For The Ghosts
by Anne Burt
My 13-year-old, as usual, is not eating her bowl of dry Honey Nut Cheerios. Her thumbs trawl across her iPhone even though in less than five minutes she needs to leave for the bus.
“Eat,” I say from the counter where I am making the lunch she won’t eat.
Josie doesn’t move her gaze from the screen. “I’m planning for tonight. Can Dina and Sami come over for candles and don’t even think about making any Hanukkah food like those disgusting oily latkes because the smell makes me gag, okay Mom?”
“Okay what? Are you the Hanukkah Queen? Your version of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is ‘Don’t Ask, Only Tell.’”
Daniel, who is ten, asks: “What’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”
“A horrible failed policy from the 1990s, sweetheart. I’ll tell you all about it on our way to school.”
Daniel has devoured two bowls of milk-drenched Honey Nut Cheerios, a monster glass of orange juice, a banana, and is eyeing up the bag lunch I’ve just set in front of him. I should make him omelets, I think for the millionth time. I should prepare nurturing protein-filled meals that both my bottomless boy and my finicky girl will joyfully embrace. My next-door neighbor writes a blog detailing every meal she prepares for her four children, recipes too. Kale is often a feature.
“So guests but no latkes?” I ask Josie. “What will we do?”
“I know!” shouts Daniel. “Let’s light the candles in an Ode to the Five Senses! That’s what Mr. Gibron calls the piece he wrote for our Christmahanukwanzaramadanistan concert and I am playing First Trumpet!”
“But it’s the sixth night, not the fifth,” I say. “What is the sixth candle for?”
“The ghosts,” says Josie matter-of-factly, picking up a single Cheerio between her fingers, then dropping it back in the bowl as if it were a dead bug.
“If you don’t eat, you’ll turn into a ghost! If ghosts existed they’d eat better than you.”
“Mother, that’s rude. I believe in ghosts!”
“So let’s ask the ghost of your grandfather what he has to say about a Hanukkah party with no latkes. Pop!” I yell up into the ceiling. “Pop, we’re inviting guests and Josie won’t let me feed them latkes!”
Josie pushes away from the table, grabs her backpack and coat.
“Okay Pop! Call me later!” I yell as she slams the front door behind her flying ponytail.
Daniel looks at me. “Is it legal to have a holiday for ghosts?” he asks. “At school they don’t let us celebrate Halloween because it offends the Wiccans.”
My Ex-husband is Trinidadian-Swedish-American and I am Caucasian-Ashkenazi-American. We chose the most alternative school in all of New Jersey so the kids would feel they belonged to a vast and inclusive universe that embraced their every hyphen.
“Witches are people, Daniel, so laws apply. Since ghosts aren’t, I think it’s fine.”
“Mom, they aren’t witches! They’re Wiccans. Get with the program!”
Is it too late to transfer them to military school? That is, if there’s a kind that doesn’t train you for the actual military. Don’t Ask Just Yell.
Daniel has experienced an “incident” at school, so this morning I am driving him in and Calvin and I must meet with the principal, the vice-principal, the social worker, and the state-appointed anti-bullying ombudsperson. Daniel reports to class and I report to the principal’s waiting room, where Calvin already sits in his lovely charcoal suit and maroon silk tie. His wife, Lisette, has fantastic taste. She’s a native-born Trinny, unlike Calvin. I pretty much like her better than I like myself.
“Emma! What’s new?” Calvin asks.
“I’m starting a blog.”
He furrows his brow. “Does it pay?”
Before I can tell my ex-husband the banker about how highly unreliable ghosts are when it comes to money, the door opens and Dr. Nancy Pimmler, Principal of Young Visionaries Elementary School, invites us in.
Calvin starts. “Dr. Nancy, you know that Emma and I don’t blame Young Visionaries for anything that happened. We respect your administration and the teachers here.”
“We love the administration and teachers,” I jump in. I’m always revising Calvin’s verbs to make them gushier. “We want to work together with you to change the environment so Daniel and other sensitive children won’t feel victimized by bullying.”
Dr. Nancy and her cadre all exchange glances.
“Calvin, Emma – I’m so sorry but there seems to be a misunderstanding, “ says Dr. Nancy. “Daniel hasn’t been bullied – he is the bully. Several parents of band members called yesterday to complain.”
Daniel is summoned. He explains that the rest of the horn section wasn’t playing properly, so he stuffed wet wads of paper inside their instruments. When they blew into their mouthpieces, spitballs flew all over the music room. French Horn yelled at him because Second Trumpet started to cry, so Daniel shoved French Horn into his music stand.
“Mr. Gibron told me that as First Trumpet it’s my job to lead the whole section,” he says. “I was only doing what he told me!”
We leave with a list of talking points, a list of parents we must call with these talking points to make reparations according to the philosophical model of transitional justice adhered to by the school, and a list of family counselors, courtesy of the social worker, who taps her pen by the name of number three and stage-whispers: “this one’s very good with interracial family issues. And divorce.” Calvin writes a sizable check to the Young Visionaries’ PTA for a school-wide assembly to be hosted by some organization called End Child Intimidation Now.
