This is, and is not, a ghost story. I will tell you how one lives with ghosts of ones own making, or at least how I have. I (did and do) imagine her with me when I need her. At first after she died I would imagine her at home with me, in the next room, upstairs when I was down. Pretending that nothing had changed allowed me to put on my socks, to play, to merely breath. As a budding teen, it wasn’t long before imagining Mom at home was limiting, so I purposefully began to imagine her about when I needed a guardian angel or when I could play the tour guide. Ellen visiting my world that had changed so much that everything from the prices to the elaborate deli counters in supermarkets would confound her. Over the years I would imagine introducing her to my life, demonstrating a VCR or Walkman, later a DVD player, a laptop or cell phone.
These days Aunt Arlene and I often have coffee together. Sometimes she shows houses in the neighbor where I hold informal office hours in a unique little coffee shop not far from campus. She knows I’ll be there and drops by. Many times I catch a glimpse of her over the shoulder of whichever student is talking a little too loudly over the music or screams of the espresso machine. I see my aunt standing in line to order or patiently waiting for her turn to speak to me with pride gleaming in her eyes and I nearly gasp. Several times the student I’ve been talking to looks over their shoulder expecting to see a bicycle accident outside.
My Aunt Arlene, my mother’s little sister, is now decades older than Mom ever was. Though both used to deny it, Ellen and Arlene looked enough a like that at a near distance, even family couldn’t tell them apart. The difference in their weight was never as dramatic as Aunt Arlene claims. Seeing Aunt Arlene I know how my mother would have aged. And sometimes, when I first see my Aunt, for that first moment, that moment before thinking happens, I see a ghost.
This works only if a glimpse catches me by surprise. If I try to imagine Mom at the coffee shop things get muddled. An image of her complied from photographs and descriptions, having lived with reproductions longer than the flesh and blood woman I have to doubt the clarity of my memories. Like reading a book after seeing the movie version, scenes that never existed on celluloid unfold in my head with the actors playing their parts so clearly I’d swear I saw it.
I’ve lost count of how often Aunt Arlene remarks that Mom would loved coffee shops; she herself does, the noise, the smell, the over large cups frothing with foam. When my mother was alive coffee drinking was done at home: your own, a friend’s or your sister’s. Coffee Shops were greasy spoons, like Mel’s Diner. The Ellen I remember would not like the hard chairs, the din of students on phones at every table, one person taking up a whole table for hours working on their computer. She would have never have liked paying three dollars for a cup of coffee (or more). Mom fretted when the price of gas climbed to nearly a dollar a gallon and when sugar went up a nickel for a five-pound bag. Occasionally Mom would indulge in a tin of hazelnut-flavored coffee and then only allow herself to brew it a couple times a month because it was expensive.
But I was talking about ghosts.