American Contemporary Fiction

    May I share something with you?

         My mother’s ghost haunts me, but rarely does it appear before me late at night or frighten me. Usually, as when she was still alive, her presence comforts me. Do you think that’s strange? Well then, try this on for size: her ghost began to haunt me even before she died on August 23, 2013. Perhaps I owe you an explanation.

         Even years before my father spent most of his time away from our home—either sequestered at or traveling for one of the many companies he worked for over the years—he was an absentee parent. As WWII was winding down, he dropped out of high school at seventeen, lied about his age to a military recruiter, and joined the service. Before they shipped him overseas to fight the good fight, he married his high school sweetheart—my mom—and knocked her up. When he completed his tour of duty and returned home, he had not only a wife but also a son.

        What? Oh, of course, go ahead and ask your question. No, that wasn’t me: it was his first son. I was his second son, who came along six years later.

      Well, where was I? Oh yeah, so my father, who had dropped out of high school to join the military, returned home. He now had a wife, a child, and himself to support. He’d saved some money from his soldiering days, but soldiers are rarely paid well, and it was not enough to do much with. Babies come bundled with a lot of unexpected expenses, so he had to find a way to pay the bills. Luckily, back in those days, unlike several wars later, our country valued the sacrifices made by the men and women who’d served their country.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, was one of the best pieces of legislation ever produced by the federal government. It allowed and encouraged veterans to obtain higher education after serving their country. My father wasn’t highly educated before serving, but he wasn’t stupid. He took the first job he could get, filled out the paperwork required by the GI Bill, and shortly thereafter enrolled in classes. During the day, he busted his hump working a job he hated, and in the evenings, he attended night school. This left him very little time to spend with his new family at home, but as with the war, he accepted the sacrifice, and like a good soldier, he just soldiered on.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll recall that my father had not earned his high school diploma. In 1942, the United States Armed Forces Institute asked the American Council on Education to create tests to measure high-school-level skills. This battery of tests, when passed successfully, entitled the test taker to a General Equivalency Diploma, also known as a GED, certifying that the bearer had mastered high school academic skills. Thus, my father had to take and pass the GED tests, which he did.

Next, with the assistance provided by the GI Bill, he applied to and was accepted at a local college in downtown Baltimore, where he attended night classes over the next several years to earn his bachelor’s degree. “Bachelor” is a word I’m pretty sure you will agree is rather ironic in this context because my father was so far from being any kind of a bachelor, it wasn’t even funny. He was a family man and a working man. Mostly, after toiling away all day at a job he detested and struggling through college classes in the evenings, he was a very, very tired man. My earliest memories of my dad at home are of him slaving away over paperwork from his job, gathering notes from his college textbooks or otherwise absorbed in homework, or loudly snoring in the tattered recliner within our sparsely furnished living room while stealing a short and a much-needed nap.

I hope I haven’t bored you so far with this story because there’s so much more to tell. I haven’t even gotten to the part that I want most to tell you about—my mother’s ghost. Shall I just stop right here or share the rest?

Okay. I’ll continue.

For years, my father simply ran on fumes—from studying for the GED to completing his college baccalaureate, also known as a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), to finishing postgraduate work for his Master of Business Administration (MBA) and finally a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). By the time he ended his college education, my older brother was fourteen, I was eight, my younger sister was five, and my father was exhausted. I do appreciate how you’ve stuck with me through this meandering saga, but believe me, your generous patience and kind indulgence will be rewarded. I promise. Now we’re getting to the part about my mother and her ghost.

As my dad was seldom around, it fell to my mom to be both mother and father to my siblings and me. Since first giving birth at age seventeen, she was like a single parent. In our household, Mom was chief, cook, baby bottle washer, cleaner, nurse, chauffeur, tutor, referee…and Dad. After all, who else was there to take care of the kids? Well, certainly not my father. He was always out doing something to provide for his family. Unlike my mother, he was hardly ever at home with us. Like an eclipse, we’d see him every now and then and not for very long. Never long enough. He became a variable in our lives.

