“Your father,” says my husband. “Your father might be the least-likely-to-see-a-ghost person I’ve ever met.” This is true. By his own admission, Papa doesn’t do whimsy.
He likes lots of people, but he is most comfortable around people like himself—which is to say, irreligious Jews, ideally from the New York metro area, from progressive backgrounds, who have become more politically conservative with age. If they love baseball, American history, and the films of François Truffaut, so much the better. When I was a little girl and asked him if he believed in God, he taught me the term agnostic, but now that I think about it, I’d say a better description of his relationship to the divine is never given it much thought.
When I asked him, probably around the same period, whether he’d ever seen a ghost, he said no. But then he told me that his ex-girlfriend Linda Alpen had once been playing with a Ouija board with her friends and contacted a spirit who said he was called Belial. They all treated it like a joke, but then as the answers became progressively more sinister—predictions of death, et cetera—they were frightened. “And afterward,” said Papa, “they looked up Belial and discovered it was a name for the Devil.”
I knew all about Linda Alpen, of course. My dad has always maintained a policy of radical honesty on all such matters. She was the woman he’d dated just prior to my mom, and was, apparently, very crummy and self-absorbed—although with an undeniable self-confident sex appeal (she was a dancer). The one time he ever encountered her, after their breakup, was on the street. I was there, too. I was very little—two or three—and being unusually bratty: doing that thing little kids do where they break away and run really fast, and then after their parents are terrified, stop short just at the curb without running into traffic. So I’d done that, and my dad caught up with me and was yelling, “NEVER do that!” or whatever, and then to compound my insolence I refused to hold his hand when we did, in fact, cross the street. Which is when he spied Linda Alpen watching the proceedings from across the way with an expression of sardonic distaste. I have always felt very guilty about my own role in this story.
To this day, if you were to ask him my dad would still say that he has never seen a ghost. But on other occasions, he will tell you about the time we went to the hospital to see my newborn cousin, and there in the elevator was a woman in a wheelchair who, he swears, was his mother. His mother when she was very sick, dying; in a wheelchair. He says he was paralyzed by shock. The woman smiled at him and was wheeled out at the next floor.
And later, shortly after my grandfather died, and my parents were watching TV at his summer house, they are quite sure it was he who came from beyond the grave to turn the channel from Fox News, as if to say, “Not on my watch.”
Sadie Stein is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.