At about three o'clock this morning, I heard thumping, banging and shuffling from the first floor. This could have been Jessica, who's living in the basement room. Jessica's father has been in ICU and though she could have come back to the house during the night, when I awakened, I checked and she had not returned. But in the center of the kitchen floor, I spied a curious piece of Styrofoam, packing debris that wasn't on the floor when I locked the backdoor before retiring.
I assume our ghost had a party to which I was not invited. I stood holding the piece of foam, thinking: Did they unwrap those margarita glasses in the basement? Early rising on Saturday befuddles my brain.
Thinking of our ghost reminds me of my grandmother's passing. As I make the coffee, padding around in my bare feet, I am transported back in time to 1974, St. Louis University. A quiet dorm room.
I have come back to the residence halls early, something I have the luxury of doing since I live in town and work for the financial aids office. Rank has its privilege. I'm sad; my grandmother has recently died and we've buried her. Nana showed me everything good about womanhood: The power to work; the power to nurture; the power to choose. She's less than a month in her grave and I am lost without the anchor that I didn't know she provided.
It's Saturday night. Being the only one in the dorm isolates me not just from the palpable sorrow in my mother's home, but from the world. The air carries no sound except what I generate, and I move slowly, touch little, skim my fingers on every surface in a whisper. I do not want to ripple time.
I'm going out to Jennings, home, in the morning. I've taken my mother's car into the city, using the desire to get unpacked before my roommate's Monday arrival as an excuse for escaping. My grandfather will be there; he's coming from their home in Chatham, Illinois to show my family the new Cadillac he has purchased. I feel ambivalent about this visit. It will be his first since Nana died; and I cannot summon the energy to endure seeing his solitude.
I curl under the quilt on my bed, the quilt that my mother gave me. Its top was constructed by my great-grandmother from tailor scraps. I find this bedcovering to be romantic. I've always been told that my grandfather's father traveled around Lebanon selling pots, pans and other oddments from the back of a cart. My mother's relatives came from Austria, but this quilt of tailor's samples somehow connects the two families in my mind. It comforts me; it brings my lineage into focus.
I fall asleep amidst the soothing sound of silence.
At midnight, I awaken from an odd dream in a cold sweat. I've seen my grandmother. She's in the backseat of my grandfather's new car, except in my dream it is not a Cadillac but a Lincoln Continental. She's whole and undamaged, free of the ravages of several years of debilitating strokes. In my dream, I stand on the sidewalk outside my mother's home watching through the window as she smiles. Only I can see her. She rolls down the window as my grandfather opens the driver's door to get out, and says to me and me alone: "Tell Cillekin I'm all right. Tell her not to cry."
"Cillekin" is her pet name for my mother, Lucille. I try to speak but words will not come and suddenly, I am awake and panting, with a cold sweat gripping my body.
I decide to take a shower. For the life of me, forty years later, I cannot say why but I did and when I return from the communal shower room my grandmother is sitting in the rocking chair in my room with that same sweet smile on her face.
I drop my towel on the floor, struggle into a flannel nightgown, crawl back under my great-grandmother's quilt and fall into a deep sleep. When I awaken, sunlight streams through the uncurtained window and my towel has been neatly folded and draped across the back of my rocking chair.
Later that morning, I find myself standing in the spot that I occupied in my dream. My mother stands beside me; we are watching for her father. And then he is there -- not in the Cadillac we've been told to expect, but in a Lincoln Continental. It seems something happened to the Cadillac that he had just purchased, and he found that fact so offensive that just the day before, just the day of my dream, he took it back and walked across the street to the Lincoln dealership to buy a different vehicle.
I could not draw my eyes from the empty backseat.
Later that day, after we had eaten, after my grandfather had left for the hour's drive home, I told my mother about my dream. I told her what her own mother had said: that she was all right, and not to cry. Mother did not question my sanity. She knew, as I had known, that whatever I saw, whatever I heard, whatever I felt, perfectly comported with what Nana would have wanted.
Here in Kansas City my morning advances. Jessica has come home. She tells me of her father's current state: The ventilator tube became clogged and without it, her father should have died. The family gathered at his bedside and the chaplain came. But her father lived. And lives. At least, at present; at least for now. It is left for Jessica and her family just to accept, this matter of life and death, this question of when and how. No one knows the answer except whatever angel guards him, and that angel will not speak.
My grandmother, Johanna Ulz Lyons; my sister Joyce Corley; and in the background,
my great-grandmother, Bibiana Ulz.
I've shown the edge of the picture so my family can see the date: June 1968.