Ghosts

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.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/25/health/25brain.html?_r=1&em

Advertisements

Dancing

I went straight from a Midwestern Baptist-style funeral to summer-steamed New Orleans. One minute I was singing a hymn in a pew, and hours later I was on a bus staring at the rehabbed Superdome, seeing the ghosts of the abandoned along the clean sidewalk.

I had to say some firm, abbreviated goodbyes to get out of the church and to the airport on time.  Once I was installed behind the security lines, I disciplined myself to read the newspaper, as if it were a normal day.

I was woozy with exhaustion when I finally got to the New Orleans airport.  I just had to get a ride to the hotel.  Then I could let go and sleep.  But the van was the cheapest way, and the van was a while in coming.  The van drove us by the Superdome.  That was the first I saw of New Orleans.

People had told me, It’s like Europe, and as I looked out the dotted side window, I thought, This isn’t like anything else.  The darkness of it, the narrowness that suggests age, and the patina that proves a city values history—it was strange to me.  There was nothing out those windows that said America.  Americans prefer to tear down a building just when it is getting interesting.  Americans need things opened wide.  There could be aliens or time travelers hidden in this city.  I looked for ghosts.  I saw empty lots.

I was a ghost by the time we got to my hotel.  It was the very last stop on the van’s ring-around-the rosy drop off pattern.  It was also, blessedly, in the French Quarter, in an ancient building, and not part of the dull convention center zone.  I had time for only a few hours’ sleep before my convention began the next morning.

I stumbled through the next day’s work fueled with Styrofoam cups of coffee.  Since this was a business trip, I wasn’t sure that I would partake of New Orleans’ pleasures at the end of the day.  I had a one-drink-with-the-boss limit that I’ve always strictly observed.

However, once we were installed in a piano bar, the drinks began to flow, and almost all of them were gifted to me by other members of our party, and I counted slowly: wine, wine, sazarac, sazarac…. The waiters circulated, jacketed in neat red uniforms.  The cellar walls of the bar ringed us with darkness. The man next to me slashed song titles on a napkin with ballpoint pen, checked them with me, sent them up to the performers.  And I was gleefully tipsy, while safely less drunk than my colleagues, who were singing into their straws and swordfighting with their cocktail swords.

Back at the hotel, I looked at myself in the garish glare of the mirror.  I thought of the good Christian crowd at the funeral.  Boy, if they could see me now.  I drank four cups of water, glugged them down like a trouper, and lay down to try to sleep.  It would be another night of not enough sleep, and another long day of conference sessions in frigid, plain rooms.

My last night in New Orleans, I danced in a blues bar on Bourbon Street.  It was almost empty—a slow night. They sometimes have time during the funeral when people can stand up and say something about the dead person.  I had said something about Grandma.  I told a story about her dancing, although the room was full of dancephobic conservatives.  The story might have been awkward for the crowd, but I thought it did Grandma justice.