This is kind of a ghost story.
It’s about memories and magic, and it’s about all the ways my mother taught us to believe in small bits of wonder. It’s about hoping for the best while facing the worst, and it’s about pattern-seeking behavior. I lost my mother to cancer on December 29, 2017, after eight years of battling colon cancer. I have been trying to write this personal essay since March 2016.
This is for you, Mom. I will always leave the rocking chair rocking if you’d like to come and sit.
I have always been drawn to ghost stories. I have always been drawn to any strange or unusual story, any bump in the night that would have me. While this isn’t altogether unusual — who doesn’t love a mystery, or a sense in a world beyond what we see? — I have started to suspect I am drawn to them in a different way. So often, we are taught to be frightened of the unknown. Cautionary tales flourish in this genre, small words to protect us from our own darkest natures. Don’t go into the woods alone at night without a lantern. Don’t eat things a stranger gives you. Don’t give in to the desperation of these times.
I find in these stories solace, rather than terror. Not that we tell them, but that they exist at all. I think being drawn to the unknown comes not solely from a destructive urge to gaze into the abyss, but from the thrilling notion that we can challenge everything. Not every secret is known, and not every outcome is written in the stars. If there are things beyond what we can see, then there are things we see right in front of us that might be part of something big and mysterious, too.
The unknowable thing in my life for nearly a decade has been the cancer in my mom’s body. I have spent my adult life holding lantern in its wilderness, the shadows cast around me scattering fear and hope tangled endlessly into the brambles. I am not an expert in anything, not grief nor medicine nor other people’s stories. But I have clumsy hands and a clumsy heart, and if I can add a story to the string of tales that have brought me comfort, I might as well try.
We are, as humans, inclined to seek patterns in the day-to-day. My mom was no exception. Her combination of Biblical knowledge, a Farmer’s Almanac approach to weather, and allegorical stories of a childhood in the deep, deep South have created a bevy of tiny myths and superstitions in my family. It’s the kind of miniature magic you don’t think about very hard while it’s happening. A handful of these include:
1) Bubbles in your coffee mean money’s coming.
2) Eating greens, pork, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day ensures a good year.
3) Leave your pumpkins lit all night on Halloween, and your Christmas lights lit all night on Christmas Eve.
4) Never rock an empty rocking chair, or you’ll invite a ghost to sit in it.
5) Seeing a cardinal is a sign of good fortune.
I told her all the time that she was superstitious. She laughed or rolled her eyes as I tempted fate a thousand times a day.
“It’s not superstition,” Mom said, “It’s wisdom. And at any rate, even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t hurt anybody.” This comment was often accompanied by coffee or prayer. Or both.
I often marveled at her quiet determination in all these tiny rituals. Even as I grew to be an adult, it seemed like she held the understanding of the universe in her long fingers, somehow. I realize, of course, that some of the things I consider rituals are just things she liked and did over and over, so now I revere them simply because my mother did them. Some of the things she did were precisely because she was a mother.
6) She served spaghetti and grapes on Halloween. “Brains” and “eyeballs” to spook us a little, but also a very sneaky way to carbo-load her children so they didn’t get sick on candy later in the evening.
7) She rang bells on Christmas morning to wake us up.
8) She did the laundry in a complicated array of batches based on color, water temperature, usage, size, and the weather.
9) She gathered us together before a big trip, no matter what time of day or night, to hold our hands and pray for our safety.
10) She pointed out fairy rings in the yard after hard rains.
I’ve developed my own superstitions here and there over the years, and I see signs and patterns in lots of things, too. I made my own kind of miniature magic, though it closely resembles hers. I have jewelry for good luck, and I have quiet mantras for certain days of the year. I try not to upset the order of the universe too gravely by trying to pretend I understand the future or second-guessing rainy days.
I guess this wasn’t a ghost story so much as it was a memory story. Though what’s a ghost but a memory so strong you can feel it moving through the world? It still stands as a cautionary tale, though. Don’t give in to the desperation of these times. Create your own tiny rituals, or borrow someone else’s until they feel real to you. Hold hope in your heart no matter what’s happening around you. If my mom hadn’t taught me that lesson, I am not sure how I’d carry on now without her.
I have one final bit of magic to share with you. It’s just a pattern, but that doesn’t mean it’s not big and mysterious in its own way. On the morning after I found out my mom had cancer, it snowed hard. It was early October in Iowa, and it hadn’t been in the forecast. I didn’t own a car in Iowa City since I lived downtown, so I trudged to work in knee-high boots and cried. I am convinced the snow was trying its damnedest to hide my sorrow as I crossed the last intersection to work.
Later that day, an old friend called me, and in the course of that conversation, we arranged for him to come visit from my hometown. He was an old boyfriend, another film school junkie who stayed up too late and worried too much, but he knew my mom and he knew me, so it was good to be able to share that time together.
The day before my mom passed away, it snowed. It was a light snow in late December, but the forecast had missed it by almost a week. That old friend was with me again — now my husband — as we held hands, because he knew my mom and he knew me, and it was good to be together.
Sarah Caputo is an artist and teacher working in Oklahoma City. Her most recent creative focus has been on representations of memory, love, and folklore. Sarah posts her drawings, comics, and other misadventures frequently on Instagram (@tiny.revelations). You can also contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.