We fight the whole way back to our cars about who misled whom into thinking Daniel had been bullied until we both pull out our phones and read the identical email we received from Dr. Nancy and see the noun “Daniel” and the verb “perpetrated.” They are clearly subject and object. We stand there for a while in the cold air.
“Well,” says my former husband, breaking the silence at last.
I sit on the floor in my bedroom and think about transitional justice and the calls I need to make.
Instead I text Calvin: “Does Josie eat at your house?”
It takes him 20 minutes to text back “Question Mark?” so I text Lisette instead.
My phone pings immediately.
“Fried bake. Lots of oil. And banana fritters.”
How is this so different from the latkes that supposedly make her gag? My daughter eats from her Trinidadian side but not from her Jewish side, terrific.
I take a deep breath so I can remember that I like Lisette more than I like myself.
“I’m starting a blog,” I text Lisette.
“I will read every word with gusto,” she writes back.
I leave a transitional justice message on Second Trumpet’s mother’s voicemail.
French Horn’s mother is, regrettably, home.
I quote to her from the talking points about making reparations.
“Listen, lady,” she says. “Your son deserves to be punished. You should be required to take parenting classes.”
I scan the points for something I can use in response to this unexpected turn in the conversation. It appears I’m on my own.
“Hmmm,” I say. Then I hang up.
Definitely not in the talking points.
The phone rings back immediately.
Reparations, okay, I can do this. I take a deep breath and I pick up.
“That was totally inappropriate of me and I take full responsibility.”
“For what?” says a scratchy old-man voice on the line. A strangely familiar scratchy old-man voice.
“Who is this?”
“Who is this? Who the hell do you think it is? It’s your father, that’s who!”
“This morning you told me to call you later. It’s later.”
My father. My dead father whose memory I invoked to shame my teenaged daughter into eating calls me on the phone? Did I mention the dead part?
“Pop, this is very hard for me to believe. If it really is you, tell me something to prove it. Something only you would know.”
“Prove it? What are you, the DNA police? Fine. You had a huge strawberry birthmark over your left shall-we-say derriere cheek that didn’t fade away until you were seventeen. Proof enough?”
“Pop. Are you a ghost or are you dead?”
“Emma, for a smart girl you aren’t very good with the whole not-mutually-exclusive thing.”
He makes a fair point.
“Meh. How’s life?”
“Pop, I have to tell you something. Calvin and I split up after you died.”
“It goes like that sometimes. I never thought he was really the one for you.”
“But you and Ma never cared that he was black, you always told me that.”
“Who said anything about black? He’s a banker! How was that going to work? You come from a long line of socialists. We named you after who? Emma Goldman, that’s who!”
“But Pop, Daniel’s in trouble at school and Josie isn’t eating. What if it’s my fault for divorcing their father?”
“I know it’s hard to believe but not everything has to be your fault. Calvin is happier now?”
“Oh yes. He married someone fantastic. I like her more than I like myself.”
“And you’re happier now?”
“Well, yes. I feel like a walking disaster, but other than that it’s not so bad.”
“So be patient with my grandkids. Maybe they feel like walking disasters too.”
“Pop, even when you’re dead you say what I need to hear.”
“That’s my girl. What are you doing with that big brain of yours? Always so smart.”
“I’m thinking about starting a blog.”
“A what? What do you do with such a thing, this blog?”
“Actually, I’m not sure.”
“So why start where you aren’t sure? Start with something about which you are sure. You can become unsure from there.”
“I think that’s good advice, Pop, but I’m not sure.”
“Hah hah hah. Always the big mouth along with the big brain. Hey, I gotta go. We do our own Hanukkah thing around here and I’m making the latkes.”
“So there’s food where you are?”
“Emma! What’s a Hanukkah party without latkes?”
“Pop, I love you,” but the line is silent.
I sit for a little while. Did that happen? I look back at the ceiling and think: if that happened give me a sign so I can be sure.
The phone rings again!
“You called back! I’m so happy.”
But it’s not my father.
“I certainly don’t know why. You hung up on me.”
French Horn’s Mother.
“Oh,” I say to her, “I thought you were another person. Actually, not a person. Well, not actual at all. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I’m very confused by you right now.”
“In complete honesty, I’m pretty confused myself. But . . .listen, I’m sorry about before. I didn’t mean to be rude, I was just afraid because I didn’t know what to say to fix everything. I’m a bit of a walking disaster these days and Daniel probably feels the same way. He and I will both try to do better.”
French Horn’s Mother sighs.
“Well, I guess sometimes I feel like a walking disaster myself. Who hasn’t?”
Who hasn’t indeed.
By sundown, my house sizzles with the sound of bananas frying in hot oil. Hanukkah bananas? But Lisette is right: Josie and her friends grab the sweet-smelling fritters as soon as they are cool to the touch and devour them one after the other.
I fry up a few latkes too, despite my daughter’s glares. Daniel loves them and he has a hard day of transitional justice ahead of him at school tomorrow. What’s a Hanukkah party without latkes?
We take turns lighting the first five candles as an ode to the five senses: one each for Touch, Taste, Sight, Smell, and Hearing.
Start with what you are sure of, I tell the kids. You can become unsure from there.
So we light the sixth candle all together. For the ghosts.