This weekend we will be featuring Dolly Reynolds's nonfiction story that appeared in our September-October 2007 issue. It will be in three parts beginning today, Friday November 7th and concluding on Sunday November 9th.
I wrote this piece as a personal essay response to the murder of my mother in 1997. It seemed then such a huge and unmanageable subject, but writing "Pale Ghosts" helped me decide to attend grad school and focus on my writing in a serious way. I am now a 3rd year MFA student at San Francisco State and am working on a book length memoir about my family, the murder, and its aftermath.
I've been back to Connecticut twice this year to visit the reservoir where she was killed. The first time, in August, the reservoir seemed unbearably haunted; I thought the trees would reach out and grab me like in the Wizard of Oz. The second time, just last weekend, I went with the police chief who found my mother and stayed with her body all night. With his quiet, solid, decent presence, the reservoir became a beautiful, light-filled, and ultimately hopeful place. The two trips made me see that spectral visits and hauntings depend a lot on our earthly circumstances and frame of mind.
I wait for my mother at night, but she never comes. She’s with him, perched at the edge of his cot in his cold and sleepless cell. He pulls the ripped sheet over his head and bites down on his lips to keep from crying out. I know because I read his confession at the sentencing. I try calling for her as my husband snores gently at my side, but she never answers. My mother is spending night after night with the man who killed her instead of with me.
I grew up with a rice ghost. She lived with us in my grandparents’ house along the Connecticut shore. Each summer she welcomed us with mounds of white rice piled on the cushions in the breakfast nook. The house was not winterized and had been locked tight since my family had closed it up the previous September. My mother treated these offerings with reverence, cupping the translucent grains tenderly and then letting them slip through her fingers like water. The rice was kept in a blue ceramic bowl used exclusively for this purpose. At times I’d see my mother plunge her hands into the shiny grains and then touch her fingertips to her forehead and her heart. She never cooked the rice or threw it away, at least not that I ever saw.
“Our ghost was jilted at the altar,” my mother explained to me. She had spent her childhood summers at this house and thought of the ghost as an eccentric aunt. “So heartbroken she died later that night. That’s why she leaves us rice. She doesn’t want us ever to forget what happened to her at her wedding.”
The explanation made perfect sense to me. I believed a rice ghost was a common and well-recognized type of ghost, like vanilla ice cream or patent leather shoes. It was easy to imagine our neighbors sweeping up after their own ghosts, sand or peppermint ones.
The ghost often joined us for our nightly cocktail hour on the porch, which began at 4:00 p.m. and went on until nine or ten o’clock at night. Dinner may or may not have happened, but there was plenty for my sister and me to eat: salty peanuts, carrots and celery sticks, and stuffed green olives that my grandfather had soaked in gin. As dusk settled over our house, the ghost began her nightly constitutional: strolling the upstairs hallway, opening and closing doors and cupboards, and trotting up and down the stairs. Her footsteps were light, though the runner that covered the creaking floorboards was thin and frayed.
“Welcome, friend,” my grandfather would say, raising his martini glass to the ceiling in salute.
My family’s summers with the ghost meandered along their boozy, balmy way until my mother’s brother was killed. His small plane plunged into a lake near Albany during a November storm; he was twenty-eight. My uncle had stood waist-deep in the frigid water and helped all the other passengers to safety. No one knew he had a ruptured spleen. He died on his way to the hospital.
We shattered. The following summer was our last along the Connecticut shore. My grandmother was mute, my mother was grim and resolute as she boxed up the few belongings we would take with us from the house. There was nothing in it of much value, except of course, for our friend, our rice ghost. Cocktail hours were silent now, and interminable. Though we didn’t know it then, my grandfather had entered the dim twilight of Alzheimer’s. Half-chewed peanuts dribbled down his chin as my grandmother blew her nose and lit another True Blue. The rice ghost grew louder and more insistent now that our focus had shifted from her tragedy to our own. That September, we locked the front door for the last time, leaving our friend alone, with no one to accept her mounds of rice. The night before we left I watched my mother smash the blue ceramic bowl against the wall in the garage.
Part two of the series will be continue Saturday, November 8, 2014.
Dolly Reynolds has a JD from UC Hastings and is currently an MFA student at San Francisco State. Her work has appeared in many literary journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She works as a veterinary nurse and lives in San Francisco by the ocean with her husband and their twin daughters. Dolly's essay appeared in the North American Review September-October 2007 issue.
Image by: Ethan Bifano, who is a professional artist who specializes in science fiction, fantasy, and conceptual oil paintings. He can often be found hiking the trails of Pennsylvania. Ethan's image is featured in issue 299.3, summer 2014.