Monday, April 26, 2004

Miss Rachel’s Flowers.

I want to believe in Bigfoot, but he probably doesn’t exist. I don’t want to believe in ghosts because I’m a big chicken, but there are plenty of folks who will tell you they exist. Go figure.

My husband and I went on a “ghost walk” in Wilmington, North Carolina, last weekend, in search of a little eerie entertainment. We spent ninety minutes crisscrossing “Old Wilmington” taking in stories about those who linger on after death. We came away from the tour with an appreciation of the historic architecture in the city, but experienced no creepy crawlies thanks to the milquetoast delivery by so-called “local actors.”

I do get the creeps from a story told by one of my co-workers. G. lives in a beautiful house in Raleigh, North Carolina, close to N.C. State University. She awoke one night to find a large African-American man in overalls standing at the foot of the bed. He had a tool belt on hip and a worn driving cap on his head. Her terror transitioned to sleep-fuzzed acquiescence once she determined that his style of dress was way too old-fashioned for a home invader. “I’m looking at a ghost,” she resolved, and rolled over in hopes that feigned disinterest would send the lost workman elsewhere. She fell back to sleep soon afterward.

Then next morning, G. recalled the event and assumed that she’d been imagining things. She nonchalantly asked her husband if he’d slept well; he hesitated and then said “No.” When she asked him why he slept poorly, he quizzed, “Did you see a guy standing at the foot of our bed last night?” When she nodded in affirmation, he proceeded to describe the man exactly as G. had observed. After sharing their story with friends and neighbors, they learned that their house sits on the site of the old state fairgrounds(1873-1928). They speculate that one of the crew is still doing his job, late at night at the foot of their bed. That’s dedication.

Dedication to the living can preoccupy the dead, according to family legend. I don’t want to believe in ghosts, but when your maternal grandfather goes around like the Welcome Wagon after death, you have to give a little. “Grandy” was the sweetest, gentlest, most loving man I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. His devotion to his wife was renowned throughout their rest home. Grandy’s frailty betrayed his deference in the end, when he died one afternoon after a prolonged illness. My grandmother Nanny grieved into the night, reading her Bible for comfort before drifting off to sleep. The Bible fell to the floor at some point, with the orderly noting to self that she’d pick up the book on the next round. The orderly was surprised and concerned to see the Bible on Nanny’s bed table soon afterwards; no one was supposed to enter patient rooms without authorization. (My grandmother was alone and bedridden.) The next morning, when the orderly asked my grandmother who had picked up the Bible, Nanny said “Marvin got it for me.” Nanny insisted to the orderly and my mother that Grandy had appeared, replaced the book and given his last loving goodbye. A grieving widow’s tale that is easily dismissed, right?

Wrong. Fast forward to the day after Grandy’s funeral. I called my Mother to hear the details, since I chose to attend the wake instead of the graveside service. “It was quite interesting,” she measured carefully. Mom related her emotional encounter with R., a close friend of the family. Nanny and Grandy met R. when she was selling perfume in a local department store; they visited her weekly as a social event. They adored R., and R. conferred the title “adopted Grandma and Grandpa” on them. Nanny and Grandy feted R.’s shining moments from marriage to adoption of a delightful baby girl.

Daddy came to her the afternoon he died,” Mom choked. “R. heard the baby stirring from her nap and went to the nursery. Grandy appeared and said he was sorry that he wouldn’t be able to watch the baby grow up. Then he was gone.” R. said the moment was reassuring and touching, not frightening.

Perhaps those good vibes linger when a good person passes? Take for instance, the abandoned house adjacent to my mom and dad’s subdivision. The homeowner passed away at the ripe old age of ninety and the retirement community bought her property. Residents are allowed to collect and transplant perennial plants from the jungle of an overgrown yard. (The house will soon be demolished and the property bulldozed.) Mom and I walked down the weed-choked lane a few days ago to see if anything was left to salvage.

The evening was still warm as the diving sun lit up a whitewashed, but ramshackle ranch house. Ancient oaks and sweetgums towered around the house to provide cool spots of shade. Three small fiberglass Quonset huts surrounded the house; one had been a greenhouse, one a potting shed, and one a tool shed. Mom and I gingerly stepped over fallen branches, thistly vines and clumps of dead-grass mole hills to examine the greenhouse. Rotting wooden tables held rows of potted dead ferns. They must have followed their caretaker in death; abandoned to wither without the wrinkled elderly hand to water them.

