The Ghost of Thanksgiving Present

The Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield, New Hampshire is haunted. I didn’t know this when I was visited by a ghost while in my room on a break between writing workshops during my MFA residency through Southern New Hampshire University. It was my second semester in the program and our cohort’s first residency at the resort.

The ghost appeared in the bathroom as I unceremoniously sat on the toilet. Like smoke, she curled through the doorway and exited through the tiled wall directly in front of me. Her long, blond hair hid her features. She wore a beige, cotton nightgown. The bottoms of her bare feet were the last thing I saw of her before she disappeared. A chill filled the bathroom, and I grabbed a sweater on my way out.

Before joining the scheduled workshop, I reported the sighting to the director of the MFA program. She gave me a knowing smile and recommended that I share my experience with someone at the front desk. Upon doing so, the desk clerk listened with interest before producing a large ledger where she recorded the event. “I believe you saw a young woman who once worked here.” The clerk said. “Poor girl fell down the servant stairs and died. The stairs are gone now. They were back near the room you are staying in.”

“Oh, I see.” I said. “I didn’t know the hotel was haunted.”

“We don’t advertise,” she said. “You just described a spirit many people have seen in that part of the hotel over the years. I believe it was the ghost of the servant girl.”

Word got out that I had seen a spirit. The following morning at breakfast, the dean of our program approached me and sat down. “I understand you saw a ghost last night. I would love to hear about it.”

I told her of the encounter, and she seemed genuinely interested. When I finished, she patted my hand. “That’s a lovely story, dear” she said, “but I don’t believe a word of it.”

That left me puzzled. Did she think I had lied about seeing a ghost, or did she not believe in ghosts? The first made sense. She didn’t know me. Perhaps she thought I made the whole thing up. My second assumption is what I still wrestle with when I tell people I saw a ghost. If the dean took me as a credible source, then she was implying that she didn’t believe in ghosts. If this is true, then how would she or I explain what it was I saw in my room. Certainly, a girl with blond hair wearing a nightgown did not appear in my bathroom only to disappear into a tiled wall. I hadn’t been drinking and wasn’t on any medication. I also had no previous knowledge that the hotel was haunted. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could share the story and not be believed.

Belief. It’s a tricky word. The definition by Oxford Languages states, “[Belief] is the acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.”

In my case, the spirit existed. I saw her. The story I told the dean was true. But beliefs have nothing to do with the truth. Not really. They are based on attitudes, and as the dictionary states, an acceptance that something is true, not that something is true. Our beliefs are hard wired and often begin at home when we are young. My Catholic mother believed in the Immaculate Conception while your mother may have believed in the teachings of Buddha, which is why I pray the rosary and you may use mala beads during meditation. Beliefs affect our thinking and our perceptions of the world we live in. We hold steadfast to them whether they are the truth or not because our families and friends share the same beliefs. Who are we and where do we go if our beliefs differ from those closest to us? I may believe that ghosts do or do not exist, but the truth is something or someone other than a human being entered my bathroom that night.

I have thought a great deal about the dean’s comment over the last several months: I don’t believe a word of it. We are being forced to choose sides based on our beliefs, and now that the holidays are just around the corner, what are we to do?

I’m hearing from friends that the situation we are in because of Covid-19 is creating family arguments and mudslinging before we have even gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. People are being accused of wanting to stay home when in fact they fear getting others sick or getting sick themselves. Some have been given ultimatums. “Well, if you don’t come to our house for Thanksgiving then we’re not coming to yours for Christmas.” Still, others are being ostracized. “If you don’t like the way we do things around here, stay home.”

