A chapter from my forthcoming memoir was included in a San Diego anthology. “Ghosts” is about love and loss, miscarriage and death.
Steve and I piled into the car with our dog, Banjo, for a spontaneous overnight camping trip to Culp Valley, a dog-friendly primitive campsite in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The drive is along a winding road, up into the mountains. The lush Californian valley, green foliage dotted with oranges, slowly gives way to plateaus of grasses dotted with black cows. Various modes of transport are whittled down to giant pick-up trucks and Harley Davidsons. Opposite Lake Henshaw, a noise of bikers centers around The Hideout Saloon, whose mustard yellow sign announces,
“Cold beers, hot chicks,
and the best food in town.”
At 3,300 feet above sea level, the earth becomes dusty, home to little more than boulders, scratchy brush, and defiant cholla cacti. There is the occasional mournful howl of coyotes, the excited yelps of their young. Closer to us, a whisper of creatures that flicker, slither, and scuttle; telltale holes in the ground lead to their dens. The air is so dry you can feel the perspiration evaporating on your face. On the horizon, you can make out the pale blue sliver of the deadly Salton Sea.
Here in the desert, it is primitive and quiet, and you can feel the ghosts of people who have trodden this path over the millennia passing through you. At dusk, I leaned against the boulders sipping a bourbon and soda from a melamine cup. I thought about all the women who have touched these rocks and been touched by pregnancy loss. I felt connected to these ghosts. I felt less alone. The wind whistled and whipped around us, flattening my hair and squinting Banjo’s eyes. For a moment, I imagined I could feel it hugging an airy arm around my waist.
I thought about how I was sick around Christmas. A bad cold clung to me for three-and-a-half weeks, interfering with our plans to try for a baby. I didn’t mind too much, because I knew I was going to get pregnant in January. Early in the new year, a few days after I conceived, I smelled my late grandfather’s Old Spice aftershave and heard his voice say quietly in my ear, “It’s a boy.” Maybe it was his ghost, or maybe it was my body’s way of telling me to go easy from there on, but ten days later I saw a second pink line quickly darken on a home pregnancy test. I had been expecting to see it, but it still made me weak at the knees. It reminded me of the first time I got my period: 12 years old, still flat-chested and knobbly-kneed, envious of my friends with bosoms and periods, and desperately wanting physical proof of burgeoning womanhood. And then, one Spring evening, there was the telltale stain in my underwear. Both times, I stared in disbelief, simultaneously delighted and strangely terrified, but mostly thankful that, finally, it had happened to me too.
Later beneath a pitch blue sky, the stars and planets came out. The rising moon below the horizon cast a milky white glow to the east. If the darkest hour is before the dawn, the second darkest hour is before the moon rises. I gazed up and considered the ghosts. Does it matter now that women miscarried hundreds of years ago? What would have changed if they hadn’t? What if I hadn’t? Is there something to be learned from miscarrying a baby only the size of my fingernail, but already deeply loved?
My great-grandmother, Violet, but known to all as Nanny, was the beloved matriarch of my family: kind, loving, and generous—but with a wicked sense of humor that seems to have been passed down through the generations. From whom else could I have inherited my dreadful face-pulling, bawdy sense of humor, and wacky dance moves? She was my mother’s mother’s mother, and I am the very proud bearer of her mitochondrial DNA.
In many ways, Nanny was more like my grandmother than great-grandmother. I don’t remember the first time we met, or even the first time I was aware she existed. My happiest childhood memories have her in them.
I think of her whenever I eat ice cream in a wafer cone. Before finishing hers, she would always break off the bottom of her cone and scoop a bit of her ice cream to present me with a new, tiny ice cream. It was a ritual I loved.
I remember her warm hugs and miss her affectionately slapping my back to the rhythm of “Nanny’s-lovely-girl!” in her sing-song Welsh lilt. Sometimes she’d call me “Mrs. Jones” for no reason other than it made her laugh to nickname a young child with a grown-up’s title and common Welsh last name.
“That’s not my name!” I’d shout, half enjoying the joke, half exasperated.
“Come here, Mrs. Jones!” Nanny laughed harder. Then she’d pull me onto her lap for a hug or chase me up the stairs, playfully growling and jutting out her false teeth with her tongue to spook me.
I loved spending the night with her in her modest West London house. We’d snuggle on the sofa, watching family quiz shows and scratching each other’s backs. I slept in the second twin bed in her room that smelled of her powder compact, warm cold cream, and the feathers of her down-filled comforter. In the morning, her hand would reach for mine, and she’d sing, “Hands across the sea!” On Sundays, she’d hurry me along to get ready for church—my visits to her church’s Sunday school were the closest thing I ever got to a formal religious education.
