quieted to embers glowing red. Uneven floorboards, oak and chestnut, smoothed by centuries’ footfalls, speak to generations of living in our old house. As I read David McCullough’s book, John Adams, immersed in the founder’s life and ideals, I can’t help but wonder who slept here. Not in terms of celebrity, necessarily, but as I contemplate the span of American history witnessed and celebrated in these familiar rooms, I long to know the stories. I find comfort, for some reason, in thinking about those who lived before us. They weathered their own storms of personal or global making. Now on the other side, they know all the answers.

Intent on conjuring the shadows of the mothers who’ve gone before me, I imagine an aproned woman, flushed and awkward as she leans to tend a pot on the fire, striving to keep her heavy skirts from the flames. With an exhausted smile, she ladles hot stew for a pale young man after his day of labor. Where did she find the energy to enjoy that food herself after tending to family, chores and animals?

Why do we never see her?

The young man has made himself known. He is thin and bearded and has set the hair on Dave’s neck up straight when glimpsed by the fire. Our neighbor, Jim, sheds inexplicable tears while sitting in this room. His mother is a psychic, and when he sought an explanation, she said she'd “seen” a family in mourning when last she visited us. A young man, thin and bearded, was laid out for a wake. He bore a resemblance to Jim himself, as a matter of fact. Maybe there is a connection.

When our daughter, Casey, was little, she reported sightings of this spectral visitor peering at her from the doorway when she lay in her bed. For years we dismissed these tales as childish fantasy.

While the previous residents remain here, I have yet to perceive them. Friends who are more sensitive than I marvel at the ghostly stirrings. “You don’t feel anything? My god, there’s all kinds of activity!”

We tenants, past and present, have disagreed, periodically, as to whether lights should be on or off. More than once, Dave has returned upstairs in the morning, a bit wild-eyed, with the news that our ghostly friends had been about during the night. Lights absolutely extinguished at bedtime have been on when he went down for breakfast. There’s no pattern to the lamps chosen, so it’s not faulty wiring.

One day, after Dave seemed particularly agitated by this feisty fiddling with switches, I waited until the kids left for school and Dave headed to work. Standing in the front hallway, I respectfully called to those within hearing. I thanked them for passing the house on to us. I told them how much we loved it. And I requested that they leave the switches be, and restrict appearances around my little ones and their anxious father.

It appears they listened, these eternal homeowners, and for the most part, they keep a low profile.

I let them know that there are times I’m not ready to meet them, when even the thought of a filmy form at the foyer window leaves me gasping. But on other occasions at the flickering fireside, my stool pulled as close to the dancing light as I dare, I long for a visit. I close my eyes and wrap about me the beeswax-scented, pewtered past, and seek the woman who once worked at this hearth.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

It is Election Day and it feels like Christmas.

I awaken to the reflected colors of yellow leaves and a brazenly scarlet Japanese maple, as garish as a lipstick-red kiss. Light emanates through the window as the sun rises behind the trees. It is Election Day. Thank God. The Bush years are almost behind us.

Dave comes into the bedroom, already dressed for work. His tie is a swirl of red, white and blue flags. We grin at each other and he kisses me good-bye. “I can’t wait to vote,” he said. “It feels great to be so excited.”

After Dave leaves, I hop up and sing “America the Beautiful” as I pull off the comforter and shake the pillows out of their cases. “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.” Tobama, our tiger cat, twists about the tumble of sheets crumpled on the floor as I snap out a fresh one and slip it over the bed corners. “For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain…”

By the time Tucker and Casey were toddlers, they knew all the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.” Their reedy voices warbled of liberty and brotherhood, unfazed by tricky high notes, as they built to a boisterous crescendo, more for the joy of sanctioned yelling, perhaps, than for the potent meaning of the song. I can’t help but smile in remembering them belting, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee! And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”

Brotherhood. From sea to shining sea.

The phone rings. It is Casey, now twenty-five years old and breathless as she strides to work in New York. “Omigod, Mom. You should see the lines! Everyone is out waiting to vote!”

Casey is registered in Easton so she sent in her absentee ballot a month ago. “I wish I could vote today,” she says. “I want to be part of this. You should see all the people!”

“You are part of it; you voted. I was just thinking about you and your brother singing 'My Country ‘Tis of Thee' when you were kids. Do you remember the words?”

“Of course I do!” And as she walks, she sings out loud, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty! Of thee I sing…” Today is Election Day and a sense of pride in country wells forth. “Let freedom ring!” Casey finishes up and giggles. “You see? I still know it. All right, I’ve arrived at work. I’ll check in later.”

“Okay. Bye Sweetie. Love you.”

The top sheet drifts onto the bed and I smooth it flat. I want to share this day. I call Mom and Dad and then my sisters, Rita and Francie. “Happy Election Day!” I crow. I’ve never done this before. Who calls to wish people “Happy Election Day” as if it were a holiday? But so much rests on this vote. With the past eight years as backdrop, my sense of the fragility of democracy - the novel, noble concept of a government by, and for, the people – has heightened. My sisters aren’t home, so I leave a message. Mom and Dad are getting ready for their election night party. Dad says, “I’ll be in great despair if this doesn’t go our way.”

“It will, Dad. Think of what the country has been through for the past eight years. Today will go well.” We sign off with promises to touch base during the evening.

I call Tucker and we wish each other a Happy Election Day. “There have already been some glitches up here,” he says. “They didn’t have me listed.”

“What? You’re kidding. How could that be?”

“I don’t know, but luckily I’d brought a registration card just in case there was any confusion with my change of address. The guy checking me in said they’d had about a hundred similar problems. And this was early.”


“I know. But it’s going to be okay, Mom. It’s going to go well.”

We say good-bye and I turn to rummaging through my underwear drawer in search of my flag pin, but can’t find it. A white turtleneck and a red and blue scarf will do the trick. Today, wearing patriotic colors feels right. “Oh beautiful for spacious skies…” begins another loop through my mind and I hum as I grab my purse and make sure my license is in my wallet. Of course it is. Where else would it be?

I am stuck on the first verse of “America,” so I decide to check Google for the lyrics. I type, “What are the words to ‘America the Beautiful’?” The site opens with a graphic of the flag waving above the White House. A tinny rendering of the melody issues from my MacBook. I hadn’t expected the music and tears spring to my eyes. What’s that all about? This is an emotional day, even more than I realized, I guess.

I scan the lyrics; the song is longer than I’d thought. Some of the words seem dated. Others pertain almost eerily to current events: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee ‘til selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.”

Blowing kisses to the cats, I lock the door and head out to the car. An Obama sticker is on my rear bumper, an Obama yard sign posted in front of the rhododendron bush by the road. They remind me to take the pins off my purse; no campaign paraphernalia allowed within, what, 75 feet of the voting booths?

On the radio, soundbytes of McCain and Obama play over “America the Beautiful.” I hum along quietly as I drive under spacious skies to the elementary school to cast my vote.