Christmas Ghost Story 2020: A Chat with Mom

“Did you say that you couldn’t get the coal stove lit?” My mother’s voice was strong and young and all the more evocative because of it.

I pulled my knees closer to my chest and tucked my ears farther under the edge of my sleeping bag, away from the December cold. After their marriage on the third day of Christmas 1975, my parents had spent a couple of hopeless days up here in this ancient farm house. It was a story that I had heard a thousand times. My dad couldn’t get the old furnace lit. Then, without anything on hand but ice and snow, he couldn’t wash the thick coal dust from his face and arms. They had decided to make the best of it and go tobogganing anyway only to hit a tree on their first run down the hill, splintering the toboggan. Finally, given up amid the frigid temperatures, they walked a mile back to their car at the bottom of the mountain only to find its battery dead because they hadn’t turned off the radio.

Rumor had it that this place was built in the late 1700s as a stagecoach inn along the frontier trail from Binghamton to Albany. As a boy, I had loved hearing my uncles tell stories of the Briarcreek Ghost who haunted this house. Just north of the Catskills, my Grandpa Brown bought these 500 acres on top of a mountain as a place to settle down in his retirement. He had just finished his career with the New Jersey power company that had hired him following WWII. When the war broke out, he had dropped out of highschool, married his sweetheart and joined the Merchant Marines. My mom was the second-to-youngest out of Ralph and Arlene’s five children. A spirited girl, with a name that referenced the elemental life of nature, her father used to tell her, “Don’t be facetious, just be Faye.”

The property had a three-story barn built into the side of the hill with timber-frame construction and stacked-stone foundations so solid that you could drive a modern tractor into all three levels despite its one hundred years. My grandpa had just reroofed this barn, remodeled the beautiful old farmhouse and built a massive new fireplace and chimney before he developed the emphysema and Parkinson’s disease that ended his retirement so early.

Here I was, an old man myself now, back to visit the beautiful folks of this place at Christmas with my own grandkids in tow. I’d been down to the cemetery near the Susquehanna River to pay my respects at the graves of my grandparents, Ralph and Arlene Brown as well as Ralph’s sister, my Great Aunt Ruth. My grandma often made me a bed as a child under this hallway window, looking out over the little front porch roof. It was colder than the bedroom, but I had chosen this childhood overflow bed on this Christmas eve night.

My thoughts blurred as I drifted back toward sleep before I heard my mother’s voice again, still strong but not so young: “Jesse, are you upstairs?” She was laughing, knowing that I must be surprised. I had taken her last remark about the coal stove to be a snatch of dream, but this summons was unmistakably part of a wide-awake world. It came up the stairwell that was beside me in the center of the hallway. I got up slowly and made my way around the banister to the top of the stairs. She could likely hear the steps creak as I descended to check the living room from where I had heard her. Yes, there she sat, in a rocker, smiling at me.

I spoke first. “That’s funny, Mom. You know that the Briarcreek Ghost always chose a rocking chair. Are you and he on familiar terms now?”

“Jesse, it’s good to hear you teasing me again. It’s probably going to set me back, but it’s really good to hear you again. I’m glad you’re not terrified or scandalized. I was pretty sure that you’d be up for a chat when I saw you pick out that old bed under the window.”

“Yes, well, I’m pretty old myself, Mom. You can get away with all kinds of things, now, I guess. What did you mean by saying that this will set you back?”

