The summer before I got married Dave went away to teach at a program for brilliant young writers and I stayed in Pittsburgh, trying to finish my master’s thesis, which I hadn’t started.
One night, there was a terrible thunderstorm, and my friend Rachael came over to keep me company. We drank mint juleps and she read my Tarot cards while the storm knocked the trees into the windows like a horror movie, the air charged with electricity and meaning. She flipped the first card over with a snap. If the image is upside down, it means something—something about blocked potentiality, abilities and events that want to manifest but can’t. All my cards were upside down.
I was secretly terrified. The words dabbling in the occult came to mind. But I was ashamed to tell Rachael for fear of sounding like some kind of fundamentalist nutbag. I’ve always been excessively religious, and I watched too many horror movies at too young an age. I know from The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchboard, Fright Night, et. al that it all starts out as fun and games and then suddenly you realize Captain Howdy is the devil and your neighbor is a vampire.
My older sister was braver. She spent years searching for a way to connect with our dead mother. She sat for past-life readings, trained herself to achieve a hypnogogic state that would allow her to fold space, and meditated in something called a psychomanteum—a form of mirror divination—in attempt to contact her soul. It was sitting before that mirror, in the back room of a hair salon in Dallas, staring at her own reflection for endless quiet minutes, that she says she came to her senses.
“What will I do if she shows up?” she thought. After all those months—years—of preparation, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. So she walked out, got married, had three babies and started teaching aerobics.
I’d begun to feel it was my job to keep the search for our mother alive. If our her ghost was out there wandering the moors, somebody had to keep the window open. I might not be a Bronte, but I could at least be a Heathcliff.
At the time I lived in a duplex on the edge of historic Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, which given my squeamishness about the supernatural should have disconcerted me. I remembered Poltergeist, and Craig T. Nelson screaming, “You only moved the headstones!” Nonetheless I found it strangely comforting. I loved the place. It was a great neighborhood, home to families, not grad students like me who smoked on the porch all night. Our backyard rolled into an expanse of soft green lawn, thickets of trees and crosses and angels and the occasional spray of flowers. At night, hundreds of red votive candles flickered in the darkness like a celestial event.
I watched funerals reflected in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I marked how quickly the grass grew on the fresh mounds. I began to recognize the mourners who came regularly. I watched them stand beneath umbrellas in the misty rain, their maps unfolded and flapping in the damp breeze.
In Louisiana, where my family is buried, you have to put people in crypts and tombs and mausoleums, or they will wash away. New Orleans is below sea level, and the ground is saturated, unstable; bodies decompose more quickly. I used to imagine floodwaters carrying the bones off in the tide, or my mother’s body floating down Canal Street toward the Mississippi River, her hair fanned out like Ophelia in the Millais painting. But in Pittsburgh, only the very wealthy are buried in vaults: the Fricks and the Heinzes and the Mellons. They rest in Millionaire’s Row, Section 14, near the lake. In the summer, a guided tour called “You Can’t Take It With You” takes groups through Section 14 every morning before it gets too hot.
Many mornings I woke to the sounds of riding mowers and men shouting over the repetitive tones of something large backing up: Beep. Beep. Beep. Breaking new ground back there, space for more bodies.
I had to finish my thesis by the fall or join the ranks of the many in our graduate program who never completed their degrees. For three years I’d been researching a book about the women who worked with Andy Warhol. Pittsburgh is Warhol’s hometown, and I’d moved there to work in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, to rifle through his Time Capsules wearing white gloves. I had pages of transcribed interviews with Pat Hackett, his secretary and the redactress of the Andy Warhol Diaries, and I’d just been introduced to Gerard Melanga, the guy who did the whip dance with the Velvet Underground, who agreed to talk to me about Warhol’s relationships with women (for $1,000). I didn’t have $1,000, but the truth was, the more research I did, the less interest I had in Warhol or his women. I was spending more time in church than at the museum, sitting in the dark of Sacred Heart in Shadyside, in the last pew just in case I needed to make a hasty escape. The only thing that really fascinated me about Warhol anymore was that he went to Mass every day.
I spent hours in the psychology and religion section at Barnes and Noble in Squirrel Hill, sitting in a chair by the window overlooking Murray Avenue and wondering if I should have been a therapist. I understand people, I told Dave over the phone during one of our nightly arguments. I’m intuitive. I also wondered if I should have been a high school teacher, or a librarian, or an archivist, or anything besides this. Whatever this was. A grad student not writing her thesis, watching people pass on Murray Avenue two stories below, haunting a graveyard like some teenage goth.
“Give yourself a new project,” Dave said, yawning into the phone. He was in Erie, three hours north of me, teaching fiction writing and drinking wine with a poet who lived next door to him in faculty housing. They played surrealist bocce, whatever that was, on their lunch breaks. Whenever he’d been teaching he had an annoying habit of treating me like one of his students if I complained about writing, and it was really starting to piss me off. I’ll never forgive him for telling me to cover my laptop screen with a towel. But he has always approached writing with more realism and practicality than I have. I have always wanted to be a mystic.
“Well, then. Make something happen,” he said.
I hung up on him and jammed the box fan into the open window and stripped down to my underwear and lay on the bed, on top of the covers, feeling sorry for myself, crushed by the weight of my unwritten thesis and a grief that I couldn’t believe was still so hard to bear, when my mother had been dead for more than ten years.
If I could just find some way to exorcise it, I thought, I might be able to write—if not about Warhol and his women then something, anything. But whenever I tried to write my stomach hurt and I couldn’t breathe. So instead I walked the paths behind my house, memorized the names on the graves, left flowers, and tried not to think about the only grave that really mattered, alone and untended back in Louisiana. I flipped idly through bridal magazines trying to excited about the wedding I was planning, since I hadn’t been able to convince Dave to elope. I took fitful naps and had nightmares.
