(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
This memoir, a very long ghost story that is now ending, began with my first phantom encounter back in 1974. The year before, I’d won an Oscar for best documentary feature, but recognized that female directors seeking a spot in the film business faced high walls and deep moats. Turning about, I parlayed my five minutes of fame into a recording contract as a singer-songwriter with RCA, which issued my first two albums. Working late into the nights, I spun my music on a gleaming mahogany grand piano that had belonged to my paternal grandfather, a composer who died when I was 7. Though exhausted by the time I collapsed into bed, my sleep was troubled. I was woken by odd inexplicable noises, or someone gently stroking my hair, or impatiently yanking my toes.
I had come down with a ghost. This might as well have been an illness, as nonbelievers believed. Nowadays I don’t care what they believe, but in those latter times I hid my problem, being unsure myself if I’d made the leap from mere weirdo to psycho.
It was when the music came that I knew who my ghost was: my grandfather Marshall, the composer who wasn’t done composing. In me he had a pair of hands on his piano. In me he also had a temperamental granddaughter who hated authority and disliked taking orders, especially from ectoplasm. I was easier to coax when in a vulnerable state: asleep. In the blue hour between night and dawn, between dreaming and waking, I would receive brief bits of melody and lyrics, repeating over and over, with the silent directive Remember this. In the morning, before the memory dissolved, I would pick out the tune on the piano and set to work on the new song. Though I had received the music fragments from my unseen houseguest, I went my own way with them, because that was the only arrangement I would accept.
Before long I put a stop to working with a collaborator, which has never suited me; I do not play well with others, alive or dead. Marshall stuck around anyway, showing an unsettling interest in my sex life and substance abuse. I received messages and warnings. His best trick was breaking glass: lightbulbs, ashtrays, picture windows. (That was his roguish side. I did not appreciate having to sweep up.) Although our relationship was sometimes contentious, I grew fond of Marshall, feeling I wasn’t alone, that he was always there to talk to out loud. I had a protector.
More, he opened the world wider than I thought possible. It was made up of more than meat, twigs, fire and stone, more than dirt and rain, the tangibles. The overlaid world of Spirit came into focus, as when we shift our vision to see the limpid shapes like protozoa that constantly drift by in the fluid over our eyeballs. I wanted to know, if a ghost was real, what else was true?
Until this memoir, I’ve told very few people about my adventures in the ethereal, which have continued up to the present. Readers now know of my wrestling horny poltergeists in Morocco, my jiffy exorcism in Haiti; my struggles with the demon Harvey Weinstein. They’ve followed my drug-fueled escapades with Harry Nilsson and John Lennon, and later, my lessons from Harry’s ghost. They’ve read about the making of my two documentaries, one about a faithless preacher on the evangelical circuit, the other about an American dervish channeling the music of a nonexistent land; and the winning of Academy Awards for both. They know about my rescue by a mysterious dog in the Andes. I have been rebirthed on a bed in a West Hollywood hotel; have received an infilling of pure Spirit while in trance; explored the mysterious act of creation and co-creation; stood awestruck in the weather of rampant divinity.
The one constant was Marshall, although he disappeared from my life for a few years while I got married and dove into motherhood. I was happy, no longer needing Grandpa’s protection and guidance. I reckoned his mission was done and he’d gone to glory. He was not a ghost in the sense of being trapped in a state neither here nor there; he was not unaware of being dead, or unable to locate the exit. He could freely come and go, and for a long time he went. I was busy on earth and he was busy in eternity.
Marshall may have been content with not being needed but he didn’t like to be forgotten. Ghosts’ backs are never turned to us. They don’t have backs, for one thing, being disembodied. When they show themselves to mortals, they conceive and project their forms from their habitat in the great consciousness that infuses everything. Since they are blended into this limitless awareness, they can be everywhere at once. Marshall had accompanied me all over the world, until he withdrew.
He chose to stage his comeback on Martha’s Vineyard.
|The Big House|
When our daughter was a toddler, we started spending summers in Marshall’s beloved beach house. The “Big House” as we called it, two stories and six bedrooms plus servants’ quarters, stood on a low bluff above the ocean. In the 80’s, my parents built the one-story “Little House” next door, which was better suited to my handicapped mother’s crutches and scooter.
My husband and I slept in the master bedroom of the Big House. Marshall’s furniture still adorned the room, and when I stood at the bureau I pictured him there, attired for a night on the town, mustache freshly trimmed and cufflinks fastened, lifting a snifter of brandy to his lips and glancing at his image in the bureau mirror in time to catch his look of surprise before he collapsed to the floor and died. I saw the glass fragments scattered in the pool of brandy.
Marshall’s return to form started with doors opening by themselves, lights blinking – innocuous stuff. Then one night I lugged some groceries from my car to the servants’ entrance. The flagstone path was lit by a bare bulb mounted under the eaves. Suddenly the bulb leapt from its fixture and crashed into smithereens at my feet.
