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Finding the Truth in Grandmother’s Ghost Stories

She might not have read T.S. Eliot, but they both implicitly knew there is reality in unreality.

As a child, I never tired of my maternal grandmother’s company. I loved her dearly, and I’ve missed her every day since she passed from this earth in the summer of 2003. Not formally educated (at least not for long), she was the oldest girl of 17 children on a west Kansas farm, and she never did lose her German accent or her inability to get English pronouns correct. Instead of “um” or “right,” she’d say “Gella” or “nun,” as in “Bradley, you’re coming over to visit me today, gella?” The first person baptized at the “Cathedral of the Plains” (St. Fidelis) in what is now Victoria, Kansas (then Herzog, Kansas), she maintained a powerful Catholic faith her whole life. Even during my arrogant and ridiculous atheistic teenage years, Grandma’s example kept my faith at least partially alive, even if it was nearly smothered in my own intellectual wallowings.

She was not only the best cook I’ve ever encountered, but possessed a wonderful memory, perfectly ordered to the telling of tales. Perhaps her accent and incorrect English helped, but I loved to listen to her talk. Her best stories involved the dances she attended as a young woman and the rituals that men had to perform to win her attention. (My grandmother, it should be noted, was quite the beauty in her youth, especially with her almond-shaped eyes and raven-black hair.) She told great stories about how she worked for the English (meaning anyone, black or white, who spoke English; race did not seem to be an important distinction) when she was a teenager. She especially liked to talk about how she used to negotiate with the black entrepreneur who owned the local general store in Ellis, Kansas. They might haggle with only head nods and grunts for several minutes over how much candy a penny might buy. She also kept a hope chest throughout her life, opening it only on the most special of occasions. When she did, wonders upon wonders would spill out of her memory and into our lives.

From time to time, my grandmother would also talk casually about her encounters with the supernatural. The ghost of a 19th-century officer’s wife—the “blue lady”—supposedly haunted the hills to the west of Hays, Kansas. Even more interestingly, Grandma would refer to the faeries who danced along the top of the wheat just prior to harvest. I pressed her on this when she brought it up, wondering if this was some kind of simple and symbolic descriptive, some form of Russian-German folklore, or something to be taken literally. She could never describe it much more than as ghosts or lights that moved from wheat stalk to wheat stalk, sometimes numbering in the 100s or 1,000s. When I asked if she meant some form of heat lightning or movement of fireflies, she always looked a bit disappointed in me, as though I’d doubted the fundamentals of the Most Blessed Trinity. Of course the faerie lights were real—truly and tangibly. How could I doubt it? She and her siblings and friends spent great hours of their childhood watching them dance.

My grandmother never seemed to categorize the faeries and her Catholic faith as different parts of the supernatural. They were of the same origin, though perhaps on different ends of the spectrum of belief. To her last days, she prayed the rosary and ended the day by sprinkling holy water, driving away any and all evils. I suppose we citizens of 2018 might laugh at such beliefs, but I would gladly put my grandmother’s faith against anyone’s. She truly lived her life as beautifully as any Christian ever has. She died while holding the hands of my mother and the parish priest in the middle of reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

As we approach Halloween and the mysterious autumnal liturgies of October and November, I often think of my grandmother’s stories. What did she see and how could she have been so certain? In my own life, I have seen weird and fascinating things, to be sure. I am unable to explain—at least rationally—a small forlorn child dressed in no-longer-fashionable clothes, standing at the end of my driveway, there one moment, gone the next. I do not understand what could have made the outrageously loud and chilling footsteps coming up an empty staircase in Bloomington, Indiana, or why a woman’s face appeared in the reflection of my wine glass one Thanksgiving.

For the last 11 years, though, I have lived across the street from a gorgeous, 19th-century Protestant cemetery. Try as I might and wish though I do, I have yet to see or hear from any of its residents—from the soldiers of the War of 1812 to the innumerable children who died of long-gone 19th-century diseases to the over 300 Civil War veterans interred there. If they walk and speak, they do so without my knowing. Even multiple readings of Mary Shelley, Charles Williams, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Shirley Jackson have thus far failed to raise the dead.

My grandmother, of course, was not alone in believing in the reality of ghosts. Even among those not merely wise but educated, a fascination in the other world continued unabated throughout much of the 20th century. Irving Babbitt, the founder of 20th-century American conservatism, and Russell Kirk, the founder of post-war conservatism, each believed profoundly in the reality of spirits. Though Babbitt could not place them within a religious context, Kirk believed ghosts should be pitied, that they were spirits lost in a purgatorial state attempting to make their way out of this mortal prison and into an immortal paradise. One might think of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense when considering Kirk’s understanding of the dead.

Contrast the undoubting faith of my grandmother with what we have today. However simple we might take to be her acceptance of things unseen, we must also admit that our modern world is a bizarre jumble and a paradox. As we proclaim our belief that truth can only be understood by objective reality and facts, we readily favor thinly veiled ideologies based on a hodgepodge of incoherent ideas, sound bites, and bumper sticker slogans, while declaring, “You have your beliefs, and I have mine.” Contemplate the sham that is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s mystery clause: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The ancient sophists would be proud.

Yet as religious—admittedly rather subjectively—as Kennedy’s assertion is, we want to exclude religious truths as truths. And another “yet”: yet all around us, we see the signs of occult beliefs, as Satanists erect statues, pagan gods find new shrines, and witches hex our Supreme Court justices. Not that the Catholic Church is much better at the moment: many of its highest clergy and administrators are guilty of worshipping the young male body in a complete mockery of the dignity of the human person. A millstone for each; perverts all.

Of all the moderns, T.S. Eliot, I think, probably understood the season of autumn best. In his greatest play, Murder in the Cathedral, the timeless story of the political oppression of the Church, Eliot compared the reintroduction of Thomas Beckett to England as the imposition of grace upon an unsure and perhaps even unwilling population. October, in some profound way, represents the twilight of our individual and collective lives:

And we are content if we are left alone.

We try to keep our households in order.

The merchant, shy and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune.

And the labourer bends to his piece of earth, earth colour, his own colour,

Preferring to pass unobserved.

Now I fear the disturbance of the quiet seasons:

Winter shall come bringing death from the sea.

Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors.

Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears.

Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams

And the poor shall wait for another decaying October.

If we have no faith and no belief, we must ask with Eliot: in what way could we ever escape the very cage of our existence? Every person is born, ages, and dies. Every spring becomes summer becomes fall becomes winter and becomes spring again. There is no fourth thing for the human person, just as there is no fifth thing for the seasons. Instead, trapped in our cycles, we merely move from one thing to another. Wheels within wheels, perhaps, but never beyond the wheels.

And yet (there’s that “yet” again) Eliot offers us the greatest hope of all:

But, wait in barren orchards for another October?

Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait.

And, the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.

Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen.

I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.

Though my grandmother almost certainly never read a line of Eliot, she arrived at a similar conclusion:

Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statemen.

Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,

Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.

Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?

Eliot got so very much perfectly, especially in his understanding of October as a symbolic twilight. And yet my grandmother, too, understood it all along. There is much reality in unreality.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.