“Come along now, Mrs. Jones,” she’d chivvy me along.
The walk to church seemed long to a six-year-old’s legs, but it was less than half a mile from her house. We’d always take the same route: past all the row houses, across a busy road with a red telephone box, and up a hill. Once, we passed a dead black and white cat in the gutter at the bottom of the hill. Its belly was split open and its left eyeball hung from its socket. I was shocked, but fascinated. Nanny had to pull me away. She explained the cat was dead, and that’s why I was never to run into the street without looking both ways.
“Are you going to die, Nanny?”
“Oh, not any time soon,” she chirped.
“But you are going to die one day?” It was a serious question.
“Lord love a duck,” she laughed. “Yes, one day.”
“Well, when you do, I will bring you violets… because your name is Violet!” I slipped my hand in hers, proud of making such a grown-up promise.
The last time I saw her was a sunny afternoon in late September. I was 13, and Nanny and my mother, then six months pregnant with my sister, had just dropped me off at my new British boarding school. Nanny had recently started getting tearful whenever we said goodbye. She’d purse her lips into a wavering smile and wave brightly—but her blue eyes, pink-rimmed and glistening, would betray her sadness. Usually, I’d feel a pang of guilt and try to make light of it, pushing the reality that she was 86 and soon would no long be with us. Oh, Nana, don’t worry. You’ll see me next week! This time, she was too far away for me to see her eyes, but I recognized the enthusiastic wave and felt a different kind of pang. I turned my unease over and over, like an invisible ball of clay in my hands. I remember wanting to dramatically run down the street after the car, but I was rooted to the spot, my gaze intently fixed on this sweet, loving, kind, and wonderful woman who I had known all my life and who, I suddenly understood, I’d never see again. If I had run, I could have caught up with the car and told her one last time how much I loved her. But I didn’t, and that remains one of my life’s biggest regrets.
A couple of weeks later, she was in hospital. She’d suffered a stroke and was paralyzed down the left side of her body. I asked to visit her, but it was decided it would be best if I remembered her as she was. So, one afternoon I sat down and wrote a letter to her husband who’d died long before I was born. I introduced myself as his great-granddaughter and asked that he watch over her, and that when she finally passed over and into his arms, to please tell her that I loved her very, very much. I burnt the letter, so it could be received by someone in the spirit world.
Two days later, a teacher approached me and gently told me I needed to call my mother. I knew why. The walk to the phone was a long one. A clear, cold November night. A friendly hand on my shoulder to guide me. My feet like lead, and an even heavier heart. My hands trembled slightly as I dialed my mother a thousand miles away in Spain. The only time I have ever been glad to inherit that most British of postures, the stiff upper lip, is when there is something unpleasant to be done. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality. I braced myself.
“I have some bad news, I’m afraid…,” began my mother. “About Nanny…” I heard the catch in my mother’s voice.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” I asked bluntly, to spare my heavily pregnant mother the burden of saying those terrible words.
My upper lip softened and spread as I reeled from her sad and simple, “Yes…” She’d died that morning, a Tuesday, while I was tinkering about in chemistry class. I was furious for not having had some psychic knowledge of the moment of her death. How could I have not known? It seemed impossible that she should slip away unnoticed by me. But I’d not been forgotten by her: my grandfather privately shared that in the last hours of her life, she’d muttered my name over and over, until her breath finally gave out. Her last act of love.
I shrilly demanded that my grandmother find violets for me to place on Nanny’s coffin. With the impending birth of my sister, my mother was at home in Spain and wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral in London: it was more important than ever that I keep my promise to Nanny. The violets weren’t easy to find in London in November, but my grandmother helped me keep my word.
The impulsive part of me wishes I’d had more time on earth with this incredible woman who I miss so much, even 26 years later. On humble reflection, I am just glad I knew her at all. If ever there were something to be grateful for, it is that I had almost 14 years of unwavering and unconditional love from my darling Nanny. In time, perhaps I can be grateful for having had eight weeks with my miscarried baby, Bean, even though his life was as short as Nanny’s was long.
I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but in my quiet moments I like to picture Nanny playing with Bean, showering him with the same love she gave me. Even though I now have a child who lives—a girl named Violet, after Nanny, and who loves the tiny ice cream ritual as much as I did—I still find it comforting to think there’s a little part of me that has crossed over into the afterlife who can love Nanny back.
It was love—my sister—that stemmed the pain of losing Nanny; and it was love—my daughter—that healed my broken heart after miscarrying Bean. If loss begets loss, then it must be because love never dies. I am beginning to understand that it is better have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Love is the salve that soothes the salt-filled wound.