Friday, October 1, 2010

week twenty-five: grandmothers and ghosts

The following story is only mostly true:

It's very safe to say that my grandmother and I didn't quite get along. We lived with her for a year when I was about nine, and I absolutely hated it. In fact, Granny J, as we called her, gets the prize for being the sole cause of the only run-away-from-home I ever attempted. I don't quite remember exactly why we didn't get along. Maybe it was her way of doing things, which was very old-fashioned, or maybe it was just because I was an obnoxious kid growing up. It's arguable that I still am, by the way. As I grew up, this animosity subsided, but you can imagine that having to spend a week with her didn't thrill me.

I think I was sixteen at the time. Mom and dad had to go off to some conference or another and they must not have thought I was quite old enough to handle the house on my own. I had the choice between staying with Granny J or my other grandma. My younger sister and even younger brother had already decided to stay with the other, so I chose Granny J. I guess I figured I could stay out of her hair and that I wouldn't have to worry about my siblings driving me crazy. Either way, there wasn't actually any winning in that situation for me. At least she had a TV, right?

This is one of those situations in life that either builds or breaks you. I'd like to say that I've always had an attitude of trying to make the best of things. I'd be mostly wrong, of course. This wasn't one of those situations. My only goal was to get through the week dead or alive; I didn't care. I didn't put my guard up or open myself up to new things, I just figured I'd go the course.

I'm not entirely sure Granny J was too thrilled with the whole thing either. I mean, it was certainly a sacrifice on her part to have me for the week, but I never really stopped to ask her. Oh well.

The first day was awkward. I got there and we got through the pleasantries. The usual how-are-you's and how's-school's, you know the drill I'm sure. Suffice to say, we didn't talk much. I spent most of time either locked away in my room reading or playing my Xbox on her TV. She was out a lot of the time, which is impressive for a woman in her mid-seventies. Granny J was an expert violin player and she taught and played as her profession. I never got the chance to really see her play.

The first time it happened was when I went to bed that night. Now, I've always been something of an insomniac. It's been worse recently, but I could lay awake in bed for hours on end. It sucks. So, I lay there in my room and there are no curtains on the windows. I was admittedly afraid the first time I saw the lights on an airplane coming towards me. They were low and it looked like it could almost hit me. It was eerie. But the interesting part about the airplane bit is how my imagination would fly. Now, if you haven't noticed that I have a morbid imagination by now, I question your observation skills. I would imagine that terrorists were targeting me and that they finally got me. Lucky shot for them; I had been hard to find up until now.

Or maybe the plane was crashing. In my mind, I readied myself to get out there and help. Infinite possibilities I probably would have explored if I were a writer then. Alas, I was not and any imaginings from then are second-hand now and not worth much. A pity.

Far freakier than the airplanes, however, was the tapping. It was rhythmic and bore not just a slight resemblance to a lady walking on heels. I could hear said lady walking towards me and then walking away. Back and forth; forth and back. It was strange because I wasn't sure exactly what was happening. The tapping happened only at night, so finding an explanation in the daytime didn't happen. But there it was.

Back then I had the strange notion that I wanted to be a filmmaker. More like a stupid notion, I would say now, but a notion nonetheless. I imagined a horror movie about an old house haunted by the waiting spirit of an old woman. I never fleshed out characters or anything, but there was a lead. And it's one I'm following right now, but we'll get back to that later.

I'd come downstairs around noon, let's not forget that I'm a teenager at this point and sleeping was my prerogative. It still is, from time to time. Granny J would usually be out, but she was nice enough to provide lunch. I half expected to fend for myself, but she's my grandmother! I wish I had remembered that sooner.

When she was home at night, there was only thing on the TV: Turner Classic Movies. Old movies. Of course, I'd sit in there to give her company, but I would be reading rather than watching. After all, these are old movies. They're stupid, right?

Now, look, it's been four years and I wasn't exactly trying to record these events. I can't say for sure this is exactly how it happened. We're going to put it this way for narrative's sake though, alright?

It was that second day that she took me to the public library. I had honestly never been to a good library before. I had been to my crappy school library before, but this library was several stories tall and had more than just books. There were CDs and DVDs even. I took a few books, Star Wars I think, and I do remember grabbing a copy of the extended Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. My interests in books back then was strictly sci-fi. I read for entertainment, not thought. Don't you just hate looking back on yourself and noticing just how much of a total idiot you were?

