I do not believe in ghosts. The dead are dead.
Death does not make a soul suddenly omnipresent. None of those who have passed on are looking at me as I go about my daily life.
How would they see me anyway? Is there a giant screen television in Heaven (or Hell) tuned to the 24 hour Alive Network? If there was, I doubt enough of the billions of dead would all agree to watch the Sarah Channel for more than a minute before flipping through to something much more entertaining.
The truth of it is: I am here; they are not. Where they are, I will not venture to say. I know what I believe, but no one has sent me any postcards from the Great Beyond, so I will humbly stay silent on the subject.
But, I do know that when the clock gongs midnight in the blackest hour of the night, no tortured souls are treading my floorboards or lurking in my closet, or roaming and moaning with the torment of eternal restlessness. If we cannot see our own souls while we’re alive, why would they become visible once we’re dead?
Ghost stories are romantic, though. Enough of my family heritage hails from New England, where specters are part of the lore and fabric, that I still enjoy the chills of believing the undead walk. In New England, where everything quivers with such rich history, it is hard not to hear the whispers of our predecessors in the rustling of the tall evergreens.
I have seen the church box where George Washington once sat, stared into a bust made from Benjamin Franklin’s death mask, touched my fingertips to the splintered boards of a covered bridge just a few miles down the road from Norman Rockwell’s house.
Ironically, it’s the “thingy-ness” of artifacts that make us almost believe in ghosts. We touch what someone else years before touched. We see the threadbare flag that a nameless woman spent nights hunched over, her nimble fingers sewing the fabric together for the sake of her new country.
I see her stitching; I feel her fingertips.
These objects make these people step out of our imaginations.
One historic figure who marched out of the stiff pages of history to stare at me was Abraham Lincoln.
The first time I read a biography of Abraham Lincoln I was in elementary school. I’m not sure which grade, but I remember that it was a picture book with black and white sketches of the president from gawky boyhood to his time as a lawyer to his time as president. I was fascinated by this story of a self-made man—reading borrowed books by the hearth, chilling in the cold of a log cabin, developing his famed reputation for honesty. I read this book in early 80’s, so there was much emphasis on Lincoln’s virtues of lifelong learning, integrity, and hard work. While the book attempted to humanize him, true to the era in which it was written, he was also lionized and mythologized.
I felt Lincoln’s ghost twice.
The first time I was standing in Henry Ford Museum. Memories are never accurate records of what “happened,” but they almost always capture the way certain moments felt. Perhaps, that is why they tend to skew the actual events. How else do you capture the complexity of emotion?
It felt like I was standing in the middle of an open hall with nothing but this glass display case. Inside the case was a rocking chair. The red velvet fabric, frayed and stained, chilled me. This was the chair where Lincoln laughed at Our American Cousin before Booth’s bullet lodged into his brain, and the icon slumped—only a man after all.
I was told that the crimson stain on the back of the chair was Lincoln’s blood. Other sources now say that it was likely hair oil. Either way, the stain was human residue, the mark that a flesh and blood person had used it. Staring into that glass case, at that stain—which at the time, I believed was his blood—I could feel Lincoln in the most tangible way.
The second time I shivered at his ghost was years later while touring Hildene in Manchester, Vermont. This is where Abraham Lincoln's only living son resided. I have family in New England, near Robert Todd Lincoln’s mansion. It is a palace with an impressive Observatory on the edge of a mountain and sprawling gardens and meadows.
In one of the bedrooms—I think—was a dressing mirror. In my memory, it was oval. I am not sure how long. The object itself eludes me. But, I remember the tour guides words.
He said, “This is a mirror that hung in the White House cloak room. Abraham Lincoln might’ve looked in it to check his top hat before making his way to Ford’s Theatre that fateful night.”
I saw him. I saw him in ghastly black and white, overhanging brow, bushy beard, a face all crags and lines. His reflection still seemed to haunt that polished glass. In that mirror, Abraham Lincoln last saw himself alive. The thought of it sent shivers down my spine--the chilly brush of a ghost's passing?--and, yet, the Emancipation Proclamation giant seemed never more real and human.
Ghosts are not souls wandering among us, tormented, seeking some sort of eternal sleep; ghosts are when our minds recognize the humanness of the past—the human residue of the footprints and top hats, mirrors and rocking chairs of those who have tread this earth before us.
If I sit where George Washington sat, then, if only for a moment, I can see what he might’ve seen, hear what he might’ve heard, feel what he might’ve felt. History and the past can sleep then, for we have seen them and heard them—appropriately haunted by them.
I touch my fingertips to this keyboard. Maybe years from now, a woman will touch her fingertips to this keyboard and know what it meant to be a woman in her mid-30s at the turn of the millennium.
The ghost of my touch will touch her, and together, we will merge in our understanding of what it means to be alive.