On the other hand, my mother was the constant in our family formula. As with the sun and the moon, we knew she’d be there each morning when we awoke and at night while we slept. She was the one to feed us, potty train us, clean us, dry our tears, bandage our cuts, remove our splinters, put us into the car and drive like a bat out of hell to the hospital if an injury was serious enough, help us with homework, break up our fights, listen to our problems, and act as judge, jury, and jailer when we were bad. My father worked night and day, but my mother’s job never ended. Most fathers eventually reach an age where they can retire and take it easy. Between you, me, and the wall, I don’t believe mothers ever do.

Oh, so you want to know how I remember my mom. Alright, I remember her making up silly games to get me to eat my vegetables. I remember that if I awoke frightened by a nightmare, she’d lie next to me and hum songs until I fell back to sleep. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I’d have an asthma attack so severe that I was unable to get enough air in my lungs while in a prone position. Our pediatrician warned my mother I could suffocate in my sleep if not positioned upright during these episodes. My mother never disclosed how she knew when such an attack occurred during those darkened hours. All I remember is that she’d come running into my bedroom at a tear, pull me into a sitting position, climb behind me, and hold me. How could she have known, while lost in the dreams of her own slumber that her second child was in danger and in need? During one of my so few phone calls home after I left, I asked her. Do you know what she said? With a laugh, she told me it was probably just her “mom-dar”, an attempt at being funny and an abbreviation for mom’s radar. Man, I’m simply a sucker for mother jokes.

During those nighttime attacks, I’d rest against her body, her arms wrapped around me to prevent me from lying supine and thus protect me from asphyxiating. In between the songs she softy hummed, she’d tell me that I’d be okay. With her there, I breathed easier, calmed down, and eventually fell asleep again. When I’d awaken in the morning, she’d still be there with me—wide awake and holding me in a sitting position—and would ask how I felt. As long as my reply was positive, this poor woman who had not slept a wink would wearily get up to begin the never-ending jobs a mama bear does to care for her pack of cubs.

When I signed up for our town’s Little League team, I knew nothing of baseball, and my dad was not around to teach me how to hold a bat, field a fly, or even toss a ball in a game of catch. Turns out, Mom knew even less about baseball than I did. This was a woman who thought Babe Ruth was a girl. Nevertheless, she’d meet me in the yard when I returned from school, carrying a ball, wearing an old, battered leather glove on her left hand, and holding a bat in her right. She’d pitch, and I’d swing, keeping at it till I actually made contact with the ball.

Mom would lob high balls until one would end up, to our mutual delight, in the pocket of my glove. She made me practice my throw until the ball went in the approximate vicinity of where I intended it to go. In a house dress and a pair of her comfortable shoes, she was my coach who had gone to the husbands and older sons of her friends to ask for advice on the fundamentals of the sport. She also learned by watching televised games, which she had no personal interest in watching, to see how the pros played. The skills I learned from my mother that season are the reason I made it onto the Little League team roster my first year trying out.

My father, with his BBA, MBA, and DBA, was very good with numbers. When it came to learning math in school, however, I had inherited none of my father’s numeric gifts. As he was so versed in the art of calculation, it was very unfortunate that he never had time to help me with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. Once again, it fell to my mother to assist me in tackling the problems I had with what they then called “new math.” As with baseball, Mom knew little of arithmetic. Regardless, she taught me the fundamentals of that subject, as well as those of spelling, grammar, and whatever other subject baffled me within my school curriculum. Somehow, she was always there to help me get by—with making friends, handling my brother and sister, asking out a girl for the first time, and even surviving a broken heart so I could live to love again one day.

Of course! You’re absolutely right; I haven’t shared the part about my mother’s ghost with you yet, have I? I sincerely hope you haven’t been misled to expect that there’d be something spooky or scary in this tale about her ghost. You may recall, if you’ve not lost interest in what I was relating earlier and if your attention hasn’t strayed, that I began seeing my mother’s ghost before she died. Now lend an ear, and I’ll share a bit more of this strange story.

