On Ghosts, Waterfalls, and Family

IMG_2851 I saw lots of ghosts this weekend--two little ghosts, both with brown straggly hair, running through the fields, jumping over fences, traipsing through the woods. They were clad in who knows what--they clearly didn't care. They spoke to each other and created games with their imaginary friends. In busy moments, I sometimes thought I heard their laughter or the sound of the bell--long gone now--that stood by the house to call them from the fields.

I see them jumping on the trampoline or trying to camp out in the back yard. They follow me as I walk through the fields, my son on my back. They stand beside me as I pull the bursting warm muscadines straight off the vines and pop them in my mouth. They're waiting at the red barn, ready to climb Ant Hill and dream of the house they might build there.

Those ghosts are grown now, and the girls no longer share the same last name. I am married. She lives almost five hundred miles away. So the ghosts follow me as I share our farm with the ones with whom I do share a last name.

Becoming part of another family was not easy for me. There were many struggles, many battles--both internally and with others. Sometimes I was just scared that by being happy with them, I would have to give up a little of my closeness with my own family. I didn't know how I fit into this new family; I couldn't be my real self around them.

A year ago, I shared our farm with them for the first time. Those ghosts haunted me inside my head. The feelings were too strong; it was painful. I counted down days.

But this year, those little ghosts scamper about outside.

One morning, we climb to the top of the ridge--just three women and my son. I taste the pine needles. I inhale the sunshine coming through yellow leaves. As we walk, they ask questions.

I tell the story of how two little girls finally found the waterfall.

They used to climb to the top of the ridge with dark chocolate candies in their pockets. They heard the siren call of the stream below. Weeks turned into months, and they went further and further down stream each time, convinced that maybe they could one day find a waterfall. Then by chance, they walked through sunlight coming through row upon row of straight, skinny trees. The trees were lined up nobly--like something you would see in Narnia. When they got to the end, they saw the drop. They let go and slid and slid and slid. At the bottom was the waterfall. It was more of a water-trickle than a waterfall, but it belonged to those two little girls who arrived at it a different way each time.

So my new family asks to go, and I agree to take them, a bit afraid that the little ghosts will be upset with me--that they might abandon me or diminish.

The day before our hike, a jeep pulls up. A man and a woman get out. "This used to be my great-grandmother's land," he says, as I show him around. "By the way, they always talked about a waterfall over that way." I can't contain my excitement as I say, "We searched for it our whole childhood. We finally found it!" His eyes light up, "They called it Rainbow Falls."

My mother-in-law, listening from the lawn chair says, "And what does our last name mean?!"

"Rainbow"--the meaning of my new last name, the one that connects me to a new family, the one I share with the tiny boy who has my eyes. A sign of promise and hope and newness.

So I strap my two-year-old niece to my back and talk to her the whole way to the falls. She jabbers back. We walk ahead, trying to scout the way. We get there--the falls is overgrown, and no one quite appreciates it the way those little girls did. I climb down through brush and sit at the top for a minute, alone. I finger the smooth stones and watch the ghosts climb the falls. A slippery black salamander slithers across the rocks. "It's still ours." I know that deep inside because no one sees it with those eyes.

I carry my niece as we leave the woods. My ghost self has given me new strength over the last few days--the openness and friendliness and energy of that former self. I tell my niece to duck under the limbs and feel her head against my back as she obeys in a dramatic two-year-old way. After this walk, I feel that I know her and she knows me. Our laughter echoes through the woods, mingling with that of those little girls.

When I see the Gator, I see a little girl in the back surrounded by flowers as her sister drives care-freely through the fields. When I see the pool table, I see the little families we created out of the pool balls, the endless hours we spent. I see our bedroom, the twin beds with the burgundy bedspreads, the constant rearranging of the furniture. I think of the years of closeness and the days of distance. I feel three thousand feelings at once, some incredibly painful of dark days, some so poignantly beautiful that tears jump to my eyes.

I weave bits of these stories throughout our weekend, keeping most to myself. The little ghosts smile. I feel them. When they do take a second to notice me, they say, "We're always here. We'll never leave."

The secret places are still ours. We alone see them as they are.

But my son and his cousin have discovered the joys of muscadines and rides in the Gator. My brother-in-law and father-in-law play pool with my husband, not knowing the names we gave the pool balls. My sister-in-law sleeps in our old room, the one with the pink cowgirl hat still on the hook. We all sit where the trampoline was and build a fire to watch the stars.

photo by my mother-in-law

They can't see the ghosts, and that's okay. But I live in the richness all weekend. And I know now that the ghosts won't leave.

Their little shades scampered around my own son and his cousin all weekend teasing, tempting, pleading. "Come play with us. Come imagine with us. Come explore with us. You can see as we do."

And I hope that one day, they will.

Written for my sister, my best friend.