“Oh, I’m not really sure what I mean. A kind angel tried explaining some things to me years ago about my progress, but I was watching Katie’s twins wrangle some sheep. I told the angel to try explaining it to me another time. But I’ve thought more about it since. Whenever that explanation does happen, I can probably already guess the basic gist of it. Since dying, I’ve had a lot of time to pay attention to things around me. There’s something beyond it all that I need to see. I mean, obviously it’s Jesus, my Creator and Savior, but I only sense Him very obscurely, and I’ve never seen him. I thought I would see him when I died. I thought it would be clear after death. In one sense, it is. The world is much more clear after death, but it’s not any easier to see Jesus. It’s harder, actually, when the world gets so clear and bright. Oddly, I think that I’ve fallen more in love with life in this world after dying than I ever did before, and you know that I always loved a whole lot about life in this world. Anyway, if I have to guess, my eventual progress probably has something to do with dying all the way. I’ve got to lose my life to see what it truly is. Of course I always knew this, but I never actually did it, you know. But I’ve got a sense growing in me that Jesus is waiting, and I get this impression, more and more from everything around me. They are all pointing beyond themselves, asking me to let them go so that, together, we can see Jesus and what we are all about.”

We sat silently together for a few moments before I said, “Yes, that makes sense.”

She added, “Sometimes, I understand Aslan and the moon. Remember that passage from Prince Caspian? ‘All night, Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.’”

“Yes, I do. It reminds me of that passage after all the journeys and wars are finished for Gandalf, Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘Long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world…. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.”

“Yes, there is so much to be seen and said in that way. I’m learning to love it.”

“Were you talking to Dad a few minutes ago about the coal furnace?”

“Ha! Yes, I was. I don’t travel through time in the same way anymore. It’s all more and more present to me in some ways now. I still move slowly through space, as with a normal body, but much of my life is before me continually now. Of course, I don’t remember all of it, but I’m seeing what I do remember better and better. My first time through life, I saw so very little of it, and I was a pretty perceptive woman.” She paused to smile with me over this. “It’s wonderful to go back and watch Dad now, going through all of his labors on behalf of me and our family. He worked hard, that man, and he was good at seeing certain things that I wasn’t quiet enough to see. I was always doing or loving something, but he was my Steve, the first martyr.”

“Have you seen Dad since he passed away?”

“Yes, he and I were together for a while after he was buried. We were a little like that passage that you described with Celeborn and Galadriel. There was a lot to say, but we said it slowly and with long periods of quiet attention. He had learned a lot since my death, and I think he saw Jesus already—more fully than I do even now.”

“When did you come up here to the farm?”

“I’ve walked to a few places since I was buried, including a few trips that took many months. Most of the time, I’m slipping in and out of different times as I walk, but that makes less and less difference. I’m seeing the same beauties triumph more and more amid the sufferings. It’s a delight to see it all. Oh, but to answer your question… I hope you won’t mind. I caught a ride with you and Elizabeth.”

“Ha! That’s good to know. Hope you enjoyed the ride. It will be nice to have you with us all tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Celebrating Christ’s birth with all these beautiful families.”

“You know that passage in Lewis about Aslan and the moon? I think the moon was his mother.”

“Wow, mom. Have you been studying your C. S. Lewis since you died? Yes, at his resurrection after his death on the stone table, Aslan walks out from the brightness of the sun. And Lewis was certainly familiar with the long tradition—inspired in part by John’s language in Revelation 12—of Mary as the one who reflects the life-giving Light of God. That passage about Christ and his mother gazing all night ‘upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes,’ comes in a book where Casipian marries a star’s daughter and where scholars have identified the entire book as Lewis expounding the life of the sun. What a beautiful image for this Christmas Eve, to reflect on Christ and his mother enjoying each other in eternity.”

“Yes, Jesse. I’m progressing, I suppose. There are things I’m coming to love and see now that I would have laughed at during my own life. You were way ahead of me, but I see that you still enjoy pointing it out.”

“Ha! Well, thanks for waking me up tonight to say hello and to let me know how right I am. With all this flattery, I’m sure to be blinded to the Christ child now. No Christmas for me. You know, Mom, I can’t help thinking of Elder Lua as we sit here chatting together. All those years as missionaries, and all we could do was shake our heads at him. I guess maybe his stories weren’t so crazy after all.”

