My mother has seen more ghosts than anyone I know. I am not sure why, although I once read that there is some correlation between allergies and sensitivity to such things. Certainly my mother has worse allergies than anyone I’ve ever met, and a constitutional disinclination to seek treatment. Also, the barriers between her emotional states have always seemed unusually porous—she can switch from anger to sadness to laughter to unfettered generosity with dizzying speed and total commitment—and maybe that applies to the barriers between the living and spirit realms, too.
The first ghost my mother ever saw was her dead best friend. Although I’ve known about the sighting all my life, I don’t know very much about Ellen Cooke herself, except that she had long, straight, 1960s hair, and that she and my mom used to ride around downtown shrieking the Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme song at the top of their lungs. The car was driven by my mom’s high school boyfriend, Tom Alvarez, who would go on to become attorney general of a Great Plains state. My mother always says it was a “very innocent” relationship.
Sometimes, the girls would sneak into the abandoned factories at night, too, and get frappés at a coffeehouse near the wharf. In these days, they used to sleep in their jeans in case they needed to have adventures. Ellen was close to my mom’s whole family, especially my aunt Linda, and like many of their friends, she spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ strange and chaotic and permissive house. I also know she read lots of J. R. R. Tolkien and was deeply involved with the study of Elvish, things I learned only by dint of careful questioning.
I don’t know any more than that about the living Ellen. Character studies have never been my mother’s strength. My dad will conjure someone from his past in a single, unchanging phrase: “His mother slept on the pool table,” or “She sprouted an enormous nose.” (But we’ll get to him later.) My mother is not like this; she is sketchy on details. Her youth always appears to me as a dreamy slide show: ponchos, cypress trees, the Monterey Pop Festival. When I talk about my own teenage years, I obfuscate deliberately, trying to convey the sort of wry, affectionate regret other people seem to feel, rather than the grim feelings those memories really evoke. But I don’t believe that’s what my mom is doing. She was happy, I think. Maybe she really doesn’t remember. Maybe she was so young she hadn’t made a point of remembering anything yet.
She tells her ghost stories, though, with tremendous conviction. Her tone becomes authoritative and yet curiously ethereal. It is her voice drained of all its usual asperity; it’s the soft voice used to repeat bromides and convenient family myths or sentimental half-truths, or to talk about spirituality. At other times it can enrage me, and make me very crisp and factual and flinty. But it is perfectly suited to ghost stories.
My mother is not religious, although she maintains an academic fondness for the old Book of Common Prayer and various Episcopal hymns, and a sort of personal antagonism toward Jesus Christ. (She is willing to believe he was a charismatic mystic but questions his divinity.) These views, a love of Barbara Pym–style parish life, an interest in nineteenth-century-style Transcendental Unitarianism, and an unquestioning belief in ghosts, were my religious legacy, unorthodox but unwaveringly strict. I don’t know what you’d call our creed, although it is true that once she and I each took a lengthy quiz on Beliefnet.com and found, to our independent indignation, that the site had diagnosed us both, spiritually, as Baha’i.
According to the story, Ellen had gone east, to a progressive women’s college, and had a boyfriend whom my mom didn’t like—a smug jerk, she mutters, dropping the ethereality—who I now realize was probably about nineteen. Ellen was killed driving in a snowstorm one day during their freshman year; her family thought that perhaps she had had a seizure. She drove into a snow plow and it killed her. My mother had to hear the news from the smug boyfriend, which she particularly resented. Did she somehow blame him, too? Maybe—I have a vague recollection that she didn’t think Ellen ought to have been driving if she had a neurological condition, and that the boyfriend had been encouraging her independence.
Although I know my mom came down from Berkeley and the smug guy was there, and told her in person, I’ve never quite understood the geography of the situation. I suppose he, too, must have lived in Northern California. I suppose they brought her body home, too. It is still sometimes surprising to me how long one can question my mother and still not come away with a lot of facts. When she is in the ethereal mood, she conveys the impression that concrete details are beneath consideration. But on the following points she is clear:
“On the day of the funeral,” my mother says, “that night—afterward—Linda and I were having a horrible fight. I don’t know what it was about … but it was really awful. We were screaming at each other.” They shared a room in the ranch house where they grew up. It had a large mahogany double bed and a faced a matching dresser; there wasn’t space for much other furniture.
“And then, all of a sudden, we saw a light. Just a glowing, moving light in the mirror. We knew it was Ellen, telling us to stop fighting. I can’t even describe it … there was just a feeling of sureness. And then the ball of light floated … slowly … out the window. We both saw it. We both knew it was her. And a sense of peace descended over the room.”
I was much fascinated by this story as a child, even though I found it curiously anticlimactic (as most real-life ghost stories are). I stayed in that same room every August when we went to visit my grandparents. I knew that mirror, a pier glass, it still had a Rolling Stones decal on it decades later, and somehow that image—the red lips and tongue and the big heavy mirror—became tied up with the ghost for me.
I wanted to ask my aunt for her version, but by the time I was old enough, she and my mother were no longer on speaking terms. I remember lying in bed, always a little cold in the foggy early mornings, and trying very hard to scare myself and will some kind of ghost to appear through the nylon curtains. But I don’t seem to have the sight.
Once I asked my mother if she thought she and Ellen would have remained friends, and she said, “probably not,” in another tone of hers, this one equal parts self-lacerating and knowing—her tone of disillusionment. “We were really young.” I think maybe she found the fixation with Tolkien slightly alienating, although I may be wrong—Ellen is one of the few subjects on which she will not be drawn into any sort of criticism.
Sadie Stein is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.