By Rachel Barton
Ghosts have never scared me. When I was little, I would sit, curled up in the corner of the room I shared with my mother, and read stories about haunted houses and groaning ghouls. I was fascinated by this connection to the past, how—even when someone is gone—they are never really gone. I read so many ghost stories that I got pretty good at telling my own. At sleepovers, when we were lying in the dark and staring up at the ceiling, I would whisper stories to my friends. As I spoke of blood seeping out of the walls or little girls who never had a chance to grow up, my friends would hold their blankets tighter and tighter.
I know a lot about ghosts now that I have my own.
Their stories aren’t necessarily as gruesome as some of the ones I told when I was little. They’re hard in a different way. When you’re haunted, really haunted, you can’t get away from it. Your ghosts follow you everywhere you go. When you pass a garden, a little voice in your head knows the name of every flower. When you’re walking to class, you see your brother in the crowd even though he never went to college. When you’re at work, someone coughs behind you and it sounds just like your mom. When a motorcycle blasts by you, you have to stop for a couple minutes and just breathe.
Grandma is the most welcome.
Every single holiday, my aunt insists that we visit Grandma’s grave. She’s buried in the ground next to one of her friend’s husbands. She couldn’t be buried next to Mac, my grandfather and her estranged husband, because his ashes were dispersed at sea—it’s a Navy thing. My grandmother’s best friend had this open grave that she didn’t plan on going in and a dead husband lying next to it. My grandma took it because it was free; Lorraine loved anything that was free. Her grave always looks a little bit better than the other tombstones. It’s a little newer and we always plant flowers there for her. My aunt brings some sort of tacky holiday decoration (picture a big, blue Easter bunny) and shoves it into the dirt. Sometimes she tells me to get a pic with grandma and I tell her no. That’s a little morbid, even for me, but it helps her feel like she can still do things for her mom.
I feel my grandmother’s loss the most through my aunts and uncles. I lost a grandmother, but they lost their mother. Every time we all sit together around the kitchen table, someone starts telling a story about her. It will start simply, someone will say something only she would have said. Even I find myself saying things like “God knows he’s ugly” or “that’s a sin.” From there, they launch into the epic of the time she had a screaming match with one of her neighbors because he kept sweeping onto her side of the street, even though she was 5 foot of skin and bones and he towered over her. Next, they go through her explanations of their births: my uncle Frank was covered in thick, dark hair and she tried to return this “monkey” to the hospital; my Aunt Cindy wasn’t breathing right and turned blue; my mom was a cute little peanut, but my uncle Mark was allegedly so ugly that my grandma would cover him with a blanket when people came to visit.
My grandma is also in my plants. There’s a Christmas cactus on my window, named Bruce Springsteen, that used to be in her kitchen. He’s not doing too well; maybe he misses her. But even the cheap plants I snag from Lowe’s have a bit of her in them. They suck up fresh air like she sucked down cigarettes. As they stretch their little green tendrils towards the sun, I see her working in her garden. She was tiny, dark, and always in the sun. Grandma worked for hours in her garden. She fought weeds and squirrels and Brandon, the neighbor boy whose basketball always ended up in her Rhododendrons. That same tenacity runs through me and she backs me up whenever I get indignant.
My brothers come and go.
Stevie began haunting me before he died. One night he was drunk or high and ended up on the train tracks. He survived the accident, but barely. They had to take his left arm, below the elbow, where an intricate tattoo used to live. Stevie refused to go to physical therapy or even talk to a counselor about the loss of his limb. He was like a ghost after that, drifting in and out of our lives, shifting between this world and the next. He would stand right in front of you, but dance with his eyes wide open, seeing something else entirely.
Mostly, I remember moments with him, moments that no one else seems to know existed. I think of him when he was alive, really alive. Once, when I was in the fifth grade, we sat in the living room while our parents fought above us. There was a crash. My father had probably thrown my mother into something. Maybe the big, gilded mirror. We were watching a movie together. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but, in that moment, it was the only thing I paid attention to.
“Why do you waste your time with this?”
I didn’t know immediately that he was talking to me. Stevie had to reach over and tug my hair before I noticed.
“Why do you watch movies?”
“Why do you?”
“I have to. You don’t.”
I just stared at him.
“When you read, you watch movies. You see them in your head. You cast every character. You choose the score. You angle each shot. That’s better than this.”
Then he walked over to the tv and kicked in the screen. The noises above stopped. We had made a crash of our own.