           When I left home at fifteen, bidding farewell in the cold predawn darkness with neither cries nor kisses, I was not on very good terms with my family. Never mind the hows and whys of our estrangement, but it resulted in our losing contact for quite a few years. At first, I was unaware of the presence of my mother’s ghost, yet ever so slowly and unquestionably, I knew it was there with me. Being on my own, I had to find a way to take care of myself, make money, and pay bills, so I couch-surfed at friends’ homes for a while. One friend’s father finally took pity on me and hired me to do menial tasks at his business part-time. Since I was too new to the working world to have applied for a social security card or opened a bank account, he paid me under the table in cash.  

Before stashing my cash in an envelope each night, I’d write on it the amount I was adding and the new total I was slowly accumulating. One night, as I added $21.25 to the previous balance of $118.88, I heard a voice. It was none other than my mother’s.

Softly, as I sat with a pencil in hand ciphering dollars and cents, she whispered, “Eight plus five equals thirteen. Hold the three and carry the one. The carried one and eight plus two equal eleven. Hold the one and carry a one. The carried one and eight plus one equal ten. Carry a one and add it to the one plus two to equal four. There’s nothing to carry or add to the last number so that one just stays the same. Now, what’s your total?”

“One hundred forty dollars and thirteen cents,” I replied to the bodiless voice.

Later that same night, while scribbling out some lyrics for a song I was working on, I got stuck on the spelling of a word, and I heard her ghost again.

“I before E except after C unless the word has a long-A sound, like weight or neighbor. When two vowels go a-walking, the first one does the talking.”

My mother was still alive at that time, but her ghost was there with me, reminding me of the mnemonic tricks for math and spelling she had shared with me while helping with my homework.

The next afternoon at a diner, when I chose French fries over salad, I heard her click her tongue against her teeth and reprimand, “You really need to eat more veggies, hun.” I called the waitress back and told her I wanted to cancel my order so I could get a spinach and mushroom salad instead.

Several days later, while watching the World Series on TV with the family of the friend I was currently crashing with, my mother’s ghost admonished a player flailing at the plate after swinging and missing the ball. “Don’t just swing at anything they toss, you bum, wait till they pitch you some of the good stuff. Come on now, choke up on that bat, boy!”

That proved it. It couldn’t have been any other ghost because those were the very words I’d heard her use in our yard all those years ago.

My mother died in 2013, and now it’s 2020. I left home in 1970, and since then, whenever I’m in need, questioning, hurt, or alone, her ghost appears and speaks to me. Now you’re looking at me like I’m crazy, and who’s to say I’m not? But I’ll bet you the next round of drinks that I’m not just some demented, lying drunk. I’m telling you the absolute truth, buddy. Maybe you don’t believe in ghosts. I know I sure didn’t before all this started happening. But I do now, and I would damn well recognize my own mother’s ghost.

What’s that? No, I wouldn’t mind at all answering one last question. So, you want to know the last time that I spoke with her ghost? Funny you should ask. Believe it or not, she’s actually whispering something in my ear right now.   

October 16, 2020 16:06

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Elle Clark
09:50 Oct 24, 2020

This is a really sweet story of parental love and connection. It sounds really authentic and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was autobiographical. My only suggestion would be to stop telling the reader that your story is boring and meandering! In those moments, I stopped and wondered if it was boring - I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t have signposted it like that. Good writing; thanks for sharing it!


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Lee Kendrick
13:38 May 29, 2021

A good read. Enjoyed how you intermingled the son with his ghost Mum giving him advice throughout his life.


Stevie B
14:31 May 29, 2021

Lee, thank you for your kind words.


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Stevie B
14:24 Oct 27, 2020

Thank you Laura Clark for your valuable advice!


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