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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

All the Spooky Stuff

My Sicilian grandmother, Nancy, told me once that my sister Ann was born with the sign of the witch - a streak of white in her hair. I asked my mother about this and she just pursed her lips, a non-answer. The idea excited Ann and I though, even if it remained unconfirmed. Mostly Ann loved it because it verified what she always felt inside - that she was a witchy woman!

Ann and I talked about the possibility of her becoming a ghost after she died. We talked about her death often over the last 30 or 40 years. She relished the idea. Of course she would haunt us! Of course she would move things around the house and hide things from us! She would be a poltergeist, a playful trickster of a ghost, maybe. On her deathbed, she told my husband who is supernaturally sensitive, "I will see you after," meaning after she died.

Since Ann died, I talk to her in my head. I hear her answer me, too. It is important to my grieving process to feel her with me and to hear the things I know she would say. Can this habit of mine and the experiences listed below be interpreted as signs of the existence of an afterlife?

  1. I felt her hug me one night a few days after she died when I was lying in bed crying.

  2. I felt her hand on my shoulder recently when I was talking to her about coming through for her son. She gave me a squeeze and I placed my hand over hers, or where I thought her hand should be. It gave me comfort.

  3. I yelled at her in my mind one day about something she had let languish. My husband believes she answered me because he came in the room looking for another person. "Who were you talking to?" he asked. "What do you mean? No one?" I answered. We looked at each other in confusion for a few minutes until I told him I had been yelling at Ann in my head. He replied, "Oh, is that why I saw her hiding in your room?" Steve sees ghosts and spirits and had seen her hanging around my room.

  4. Ann loved her dark side, so when we experienced a few bat sightings, it made sense to us that she had taken the form of the dark creature of the night. First, a few days after her death, a bat showed up and suddenly swooped into her house brushing the top of my nephew Josh's head and flying into the basement. Although Josh searched for it, the bat never exited. There were no openings in the basement for it to depart. It was not seen anywhere in or around the house after that. It evaporated. Was that Ann? Then, I also saw a bat after a long evening spent with my niece, Valery, I had been whispering in my head to Ann that she needed to show up and support her daughter. Sure enough, a bat appeared and flew over the car as I drove Valery home. "Ok, I see you," I acknowledged to Ann, "You showed up!" I said all of this out loud and then explained the bat sighting to Valery. I told Ann, " Maybe you can take a more pleasing form next time if you want to show us you are still around." And, she did. Valery experienced the next sighting, and, this time, Ann was a sweet, graceful hummingbird. Much better.

All of the above proves nothing, of course, except that I have an impressionable mind and a vivid imagination. Yet, who really knows?

Ann was spooky and could tell many spooky tales from her own experience. She saw dead people and saw them often. There was one ghost who she vows moved with her from her apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, to her old farmhouse in Dekalb, Illinois, to her apartment in Milwaukee, and, eventually, to dwell with her in the home she lived in through the late 1990s and until she died.

We named that ghost Darbo after a street near her apartment in Madison. In one story, a few adults eating at Ann's house needed salt for their dinner. Valery, who was no more than three years old, ran into the kitchen and came back with the salt shaker. The shaker sat on top of the stove completely out of reach for such a little girl. Valery entered the dining room with it so quickly, she could not have found a step stool, climbed up, grabbed the salt, and returned to the room. When asked how she accomplished this feat, Valery said, "The lady gave it to me." What lady? Darbo? Without missing a beat, Ann said, "There is a lady ghost living in the kitchen. I see her all the time."

She saw our Grandpa Frank's ghost soon after he died, but he did not hang around much, according to Ann. Thank goodness, I thought. I was a wreck over it. My version of seeing ghosts was the fear that his spirit was floating around judging everything I was doing. Does Grandpa see me hanging out at the bar drinking this beer when I should be studying for mid-term exams? I was so relieved when Ann told me she did not see him anymore.

Ann saw the ghosts of many people she had never met. Some were little kids. Some were angry. Some simply drifted in and out. At any point in time, she would nudge me and say, "See?"

"See what?" I would ask, bewildered.

"That ghost. He's hanging around the ceiling," she replied incredulous that I could not see it. I never did.

It sounds cliche, because it is, but Ann believes the main ghost she saw lived in an old clock she found at an estate sale. When the family moved to Illinois, the clock ghost moved too. It must have felt much at home there, because, as Ann tells the story, many ghosts haunted that house. One resided in a baby doll of Valery's, an even bigger ghost story cliche. The kind of doll with the glass eyes that blink and painted-on hair. I was too afraid of that doll to spend any time in the little girl's room. Ann said that ghost was a "mean one."

Then, there was a playful ghost or poltergeist in the house who, according to Ann, stacked all of her husband's empty beer cans into a perfect pyramid one night while all were asleep. They discovered the cans the next morning and quickly threw them back into the recycling bin. The spirit kept up the joke continuing to arrange the cans until someone finally took the recycling out of the house.

With so much other-worldly activity happening, I decided to learn the art of the Tarot while in college. Ann and I continued to explore the mystical by asking questions of the cards and looking for meaning in the answers. We did not trust results from the Ouija board which answered with outlandish conclusions, but a simple gypsy spread with the Tarot cards evoked uncanny accuracy in understanding the voice of the seeker.

The most accurate reading from the Tarot came through numerology. A simple exercise of addition using our birthdays gave us results mirroring the Major Arcana (first 22 cards). The results gave me the dual identity of #18, the moon and #9, the hermit. A perfect description of my personality as someone who does best when listening to my intuition (moon) and is a way shower or guide like the hermit. And, now I am a coach!

For Ann the reading was also right on. She was #17, the Star, a card of healing, and #8, Strength. The cards she was dealt in life, with all of the illnesses and heartache she endured, required her to constantly heal herself and have the strength to bear it all. When a mystical, spooky result like this one emerged from our mystical play, we would both scream a little, giggle a lot, and add it to our list of spooky stories, events, and experiences to share with our friends and family.

Over the years, I wondered if seeing ghosts was part of Ann's grieving process. A focus she took to hold on to people rather than letting them go. She also dwelled on the dates of the physical deaths of people and other important deaths which were emotional, sad occasions that were grief-laden to her.

She called me every year on April 19 (except during the years we lived together when she would confront me in the hallway) after 1991 to remind me of the anniversary of our father's passing. She posted on Facebook every October 9 to memorialize the passing of my mother-in-law Lynn, and on every July 4 to send love to the spirit of her second husband, Vernon, after he died in 2016.

Ann's divorce from her first husband coincided with Aunt Bette's birthday, so she would call me at work every year on that date.

"Do you know what day today is?" she would say.

"Yes, it's Tuesday," I replied. When hearing her immediate upset on the other end of the phone through tsking or sharp intakes of breath, I would elaborate. "Yes, I know, it's Aunt Bette's birthday!"

"Yes, but it's also the anniversary of my divorce from Bob! I feel really weird," she said and then breathed deeply after I said, "I'm so sorry."

Her divorce remained an unhealed wound throughout her life. A failure to her? Sometimes she felt that way, but she told me she never regretted her decision. When Ann loved, she loved so completely the emotion often swallowed her up. I guess she gave herself up for love. Maybe that was the definition of love for her. So, the grief and sadness she felt about the end of the great love with her husband made a crater inside her that nothing could fill.

When she opened herself to love again, and she did, she risked the creation of another crater. Love is risk. Love is great reward. We love. We lose. We grieve. We heal. We love. And, sometimes, we see ghosts.

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