“Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost
            life and led to rest as ancestors. As ancestors, they live forth in the present
            generation, while as ghosts they are compelled to haunt the present generation
            with their shadow life.”[1]

In response to my dreaming that my mother was a ghost, my therapist started talking to me about Sigmund Freud and, by extension, Hans Leowald. My understanding of my therapist’s explanation was that Freud considered parents as other beings, separate from their children, in their children’s minds, until they (their children) begin to take on the ideals of their parents. With the death of the parents, children begin to embody their parents, as if their ghosts are dead.

My therapist later, after our initial conversation, emailed me the above quotation to which I wrote in my journal:

“I’m thinking about shadows, presence, absence, my mother, all mothers.”

My mother, a few months before her death, believed that her father, who had died two years previous, had taken the form of a male cardinal. She posted the below photo on her Facebook page and captioned it “…he posed for a long long time…”:

My mother liked birds. I thought to approach writing this book through looking at my mother’s bird identification guidebooks—specific to place—and making associations. It seemed like an easier way, a less emotional way, than writing other truths. Birds, though, fly away. The movement of their bodies is quick, complete, their eyes small in comparison to the rest of their body.

I feel similarly distanced from ghosts, relationally distanced, a certain frequency. First, their bodies, slightly waving/wavy. The slow turn of their heads from side to side, their mouths up and down. My mother as a ghost, she would be smiling. I wouldn’t be afraid of her, even if she got close.

Sometimes I wish I would have seen her dead body. I almost wish I could have touched her, even washed her, after she died. I remember the tenderness, intimacy, I felt when I helped tape a tube that had been inserted in her after a surgery; it needed to be changed, and I hoped to make her more comfortable. I saw the side of her body near her breast, the outline of her ribs against thin skin.

An ex-boyfriend told me that some houses have a ghost door. Not a door that opens and closes on its own. But rather a door on the second or higher floor of the house that opens to the sky. He said that, after a person dies, their family opens this door to let the ghost escape.

My mother’s house had only one floor.

Wherever you are, go outside. It’s best if it’s the golden hour. If it’s not green where you are, imagine green—the green of grass, leaves, plants, not a synthetic green, not puky green like the green in that horror movie—[2]

Here I mean you my mother and you my readers and me, we are traveling up the hill on the property where the house stood because it seems like we have to start outside before we go inside and outside again forever.

We follow the ruts in the ground from the tractor. The grass has been mowed recently by your lover so the ruts are easy to see. The climb isn’t steep so we don’t breathe heavily. It’s before your sickness. We talk about the previous winter, bundling up to ride the toboggan down just twice. Still the heap of wet clothes.

I ask about the grouping of stone benches. I imagine a stone deer, but now looking, don’t see it.

Before long, we pass through the fence—

I’ve ordered books about memory palaces through the library. I read through the table of contents of one book, letting my eyes skip around the spread: space, order, shapes, portals, paths, comes and goes, leaks, remind, wander, climb and pause.

I’m not being fair about time.

But what can we fit into the house? Are memories like things?

I’m not sure the authors of that book would find my mother’s house a worthy place for a memory palace. Their interests lie decidedly in intricate architecture, the book’s conceit is clever.

Still I want to open the house up for you dear readers. Picture each object preceding the parenthetical ellipsed line (………………………). Associate that image with something you wish to remember.

We have been watching the new season of Twin Peaks,[3] and as I consider writing “at the top of the stairs,” I picture the ceiling fan at the top of the stairs in Laura Palmer’s home, but the stairs at the house, our former house, are much different—completely enclosed and leading from the basement to the first floor, the only floor. At the top of the stairs—

The room to the left used to be a computer room. There I first connected with strangers on bulletin boards through an online service called Prodigy, which the Internet eventually dwarfed. It would have been easy enough for you to peer unaware over my shoulder to the computer screen (………………………) as my back faced out of the room.   The room to the left became a wet room with an additional refrigerator (………………………) and cupboards that held candy, much of it expired, chocolate graying (………………………).  

