What the Ghost Showed Me
Every autumn, as soon as the equinox has passed, I spend a few weeks focusing my thoughts on the dead people I love, and I make a point of inviting them to get in touch. Most ignore me, and some drop in just long enough to say hello, but there’s usually one who parks resolutely in my mind and demands my full attention. One horrible autumn a few years back, when my life seemed to be nothing but sadness and chaos, my maternal grandfather was that insistent ghost.
I was not expecting him. This was his first reappearance, and he’d been gone for more than 40 years. I was just six when a malignant brain tumor turned him into a blank-faced, speechless hulk before taking his life. For a long time after he died, he brought me terror in dreams. Even the happiest memories of him can still lead me back to those nightmares. And yet when his ghost appeared, I found myself happy to welcome him: a troubling spirit for a troubled time.
He was a Church of the Nazarene preacher. That is always the first thing I tell people about my grandfather. It seems like the most important fact to know. His was a very ordinary and anonymous life. He never made a dime more than survival money or did anything noteworthy that I’m aware of, but he declared and pursued a passion for God, and that strikes me as a grand and revealing choice in the context of such a life. Though there’s much I can never know about him, I’m confident that his mind was not mired in the ordinary.
“Nazarene minister” probably conjures an image of someone pious and dour, fearful of hell or perhaps smug in the knowledge of his own salvation. If Granddaddy was fearful of hell, he kept quiet about it around us kids, and he couldn’t have been less pious or smug. During my mother’s childhood he’d been a lay preacher who made his living as a housepainter and steeplejack. According to her, he was also a binge drinker, prone to disappearing on multi-day benders. That particular habit was long ended by the time I knew him. Banana splits had become his drug of choice, but he was still a quick-tempered, slightly outrageous man who must have been a difficult partner for my gentle grandmother.
Of course, back then (this was in the mid-1960s) I was blind to his faults and failures. I adored him, and he doted on me. When he took the herd of grandkids to Nashville’s shabby old Fair Park — something he loved to do — he’d make a point of sharing a seat with me on the kiddie roller coaster and the haunted house ride. He made it his task to teach me how to enjoy the terror. Granddaddy was a big fan of pleasurable fear, and it was often a feature of our time together. He liked to startle us and play pranks. He drove like a madman, and I have fond memories of standing up on the back seat, leaning over his shoulder as he tore around the streets of East Nashville. My brothers would usually be in the car, too, all of us loving the queasy thrill of it, as exciting as anything at Fair Park. Nowadays Granddaddy might well wind up arrested for child endangerment, but for me those wild rides were pure joy.
A few times I was allowed to spend a night at my grandparents’ house without my brothers, and those visits were a glimpse of what life might have been like for me as an only child: abundant ice cream, sporadic doses of lavish adult attention, and long hours of boredom with no playmates. There were few toys in their house, and the television was rarely turned on. I loved books, but their shelves contained mostly religious tomes I couldn’t begin to decipher. There were a few picture books of Bible stories, but I regarded those with disdain. By age five I’d already had my fill of such stuff.
I have never loved his religion, at least not with my whole heart. I tried to be a devout little girl. Sometimes I succeeded when the hymns stirred me or, later on, when I stumbled forward to kneel during an altar call.
That brings me to the odd thing about my relationship with my grandfather’s ghost: I love to call him a preacher, and I envy his attachment to God, but I have never loved his religion, at least not with my whole heart. I tried to be a devout little girl. Sometimes I succeeded when the hymns stirred me or, later on, when I stumbled forward to kneel during an altar call. In spite of those transcendent moments, though, something in me never stopped balking at the prescriptive element in it all. Those Bible stories actually fascinated me — how could they not? — but I couldn’t accept the way they were treated as lessons for sinners, with no room for questioning or ambiguity. Every tale had a good guy and a bad guy, and not a drop of confusion was permitted about who was who. But I was confused. Though I liked the heroes well enough, it was the troublemakers and losers who most had my heart: Eve, Cain, Esau, Lot's wife, even Judas.
From the time I was very small, those errant sympathies caused me a mixture of shame and resentment: What's wrong with me that I can't see things the right way? Why does there have to be just one right way? I was baffled by many things about my native faith, but nothing troubled me more than the feeling that I was somehow too stupid or too corrupt to root unreservedly for the proper player on God's team. In my early teens, the unbearable certainties of the church finally drove me away, and I was glad to go.
There was one thing in my grandfather's library that intrigued my small self, and it had nothing to do with religion. It was a medical encyclopedia, an elaborate set of at least a dozen volumes, and I have no idea why it was there. No one in the family had ever studied medicine, and there was no hypochondriac in the house. But my grandmother answered my inquiry with “Oh, those are your grandfather’s,” and so in my mind I was partaking of some communion with him when, with her cautious permission, I carefully pulled them out one by one and went exploring.
I couldn’t make any sense of the text, but that hardly mattered because I was enthralled by the intricate anatomy illustrations. They were composed of layered transparencies, so that I revealed progressively more intimate corners of the human body as I turned the pages. The clear sheets were cool to the touch and slightly sticky. The colors were vivid, shocking to the eye, and so were the images: brain, heart, penis, and breast, all depicted in graphic, frightening detail. They were beautiful, even so. Another gift of pleasurable fear from Granddaddy.
I don’t recall my grandfather ever being present as I marveled over those books, but it was the anatomy images, so disturbing and alluring, that were the chief manifestation of his visit during my October of grief and misery. Those pictures emerged from memory and would not leave my mind. They were, I’m certain, the thing he most wanted me to see. He did make himself known in other ways. He whispered in my ear a time or two, and let me see his smile and the backs of his hands. He reminded me of his love of biscuits with sorghum, and of the yellow table where we ate them. We returned for a few minutes to the hot interior of Fair Park’s haunted house. But mostly he insisted on those studies of the human organism. Look here, girl. Look.
I was in a despair so deep at the time that I wandered through the days half alive, aware of little more than the endless loop of my own unhappy thoughts. In such a state, you’d think pictures of eyeballs and viscera would be the last thing to bring comfort. But strangely, they did. Those weird drawings reminded me that I was the complicated, beautiful assemblage they depicted — that I was nothing less than an earthly miracle. With that knowledge I looked anew at the people around me, and as I watched them move, my spirit witnessed the astonishing, graceful coherence of blood, nerve, muscle and bone. I had a fresh vision of life and the living, courtesy of the dead.
Maria Browning is a freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly for Chapter 16, an online literary publication, and her work appears frequently in newspapers including the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and the Knoxville News Sentinel. She is a fifth generation Tennessean and currently resides in White Bluff, Tennessee.