The Spirits Gently Sway

By Gillian Kessler:

It was the idea of the ghosts that I loved. A mess of found supplies laid willy nilly on the carpet while we worked together to honor the dead. They persist autumn after autumn—frayed and sodden spirits.

I became a mother in a state full of people who can do things that I can’t do. They ski fast and paddle rapids, grow beets and later convert them into Easter egg dyes, craft felt beanies and mittens, all sustainable and repurposed. While I think these skills are remarkable, even enviable, I seem to lack the drive to fully commit to learning any of them. I hold true to my city-girl roots, all latchkey kid and frozen dinners.


So when it was time to decorate for Halloween oh-so-many moons ago, I wasn’t going to fall prey to Michaels and a shopping cart full of foam spiders and plastic gravestones. We were crafting. It’s a mark of being a Montana mama.


Again, while canning and hems aren’t my strong suit, I am damn good at Flashdancing my shirts. I’ve been hot on the trend since the late 80’s and have a dapper collection of what my husband calls my “rags.” It was time to capitalize on this hard-earned skill.


We cut up some of my now-deceased father-in-law’s white T-shirts and stuffed the “heads” with balls of newspaper. We twisted nooses with garbage bag ties and black sharpied on ghoulish faces. They were hideous. We made one after another.


I located some stick pins from the sewing kit my mother assembled for me after Eliana was born. I had never opened it, but now those pins had purpose. I threaded each ghost voodoo style and stuck them into the soft, white bark of the aspen tree out front. They hung and stared—part DIY, part KKK. I loved them and hated them all at once.


Every year my children dig them from the old box in the basement. Someone usually gets pricked from the rogue pins that jut wildly from their soft heads. Each year they look a bit more weathered, a bit less identifiable. My daughter is a full-on tween now, so this year, she and her girlfriend took charge of the ghosts and decorated without me. Her brother hauled out a step stool and was allowed to add a few to clearly established spots—it was a control issue, and the girls had the upper hand. Ain’t nobody messing with these visions.


The first snow came before we managed to take down the hanging phantoms. The dusting was followed by days of rain. As I pulled into the driveway after a long day of school and swim practice, modern dance, and soccer drills, Eliana had a sudden gravitational pull towards her neglected friends. I am currently teaching the Civil Rights Movement, and at this stage in their lives, these sad creatures look more reminiscent of lynching victims than ever. It’s time to put them in the garbage. It’s time to rewrite our history.


She ran from the car in the rain, gingerly taking down each one and squeezing out their loose ends, their streaked faces staring at her with pent-up exhaustion. She lay the heroes inside to dry, their little pins spilling onto the floor. “I took the ghosts down, mom!” she yells in my direction before hauling her giant math book downstairs and blasting Alicia Keys.

I am at a crossroads, though I know in my heart what I’ll do. I’m a keeper, a sentimentalist. There’s a reason my collection of rags is so extensive; each represents a moment in time, a piece of this woman staring down mid-life, a mash-up of songs both epic and tiny, hilarious and horrendous, my face streaked in the mirror, staring back rumpled and ripe with age.

Gillian Kessler is a poet, teacher, and a regular writer for Flapper Press. Her first published book of poems, Lemons and Cement, is available for purchase.

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