 On the right is a hall with built-in bookshelves holding not only books but small ceramic and porcelain figurines, bells, and dishes (………………………). Among the books is Watership Down, which I have always intended to read.   After that is the pantry with a bag of pink gum (………………………), the only thing you wanted after one of your radiation treatments.   Across from the bookshelves is a shelf upon which stand your collection of dusty nutcrackers (………………………). Below is a line of a coat hooks to which we always went upon entering the house so as to not fill the living room with our things. Notes in your handwriting, old calendars, and a butterfly[4] are tacked on the corkboard that follows, a pile of unread newspapers stacked below.

The space opens up—

At the house, we’d nap on the living room couches. Even you bundled in blankets would nap there instead of your bedroom when you got sicker. You’d write on Facebook about not having energy, sleeping all day, and phrase your words the exact same way to me later when we talked on the phone. I’d act like I didn’t know.

The longer couch (………………………) usually sat in front of the big picture window (………………………). In the last few years of your life, you’d close the curtains when it started to get dark out. The other years, the curtains remained open all the time like we were moving in and out of the window. Sometimes we’d dance in the evenings since the window proved reflective and we liked to try out different moves. From inside the living room, in daylight, we could watch the frontyard turn green with an approaching storm. With advance warning of a family member’s arrival, one or more of us would lie on the couch raising our leg straight up with pointed foot. We also liked to pretend to be asleep, which would surprise/not surprise someone upon entering, all of us strewn, eyes closed, across the couches and carpeted floor.

Your spot was on the smaller couch (………………………) closest to the corner where lightning had mysteriously struck numerous times. You’d sit there, legs crossed, legs straight with feet rubbing against each other, legs bent to the right side, socked or slippered feet, maybe in a long red nightgown and an old grey sweatshirt, your iced Dr. Pepper in a clear angular glass on a coaster or in your hand.

Your fingernails were always shaped and painted, usually mauve.[5]

I’m thinking about your hands, picking up and dusting underneath each miniature ceramic house in your collection (………………………), which is shelved above your head when you’re on the smaller couch. There are other collections to the right of this shelving: paperweights and books (………………………). I erroneously imagine a doorknob among the paperweights, mistakenly believe the Guernica in the Picasso book is brightly colored.

Growing up, we’d dust once a week and before we had scheduled guests, usually relatives. I remember you saying that Grandpa, being tall, could see everywhere, that he might check, that his own mother’s house remained dust-free weeks after her death because of her strident attention.

Turning counterclockwise in the living room is the built-in shelving wall with your blue pitchers.


[1] Hans Loewald

[2] My cousin, who was named after the movie’s title character, did not realize the imminence of your death, and in an effort to soothe me at the celebration of your life, compared you to a rose: thorny but beautiful.

[3] I remember you watching the original Twin Peaks series when it first aired.

[4] My brother wrote, “A butterfly has been landing on me nearly every day.  I remember mom talking about reincarnation a lot, and that was one of the things she thought she’d be. It’s obviously her. When [my younger sister] and I throw stuff in the dumpster, the butterflies are watching to make sure we don’t toss anything special. And they come to the backyard to relax and get sun during the golden hour. I imagine her spending so much time wrapped in blankets, her cocoon. And now she has completed her metamorphosis!”

[5] I asked my siblings what color they remembered your fingernails as being. One responded “dark dusty rose.” Another wrote, “Ohh. I had a bottle of hers for awhile. Actually, I might still have it. It was a red-bronzy or a glitzy, bronzy, orange, red color. The name of the fingernail polish she brought with her we actually discussed as it had a funny name. Unfortunately, I have now forgotten it. Maybe it will come back to me. If I do have the bottle, I will send it to you. But every now and then she also had more red or pink nails without the glitz.” And the other asked, “Clear?”

[6] I drew this on Mōdraniht as a way to honor my mother who also liked to draw. Our drawing styles are similar.

[7] This bottom right image is a ceramic bunny, its ears balancing against the wall.


Heather McShane enjoys thinking about the experience of language as it extends from the written word to the physical world. Her chapbook No Home but Everywhere (Meekling Press 2015), a fictional narrative of unexpected encounters, mirrors the act of walking in its pacing. Currently, she’s working on a book called How to Be Still that uses the mnemonic device of memory palaces to move through her late mother’s house. // @estheralbern


Banner image by Olivia Cronk, all others via the author

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