Sometimes, when I watch movies, I think about the camera, the way it zooms in and out, deciding what’s important and what isn’t. I think about my brother sitting alone on someone’s front step with a needle in his arm. The camera starts there. But then it zooms out, farther and farther, until he’s just a speck on the gray city landscape. The city looks like the sky, spotted with shining stars who are long dead, but have yet to go out.
Ryan is only sort of my ghost. I know he belongs to someone else. I don’t see him a lot because he’s busy other places. He’s busy in the faces of his sons. He’s busy in the empty place next to his wife. He’s busy keeping his eye on each and every boy on each and every bike, making sure they don’t end up like him. I appreciate it when he takes the time to visit me.
My family was big on Chinatown. Ryan’s dad was some guy named Ming whose family sent him to Ohio when they found out he got a white girl pregnant. I don’t think my mom really ever got over it. She and Ming used to go to Chinatown every single week while she was pregnant. After Ryan was born, she kept going, even when the infant was her only company. The tradition stuck. She started bringing Stevie, then she started bringing me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Chinatown in my lifetime. We went at least twice a month for my whole life—or at least the parts of it that overlapped with theirs. Chinatown is Ryan’s favorite haunt.
Since I grew up sharing it with my family, Chinese food has become comfort food for me. When I’m feeling deeply sad, I crave the shumai dumplings we used to make together in our kitchen, shoving pink goo into skins that turned translucent in the light. The juice from the meat and the powder from the skins would harden on my hands and every so often I had to stretch my fingers, cracking the coating. It always feels like home. I once traveled to England, a visitor in a foreign land, until I found a dim sum place in Bath. I ordered a tin of shumai and was transported home. Now, it’s the first thing I look for when I travel.
I’ve only been to our restaurant once since his accident. I guess I felt guilty about going to our place without him.
I sat at one of the tables that he probably sat at in a highchair. I probably sat in the same one. The entire dining room was softly lit in yellow light. He used to sit across from me and grin as he ordered his favorite dumplings. Ryan always used the Chinese names for things; it was a point of pride. In that corner, under the picture of the boatman, he taught me to use chopsticks when I was seven.
“Hold it like a pencil.”
“But there’s two.”
“Okay, so hold one like a pencil.”
We kept going and going until I got it. The staff, faces that I’ve been seeing my whole life, knew us. They would drop off extra tins of shumai, hoping that the white baby would get it this time. They didn’t add those extra tins on the bill.
I don’t know how to explain this deeply personal relationship to the people I meet. Why do you know so much about Chinese stuff? My brother is Chinese, I try to explain. Are you Chinese? Not at all. So he was adopted? No. Where is he now? Dead. How did he die? Accident. Chinese culture, which was such a major part of my family growing up, is now a step away from me. I have this relationship with a culture that isn’t, that was never mine. And yet I still reach for it, like Stevie extending the limb he lost long ago.
My mom is by far the hardest. She is the most present. She holds onto me the tightest.
She wasn’t the typical mom. Addicts rarely are. Instead of singing lullabies for us, she sang the songs she knew. When my mom was sixteen, she got in a truck with her boyfriend and drove across the country. He was in some shitty rock band that did shitty renditions of classic rock when it was just rock. Decades later she would lay next to me in bed stroking my hair, and sing acoustic versions of every Eagles song. When “Hotel California” comes on the radio, I sing along. I knew the words long before I heard the actual song. As I sing, I think about my mother. I think about the woman with rough hands stroking my hair as she sang, probably waiting for me to fall asleep before she could go out drinking. But I also think about that sixteen year old girl, across the country, wearing only torn denim and road filth. I think how she had her ghosts, too.
Regularly, I dream of her. She’s always alive, but I know she’s going to die. I have this recurring dream where we’re cleaning out the first apartment I ever lived in. We moved in on my first birthday and there used to be a picture of me standing in a crib, the first piece of furniture moved in. The carpet was thick and brown, like matted fur. In my dream, we have to get everything out because my mom knows she’s dying. The next person has to move in. I keep looking for pictures of us to take with me, but I really want to find a bowl. In the dream and in real life, I distinctly remember eating out of the bowl over and over again. It was shallow, split in different quadrants, and printed with Barney and Baby Bop. I search for it everywhere, tearing apart cabinets and digging through boxes. My mother tells me it’s okay, that we have other things to save, but when I go to look, the boxes are all empty.
When I wake up, my mother is gone and the boxes are still empty.
Rachel Barton writes essays like shards of a mirror; they never really reflect the whole. She has been published in Avant Literary Magazine, as well as through the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Rachel’s short stories are forthcoming in The Albion Review and Equinox.