Many of us continue to work on our relationships as Covid-19 has become politically weaponized. Whatever your beliefs, we are all experiencing tough times right now with many of us pushed to our emotional limits. I have lost count of the people in my life that have suffered because of Covid-19. I am sick of it. All of it, and despite my beliefs or yours, this is still something we must deal with every day.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Emil Frankl, wrote about his experiences living in various Nazi concentration camps. He noted that people who kept track of the days and dreamed of being released by a specific date (For some it was a birthday or anniversary. For others it was the beginning of Hanukkah or Passover.) often tried to escape when the day came knowing full well they would be shot and killed. He said the human spirit isn’t designed for that kind of disappointment. Instead, Frankl survived by relishing the memories of his family and of the life he had before the Holocaust. The holidays may look different this year, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Whether you are like the dean at Mountain View Grand Resort who didn’t believe in ghosts or like Frankl who believed in the resilience of the human spirit, be good to yourselves and to the people you love. We all deserve it.

Have a Little Faith in Me

Old Saint Joseph Church, located on the Saint Norbert College campus in De Pere, Wisconsin, shares a long history with my dad’s French-Canadian side of my family. Rev. Charles Albanel, a French Jesuit, erected the first church in 1676 where it stood for over 200 years. In 1870 Green Bay Bishop Joseph Melcher established a parish at the site for the French-Canadian settlers who worked in the lumber mills along the Fox River. My great-great grandparents Louis and Pheilomen Colburn were among the first parishioners. The community was known as French Town and Saint Joseph’s Church as French Church. In recent weeks, this tranquil place of worship has served as my sanctuary.

Ron had surgery in July for a torn rotator cuff. All seemed to be going as planned until we noticed an abscess on his shoulder where stiches had been removed. We arrived at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s house in Green Bay on August 11 and immediately went to the emergency room. That night we learned Ron had an infection and over the next month he would endure painful procedures and a second surgery. Overnight our medical vocabulary and their significance grew exponentially: joint aspiration, synovial fluid analysis, debridement irrigation, arthroscopy of the intraarticular joint, debridement of the anterior portal, P. acne infection, intravenous antibiotic treatment, PICC line, occupational therapy.

Ron’s mental and emotional health deteriorated at a rate that matched the excruciating pain he was in. My sister Kelli and her husband Carl were gracious and took us in. The unknown plagued all of us. When was this going to end? Some nights, I made childish deals with God: If you let Ron live through this, I promise to….

Kelli often got me out of the house and out of my head by playing tour guide. The city of Green Bay is situated along a labyrinth of waterways including the Fox and East rivers that spill into the bay. Bridges connecting the east and west side make driving a challenge for people new to the city.

The drive along the Fox River is magical. In the 1870’s steamboats were replaced by railroads. Iron smelting, lumber milling, and paper production soared in Green Bay. Business tycoons built lavish Victorian, Tudor, American Craftsman, and Greek Revival homes on the banks of the Fox River that are still beautifully maintained today. As a little girl, I dreamed of roaming the halls of these gorgeous estates. And to be honest, I still do. 

On our drives, weary and overwhelmed, I often asked Kelli to stop at Old Saint Joseph to steal a few moments in prayer. Each time I go, I sit across from the stained-glass window of Saint Patrick to remind me that my mother’s Irish side of the family is from this land, too. I am grateful for the strength and grit my mom’s clan has instilled in me. 

In 1889 the original church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. After a donation campaign, Old Saint Joseph Church was constructed in 1890 and today serves as the first college parish in the United States. In 1898 Rev. Bernard Pennings, O. Praem, a Norbertine priest, arrived in De Pere and purchased the church from the Diocese of Green Bay. Abbot Pennings is credited with starting Saint Norbert College. My great-great grandfather Louis and Pennings were friends. Before Louis passed, the family home and land were donated to Saint Norbert College.  

In 1870 Pope Pius IX named St. Joseph the patron saint of the Catholic Church. The National Shrine of Saint Joseph is housed in a chapel at Old Saint Joseph Church. 2020 is being celebrated as the year of Saint Joseph, and the shrine is designated the national pilgrimage site. People come and go to the shrine while I pray, and it is not lost on me that Saint Joseph watches over travelers.

Life’s journeys rarely begin at a starting gate or with a map. They are realized later when we have time and space to breathe and reflect. Old Saint Joseph remains my anchor through this storm. While praying the Rosary, my heart rate slows to focus on gratitude for all the blessings this journey has given me.

