Ghosts

If you lose something important to you, go back and search for it and you will find it.

The above is a quote attributed to a Lakota Sioux, the spiritual leader of the Hunkpapa Band. His Siouan language name translates as Slow, not because he was slow afoot or of mind, but because he was said to think deeply about all things.

The human brain and its processes seem incapable of understanding truths about the universe Our brains may never be well-enough equipped to understand and we are fooling ourselves if we think they will.

Why should we expect to be able eventually to understand how the universe originated, evolved, and operates? While human brains are complex and capable of many amazing things, there is not necessarily any match between the complexity of our world and the complexity of our brains, any more than a dog’s brain is capable of understanding every detail of the world of cats or bones. A dog knows nothing about the dynamics of stick trajectories when thrown. Nothing about deceleration, kinetic energy or the Coriolis Effect. Its just a stick, or so it seems to us. Dogs get by and so do we, but do we have a right to expect that the harder we puzzle over these things the nearer we will get to the truth? No, we don’t.

As has been famously said, “You not only do not understand the universe, you can’t even comprehend that you don’t understand it.”

Emotions and memories live in the present, the past and the future. Particularly in the past. When my grandmother Annie was an old, old woman, well in to her ninth decade her life in the present barely registered. She may or may not recognize you when you came in the room but she still smiled and if you sat with her on the couch whose upholstery was printed with red roses, she would lean on your shoulder and take your hand. That little hand with its tiny bones so thin it was almost possible to see through it. She didn’t say much but she took comfort from your presence. When she did speak it was from another dimension, a place she lived as a young girl, in the big house, Grandview, that overlooked our Arroyo Grande Valley. Memories of the young people she grew up with, her many brothers and sisters, her parents and her aunt and uncle who built the house. She spoke of things I didn’t know and I’m absolutely sure she would never have confided if she still lived in the present. You see, she was lady with a capital L, brought up in a time when secrets were kept. Perhaps for shame, perhaps guilt or simply because decent people never spoke of such things. She told us of uncle Pat, a prominent and well respected citizen spending too many hours in the Ryan Saloon and having to be carried out and poured into his Surry with the fringe on top. The horse knew the way home and into the carriage house where he was encouraged by his wife Sarah to spend the night. She would leave him snoring on the seat or if feeling kindly help him into the pile of hay in the corner. He wasn’t allowed in the house. She talked about the shame of the hired girl. Clara was just eight years older than my grandmother and a friend, judging from the inscriptions she left in Annies autograph book. She got herself “Knocked Up” as the old saying goes and had to be sent away. My grandmother whispered, “She married a Mexican.” She was an Irish girl far, far from her family in County Cavan. “At least she had enough sense not to marry the hired hand who made the baby.” He was sent packing. When she talked of these things eighty long years had passed yet to her they were as real as yesterday. Isn’t that time travel?

Little Annie Gray and Clara. 1893. Shannon Family Trust

I lived in Hawaii when she died and is was nearly a year before I went out to the old house on the ranch. It was strange to walk through the rooms I had known my grandparents in. My uncle still lived in the house and nothing had changed. Everything was in its place. I walked down the hall to the back of the house and at the end looked into the room we stayed in a little boys, nothing was changed. The one twin bed I had slept in, the double for my brothers. The White treadle sewing machine still sat in the corner the only one she ever used. I went out into the hall and through the door to my grandparents room. The maple bedroom set they bought as newlyweds and slept in for 70 years. His high boy, her dressing table with her brushes and make-up still on the top, the box of white shoulders powder sat there undisturbed. I walked slowly to the close doors and pulled them open. The scent of them flooded me and I cried. They may have been gone but they lived. They still do as long as I live and people read these old stories.

One year when we were having my dad’s birthday dinner, the whole clan gathered around my grandmothers dining room table laughing and sharing family stuff my dad went silent. He sat staring straight ahead, not responding at all. As we learned later he had had a small stroke. I called the ambulance and he was rushed to the Arroyo Grande hospital. George Shannon was a tough guy and proud of it in the way many of the farmers we knew growing up were. He didn’t go to the doctor, they were not quite trusted. You see, he grew up before vaccinations, when here was no hospital here to treat you. Appendicitis was a near death sentence. Childhood diseases could ravage kids, Scarlett Fever, Cholera, Typhoid, Mumps and Measles were killers. If you were really sick Doc Brown came to your house to treat you or at least to make your mother feel better because there wasn’t much he could do to help a sick child. Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis and Tuberculosis stalked children. What my dad learned from this was, at least he believed, that the doctor was as likely to kill you as to save you. After all it wasn’t until sometime after the turn of the 20th century that the odds a doctor could save you passed the 50/50 mark. Tough was his mantra.

