The Long Good-Bye: On Women and Ghosts


Does one ever see any ghost that is not oneself?
-- Marjorie Bowen


                     Twilight at Newton's Chapel, England. 

                   Twilight at Newton's Chapel, England. 

As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, this is the weekend I indulge in the spooky and strange, especially with much loved books and black and white supernatural thrillers, especially English ghost stories.  From The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to Rebecca, I cuddle on the bed with hot apple cider, popcorn and cats, as reel life is revealed one frame at a time. Pleasure perfected, especially if the ghost story includes houses which hold secrets, although every house tries to shelter the secrets of the women who lived there once and loved it, in the same way the home loved the woman.

The Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen is a favorite for ghost stories, especially her goose bump short story Hand in Glove (1952). Bowen believed that the truly scary supernatural story “lies in their being just, just out of the true.”  One of my perennial Hallowe’en books is Alison Lurie’s collection of 9 eerie tales in Women and Ghosts.  I especially love the visitation to a woman who thinks she’s marrying Mr. Right by the ghost of his first wife.  If only the First Wives Club held séances! 
Perhaps women adore ghost stories because we have such a difficult time letting go.  Bring up the topic of ghosts at any dinner party and most of the female guests will be able to contribute an anecdote of a sighting or a haunting, usually set in old houses.

But “objects have ghostly emanations, too that attach themselves to their solidity,” the writer Dominique Browning tells us in her marvelous book, Around the House and In the Garden:  A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing, and Home Improvement.  “Things with drawers—chests, armoires, night tables, trunks—seem to be the most populated pieces of furniture.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been as haunted by other people’s ghosts as much as I have been by my own, especially when I open my unconscious catchalls.  What stuff do you have squirreled away in the scary space euphemistically known as “storage”? It could be under the stairs, in the attic, basement, utility room, garage, or Heaven forbid in a storage container.  If you’re really adept at camouflaging the depth of your despair, especially to yourself, Babe, perhaps your storage containers are half way around the world.   

“Penetrate deeply into the secret existence of anyone about you, even the man or woman whom you count happiest, and you will come upon things they spend all their efforts to hide,” the Victorian novelist Myrtle Reed confessed just before she died in 1911.  “Fair as the exterior may be, if you go in, you will find bare places, heaps of rubbish that can never been taken away, cold hearths, desolate altars and windows veiled with cobwebs.”

If you’re like me, what’s stuffed inside are symbols of all sorts, from the sublime to the ridiculous—touchstones that provoke every emotion known to woman:  letters, photographs, bank statements, lone earrings, locks of hair, one baby shoe, assorted baby teeth, menus, ticket stubs, orphaned keys, a fossilized rubber pacifier, forgotten rings, collars of long-dead cats.  In your bedroom more clothes and shoes that you don’t wear, than ones you do;  crowding each other and your psyche are the misbegotten “buys” that make you feel uncomfortable, fat, silly, or miserable, probably still in dry-cleaning bags or with sale tags.  And if your lingerie bureau has turned into a sock drawer, sweetie, it’s time to call the Ghostbusters.

A vibrational energy surrounds and attaches itself to every object in our homes, transforming them into palpable memories, both good and bad.  Often when we feel depressed but can’t identify the source of our distress, it’s because we’re sensing something we’ve hidden too well.  “A person speaks not only with the voice but with those objects she chooses to surround herself,” the superb writer Jacqueline Winspear reminds us in her detective novel Birds of a Feather.  “That photographs tell a story is well accepted, but the way furniture is positioned in a room tells something about its occupant; the contents of a larder reveal desire and restraint, as most surely does the level of liquid in the decanter.”  They all become ghostly receptacles for our “every thought, feeling, inspiration, reflection and wish.”

Too true. I sure hate to be the one to break it to us, but what’s ailing so many women, particularly myself at this moment, is the dis-ease of our daily round lurking just beneath the psychic surface of our lives.  The things stuffed in the back of your closet, the kitchen junk drawer, attic, and basement— is really the Past crying out to be buried, once and for all, or given another incarnation with someone new. Talk about the walking dead.  I think this is one of the most difficult lessons I’ve ever had to learn, but start thinking of storage as synonymous with sorrow, siphoning your precious natural resources—time, creative energy and emotion—and  you’ll find a new resolve to get rid of things.  Well, at least maybe you’ll be open to think about getting rid of things. Maybe. That’s progress.

For what’s really shoved in those unmarked brown boxes are scraps of shame, shreds of regret and shards of self-reproach.  Sins of omission and acts of self-sabotage.  Physical evidence of errors, lapses of judgment and cringe-worthy mistakes.  Emotional flotsam and jetsam from different periods of our lives, which haven’t even been acknowledged, never mind worked through, floating to the surface of our secret shoals of sorrow.  The only way I know this for sure is that I’ve washed up on the beach a few times.  But shipwrecked or spit out of the mouth of a whale, there is a point where the pain of the past becomes more to bear than the fear of the future.  As the Victorian poet Maria Mitchell consoles us, “People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.”
So Halloween seems as good a time of the year to start making the connection between what we stow away and what we stew over.  In fact, they’re probably in the same box.  One’s the issue, the other’s the artifacts.  Proof positive, for example, that once upon a time you were married to the completely wrong man for you.  But now you’re happily married to your high school sweetheart (thanks to attending your 40th reunion), so by all means keep the 1974 Wizards yearbook; but get rid of anything else that has to do with your previous marital incarnations, except legal papers.  And no, if you have divorced her father, your daughter is not likely to wear your wedding dress.  Sell it and buy a vintage bottle of Champagne to celebrate all the happiness you’re finally willing to receive and enjoy!