I spent time my daughter and met the lovely couple who adopted her. I also met my precious grandchildren for the first time. I have connected with my sister and come to appreciate her as a friend. My cousin Tracy stops by each week with a beautiful dinner for all of us. Carl, my nephews and their girlfriends make Ron and I laugh, reminding us there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Our pets are being loved and cared for by my mom back in Arizona. Ron’s family checks in often for updates and are a great source of encouragement. Old Saint Joseph Church and the land surrounding it are infused with the lives and blood of my family. This connectedness resides in my bones. My prayers are interrupted by big love, a gift the Blessed Virgin Mary has bestowed upon me. She gave of her only son so that I may experience the tremendous joy of family in my heart.

Ron finally got some good news last week. The infection is responding to the antibiotics. He still goes to the hospital each day for intravenous treatments, but we have an end date. He will meet with his doctors on October 1, and we have made plans to return to New Mexico on October 3. His range of motion in his shoulder is getting better each day, and he started driving again, which has given him some independence; something we both need.

 

It is the first day of autumn and the leaves are changing color. The seasonal shift is felt in the crisp morning air. Chatty dances of Sandhill Cranes fly low overhead while we hike the thick woods outside of town. They are making their way south for the winter, reminding me our time here is coming to an end. Preparing to return to the ranch in New Mexico feels more like planning a vacation than a trip home. I will miss my family and friends and the solitude of Old Saint Joseph Church. Part of any journey is recognizing when it is over and how best to say goodbye.

Prayer to Saint Joseph following the Rosary, especially during the month of October, which is dedicated to the Rosary:

To you, O blessed Joseph,
do we come in our tribulation,
and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse,
we confidently invoke your patronage also.

Through that charity which bound you
to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God
and through the paternal love
with which you embraced the Child Jesus,
we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance
which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,
and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.

O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family,
defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ;
O most loving father, ward off from us
every contagion of error and corrupting influence;
O our most mighty protector, be kind to us
and from heaven assist us in our struggle
with the power of darkness.

As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril,
so now protect God’s Holy Church
from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity;
shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection,
so that, supported by your example and your aid,
we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness,
and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven.

Amen.

Morning Has Broken

A quetzal perched in a mango tree alongside a dozen white chickens roosting contently in the pre-dawn. The air was stagnant and muggy; waiting for the sun to bake the terracotta rooftops and single-track dirt roads that weaved through the pueblito. The pungent barnyard aroma permeated the quiet and acted as a reminder that a hard day’s work lay ahead. I stood a long time, a witness to this extraordinary moment that would vanish when daylight woke the chickens. The quetzal groomed itself, unfazed by my presence. Mating season, his twin tail feathers appeared to flow like emerald ribbons between two sleeping hens.

Photo, National Audubon Society

This was in central Honduras outside a small room I had rented from a farmer. Two fat pigs grunted in their sleep. The farmer’s dog lay sprawled on its side outside my door. A goose slept on a wooden folding chair in the yard, its head tucked deep between folded wings. A normal morning by all accounts, except for the majestic quetzal that seemed to wait, like I was, for something to signal daybreak.

The farmer’s wife startled me when she stepped outside the main house and made her way to the kitchen next to my room. I looked over my shoulder and waved. Turning back, I caught a glimpse of the quetzal fly off before it disappeared into the jungle. The moment vanishing like the fog against the rising sun.

I finished packing for a trip I had planned and went to the kitchen where I whisked eggs alongside the farmer’s wife as she fanned the cooking fire and worked masa into round tortillas. I didn’t mention the quetzal. It was gift I kept to myself.

The quetzal was the only thing among us that morning with the freedom to live life aligned with its God given place in the world. It’s shocking colors reminding me how mundane my circumstances had become. I was headed down the mountain for a supply run and would be gone a week. The barnyard animals and dog would fulfill their obedient roles while I was gone. Envious of the bird, I made a mental note to do something exciting on my trip. Maybe hike the cloud forest above El Progreso or head out to the islands to indulge in the exotic.