Very late at night in a hospital room trying to get a little rest in one of the those chair specifically designed by paroled Nazi torturers. Very quiet, light down low, keeping one eye on my sleeping dad attached to monitors and Ringer bags a he lay quietly on his back. Then, in the blink of an eye, 70 years was whisked away as my father awoke, clutched at the tubes and wires and struggled from his bed. He stood shakily as I jumped up and ran around the bed and touched him trying to calm a very agitated old man who had just traveled down a wormhole to 1920. He was trying to get to his clothes, the short pants, stockings, white shirt and high top shoes he wore as an eight year old. As I struggled to restrain him, waiting and hoping the nurse was on her way he said, “Let me go Jackie, let me go. I’m going to be late for school and mommy will be mad.” For those few moments until he was calmed down he was in the second grade. I’d never heard him call my grandmother mommy and I saw how distressed he was. For those few minutes he lived-in another dimension which was as real to him as the one you are living in as you read this story. Finally the nurses got him tucked in and he went back to sleep. When I returned the next morning he had absolutely no memory of his little trip and in fact was as nearly sharp as he normally was. I told my brothers about it but the said, “Oh, he was just hallucinating.” I know better though. He was a little boy back in that little white house on the old state highway where he shared a room with his brother Jackie. It was completely real.

Jackie and George Shannon 1920, Shannon Family Trust

My mother drove this little Chevrolet car for the last few years of her life. I was designed by GM in a time when they used five year olds to draw new cars and save money on designers. It was the color of an old grey cat. It was neither unique nor had it even a hint of luxury. The engine was just a four cylinder put put, not loud but unusual enough that if you were listening inside the house he could hear it coming up the street we. She would cruise over from the home she and my dad lived in on Orchard Street. They lived across from the old Orchard Street school, just two houses from Maryjane Montgomery and within spitting distance of Maryjanes sister Georgie O’Conner. So she would show up about once a week or so to see her grandchildren and after a while, I’m sure you’ve had this feeling too, somewhere in the back of your mind you knew that today might be the day and the subconscious listened for that little car.

She died in November of 1993. She had cancer of the liver which is nearly absolutely fatal. When she was at Sierra Vista, the oncologist took me into the hallway and said she would never go home. Just like that, matter of fact, no emotion. I still hate him. The family gathered around, her room always had one or more people holding her hand, talking to her, sharing their days just as if she wasn’t in a coma. I was sitting with her holding her left hand late one afternoon, my aunt Pat, her baby sister in the chair opposite when I felt just the tiniest pressure from her fingers. Like the soft breath of a hummingbird. Just a touch. Over the next two days she slowly climbed out of the shroud and came back to us. We took her home. Hospice set up her living room with a hospital bed and for a week she had a steady stream of old friends come to say goodbye. Florence Rust, blind and ailing herself and June Waller, Hazel Talley, Ellie Matsoutek, Billie Swigert and the many women who had known her for decades. It seemed to me the last gasp of those oh so gracious women who were raised between the world wars. In a few years they were all gone and I can’t help believe that we will never see their like again.

Except; for many years afterward the phone would ring and as I took it off its hook in the kitchen I’d think it’s mom. Except it wasn’t. Once in a while I’d hear that little Chevy chugging up our street and head for the front door to go out and greet her. But it wasn’t her. I’m still waiting for them. I’m beginning to think the journey must go in the opposite direction. I am no longer myself, I’ve become someone else.

Barbara, Shannon Family Trust.

Every human being lives in a world of ghosts and shadows, we all listen to distant voices.

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5 thoughts on “Ghosts

  1. Pat Dilbeck says:

    I sit here alone in (my chair that has become my command center for the last couple of years) crying. Reading your post brings so many treasured thoughts to me. I was the baby, with 4 sets of parents. 2 sisters , brother and their spouses all raised me. I’m the last of our little family. My parents are all gone. I remember when Barbara was in the hospital as you mentioned. It was time for me to leave, I lived in Northern California then. Barbara held my hand and asked me if I could polish her nails? She always had beautiful long nails. I explained that I had a long drive home and couldn’t do her nails this time. I think of that moment often. Why did I not take a few minutes and do her nails? How shallow I was! I could have stayed and painted her nails, it would have only added a few minutes yet I was in my own world being practical..I loved her so much and I will never forgive myself for being a non thinking little sister. She was so gracious to me, saying OK.
    I’m sorry “Buddy”. I hope I can make it up to you when I get to see you again. Love you, Patsy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Debby Cardinali says:

    Your mom sounded like a community keystone Michael. I’ve known and loved people like that over the years and agree with you, they’re a rarity these days or perhaps I’m not paying close enough attention. You were a lucky kid.

    Like

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