I swear, I walked right past a copy of Catcher in the Rye. I could have changed my life early!

The return trip home was revelatory in my experience in getting to know my grandmother. She let me put in a disc of the soundtrack. It was the theme from the beginning of the movie with the hobbits; beautiful music and Granny J noted the beauty. I couldn't help but smile at having shared some interest. We didn't talk much in the trip to the library, but something was there. I drew just a touch closer to my grandmother.

That night, I heard the tapping again. Back and forth; forth and back. I even put my shirt on and went out to investigate. I crept upstairs to the attic and found nothing that would explain this peculiar sound. Out the window, there was nothing. In all honesty, I had a nagging sensation of fear.

The next two or three days were more of the same. I have to say, I was thankful for the opportunity to relax. The family was gone and I was liberated to a point. When Granny J was gone, the TV was mine to play video games on. What fun!

Finally on one of those nights, I went downstairs to investigate the heel-tapping. Back and forth; forth and back. There was nothing in the TV room and nothing in the kitchen; only darkness and shadows. The living room, however, is a different story completely. I could see a light from the hall, which I thought was merely light from an open window, but oh boy, I was wrong. I walked in to see an bright-blue and curiously shining old woman. She stood upright and carried her purse gallantly. She wore heels and paced the room. I froze in fear. Perhaps she wouldn't notice me.

Move, Wes. She hasn't seen you. Move. Turn around and run. You can make it go away.

“Who are you?” I feel the words escape my lips.

She sees me.

Her eyes widen.

“Address me properly, young man!”

My eyes bolt open, “Um, sorry, miss.”


“Uh, Mrs! Sorry, Mrs!”

“Now, that's better. Who are you?”

“Uh, I'm uh-”

“Speak quickly!”

“Wes, I'm Wes, I guess.”

“Come, sit down,” she lightened up as I did exactly as she instructed. There was a couch against the wall in the middle of the room. I sat. “What are you doing here?”

“I'm, uh, living here for a week,” I don't dare answer more than she's asked.

“And why is that?”

I explain everything to her.

“I see.”

“Well, uh, what are you doing here?”

“Well, I live here, you see.”

“My grandmother lives here.”

“Don't argue,” she sits down next to me. “But yes, she does, but I live here as well.”

“Ma'am, if you don't mind my asking... are you dead?”

“Why, yes, of course! Don't you know a ghost, a phantom, a spirit- when you see one?”

“Well, no, I've never seen a ghost before, sorry.”

“Dear boy, we shall have to educate you, won't we?”

I chuckled, “I guess, ma'am.”

“Well, I died quite some time ago. I died a very impatient old woman and this is why I am that way now. You will die as you are, young man.”

“Die as I am, what do you mean?”

She scoffed, “An example. Let's say that you die in love, yet the one you seek loves you not. You are desperate. You will die desperate for her affection. Simple as that.”

“So, if I die angry...?”

“You will be an angry ghost, of course!” she laughed.

“What is your name, spirit?”

“Hannah DuBois, what is yours?”


“Your full name, boy.”

“Julian, Wesley Julian, ma'am.”

“That's better,” she let out a hint of a smile. “What are you doing awake at this hour, shouldn't you be in bed?”

“I have trouble sleeping, ma'am.”

“I am sorry to hear that. Come here with me, we can do something about that,” she stands and approaches the dining room table. As if by miracle, there is a pot of tea with several teacups. “Sit at the table. I trust chamomile is to your liking.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied truthfully. I sat.

She poured tea into a pair of teacups and sipped very gently. It was delicious. “Chamomile tea will help you sleep, dear.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, I want to help you, young man. I want you to know what I did not.”

“Alright,” I sipped. “Tell me.”

“How do you wish to die?”

“Happy, I guess.”

“You can't achieve happiness, boy, happiness is a passing and a supplementary thing. Many seek it out, but none find it!”

I nodded.

“What you want is to die content. What you need to do is accept where you are, accept who you are, and accept why you are.”

“Why I am?”

“That is for you to discover,” she stood. “Now, it's off to bed with you. I'm afraid I've had enough conversation for the evening.”

I stood and thanked her again for the tea. It truly was delicious. When I lay back in bed, I didn't hear the tapping. She must have gone back to her world. I lay there and pondered. One nagging question remained, however: Why had she died impatient?

I slept.

Die content.