It’s been twenty-five years since I stood under that mango tree, yet my mind delivers the image of the quetzal amid the white chickens like a postcard from a faraway place, reminding me that even in extraordinary times, it is the ordinary that keeps us afloat. With the uncertainty and isolation all of us are faced with right now, routines help us keep track of time and give us a reason to get out of bed and toss open the curtains. Moments of laughter and joy throw light on our dark moods. Phone calls act as lifeboats in troubled times marked by loneliness.   

Resplendent quetzals, members of the Trogon family, live in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America. None have ever been spotted this far north at our ranch along the Mexican border. But occasionally, I look up while weeding the garden or watering the trees in the orchard hoping to catch a glimpse of that dazzling bird, a beacon among the house finches, sent down from the heavens to remind me there are still wonders and surprises even now, in a world that oftentimes feels heavy and gray.

Let It Be

peaches

In the dream I’m at a big box store. I have finished shopping, and the lines at checkout are long. I finally reach the register where a cheerful woman begins removing items from my cart. Her name is Nikki. It’s embroidered on her denim shirt just above the pocket that covers her left breast.

“I’d say you got seven-hundred and fifty bucks worth of stuff in this cart.” She picks up a three pack of Dawn dish-washing soap secured by heavy-duty shrink wrap that is going to take a pair of scissors and some swearing to undo when I get home. She smiles. “Sure you need all this?”

I don’t and feel stupid when her forearms strain to remove a wedge of Gouda the size of my head from the cart. I point to the cheese. “I certainly don’t need that.”

I stand back to survey what I have done and begin to sort items. When I finish, there is a cart filled with things I don’t need. My total in ninety dollars and seventy-two cents. Nikki and I are waiting on a price check for two white t-shirts. She holds up the shirts. “What do think?”

“They’re non-negotiable. I need them,” I say, though I have no idea why.

Nikki shrugs, and we wait for the kid who said he’d be back lickety-split with a price on the shirts.

The guy behind me doesn’t seem to mind the delay. He points to the case of Sierra Nevada I bought for my husband. “I could go for one of those,” he says.

I look around the store. Customers and employees alike are bustling about. It feels like the holidays, but I’m not sure what time of year it is.

Nikki has a t-shirt turned inside out looking for a barcode or something to enter into the register. She sticks both shirts in a bag and winks. “I’ll tell the kid you decided you didn’t want them.”

“Are you sure? I can wait.”

The kid materializes out of thin air. “They’re five bucks a piece,” he shouts over my head, then disappears into the crowd.

Nikki rings up the shirts and says, “We almost got away with it,” and we both laugh.

I push my cart toward the door. While passing the food court, I wake up and whisper, “What an ordinary dream.”

My dreams are vivid, often prophetic in nature. I wake teasing out their meanings, while I frantically write them down before they dissolve into the ether. I lay on my back confused.  Ordinary. The word danced around the room waiting for my conscious self to rouse before worming its way back inside me, where it dissolved into an over-whelming sense of melancholy.

Thank God, for Nikki, the guy standing behind me in line, and the kid who ran to do a price check. They didn’t know. None of us knew. It was an ordinary day before the pandemic hijacked our global consciousness, leaving everyone on the planet acutely aware that an invisible monster lurks among us, waiting to infect its next victim.

I got up like I do every morning with a long to-do list in my head. Fruit flies had found the plums I stored in a paper bag to ripen. The bag was on the kitchen counter. I placed it up on a shelf with canning supplies so that I would remember to make jam. The residue of the dream was still stuck to my skin, and the motion of putting the plums on the shelf got me wondering. What other ordinary things had I put on a shelf since March 13, the day Trump declared a state of emergency after nearly two months of denial.

