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