Friday, 19 December 2014

Ghosts? I live with them every day.

Reading: Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Listening to: "Take a Picture" by Filter
Outside: Oh, those December gusts! They bite!

We live among ghosts every day. They walk past us on our way to work, on the way to the post office, down the frozen food aisle at the grocery store. They inhabit our houses, if you live in a very old one. Or in a new one. I have felt - or imagined I felt - a presence or two when I walked down my local high street. A woman wearing a rib-cracking corset and bouncing bustle rushing past on sore feet. A man calming a horse, trying to get the cart moving for the day's next delivery. A bored seamstress, a hungry butcher. These houses, streets and sidewalks are full of them.

Doncaster postmen circa 1900. Picture from here.

Back when Doncaster still had trams - 100 years later I worked in the building on the right. Picture from here.

Doncaster Parish Church, St. George's Minster, circa 1900. I walk past this every day - it is now surrounded by a Tesco's parking lot. The Gothic beauty of the church is still there today. Picture from here.

So yes, we're surrounded by ghosts.

Sure, the Samhain tradition gives us the year's first fervent reminders of those gone before us, at the harvest time, October 31st. For thousands of years, our ancestors understood the veil between the living and the dead is like tissue paper at the end of October. We still understand this. And so come ghost stories, jack-o-lanterns, bulging bags of candy and kids dressed as goblins and vampires running down our driveways and knocking on our doors. We toy with the other world then - explore it, tingle to touch it - and so it should be. It welcomes us.

But oh, the ghosts at Christmastime are a whole other breed.

In my job as a proof-reader for family notices for the UK's largest newspaper group, I sit in an office chair and stare at a computer screen for hours, dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Making sure commas are where they should be, whipping those errant where's and were's into shape. I corral full-stops and inverted commas. My team and I spend our days doing our absolute best to make sure those pages, from Scotland to Sussex, are the best they can be. Our busiest time is Christmas.

Pages and pages and pages of people remembering, wishing, praying. The living send messages to their passed loved ones, young and old: they say the things they may or may not have said in life.

It seems curious, this tradition. But only for a moment. 

It is our modern memento mori - our twist on remembering those who have gone before us.

When a Victorian child developed a very high temperature, his or her parents usually didn't call a doctor. They called a photographer. Mom and Dad knew that they would have only this last chance to take a picture - often the one single photograph ever taken - of a child they would lose. Before rigor mortis set in and made it hard to position the deceased, the photographer set the scene: a bed, a table, a chair, a background of peace and comfort. In a beautiful, heartbreaking remembrance, the photographer did his work. He made a memento mori. He made a moment last forever.

Saying goodbye: Victorian postmortem photograph. Photograph from here.

Today, this kind of thing is hard to swallow. It is so close to the dead, so intimate with the very concept of death. To look at this photograph is painful, and almost, for a moment, well, wrong-feeling. But in a time of high infant mortality, and when photography was still nascent, in a time when people only very rarely got their photograph taken, this photograph was so important and special. The bereaved could remember their child - or wife, husband, brother, sister, mother, father - and take out this picture anytime they needed to return home. If even for a moment. For one warm, reassuring, calm moment.

Now our deceased rest in funeral homes. Miles away. They are cared for by professionals, and presented for a very limited time at funerals, but very rarely are postmortem photographs taken of them. We transmit our remembrance in words now - contained in tokens of In Memoriams, or, at Christmas, in the form of Special Remembrances in the local newspaper.

Literally hundreds of Special Remembrances I've read in the last few days - all across the country - none escaped my beady eye to ensure grammar and spelling accuracy - leave me feeling almost like a modern Victorian postmortem photographer, ensuring the scene is set, every word is there, every verse is right and perfect. I want our readers to know every care has been taken with their poems, their songs and their memories. It's tiring, looking after so much love and loss. But I hope my work makes our readers happy. Maybe they can't visit the grave. They can turn the newspaper page at their breakfast table and see the name of the one they love. I hope they see that name and remember only good things.

Perhaps it's fitting that so many of the living remember the dead at this time of year. Since the Bronze Age, the end of December - culminating in the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, the coldest and darkest - has been a time of celebrating the abundance of life in hard times - scarcity of food, of warmth, of light. We bring gifts of green into our houses - holly and pine boughs, things that stay green when the world goes white. We gather and feast because we haven't starved. We celebrate life. Past, present, and future.

These ghosts we live with every day live within us. For me, it's the waft of Jergens hand lotion my dad's mom always had. I don't even need to smell it - the memory of the scent is in my brain, living somewhere in my prefrontal lobes, to remind me of soft hands. It's the way my mom's dad's recliner creeked in the lamp light - the sound is always there when I need to remember it.

(I wonder what future part of me will resonate for my daughter? The smell of an old book in my hands? My voice, her favorite lullaby, welcoming her to the night? I hope my ghost for her is a good one.)

What about you? Who will you light a candle for this Christmas? Who will you remember and celebrate? (Even if only to yourself?)

Happy Friday, everyone, and I wish you a peaceful and warm Christmas.


  1. So lovely Vee. This time of year is when families get together and share happy moments and it is inevitable that it brings back memories of those we shared these happy times together in the past. For me it is my mum and brother, the smell of Christmas dinner brings back memories of watching mum cooking then in later years helping peel the spuds(not a quick task when cooking for our large family). The smell also brings back memories of another smell, King Edward cigars , Dad's favorite after enjoying his christmas dinner. A glass of red wine A Corbierre our Ian's favorite because his mum loved it. His last Christmas sitting at dad's thin and frail but with the biggest smile on his face as he had finished his chemo and was feeling well and warm in his new jumper we bought him, joking and laughing with us all. We may not have the physical Momento Mori photos of the Victorians but we have the Memoria Vitae pictures in our minds and hearts. So I will be lighting candles this Christmas for loved ones that have gone and loved ones that are still here. x

    1. What vibrant memories, Dawn. You're right, Memoria vitae pictures are so important, reminding us all to really take in the moment. Hectic lives make us forget sometimes (myself included). I'm very much looking forward to celebrating the past, present and future at your upcoming Christmas feast. Xx