It’s November, month of remembrance. In my church, the names of the dead are written on large pieces of poster board placed on the altar. By November 2nd, the boards are full. You have to shrink your handwriting and fill the margins to fit in all the departed. It was tight this year, but I covered my list.
Many of them, of course, are already in the realms of the blessed. How else would they be so present to me, so undeniably close when I call them? Let me be clear. I do not have visions or hear voices. There are no Ouija boards involved, no séances. But certain souls are very near.
My old school roommate Barbara, for example, always takes my calls. She died four years ago, and must often wonder when, exactly, she gets to rest in peace. Wise, funny, intuitive and intensely practical, she always asked the hard question that brought me face to face with the hard answer. She’s still at it, waving away the irrelevant and refusing to settle for whiny excuses.
My favorite nun from boarding school pops in from time to time, transforming the ordinary with some eccentric, flawlessly articulated observation about clouds or birds or human behavior. Sometimes it’s just a whispered greeting, lifting me out of everyday dreariness. Hello, gorgeous, she would say, looking up from the pile of exercise books she was marking. How goes the world?
My grandmother is never far. As she was in life, she remains the steady bulwark I lean against, the quiet center to which I return. A grandmother myself now, I long for her playbook. Instead, I get her soft blue gaze each morning from the silver-framed picture on my bureau. I think you are just wonderful, she used to tell me, summing up my questionable skills as a harried mother of three small children, or Thanksgiving chef, or part-time journalist. Now, as then, her words sustain me.
Certain souls are near. Others hang back, wary, hesitant. My mother is one of these. She died in November 43 years ago, and left me a diamond ring and a double strand of pearls and a lifetime of unfinished business.
My mother was a beautiful woman with a paralyzing fear of abandonment. Her father died when she was four, a searing loss from which a dark river of losses flowed. Her own mother, left with five children and little money, focused on survival. In a family of cold Irish, my mother learned that emotion was suspect and feelings were an extravagant indulgence.
She compensated for this worldview with wit and charm and determined denial. She shone in the ways women could shine then, as a hostess and a volunteer and a chic asset to my father’s career. She bore five children and buried one and served as class mother and den mother and Brownie leader and editor of the Junior League magazine. And then, in her 40s, it all began to unravel. Alcohol, long her cherished friend, turned on her. My mother checked out, retreating to a place where feelings could be extinguished. Ten years before her death, she was already gone. Four decades later, I still can’t find her.
The dead don’t go where they are not welcome, I read somewhere. I have looked for my mother in old photographs where she smiles her dazzling smile, posed against the velvet banquette of a New York restaurant the night my father came home from the war, or waving a white-gloved hand from the deck of the Ile de France, circa 1953. I have looked for her in the thin blue airmail sheets of letters she wrote me from trips abroad, signed with love and kisses in her elegant backhand slant. I have sought to understand her darkness, and struggled to paper over the legacy of neglect. I have summoned her, entreated her, told her she must come. She owes me that, at least. Still, she keeps her distance. Once again, I write her name on the poster board. I open the door a little wider. I leave a light on.