Ron and I watched the news and remarked on our good fortune as we witnessed people emptying grocery store shelves of toilet paper and bottled water. We live in the middle of nowhere with enough supplies to last us months. With our closest neighbor a mile away, social-distancing, and stay-at-home orders are things we practice every day. A two-week quarantine? Not a problem.

I planted a garden and in no time, we were picking zucchini. Peaches and plums came on, and I made cobbler with homemade ice cream. We cooked steaks on the grill and had Sunday dinners here at the ranch with friends who were also following New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home orders. Ron and I celebrated his birthday in the Chiricahua Mountains by dipping our bare feet in Cave Creek. I even met a friend to go hiking. Do we dare hug? In the end, we did, and I realized how much I had missed our easy conversations and her thoughtful insights.

All these ordinary things were going on while simultaneously the embers of isolation, despair, and longing for my old life occasionally flared. I pitched a fit while looking for my binoculars after my husband had used them. I cleaned the house until my fingernails split and my hands bled. I swore I would run away from home when Ron’s shoulder surgery was rescheduled, and I had to cancel my trip to Wisconsin to see family for the second time since the virus struck.

kaboodlesWe said goodbye to our beloved cat Kaboodles. Our veterinarian put a hand on my shoulder as I held my little, three-legged darling and sobbed. “Okay, that’s enough,” he whispered, and maybe he was right. Doctors in hospitals around the world watched in horror as their patients died from Covid-19. Giving in to suffering was risky business, so I put my grief on a shelf.

Ron’s dear mother, Natalie, passed in May, and I shelved my pain again. The threat of coronavirus stripped us of traditional customs for burying a loved one. We called the state health department hoping for guidelines to plan a funeral. The information was vague at best. In the end, we honored Natalie in a Zoom memorial with family and friends and buried her on a hillside facing the rising sun, a small group of us standing around unsure of our roles absent a priest or funeral director to guide us.2009-05 Animas Natalie

BabyThen it happened. Ron and I woke to the sound of our Blue Heeler, Baby, struggling to stand up on the hardwood floor next to our bed. She was having a seizure. I lay down next to her and waited for a miracle. When it was clear my prayers had gone unanswered, I ran outside and shouted to God in heaven, “I want my old life back!”

There was no more room on the shelf for my heartache. Every ordinary thing I had done in the last three months had acted as a thin veil concealing the extraordinary. The things I had taken for granted and deemed certain in my life were gone. And now, I would lose this precious girl, too. “Let it Be” by The Beatles echoed in my head as we drove three hours to the veterinarian’s office with Baby in the backseat, my despair gaining traction as her health declined.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,                          Speaking words of wisdom, let it be                                                                                                 And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me,                                              Speaking workings of wisdom, let it be

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-YClouds rolled in, bringing welcomed relief after days of 100-degree temperatures. I finally went through the bag of plums and was making jam when the rain came. I turned off the stove and ran outside. Our Border Collie, Hank, darted between trees in the orchard while I got soaked chasing after him. Baby was afraid of thunder and for a moment, I wondered if she was safe inside the house. With my concern came grief when I remembered she was gone, and I cried. I miss her.

I miss so much.

We are all mourning the lives we were forced to abandon. The loss is profound, but each of us has a paper bag of plums on a shelf that needs our attention. Roll up your sleeves and dig in. It is the blessed ordinary things in our lives that heal our hearts, reminding us of who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stolen Grief

Natalie

Ron’s mom, Natalie, recently passed away. Ron’s brother, Cecil, called early in the morning with the news. She lived in a nursing home in Chandler, Arizona not far from Cecil’s house. He was with her in her final hours. A healthcare worker at the home was diagnosed with Covid-19.  Instead of grieving, Ron and I worried Natalie died from the virus and that Cecil may have contracted it while he sat with her through the night.

