Friday, November 6, 2009
What the ghost showed me
Every year during the weeks leading up to Samhain, I deliberately turn my thoughts to the dead people I love. Some turn away my attentions, and some pause in their ethereal journey just long enough to say hello, but there’s usually one who parks himself in my mind, demanding that I draw forth every memory of his life. This year my maternal grandfather was the pushy one. He died when I was just six—a slow, awful death from a malignant brain tumor. Even though I was very young when he disappeared, I remember him vividly.
Granddaddy was a preacher, a deeply devout person, but he couldn’t have been less pious or dour. He was outrageous, irascible, and a lot of fun. Thinking about him now, I realize he must have been a very difficult man for my gentle grandmother to live with, but I was blind to that as a child. He doted on me and I adored him. When he took all the grandkids to Nashville’s shabby old amusement park, he’d make a point of sharing the seat with me on the roller coaster, teaching me how to enjoy the terror. Pleasurable fear was always a feature of encounters with my grandfather. He drove like a maniac, and I loved to stand on the back seat and lean over his shoulder as he tore up the streets. This was long before anyone imagined mandatory seatbelt laws, and car seats were unheard of. He’d probably wind up in jail these days, but it was pure joy for me.
A few times I spent the night at my grandparents’ house without my brothers. Those visits were a nice glimpse of what life might have been like as a pampered only child—lots of adult attention, abundant ice cream, and long hours of boredom with no playmates. There weren’t many toys in the house, and the bookshelves were full of preacherly tomes. There were a few picture books about Moses in the bulrushes, Jesus in the manger, etc., but I’d seen more than enough of that kind of stuff in Sunday school.
The one thing in my grandfather's library that fascinated me was a set of medical reference books. I couldn’t read the text, of course, but there were elaborate anatomy illustrations composed of layered transparencies, so that you could reveal progressively more intimate corners of the human body as you turned the pages. The colors were vivid, shocking to the eye, and so were the images: eyeball, colon, penis, breast--all depicted in slightly sickening detail.
Thoughts of those anatomy images have been the chief manifestation of my grandfather’s presence these past weeks. He has whispered in my ear a time or two, shown me his smiling face, reminded me of his love of banana splits and sorghum on biscuits; but mostly he has put those studies of the human organism in my mind. Wandering through the world, I have flashed on the realization that I am that complicated, strange assemblage in the medical books. I’ve looked at the people around me and watched them move, knowing that I am witnessing a miraculous, graceful coherence of blood, nerve, muscle and bone. I have had a fresh vision of the living, courtesy of the dead.
Cadaver of an executed criminal from De Humani Corpis Fabrica, Andreas Vesalius (1514-64)