Thursday, November 7, 2013

An October tale

The time of plenty is ending.

The cornstalks are fading from green summer lushness to dusty brown fields on roadside landscapes. The taste of fresh berries is giving way to oven-baked smells of pumpkin and nutmeg, ginger and clove, apple and cinnamon.

The harvest is here. Have you felt the change of seasons creeping into your bones? That subconscious awareness of the natural fabric of a year in the life?

The pagans, from whom Christianity so wisely borrowed, were fully aware of that cyclic fabric and celebrated it. The equinox is coming? Let’s party.

Take All Saints’ Day, which traveled down the calendar from mid-May 1400 years ago, costuming itself in the trappings of the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain.

At Samhain, livestock came down from the hills for the pre-winter slaughter, their bones cast into bonfires – and the fabric between the temporal and supernatural worlds was at its most thin. Time for the dead to return to our world.

With the dead walking, you had two options – pray and share stories about the good spirits, or wear a disguise to hide from the bad ones.

The traditions migrated to the colonies, as the myths of the Old World often did. While early settlers decided the New World pumpkin was an improvement on turnip lanterns, their superstitions settled with them.
And Father, Son, Holy Spirit – we still pay heed to the bygone ghosts.

New England embraces that ghostly sense of autumn like few points on the map. The leaves turn earlier. The winters run deeper. The spirits seem closer. It’s the Gothic charm shared by Washington Irving’s headless horseman and Stephen King’s towns of Castle Rock and Derry, where the supernatural lies just below the surface.

My aunt’s house – far enough upstate in New York to be farther north than Massachusetts – is home to ghosts.

When she and my uncle bought the pre-Revolutionary War house, it was in disrepair. They saved many of the contents of the house, including 200-year-old documents, from a junkyard, and restored it.

They’ve seen a man in colonial garb in the study. Ghost children – “the pranksters “ – inhabit bathrooms that used to be their bedrooms. My grandmother talks to them. My aunt says they’re good spirits, not evil. The kind you don’t hide from or fear.

The New York spirits don’t speak. But if they did, it wouldn’t be the first voice a family member has heard from beyond.

The other voices are, likewise, good spirits. And yet, the words from one voice inspire in me dread the likes of which Ebenezer Scrooge feared from the Ghost of Things to Come.

It’s the voice who said my mother won’t be with us a year from now.

And despite the empirical denial in my mind, my heart tells me to believe it.

No doubt, you’ll want a reason to believe it. Or at least a reason why I do.

My mother has lived with fibromyalgia for three decades. It’s hard to diagnose. People with it often are disbelieved, especially by insurance companies. For the record? It’s real. I’ve seen her in pain so acute a hug would hurt, not comfort.

One of the few things that would give her relief was a trip to the family hot tub, right off the porch, and warm in winter to boot. While she may have arrived late to Catholicism, she’s a believer. And it was there she made her prayer chapel under the stars and trees.

And it was there she talked to angels.

These are the spirits of our family. All of us have them – father and mother, sister and brother, even my wife and 4-year-old. My sister’s and mine are singularly alliterative. Mom’s are Bartholomew and Steven – who insists “very strongly” on the V, thank-you-very-much.

It was Bartholomew who told her she wouldn’t live to see a certain age. If that’s true, Oct. 11, 2013 is Mom’s final birthday on this plane of existence.

To everything there is a season, and lady, this one’s yours.

In 1994, my parents and I took our final camping vacation in Canada, north of Toronto on the shores of Lake Huron. On the day we returned, Mom hit Our Lady of Perpetual Bubbles for a prayer session, which went something like this:

“Lord, I’m very happy with my life. I have a great family. Now if we could just find the money to fix the driveway.”

This is where I tell you not to jest with the infinite. Because the infinite has a strange sense of humor.

The next day, she got a call from my aunt, her brother’s widow. An insurance company was trying to track down next of kin on an insurance policy on Uncle Denny, who died in 1987.

The policy – which nobody knew existed – had been paying itself down. It would have been worthless in months.

That day in 1994? It was worth more than enough for a new driveway.

You may call it coincidence. I don’t. It’s too specific, too strong.

It’s not the only time the angels have interceded. When mom’s car hit an oil slick and slid off a road, Bartholomew came to her. “He and I just looked at me crashing into the hillside and it was like watching a movie with a friend,” she says. “His presence was just like you standing beside me. It felt so normal, except it was accompanied by a pervasive sense of peace. That peacefulness, and no pain, lasted three days.”

And the first person on the scene? A young man named Steven – with a v.

Has her pain put her in touch with something outside herself to make up for her sufferings? Does it impeach her testimony?

As her son, a human, a witness, I feel the truth in my bones – same as I feel the autumn bells clanging.

Mom’s prepped. “Don't forget this all starts with my dad, who knew he was going to die when he was 51, like his dad and only brother,” she says. “His birthday was in March and he made it to Sept. 6. I was terrified I would die when I was 51, too. So I think the message was given to me to assuage my fears. And it did. It was all gravy after that.”

When it does happen, she wants it to be a cause for celebration. There’ll be balloons at the funeral.

She’s ready. Her grandson won’t be.  Her son isn’t at all, even though he’s had 20 years to come to grips. Time to get the cards there earlier, call more often, listen more closely.

If death comes, is it another affirmation that Bartholomew and Steven are real? That a benevolent spirit will one day say to us all: “Down from the hills, friend – time to come to this side”?

And if it doesn’t? If at Halloween 2014, she’s handing out candy? Just God changing his mind, she says. Bonus time.

We’re in the zone of uncertainty. The ghosts are in it with us. They’ll be here when we’re out.

Time to wait. Time to see another year through. And enjoy the time of plenty while it’s here.

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