When I awoke, my attitude was changed. I decided to join my grandmother at one of her violin lessons. She was teaching a young girl, so I wasn't exactly seeing her play, but it was likely the most important piece in finally understanding my grandmother. What I saw there was a content woman. She had a gift with her violin and she could share it with others. That's when I knew what I wanted. I wanted to find my gift and share it with others. Granny J had found purpose to her life and in that, contentment and, I daresay, happiness.

I no longer put up with her. There was more to it. I wanted to know my grandmother. I want to see her life. What makes her tick? That night, I left the Star Wars upstairs and sat down to watch old movies with her. The first one I remember was The Bridge on the River Kwai, a war classic. My vision, back then, of a good war movie had big special effects and a lot of action. I recognized Alec Guinness in it, of course, and that's where my connection was drawn. Being the fairly intelligent person I am, I decided to find something besides eye-candy to enjoy. There was writing, acting, and cinematography. These things pulled the story, not cheap roller-coaster thrills.

That's when it hit me: old movies are awesome.

It was during the commercial that I burped. I forgot Granny J was behind me on her computer and I was embarrassed when I realized what I had done. And then, I remember it very clearly, I heard a thunderous rasp. I confess this here to you now: I was out-belched by my grandmother. She laughed and I joined her. It was one of those moments you'll never forget.

That night I didn't hear the tapping. Instead of being afraid, I was disturbed. Was Hannah alright? I went down the stairs to find her sitting there at the table with tea already poured. She smiled, “I was waiting for you, Wesley.”

“Oh, thank you, ma'am,” I sat down with her.

“I see you've considered what I said.”

“Yes, ma'am, it's good advice.”

She laughed, “When you get to be a in place like mine, you don't give advice. You tell. I know things you could not possibly know and you can either choose to trust me or not.”

“Well,” I sipped my tea. “I trust you, Mrs. DuBois.”

“Good,” she smiled.

I had to ask, “Mrs. DuBois, you mentioned that you had died impatient. What do you mean?”

Hannah sighed, “On your last night here, come and visit me. I will tell you then. Meanwhile, we need to work on you. Understand?”

“Yes, ma'am,” I finished the last drop.

“Tonight, I leave you with this,” she put down her teacup. “To die content, you can't die complacent. Things can be changed. Sometimes they will change for the better and sometimes they will change for the worse. Complacency is surest way to change them for worse. Look at your present situation. How can you make it better?”

I thought on this.

“Now, shoo, go on to bed. You need your rest to grow, young man!”

I laughed very softly as I climbed back up the stairs and back into bed. I fell asleep quickly this time. Her tea must work.

You can't die complacent.

There were two days left. I didn't know it then, but these days were the last days I had to get to know my grandmother. Nothing happened during the morning or the afternoon, but we had a planned a dinner that night. We were going to meet my siblings and other grandmother at a hamburger restaurant. A very good one, exclusive to Memphis, actually. It's called Huey's. Look it up.

When we got there, I could see that my sister was tired. My brother was in his usual overly talkative mood, which gets on my nerves fast. Insanely fast. I could tell Rachel, my sister, was tired. Michael was mostly her responsibility and it must have worn on her. But me? I was, well, content. I had the opportunity to explore one of my most fascinating relatives. Now, my other grandmother, Mamaw, we called her, we knew her quite well. We saw her the most often and she still is something of a constant, wonderful presence. Trips to Granny J's were always more of a rarity.

Anyway, it was there that I saw what I could have been. I could have let it wear down on me, but I made the best of it. That's not to say Rachel was doing anything wrong at all, just that I was finally doing something right. All thanks to Hannah DuBois. But who is she?

That night, I again found Mrs. DuBois at the table, tea and all. She awaited me with a much more approving look. I found it oddly soothing. I sat there with her and asked, “How are you, Mrs. DuBois?”

“I am as fine as an impatient spirit can ever be,” she answered briskly. “But yourself. I need not ask, but put it in your own words.”

“I'm,” I paused. “I'm content.”

“Are you?”

“More content than before.”

“Could you be more than you are now?”

“Always,” I sipped.

She grinned, “Now you're getting to the heart of it. Boy, we are in a world that is constantly getting worse. It's getting worse because people are getting complacent. There will always be things to fix, things to make better. You need to be one of the people who is content, but not complacent. Take you and your grandmother, for instance, you are content with your relationship with her. Be content with it, but make it better. Make it last.”