After paying our respects at the greenhouse, we picked up fallen branches to tap on the ground as we circumnavigated the house. (I never saw any snakes, but the yard was a likely candidate for Reptile Disneyworld.) Red-trumpeted Columbine flowers bowed their heads to the ground below. Purple tufts of Adjuga glowed in the evening sun beams that slashed amongst tree trunks and bushes. (Adjuga is aptly named “Carpet Bugle” in garden-speak.) Mom and I used our “Snake-Away” sticks to dig and pry up clumps of both plants. We were careful and methodical in our removal; we left plenty for others and tried not to leave gouges in the soil. Somehow it was important to us to acknowledge that this had been someone’s yard. The potting shed conveniently contained black plastic flats and terra cotta pots, so the end product looked like it had been purchased from a garden center.

On my last reconnoiter around the house, I noticed that the side porch door was open. I peeked inside. Pale white light cast through the windows onto a clothing rack filled with hanging garment bags. I walked inside to find dusty dresses and coats in the bags; most were faded and worn. The stairs leading to the inner house seemed solid, so I tested them and then motioned to my mother to follow. We entered the unlocked door into an austere bedroom. An iron bed with mattress and coverlet angled towards a second door. Behind that door lay a maze of wood or linoleum floored rooms, all smelling of old cedar, dust, and time.

The rest of the house was empty of furniture. No pictures or decorations graced the walls. The kitchen was an odd mirror of itself; at both ends there were double sinks underneath large picture windows. One picture window looked out into the tangled front yard, the other window revealed a sunroom built adjacent to the rear kitchen wall. An excess of cabinet space around the rear sink led me to believe that the stove had been moved from that location, over to the front space where the other double sink was installed. I got the impression that she added on the sunroom, then moved the kitchen the front of the house so she could wash dishes and look out into the front yard. While standing and pondering the kitchen, a question crossed my mind. Why wasn’t I unnerved, trespassing throughout a dead woman’s former domain? Where were the cold gusts of air, the heebie-jeebies, or the sensations that we were being watched?

Perhaps she didn’t mind our curiosity, I told my mother. Maybe she appreciates the fact that her plants will live on in new homes, Mom conjectured. We walked out of the darkening house and back up the gravel lane to pick up our containers of plants. As we popped out of the jungle onto the city maintained sidewalk, a fast moving pedestrian almost bowled us over.

Are they giving plants away?” she inquired. Assuming that we looked like guilty trespassers, we explained our justification for being on the property. “Miss Rachel was a very sweet person,” the woman commented. She went on to say that she’d known the homeowner, Miss Rachel, very well. “I’ll have to come by and get some plants to remember her by, even though I don’t live in your subdivision,” the woman whispered as we parted ways.

I get the feeling that Miss Rachel is content to live on through the gardens that harbor her perennials. I sure don’t need her to make an appearance to say “thank you,” or to introduce herself. The good vibes from that day’s adventure, and the plants in my yard are thanks enough.

Addendum: A Child’s Take on Death and Dying.

I was playing with my daughter in the back yard the other evening, when our eight-year old neighbor called to us over to the fence.

“Did you hear about Nellie?” she inquired, in an excited voice that seemed a bit surprising, considering the circumstances. Her aged beagle Nellie suffered from multiple cancers and had been euthanized the day before.

“Yes, darling, I’m so sorry she passed away. I know you’ll miss her,” I said sympathetically.

“She didn’t pass away, we put her to sleep!” the child singsonged happily as she pumped back in forth in her swing. “We buried her over there under the dogwood tree, ‘an we painted seashells to go on her grave, ‘an I’m gonna paint some rocks, too!”

“My dog, Wiley, died too!” my daughter chirped. “She fell off the sofa and died.” (Actually, she died of liver failure.)

“Yeah, I remember!” said our neighbor. “Hey, wanna see Nellie’s grave?”

And so, my daughter trudged through the garden gate to behold the painted seashells on dearly departed Nellie the Beagle’s grave. No tears were shed, no words of grief were spoken. The two little girls simply shared a moment, recognizing that Nellie once was, and that she was loved. Little kids rock.