Before She Was A Ghost

It's summer, 1973. Somewhere in the countryside outside of Port Huron, Michigan. The big, two-story, modern farmhouse beneath huge, spreading trees has me intimidated to go inside. There is nothing like it back home in Saugus, California. Home is a bleak, dry place where I have to hide from the punishing sun. Home is where swamp coolers hang off the windows of corrugated tin trailers, chugging out tepid, damp air for frail, old people. Grampa reminds us everyday about the three digit temperatures back home so we'll be grateful to be away.

I'm so grateful.

It's hot here too, but it's a different kind of hot, not so bad. And there are so many shady trees. Some days, soft, warm rain comes down for a few hours. Rain in the summertime – amazing. I like this place, even though the strangeness makes me feel better outside in the yard and I only go inside the house to use the bathroom. There are cousins of all ages, come from everywhere for the reunion. The house is full of grown-ups who endlessly trade stories about dead relatives.

I have been dropped into this crowd of family, an unknown only child, like an ungainly, orphaned calf added to an established herd. I'm pleased that the mother, my cousin's mother, and so another level of cousin to me too, is young and pretty and not strict like my Gramma.

The father put up tents for the kids out in the yard under the trees, and we have been let loose. Well, I have been let loose, my cousins seem to live deliciously untethered all the time. As kids, we are expected to play outside and just show up for barbeque suppers when the smell of sizzling hamburger calls. The rest of the time we graze from the pantry, and the big refrigerator in the garage that is packed with fruit, canned pudding with pull top lids and lunch meat that we peel off, roll into tubes and eat without bread.

There is also an Easy Bake Oven set up on a card table in the garage. We take turns making little cakes and eating them warm, gushy in the middle and without frosting because somebody used up all the frosting packs.

The kids have broken up into little gangs by age, by boys and girls. There are many boy cousins and they sort out who stays with who on their own, and of course want nothing to do with girls. There are less girl cousins and they are all older, teenagers who comment the first time they meet me that I'm white as a ghost, then pretend to be unable to see me from then on. It's an old joke. I get enough of that back home. I don't care about them.

I'm sharing a tent with my cousin. Just her, and me.

She is my own special cousin. We're both nine years old, we have our birthdays in the same month and will be baptized together. The grownups have made all these arrangements, the dual ceremony at the big Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the luncheon afterward, and then the following weekend, the big family reunion. But she and I are not all that interested in our upcoming special event.

We are as different in appearance as opposites can be. I am so fair skinned that I look unfinished, except for a few indifferent freckles across my nose. My eyes are pale blue and my hair, stringy blond. I'm skinny and quiet. I never remember to smile until some grownup demands it of me. My cousin is tan skinned with sleepy-lidded, olive green eyes, shiny dark brown hair, a tomboy smile and fierce dark eyebrows. She is strong and tough and she fights off older brothers and other boy cousins who live to tease and torment girls. She knows how to sock 'em – I saw her do it. They mostly leave us alone.

It is such a joy and a blessing to be left alone. That would be enough to make me love her.

We get along so well that we barely need to talk. We develop a lazy routine of sleeping late, then raiding the pantry for big bowls of cereal – Apple Jacks with too much milk – that we bring back to the tent and eat while hunching over comic books. The kids in her family have hoarded stacks and stacks of comic books and Mad Magazines that they all just pass back and forth. By contrast, my own selection of Mad Magazine, Tales From The Crypt, The Witching Hour, The Archies, Richie Rich and Casper is small potatoes. But I'm glad I brought them with me to share. My cousin is happy to have new stuff to read, she can practically recite the stories from all the old ones word for word. I'm happy not to feel like a beggar.

At some point, we head on down the road to the store for our most important task of the day – restocking our candy supply. There's no way we can get hold of a bike with all these kids around, even though one of the bikes is hers, so we walk. It's not far and everything is so green and pretty that I feel like I'm in a story book. I feel like I'm somewhere gentle. Even the store is a soft place, an old timey kind of neighborhood market, like a little wood slat house with ice cream coolers outside on the front porch. You have to lift the shiny chrome lids up and root around inside to see what flavor popsicles are in there.

Back home there is a Seven Eleven store within about the same walking distance, but my walk is alongside a highway. An empty dirt lot blows grit in your face if the Santa Anna wind is up. There are train tracks on the other side of the road, rows of stark power poles, but not a tree to be seen.

We pool our money and buy candy we both like to share, boxes of Good 'N Plentys, a little six pack of miniature wax pop bottles filled with fruit flavored syrup, stretchy candy bead necklaces, bags of M&Ms. We take turns carrying our loot in the small, brown paper bag, saving it for later. We get popsicles for the walk home. I like Big Sticks and end up with cherry-orange colored lips, she likes Firecrackers and gets a blue mouth that lasts all afternoon.