The sorry truth about women and ghosts is that the longer it takes us to acknowledge whatever fear, sorrow, slights, grief, anger, abuse, neglect, contempt, betrayal, deceit, projections, errors of judgment, lack of experience, bad timing, bitter failures, rejections, bungled efforts, whims of fate and just lousy luck we think we’ve packed away, all we manage to do, as Shakespeare tells us is “increase store with loss, increase loss with store.”

Spooky, isn’t it?  Still, you can’t resolve a problem or a situation that you won’t admit is happening, has happened once upon a time, or you expect to happen next week.  Our thoughts are like iron-mesh strapping tape.  When we secretly nurse a memory with highly charged emotion, whether it’s fear, grief, or anger, we open ourselves up psychically and start inviting in all manner of misery. In a word, ghosts.

                                     The bench around the apple tree, Newton's Chapel, England. 

                                   The bench around the apple tree, Newton's Chapel, England. 

This week I’m going through the inventory of containers that have been stored for seven years in England. I’ve have tried with every fiber of my being to hold on to the furnishings of my English dream, long after it became ashes, paying the equivalent of a mortgage to house boxes instead of myself.  The emotional pain is both sharp and dull. It’s like organizing an estate sale while you’re still alive; hovering like a spirit wanting to share the item's amazing history but prevented from the Other Side, mixed with distress that something you found priceless is now somebody else's bargain.

                        Interior, Newton's Chapel, England. 

                      Interior, Newton's Chapel, England. 

For these containers hold all the things I’ve loved, collected over a lifetime and created a beautiful home for myself and daughter with: the antique beds and their William Morris canopies; the grandfather clock, the 17th century carved mirror that hung in the nave of Newton’s Chapel, the stunning sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton by the great English sculptor Graeme Mitcheson; the Arts and Crafts chandelier designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and created by the Glasgow Art School from his drawings.  I was such a lucky woman to be able to work with so many artists. I was so blessed to create such a home that cherished the past.  No more than now, I suppose, when I have to let go.  

                    Sir Isaac Newton by Graeme Mitcheson.

                  Sir Isaac Newton by Graeme Mitcheson.

I never told you that gratitude had to be expressed with big smiles.  In fact, I suspect (hope) that the “thank you” offered in disappointment and despair are the most treasured because they are priceless tokens of trust, especially when trusting Spirit is the last thing in the world you want to do.  I know  (hope) that there is another home I will be led to and will love, but I also know that if I want to find it I can’t keep looking back anymore. Nor can you.  Babe, why do you think that poor Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt?  Because she turned back to look one more time at all she was leaving and losing.  The salt was from her tears. 

“Only in a house where one has learnt to be lonely does one have this solicitude for things,” Elizabeth Bowen confessed in her masterpiece The Death of the Heart (1938),”One’s relation to them, the daily seeing or touching, begins to become love, and to lay one open to pain.”  Bowen struggled her entire life to keep her family’s ancient Irish home Bowen’s Court; she had a nervous breakdown over unpaid bills in the 1950s. After she “recovered” she lectured and taught in the States to keep it going.  Finally she was forced to sell and then lived through it being razed to the ground.  She spent the rest of her life living in hotels or with friends.  I know I’m not at a new threshold, I just pray to move through this with as much grace and grit as the Swell Dames I so admire and Elizabeth Bowen did it in tweed suits, pearls and heels.  When I look up at the women who have gone before looking down at me I feel such a deep connection, “just out of being true.” 

So if you’re having to let go, move on and begin again, you’ve come to the right friend, who’s learned that loving and losing are both sides of our ghost stories—the here and the after.  I’m not going to tell you “they’re just things.”  I’m not going to tell you anything, Babe. I’m going to put the kettle on, get the box of tissues, and bring out the Irish whiskey reserved for wakes and root canals.

“I have tried to give away some of the things in my house that have ghosts; I think they would be better off somewhere else, and I want to be rid of certain memories,” Dominique Browning confesses, surely for all of us.  “the armoire that was part of a marriage, the carpet that was part of a love affair, the photograph that was part of hope, the bedcovers that were part of too many sleepless nights.  Begone.”

Offering a shoulder and one last look together.  Please let us remember in our prayers all who have no home and those facing the heartbreak we know too well.  May you be safe and sheltered in the loving embrace of Mother Plenty and may you soon find your path to the hearth waiting in your heart.  You have no idea how much I love you and how grateful I am for your calling me back into the world.  I’ll keep the stories coming.  We’ve got this far by not turning back.  We’re not about to start today.

Blessings on our courage.