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Ghosts and Teddy

There's an old teddy bear in this house. He takes the blame. A half jar of pickles shrinks to nothing but brine overnight: Teddy did it. The potato chip bag gets opened and diminished before the groceries are toted in from the car. Teddy! How he gets from the ranch house to the car before it returns from town is beyond me. But he does. Teddy takes the blame.

There's a hallway closet in this house where drawers of linen reside, a closet in which supplies like paper towels and toilet paper and a couple of years worth of dental floss and toothpaste are stashed. There's a shelf in the closet, about head high, where things that have nowhere else to go are placed: telescopes never used, board games no longer played, the box with the haircutting clippers my mother once plied on me, and a portrait of my youngest aunt at age two, 1895, hands folded neatly in her lap. She possessed a plethora of first and middle names, to satisfy long gone ancestors on both sides of the family tree, but everyone called her Murlie. She lived to within a few days of her ninth birthday and died from diptheria. Throughout my childhood and young adult years I never saw a picture of Murlie. She remained an unseen ghost, dead before even my father was born.

When I found her portrait, the artwork seemed too simple to compete with the Obata original in the living room. Perhaps it was her ghosty quality that relegated her to the hallway closet, but she sits there on the shelf, facing the door so you can't miss her when you open up for a new roll of towels or such. For a few years now a tradition has grown to always thank Murlie for whatever is gleaned from her closet, paper products or tube of Crest. When treats come home from the store that no one expected, it was Murlie's idea to get them. If the treat disappears too fast, well, you know, Teddy did it.

Murlie is a good ghost. It's best to make friends with your ghosts. It's April, when my sister Muriel comes to mind. It's been twenty-eight years since she died in April, but she is not the kind of ghost who haunts. She was haunted in life, by the confusing shadow and light of mental illness. The lightness of her being inhabits some of the brightest places on this ranch where she grew up. She, too, was often called Murlie.

The ghosts who haunted the paternal side of my family may have already exacted their revenge. My grandmother's sister Carrie was trunked off to Mendocino State Hospital well over a hundred years ago for reasons slim or none, and now unknown. She spent over a half century there, rarely if ever visited by family. My grandmother, who played some part in sending her sister away, developed a form of dementia in the last years of her long life that caused her to imagine my sisters as angelic childhood versions of Carrie, but also caused her to picture my mother as a version of the young woman Carrie who must be destroyed. She reigned down blow after blow on her unsuspecting daughter-in-law until the behavior grew intolerable and she spent her final year or so confined to a Santa Rosa rest home.

One might say that further family atonement was given by my mother's twenty-some years of devotion to psychiatric social work or that I still write about the subject from time to time. Mental illness and its addictive siblings continue to haunt this country as a whole while we spend less resources on the problems than we do on fifth rate fast foods.

For a first rate book that leads you back and forth through a real life family mystery in Chicago as well as the newspaper world, get hold of Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends. I have been going through it fifty pages or so at a time. And if this particular copy is late getting back to the library, well, you know, Teddy did it.

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