Because I recently watched the terrible film “Sylvia,” I took more notice of the death of Plath’s son. I have maintained a dismissive distaste for Plath since college. A privileged, connected, lovely, talented poet, who had a dizzying romance with another successful poet and two sweet children. How sad for her. I did sit through the movie, since I love artist biopics, but I still roll my eyes at the sappy swooning over Plath. It’s endurance that inspires me, not drama.
My grandmother died completely alone. So alone that when the authorities called to notify our family, no one knew who they were talking about. She had been married, yet again, and had taken another last name. The only reason they called us was that she had an old business card among her things.
I don’t remember meeting her, although I did, just a few times. While I spent every holiday with gaggles of cousins, my parents finally decided that this grandmother was too sick to know. I think the spin on the word “sick” might vary. She drank, took pills. She valued cigarettes and sleep more than the safety of her children. She disappeared unexpectedly, and then reappeared crying for help: money, a place to stay, attention. I can say she was “sick” and mean “mentally ill” because I am not directly scarred by her.
While we were driving across Kentucky in the rain last week, my brother asked me if I believe in ghosts. I formed my answer carefully. Something like: I believe that people, ideas, and things linger. They don’t disappear cleanly.
I haven’t seen other people’s ghosts, but I do see myself.
Under the giant marquee of the club where I went dancing when I was twenty-two. I can see myself sitting, sweaty, chatting with an acquaintance, wondering if the guy I have a crush on is going to appear, listening to the segues in the music to decide when to rejoin the party. I am doing just what I should be doing, but it’s never quite exciting or safe or significant enough.
I can see myself in the window of a pizza place, on a date, trying so hard to be lovely and engaging and emotionally firm. I can’t admit that my life and growth is so far out of my control. That at twenty-five I am not grown up, not at all.
And my grandmother is a ghost, who appears in conversation as a worst case scenario, or a misplaced stab of mistrust or fear in her children, now grandparents themselves. Sometimes they say to their children, “We’re watching you carefully,” because they know what Nicolas Hughes knew about ghosts.
Addendum: The day after I wrote this, I found the following article about depression and its effect on the brain. The most intriguing part for me is the idea that both genes and environmental effects of living with an afflicted parent may cause depression (and/or anxiety disorders) to run in families. I hadn’t thought about that.