Given enough time, almost any house will collect ghosts. My house has plenty, even though I’m not one for hanging onto the past. Usually they creep in silently, like dust bunnies under the bed: When you see them, you know they must have been there for a long time, but you never catch them coming in the door.
I found one of my ghosts just yesterday. It was hiding in a drawer in the guest bathroom. I haven’t had a reason to open that drawer in a long time. Inside was a packet of tiny orthodontic rubber bands — Impala size. In an instant, the phantom of my 13-year-old son, all elbows and knees — appeared, grinning through a mouthful of wire. He’s a grown man now, 32, straight of tooth. But his tween self lingers in a plastic envelope of rubber bands.
There are other ghosts around the house, some of the living and some departed.
Most are welcome: I conjure my grandmother every year in a pan of homemade baklava. When the faucet drips, the wraith of my still-living father appears, wrench in hand — along with the echo of my sister’s childish voice crying “Daddy fix it!”
Some are bittersweet: My mother appears when I catch my smile in a mirror and I’m both happy to see her and sad that she’s gone. The faint specter of the child I miscarried decades ago lingers in quiet corners.
There are a few I want to sweep away entirely, like dust bunnies: Ill-considered words that have hurt friends, the times my inaction has let people down. A number of embarrassing incidents from high school steadfastly refuse to rest in their graves, despite all attempts to exorcise them. Not too many, though. As I said, I’m not one for hanging onto the past — especially regrets.
But sometimes I wonder how that will change as I get older. Right now, much of my focus is on the future. There are stories to write, songs to sing, babies to knit for. I nod at my spectral visitors when I pass them in the hall, but we don’t sit and have coffee. Even so, I’m aware that more of my time is behind than ahead and my gaggle of ghosts grows.
When my grandmother was in her 90s, she told me the saddest part of being that old is that there was no one left alive who knew her when she was young. No wonder she retreated to visiting with ghosts at the end.
Last year, we had to move my mother-in-law from the home she lived in for 35 years to a tiny apartment where she could get the care she needed. It was a difficult time and she clung with heart-breaking distress to her ghosts as we carted them out of the house in the form of a vase, or a chair or a bag of sewing patterns. We knew — and at heart, she knew — she didn’t need those things anymore. But they were touchstones to a lifetime of memories.
It seems like I’m making an argument for being a packrat, as a kind of insurance policy against oblivion, but that’s crazy, right? I’ve always thought of myself as the opposite: I’ve long been fascinated by minimalist living. Sweeping away the past makes the future feel like it’s got a lot of room. But as the years pass, I feel more sympathy and understanding for my mother-in-law.
What’s room for, if you don’t fill it with friends?