“Yes, I’ve remembered him as well, often, since I died. Dad and I loved to tell the stories of our Presbyterian elder who would often sit up at night, smoking and chatting with his long-dead father who had been a shaman during his life. This pagan father loved to visit his Christian son around Chinese New Year. I guess we always took him seriously enough, but it was, well, mostly just a story. What did we know? That crazy, generous, strange man. Yes, who knows what he understood that we could not.”

“Wow, it’s good to be with you again, Mom.”

“Jesse, you know that poem by Charles Williams that ends with this stanza?”

But my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”

“I’ll be praying for us both to learn better to say yes with Mary.”

“Yes, I’ve listened for a voice telling me from the cross, ‘Son, behold your mother.’ But that is only a help along the way as we listen, finally, for the cry of the babe that our soul bears with Mary. I’ll be praying with you, Mom. Thank you for your prayers. Merry Christmas.”

We didn’t say any more, but we sat quietly, each glad in the other’s gaze. I eventually nodded off to sleep in my chair. When I awoke in the cold darkness, her rocking chair was empty, and I made my way back up to my bed beneath the hallway window. It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would need my rest.

P.S. Today is my parents’ anniversary, two years after my mother’s passing. It is also the Feast of Saint Stephen (or the day after on the Western calendar). This story is just that, a story by a child who loves his parents and misses his mother.

P.P.S. I also realized later that I probably got some of the “pictures” behind this story (without knowing it) from Wendell Berry:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.” —Wendell Berry (A World Lost)

“I know by now that the love of ghosts is not expectant, and I am coming to that. This Virgie of mine, this newfound ‘Virge,’ is the last care of my life, and I know the ignorance I must cherish him in. I must care for him as I care for a wildflower or a singing bird, no terms, no expectations, as finally I care for Port William and the ones who have been here with me.” —Wendell Berry (Hannah Coulter)

God can be God even in the very heart of human terror

The dark background against which Jesus is shown [in the transfiguration icon] is something you will see in other icons as a way of representing the depths of heavenly reality. In the transfiguration, what the disciples see is, as you might say, Jesus’ humanity “opening up” to its inner dimensions. …So the disciples look at Jesus, and see him as coming out from an immeasurable depth; behind or within him, infinity opens up, “the dwelling of the light”, to borrow the haunting phrase from Job 38.19.

…Second, there is the connection of the [transfiguration] icon …and the story with the end of Jesus’ earthly life. God can live in the middle of death. That is good news on one level; on another, it means that living with God will not spare us trial, agony and death. In the Gospels, when Jesus has received Peter’s admission of faith – “You are the Anointed, the Son of the Living God” — he immediately goes on to predict his betrayal and death, and Peter protests. It is as if, there as here [in the icon], [Peter] lifts his hand to his eyes because he can’t manage what he sees. If only the vision of glory spared us suffering! But on the contrary, glory can only be seen for what it really is when we see it containing and surviving disaster.

…The Orthodox hymns for the feast of the Transfiguration make the point often made by Orthodox theologians: Peter, James and John are allowed to see Christ’s glory so that when they witness his anguish and death they may know that these terrible moments are freely embraced by the God-made-human who is Jesus, and held within the infinite depth of life. It is surely not an accident that it is Peter and James and John who are also with Jesus in Gethsemane: the extreme mental and spiritual agony that appears there is the test of what has been seen in the transfiguration. We are shown that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror: the life of Jesus is still carried along by the tidal wave of that which the dark background of glowing blues and reds in the icon depicts, the life of God.

…This is the great challenge to faith: knowing that Christ is in the heart of darkness, we are called to go there with him. In John 11, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him”; and ahead indeed lies death — the dead Lazarus decaying in the tomb, the death of Jesus in abandonment, your death and mine and the deaths of countless human beings in varying kinds of dark night. But if we have seen his glory on the mountain, we know at least, whatever our terrors, that death cannot decide the boundaries of God’s life. With him the door is always open, and no one can shut it.

The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ by Rowan Williams.
Icon of The Transfiguration of Christ, Russia, 16th century, Novgorod school, wood panel, tempera and gilding, 78×61 cm.

people who break easily

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.