Lately, the air feels thick with ghosts. Memories swirl around me on a regular basis, but these days I am particularly aware of their tendrils, and people and places and experiences from the past feel tangible in the air next to me.
Last week, one evening, Matt and I went to an event for the boarding school I attended, Phillips Exeter Academy. I sat, listening to the new head of school speak, and found myself choked up over and over again. It’s not a secret that I didn’t love Exeter when I was there, but it is equally as true that I respect the place more and more every year. It is where I became who I am today. In some ways I feel like I live in my life in widening circles out from that central point, that cold, dark campus in New Hampshire, those classrooms alight with thought and learning and life, those cross-country woods where I ran for so many hours, that tiny single bedroom in a house on Front Street where I lived.
I could feel the girl I was then – so full of the future, aware of all that lay ahead, nursing her first broken heart and missing home, across an ocean – pulsing in the room around me. I felt so deeply grateful for the education I have been given that I could not keep back the tears.
Later that same night, I sat on the bathroom floor with my daughter, only a couple of years younger now than the girl I was then. She wasn’t feeling well before bed, and the cold tile of the bathroom felt comforting to her. I know that feeling. We sat there, talking aimlessly about nothing and everything. I reached up and grabbed a bottle of hand lotion and asked her if I could rub her feet. She nodded with a faint smile. I rubbed her feet with the lotion, remembering in an almost blinding flash that this is what my mother did with her mother when she was in the hospital.
In the spring and summer of 1997, when my grandmother was being treated for pancreatic cancer, my mother and I would often go visit her at the hospital in Boston. More often than not, Mum would rub her mother’s feet with cream. I remember marveling at the quiet intimacy of this gesture, and here I was, without having thought about it, doing the same for my daughter. Four generations of women, united in a single small act. I felt the presence of my mother and grandmother in the quiet bathroom with us, a spiralling back and forward at the same time, something sacred pressing on us from above, from below, from all around.
The word “ghosts” has negative implications, at least for me, but lately the presence of people who are no longer bodily here feels reassuring to me. I have a vivid memory of the winter solstice, many years ago, and of watching the horizon as the sun set. I felt then the visceral presence of people I have loved who were gone (then, my grandmothers, my mother’s best friend and my second mother, Susie). I swear to you they were right there, over the horizon, catching the sun as it slipped out of my sight. I found that moment deeply affirming and comforting, and I’ve never forgotten it. That’s how I felt last week remembering my teenage self and realizing I was subconsciously repeating rituals and rites in which my own mother and grandmother participated. I was held by the past. Rather than being sad about all the ways that then threads itself through now, I felt reassured by it.
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