Not That Kind of Casper

As I grow older, I recognize that I’m haunted by my father’s death and my mother’s life

Photograph by Getty Images/Vetta

My deceased mother popped by the other night. No, she didn’t emerge from a wall or a shadowy corner. She’s not that kind of Casper. But she made her presence known in atypical fashion. A dream. We were trading recipes. We were discussing Thanksgiving.

My mother’s unearthly apparitions are infrequent. It’s been eight years since she passed away and she generally haunts my days rather than my nights.

How does she do that, exactly?

It’s easy. Her critical voice is planted in my head. Memories of her are strikingly accessible. Hell, maybe I spend too much time alone. But I swear, at moments I feel her exasperation embodied in my own changing moods, I see every detail of the den and dining room in which she spent most of her time and I even hear the screeching of sopranos on the turntable. To this day, I dislike opera, which filled the rooms of my mother’s house.

As far as ghosts go, I know things could be worse. Millions of women deal with a chorus of negative noise. But my mother’s emotional peaks and valleys? They were terrifying, especially to a kid. They were confusing, too — I never knew what set them off, I never knew how long they would last and I couldn’t reconcile her violent outbursts and scathing verbal attacks with her funny stories and fantastic adventures.

I lived in thrall of her. I lived in fear of her.

As an adult, I learned to view my mother as an exceptional and troubled woman with an insatiable appetite for attention and impossible expectations of others. Those were the days before we routinely dissected the narcissistic personality, though she epitomized the disorder in spades. I suppose it follows that knowledge would temper my impressions and encourage forgiveness, but knowledge only goes so far.

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My father, also deceased, is a far friendlier and more mischievous spirit. Like many of his generation, he was something of a ghost in my childhood and adolescence. Those were the days when women donned an apron and raised the kids, while men took care of “providing” and theoretically ruled the roost.

The bottom line? My dad wasn’t around much. I wish he had been. He could have — and should have — protected me from my mother.

Tragically, my father was killed in a car accident not long after starting a second chapter. He died when he was the age I am now — still reasonably young and certainly vital — after 30 difficult years with my mother. He remarried, he was happy, he was forging a new rapport with me. He went out of his way to make amends for the many years he was painfully absent.

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What happens when my daddy dearest shows up in my dreams? It doesn’t happen often, but he’s a sociable specter. We chat, we laugh and I wake in a good mood. Even better — I’m reminded how fleeting life can be, how much more lies ahead despite our off days and how essential it is that we grab our good moments while we can.

As for the woman who gave birth to me, for years I put miles between us. She was toxic. And I needed to breathe. There were long silences, periods of détente and only when my father died did some of her rage begin to dissipate. After I married and had babies of my own, she softened. Yet there were still signs of cruelty on occasion. She trained her sights on one of my sons, then only a little boy.

My divorce reignited my mother’s uglier side. I was in my forties at the time and she was in her seventies. Not only did she offer no emotional support whatsoever, her words were more cutting than ever, opening old wounds. It was a few years later that we were beginning to build bridges back to a tenuous peace when she died unexpectedly. She was in her rocking chair in front of the television, one week before coming to visit. I had ordered her a key lime pie, her favorite, and my boys were looking forward to seeing their “crazy Grandma.”

I love my mother, despite our tumultuous history. I struggle to comprehend: Was she bipolar or just plain crazy? Was she the victim of some terrible trauma in childhood that twisted her ability to form relationships? It’s as if she remains my own personal Phantom of the Opera — dramatic, frightening, larger than life. And like the phantom, she lashed out at those who could have cared for her. I sometimes wonder if she died of a broken heart, the consequence of the way she lived.

This is the time of year when I light a candle to honor each of my parents, the season of their passing. That my mother recently visited in a dream is both strange and bittersweet.

As I grow older, I recognize that I’m haunted by my father’s death and my mother’s life. The former, I’ve come to accept. The latter, I wrestle with, as each of us wrestles with our ghosts, carving out good days in spite of them and in some cases, because of them.

Tags: memoirs

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