“I will,” I finished my tea.

“Now, tomorrow night is your last night. Let's not waste our last hours. What do you want to do with your life, boy?”

I explained my love of film for her. How I had edited videos and garnered praise in class for them. I liked that feeling. I loved sharing what I had made. She listened to me and obviously fought her impatient nature, but there was enthusiasm behind it. I could tell. This was a lonely spirit and a beautiful one. I wish I had known her living.

The next day, again, didn't really happen until the evening. Granny J cooked for me. She made roast beef, which isn't my favorite, but it was good. I didn't enjoy the food so much as sitting across from my grandmother and enjoying her company. There was a bond, not of necessity like before, but of love. I wish I had this before, but better late than never.

She also made cupcakes. They were peanut butter, I think. I can't tell you if they were good or not. They didn't look good and I was a picky eater. I still am. But I told her how much I loved the cupcakes, but I never ate them. I'm sure the neighbor's dog loved them though.

That night was also something special when she turned on the TCM. The movie was called They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and it's about a Great Depression-era dancing marathon. This isn't subject matter I care about, but I deeply enjoyed it. I loved the seeing the characters broken and tired. And finally, at the end, when he shoots the girl, I was gripping my seat. It was emotional and released when my parents were toddlers. Granny J hadn't seen it either, but we discussed the movie in length. It was one of the greatest conversations I've ever had.

I discovered then that I love old things. I have a bitter distrust of remakes and new movies. Things were done better in a time long ago. Hannah was right. The world is getting worse. Perhaps I can fix it. I got it set in my mind then that I wanted to make films the way they used to be made. I don't hold onto this dream anymore, but I do hold onto the way things were. The way they should be.

I found Hannah staring out the window this time. She looked as though she wants out, but is trapped. I approach her and I say, “Mrs. DuBois, you said you would tell why you died impatient.”

She smiled and sat back down at the table. I sat with her and sipped at my tea. She sighed and explained, “I was already old before I died. In fact, I died in old age. I died at a train station. My son told me to wait for him. I paced up and down. Back and forth; forth and back. But he never showed up. He was never there. I sat down at the bench and fell asleep. I was angry and impatient. I never awoke again.”

“Do you know why your son was late?”

“Don't you see? He abandoned me,” Hannah said. “He decided that in the rush of the modernizing world, his mother was less important than his business. Please, I beg you, have patience. People, especially relatives, are far more important than anything else. My son never learned his lesson, but you can, Wesley.”

I drank the last of my tea, “Mrs. DuBois, I'm sorry.”

She looked into my eyes and I could see a faint ghostly tear, “Thank you, dear boy.”

I don't remember going back up the stairs that night. I don't remember returning to my bed. I don't remember how I got there, but I woke up in my bed a changed man. Somehow, I understood the world. Not fully, but pieces I never knew before were present. I had little time the next morning with my grandmother, but I made the most of them. I wanted all the time in the world with my Granny J.

When my parents arrived to pick me up, I was ready. There was resolution. I hugged my grandmother and, with sincerity like never before, told her that I loved her. She never was a sentimental woman, but she was old-fashioned; she held onto things. I learned that from her. Hold onto the things you should value. I still wish I had more time with her. More solid, quality time.

I never got time to myself with her again. When my family returned to our home in Brazil, she passed away just a little while later. It's one of those things that didn't hit me though until I saw her empty house the next year. It was haunting. I had hoped to see Hannah DuBois again, but I don't think I was meant to. I learned all that I was to learn from that mysterious, impatient spirit. I've never told anyone about Hannah DuBois until now.

If you see her, tell her I said hello.


  1. I love this one. Incredible story, Wes, and thanks for the lesson in it =)

  2. Wow... this is a great story. I enjoyed it, and I can say that I learned a thing or two from it. Keep up with the good work Wes! :)

  3. Really good Wes. The ghost stuff is that all for real?

  4. Really good story. And I'm glad you and Granny J connected before she passed away. About this DuBois character...I don't remember ghosts in the house but when I was growing up we did have haunted houses for the kids in the neighborhood. Maybe she came but never left. The last one we did was called "The Apparitioned Attic". Anyway, Granny J would be proud. She was not an emotional person but believe me, she would have cried after reading this one. Thank you for sharing. I'm proud of you and the writer you are becoming. (Don't leave me at a train station.)