It's too warm to sit in our tent, so we hide our candy and play with the garden hose. We take turns swinging the stream to make a jump rope out of water, we shoot it straight up and make rainbows in the sunshine, we pretend it's raining and raining. Everyone will drown in the great flood. Everyone, but her and me.

Later, we go into the garage to get Dr. Peppers out of the fridge. I walk right up and reach out for the handle. A boy cousin says, "You better not open the refrigerator in your bare feet..." but it's too late, and an awful, teeth jarring surge of electricity jitters up my arm. I let go and jump away as the boy rolls his eyes and shakes his head at my stupidity. He opens his mouth to say something mean, but my cousin cuts him off, "Leave her alone, how's she supposed to know?" He leaves in disgust and she points out the rubber flip-flops laying around on the floor next to the fridge.

The sun is going sideways now and we feel like laying around until supper. The big girls are in their tent nearby, playing a transistor radio that keeps fading in and out, going static, then coming back. We smell nail polish when we walk by and hear them squeal at something one of them said, then break into extended giggles. My cousin looks at me and rolls her eyes.

We plop down in the nest of our sleeping bags and pillows, with dirty feet and popsicle mouths and break out the comic books. We leave the tent flap door open for the air and a shaft of sun shoots in between us like a transparent wall of light. We read for a while, the songs from the radio over in the big girls tent fading in and out, Summer Breeze, and the Humming Bird song, that's the night that the lights went out in Georgia, Delta Dawn, what's that flower you have on?

Without worrying about spoiling our appetites, my cousin looks in the little brown paper bag, pulls out the candy necklaces we bought and offers me mine. I take it and put it on, but don't feel like ruining it by eating the beads just yet. She leans back with the beads hooked over her lower lip, quietly munching while she reads my copy of Tales of The Crypt.

I watch her for a moment through the shaft of sunlight, the light like a gauzy curtain hanging between us. All of her edges are soft and indistinct, like a blurred photograph and I'm feeling strange and embarrassed that I'm staring at her, but my eyes just like her too much to stop.

A boy walks past the back of our tent, singing along badly, the Cisco Kid, was friend of mine... then more of the boys walk by, arguing, "Don't open it, you're gonna ruin it!" And, "Shut up! We have to take it apart, we can use those..." their voices fade away.

I turned to look at the back of the tent where their voices were, and when I look back again, the light has changed. It's warm and I feel light-headed as I watch the shaft of sunlight move in the air and I start to see that the light has a current like water.

The spaceman song begins – Ground control to Major Tom...

My eyes follow the movement of countless, sparkling specks, swirling and spiraling up and up.

I'm stepping through the door...

I see that no matter how much the specs turn and spiral, they are always traveling up and up, traveling back into the sun.

and I think my spaceship knows which way to go...

My eyes are watching, seeing the way in, going up with the light.

and I'm feeling very still...

All the feeling goes out of my hands and travels up my arms, up the back of my neck, tingling all over my scalp, I'm inside my chest, and then my chest is lifting up like when I float on my back in the pool, and what I see is a river of glittering specks that I am inside of.

planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do...

The light is a solid shape that contains me like fogged glass and I can see my cousin through it, behind it, but so far away now, it's like I've left her behind.

...can you hear me Major Tom?

I finally have to blink away tears because my eyes can't stand it anymore and just like that, I shift back into myself and I'm looking through the sunbeam at my cousin. She has sat up and is watching me with a soft, secretive smile on her blue lips, her eyes drowsy and somehow full of understanding and approval. She nods her head once, reaches through the shaft of light, and her hand is shockingly clear, while her face is still softly blurred behind the veil. She holds out one of the small, white, wax bottles with blue syrup inside. The liquid inside the wax glows in the sun like a christmas tree bulb.

"No," I say, "that one's for you, I'll take the red one."

She grins, takes the blue one back and tosses me the bottle with the red syrup in it. I catch it, bite the top and slowly suck the syrup out, feeling sorry that the song is over.

We were baptized together, my cousin and me, held under water by old men who said prayers and took promises. We held our breath and didn't thrash or struggle so our families and Jesus would be pleased. Afterward, there were tiny gold crosses on chains, but hardly anymore time to play together before the summer ended and I went back home. I never saw her again.

Several years later, my cousin, her mother, father and one of her sisters died when their house burned down. I remember my grandfather telling me that she would always wait for me in heaven, that we were sisters because we were baptized together. That's not what made us sisters. It pains me now that I can't remember her name. But memory is like that, so careful of certain details, so reckless with others.

Memories are ghosts.

(Originally posted Saturday March 29 2008)