“Marshall!” I yelped. Who else? A lightbulb does not unscrew itself and launch five feet. It took me an hour with a dry vac to get all the sharp pieces out of the grass where children ran barefoot.
Many summers passed, my parents’ health deteriorated, and they no longer came to the Little House. Needing money for their care, my siblings put me in charge of renting out the Big House for the whole summer to strangers. Of necessity my husband, daughter and I transferred our effects to the Little House. On two occasions Marshall manifested to the renters so I knew he wasn’t done lurking. Over at the Little House, I rather missed him. So he exploded a lightbulb there, too.
My husband woke abruptly one night to the sound of a mysterious pop! He got up to investigate the other rooms but found no cause of the crash. In the morning I went outside and discovered myriad glass fragments littering the ground under a lantern fixture The light had been off all night so there was no question of overheating or faulty wiring. As I fetched the dustpan, my husband, who had never been fully convinced of this ghost business, shook his head and sighed: “Marshall.”
I don’t mind the shout-outs. I do mind the clean-up.
After my parents’ death, we bought the Little House. The Big House, too expensive to maintain, was sold. Its new owner loved the property, with its widescreen panorama of Nantucket Sound. He did not like the house, with its too-small rooms, filthy attic, and schizoid plumbing. My elder brother and I cleaned out its contents before it was due to be torn down. I wondered why the old place seemed so passive about its fate. Strolling through its empty halls, I asked Marshall why he hadn’t simply scared off the buyer, as I knew he was capable of doing. Didn’t he want his cherished home to endure?
The answer came immediately, and not from Marshall but from the house itself. Here is what it had to say:
The Big House was meant for our family alone, the generations that stemmed from Marshall’s seed. The house had watched over his descendants, and they were now departing. New families with irrelevant bloodlines were at the door. With the Kernochans gone, the Big House preferred to end: its story was told, and whatever it had to teach had been taught.
It was an answer I could accept. It gave me the fortitude I needed to stand over the horrifying oblong cavity in the ground after the demolitionists had left.
|The Big House gone|
The Big House is gone, in the way of earthly things. The ocean remains, a reminder of eternity.
The new owner has built a very large house, the Bigger House; his family only uses it for a few weeks every year, so peace reigns as before. Next door, on the other side of some woods, we have remodeled the Little House so it’s a Little Big. Our daughter has become a writer, like my husband and I; sometimes we three write all day, in different rooms but with the same view of the sea.
When alone, I still talk to Marshall, particularly to thank him for our beautiful spot. I still demand out loud for him to return objects gone mysteriously missing. His portrait hangs over my piano, and his war medals and baby picture hang in the entry. He can’t complain he’s forgotten.
He knows I am ending this story, but it is not done. He made that clear a few nights ago, when he began again at the beginning. Asleep in our bedroom in New York, in the lacuna between dreaming and waking, I received a short 10-note melody. Remember this. I played it back again and again while I struggled to lock the sequence in memory – whole step up, then up a half step, then down a sixth, key of F, never resolves…But my memory is not what it was, and the tune kept slipping away. I forced myself to wake up so I could set it down. Stumbling past the clock reading 5:30, I went to my study and sang the tune into my iPhone, then returned to bed and sank back into sleep.
Upon waking at eight, I couldn’t recall the fragment and at first didn’t even remember that I’d received it. When I checked my phone for emails I saw it was set on audio and had recorded something. I heard my sleep-furred voice faintly dah-dah-dahing a ten-note passage. Turning on my electric keyboard, which I hadn’t touched in years, I picked out the melody. Chords were next, and soon I was working again, as I had in 1974.
I like my grandfather’s tune, and I’m pretty sure where to go with it. I should be doing other more pressing things with my time, but an assignment is an assignment, and he will not let me go.
Back in the day, I stopped Marshall from channeling any more music for the sake of my sanity. Since then, I have shed all doubt for belief. I am grateful for my ghost: he made belief unavoidable, and I’d rather not conjecture what my life would be without it. Once you accept the afterlife, belief expands past the border of death into a welcoming stratosphere that throbs with energy. I’m looking forward to passing away. The adventure will continue, and being incorporeal will be so cool.
Thus I owe my spiritual fortune to my persistent companion, my grandfather, born 1880, a pampered only child, World War I veteran, a composer of songs, a music publisher, a mischievous wit, a remote husband; and a dedicated Freemason. Embracing the mysticism of that occult brotherhood, he came to believe in eternal life, in spiritual bonds lasting beyond death. And then his own death came: Marshall Rutgers Kernochan lay near a pool of brandy and broken glass, his body deceased and his spirit rushing ecstatically toward the eternity he always believed, he knew, awaited.
I know he will be there, offering an aperitif, when I pass over: the moment when I leave to arrive, when goodbye overlaps hello. I will receive the glass, unbroken, from his hand.
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