There I go again, telling a story of problematic relations between the living and the pesky dead. Why, you might ask, do I keep doing that? Goodness knows, I ask why I keep doing that. Here's where I am with it:
A man and a woman are standing beside the grave of their firstborn, a girl, who will now be seven years old forever. They have with them their younger daughter, who is two. As long as the woman lives, this younger child will never be forgiven for having failed to die of the measles along with that other.
It is 1952, and in fewer years than anyone quite intends, the little girl who lived will become my mother.
The man is an important corporate attorney in Hartford, and many important corporate people have come to show their respect for his flinty New England mind by attending his child’s funeral.
The woman begins to cry when she sees her firstborn’s coffin lowered into the ground.
The man (whose heart is broken too, of course), turns to his wife and whispers, Stop that. People are watching. We don’t do this.
The woman looks around, sees that she is seen, and stops crying.
This is the moment when it happens. In the moment when my grandparents decide together to conceal their grief rather than lay Carolyn properly to rest, she becomes our family ghost, and I become a writer of ghost stories. (I will not be born until 1970, but causality moves in mysterious ways.)
All these characters have futures ahead of them, though on the bad day in 1952, none of them are thinking about that. The man and the woman will have a third child, another daughter. As long as the woman lives, this youngest will never be forvigven for failing to replace the one who died. The two kid sisters will, despite everything, grow up to be kind, clever, quirky women with unsinkable senses of humor and daughters of their own. The two-year-old who is watching her big sister go into the ground will even find true love and see the world.
And Carolyn? Carolyn can’t quite grow up to be anything. In the only surviving photograph, she wears a girl scout uniform. She smiles, and her front teeth are all just falling out or just growing in. Perhaps she wanted to be a ballerina—my mother will keep, all her life, one pink satin toe shoe of Carolyn’s, a saint’s relic if ever there was one.
But instead of becoming a ballerina, Carolyn will become a muse. One of many, one of mine.