I dreamed I presented my thesis to my committee. I opened the box where the manuscript should have been, and instead, there was an ornate tomb carved in stone, with a bust of a woman’s head as a sort of finial on the peak. My thesis director carefully placed the thing on the conference table and walked around it several times, shaking her head. “It looks nothing like her.”
When I woke it was dusk, quiet except for the echo of a basketball on the pavement, ticking away the minutes until summer would end and Dave would come home and my thesis would be due and my time would be up.
Make something happen, Dave had said.
I remembered my sister and her psychomanteum and thought, why not? I imagined building an elaborate contraption, pictured myself in the basement working a table saw, wearing a pair of safety goggles. I thought I’d get at least a chapter out of that. But when I found Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Loved Ones, I learned, with great disappointment, that this stunt required nothing more than a mirror, a comfortable chair, and a dim light. One man reported that his mother actually stepped out of the mirror and hugged him. He says he picked her up and lifted her clear over his head.
The psychomanteum is a tool of divination, like a crystal ball. I told myself it was as harmless as reading my horoscope or having my fortune told. Something a Victorian might have done at a tea-party séance. A game. And the world’s most clever writing prompt. Charles Dickens and Thomas Edison both used to induce trances when seeking inspiration. So did Jimmy Page. Visionary states enhance creativity. Altered states of consciousness enhance perception, inspire new ways of understanding. And many people believe they actually bring you closer to God. So there.
But what if I see something I don’t want to see? In The Odyssey, hundreds of spirits appeared to Odysseus before Teiresias finally emerged from the pit and gave him directions home. Moody never quite says it, but the subtext is clear. You might get nothing, and you might get something bad. Something evil.
Then there’s this. The spirit might not appear while I’m in the psychomanteum. She might appear in the rearview mirror, sitting in the backseat of my car the next morning.
I tried not to dwell on that scenario.
Then I tried to think of my one particular question. Moody says this increases the chances for success—benevolent success. The question might go unanswered, or the spirit might answer a different question altogether. But it was important to come prepared. I’d come back to that. Surely I’d think of something.
All day I marked pages with post-its and made notes. As the sun set I stalled and re-read Book XI of The Odyssey. While Odysseus is in the pit channeling spirits, I imagined my own story winding around his like a caduceus. Odysseus didn’t call the pit he filled with blood, milk, honey, wine, and water a psychomanteum, but it’s the same concept.
I’ll pray for protection, I thought. I’ll bless the ground with holy water.
I was afraid. I was also ashamed. Because really, it wasn’t a stunt. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to summon my mother from Hades and free myself from grief. And if that was too much, I at least hoped this project would bring about some much needed change in me—supernatural or not. Like my sister, who walked away from her search, left the mirrored room and went on to marry her true love and give birth to three babies and get on with it.
In ancient times, they were elaborate sunken caves and desert oracles. All I needed was a reflective surface and a comfortable place to sit and think. I’d make the sign of the cross and burn frankincense to ward off evil spirits. I’d surround myself with her memory—play Stevie Nicks’s Belladonna, spritz a bottle of Giorgio, chew a pack of peppermint Carefree.
I’d wait for twilight, for the crack in the spirit world to open and I’d sit and gaze beyond my own reflection, and remember.
Dr. Moody says there are only two guarantees: Whatever happens is what needs to happen. If I work hard enough, something will be revealed.
But when I lifted my head from my notebook, where I’d been frantically scribbling those notes, the spell was broken. The bookstore came back to life around me, the din of a dozen or so grad students flirting or clicking away on their laptops, the coffee grinder whirring, dishes clinking in the bus bin. I packed up my books, pens, and post-its and headed out of the café and onto Murray Avenue, feeling jittery and foolish.
It was warm, a late-summer night. The sun had set and I was too afraid to walk home alone past the cemetery in the dark, so I was turning back to Barnes and Noble when I heard my name in the dim and my heart jumped. In a moment Dave’s form emerged in the light from the streetlamps and the shop windows. He was walking toward me, smiling and waving his hands, jingling the car keys.
Surprise. Home early.
I’d conjured the living.
That October, on a beautiful Indian summer day, Dave and I got married at an historic Catholic church near his parents’ house in Ohio, followed by a quiet reception in their backyard during which I drank too much champagne and Dave watched the Notre Dame-Purdue game with his dad. I was far from home, and there were so few people on the bride’s side of the church I felt a little awkward, but in the end I was grateful that Dave had made me go through with it, even though I’d tried to back out right up until I walked down the aisle. I’d grown so accustomed to funerals, I hadn’t realized how happy a wedding could make people.
On Halloween trick-or-treaters were bussed in from Pittsburgh’s rougher neighborhoods to collect candy from our porch. We drank beer while our friend Brandon brought the bowl down to the smaller kids who couldn’t manage the steps, or to those who were too shy to come closer. He was always a natural with kids. He helped me to imagine our children in the world years before they arrived. My daughter and son call him Uncle Brando.
In the backyard, the votives flickered on the graves in the dark. A new memorial was complete, an elaborate temple with doric columns, a eulogy engraved on a plaque: She was an artist and a teacher. She accepted people for who they were. She was shy as a child and socially sophisticated as a woman. She had a positive self-image.
So oddly formal and yet so personal—“socially sophisticated?” But then, as if her parents had gotten half-way through their polite eulogy before throwing down the chisel and crying from the heart:
We knew the real meaning of grief when we no longer could see your bright face!
It wasn’t exactly poetry, but it was a run at the gates.
Back in my apartment, I collected the pages of my thesis as they emerged from the printer, started telling the stories of my life, stacking my grief like stones.