There are things to do when a loved one passes. We contact family and friends and the funeral home. There are caskets to choose from and church services to arrange. Food, flowers, and holy cards are ordered. Someone writes an obituary and submits it to the local paper; others are asked to speak at the funeral. Hotel arrangements are made for out-of-town guests. Transportation to and from the airport, and from the church to the cemetery are arranged. There is grocery shopping to do, meals to plan, and new suits and dresses to purchase. These are rituals that help us cope. They give us purpose and direction while we mourn our loss. Our need to do something, anything, is primal. We honor our dead. It is a fundamental part of being human. But coronavirus stripped us of those rites. Instead, Ron and I sat in a state of inertia that left each of us edgy, sad, and bewildered.

We had permission to move Natalie from Arizona to New Mexico to bury her here. Could we move her if she had the virus? Who would test her? Would we need to bury her someplace else? We called family and friends with the news. No, we would not be having a funeral here at the ranch. Maybe a memorial later, we said. Not knowing what that meant or when it would happen.

Cecil was still at the nursing home waiting for instructions on how to keep himself and his wife, Patty, safe once he got home. Ron called the New Mexico Department of Health. He had questions about the virus. Should his brother be tested given the circumstances? If his mother was tested for the virus, how long before we had the results? What protocols were we to follow regarding a burial here at the ranch, or was that even possible? At some point the gentleman on the phone admitted he was just reading directly from the CDC website and suggested we do the same.

There was no time for tears. Instead, we were forced to navigate the Covid-19 wormhole. Ron and his brother spoke often throughout the day. Natalie had been tested for the virus at the funeral home. We would have the results in about a week. Cecil went home and stripped down on the patio before going into the house and taking a shower. He would need to quarantine for fourteen days. The funeral home director thought there would be no threat of the virus after Cecil’s quarantine was up and that it would be safe to transport Natalie.

The following day, Ron’s ex-wife, Becky, posted a beautiful photo of Natalie and an obituary on Facebook. Natalie was gone, and this was the first evidence of her passing that felt real. Border Patrol Agents stopped by with a lovely card and a bottle of Patrón to toast Natalie’s long life. We contacted a local friend who agreed to dig the grave at the Border Cowboy where she will be laid to rest on Saturday.

Ron and I, along with his daughter, Xochi, son-in-law, Matt, and granddaughter, Ada, visited the burial site. We have arranged a Zoom meeting with family and friends and are busy collecting photos for a slideshow. Cecil and Patty will be here with us at the ranch. Natalie’s life partner, W.H. Adams, and his children will join us at the grave site. In the days since Natalie passed, we have hobbled together something that resembles the customs we shared “before the virus”.  A tagline, I fear, we will be uttering for years to come—our lives irrevocably altered by the pandemic.

Natalie was born August 27, 1930 and would have turned ninety this year. She was born during the Great Depression and was in grade school when Germany invaded Poland, sparking World War II in Europe. She was a young mother when the Korean War broke out and raising two teenage sons during the Vietnam War. She was a strong and gracious woman who had witnessed a great deal of this country’s suffering. To leave us during the pandemic seems both unjust and fitting.

As a young mother with two boys, Natalie, and her husband, Cecilio, attended Arizona State College, which is now Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Cecilio was Mexican American. Cultural norms being what they were back then, they had a difficult time finding teaching jobs. They persevered and found positions on the Navajo Reservation near Tuba City where they taught for several years. The family moved to Douglas, Arizona in 1964. Natalie eventually became a school principal and years later, met W.H. Adams. After she retired, she moved here to the ranch in Animas, New Mexico where she and W.H. lived a full life. She enjoyed traveling the desert on a four-wheeler, working in her yard, and spending time with family and friends.

She was loved by so many people and deserves a proper funeral, and so do we. But our loss remains in suspended animation. This is the cruel, parting gift of coronavirus. There will be no service, no hugs, no condolences. We will not gather as a family to tell stories, to eat a good meal, or to say our proper goodbyes. Instead, we search for familiar ground; something we can hold onto that resembles what used to be before the virus.

Natalie’s obituary appeared in the Douglas Dispatch with an ominous reminder of where we are in human history. “Arrangements are pending”.

Someday we will all come together here at the ranch to celebrate her life, but for now, each of us must find our own way through the void.