On Samhaim Eve, I’m told, the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. Having always wanted to see a ghost, I went out at dusk on October 31, 2004, to see if I could find one. I took my digital camera and Abby, my elderly border collie who was still alive at the time—the camera because I’ve managed to capture a few orbs with it in the past and Abby because she had a knack for seeing what isn’t there.
We walked along the gravel road where the temperature changes each few steps, we paused in front of the sinister-looking old Novelty Depot, and we examined the former burial plot across the road where the Taw Atkins family had rested for a century until 2003 when the property owner dug them up with his backhoe, dumped the remains into the bed of his pick-up, and carted them off. The grass grew greener where the family used to lie but, alas, I found no sign of any spiritual remains. The camera found no orbs; Abby didn’t even become agitated. I was, uh, dispirited.
However, two things happened in the week before and the day after Samhain 2004 that, if they didn’t lift the veil, possibly frayed its edge a bit. In mid-October, my mother received, in care of me, a cheery card from a woman she knew slightly—I’ll call her Mrs. R—who had taken it upon herself a decade earlier to round up all the shut-ins for a certain Baptist Church in Roanoke and to raise their spirits two or three times a year by either sending them cards to let them know how much the church cared about them, by calling them, or sometimes by making a home visit.
My mother—who wasn’t a member of that particular church and had never even attended a service at any church for over 30 years—was drafted as a shut-in on a technicality. Seventy years earlier, she had been a member of Jefferson Street Baptist Church, but she’d never attended that church during my lifetime. After Jefferson Street Baptist ceased to exist a few decades ago, its membership roll—still containing my mother’s name—eventually passed to another church where Mrs. R resurrected the list, scanned the names for possible re-recruits, and took it upon herself to make contact with whatever lost souls she could round up. Mama was among the lost that Mrs. R found and, consequently, became the recipient of cards, calls, and the occasional visit—whether she wanted them or not. At any rate, Mrs. R aggressively inflicted good deeds upon my mother, including—but not limited to—phone calls at inopportune times, surprise drop-in visits, fruit baskets at Christmas, and even an uninvited invasion of my mother’s hospital room. Mrs. R. even dragged along the minister on the hospital visit, much to my mother’s embarrasment.
On September 12, 2001, my mother moved to Penhook to live with me and was out of Mrs. R’s clutches, except for the occasional card and the infrequent phone calls. (Mrs. R declared the trip to Penhook too far to travel.)
Anyhow, near the end of October 2004, Mama received a cheery card telling her the church was thinking of her and hoping that she was feeling better. The card was addressed to Mama, but in care of me. My name was misspelled and the zip code was incorrect. I suppose the thought was what counted. However, when the card arrived, Mama had been dead for seven months. Apparently Mrs. R. hadn’t read the obituary in the Roanoke Times
. I wrote her a brief note in which I explained the circumstances of mama’s death. I enclosed one of the funeral home hand-outs just in case Mrs. R thought I was lying. I thought that was the end of it.
A few days after I’d written to Mrs. R, another card arrived. This one was from a lady I’d never heard of. I’ll call her Mrs. T. Again it was addressed to Mama, but in care of me. Again, my name was misspelled and the zip code was wrong. However, inside the card was written, “To Mrs. Martin.” Who the heck was she? Mama’s name wasn’t Martin. After the cheery verse, Mrs. T had handwritten a note about how much the church was thinking about Mama. I ignored the note. After all, I figured, Mrs. R would surely tell Mrs. T why cheery thinking-of-you cards were no longer appropriate.
On Samhain Eve, my husband visited a neighbor and didn’t come home until late—well after Abby and I had finished our walk. However, I left the garage door open for him, turned off the lights so we wouldn’t get trick-or-treaters, and herded the three outside cats into the house. (Note: I always shut my outside cats in the garage before dark. We have coyotes in the neighborhood, plus this night was Halloween.) A few hours after dark, I heard his truck pull into the garage, but I didn’t hear the garage door close. My husband came into the house and explained that a possum—no doubt tempted by the treat of left-over cat food and then frightened by the headlights and the Ford F150 bearing down on it—had run across the garage and hidden under a pile of boxes and stuff we have in the opposite corner.
Well, no problem—I’d just trick the possum out with a dish of cat food and close the door when it went in the driveway to eat the new treat. A few hours after I put the food in the driveway, I closed the garage door and let the three cats out of the house and into the garage. Surely the possum had left.
The next day, as Abby and I went to get the morning paper, I found evidence that not only had the possum been shut in all night, but also it wasn’t litter-box trained. However, the garage door would be open all day, so no doubt the critter would wander forth and do whatever possums did during the day, and the garage could air out a bit. Luckily, I had Abby on the leash so she wouldn’t do a search and destroy mission before breakfast. I had papers to grade and my husband had bush-hogging to finish on the Penhook farm before he went to the Union Hall farm. The cats had mouse-patrol work, and Abby had to go back to sleep. Things would be back to normal in no time.
At noon, my husband returned with his tractor. He wanted me to follow him to Union Hall in my truck and bring him back to get his own truck. Then he’d return to the farm and spend the afternoon bush-hogging. While he went down the driveway to get the mail, I decided Abby would like to go in the truck with me.
“Abby!” I yelled into the house. “Ride in truck!”
Hearing her favorite command, the geriatric border collie bounded to the kitchen door. I saw no point in putting a leash on her. My truck was just outside the garage. She wouldn’t go running off across the field in pursuit of anything worth pursuing. She’d run straight through the garage, go to the tailgate, and I’d lift her in.
Except she didn’t.
I opened the kitchen door. Abby ran out, veered left, and dived into the pile of boxes. All I could see was the tip of her tail. About that time, John returned, handed me the mail, and hopped on his tractor. Another envelope addressed to Mama, in care of me, and with my name misspelled and the wrong zip code. I opened it. Another cheery message hoping Mama would soon be well! This time the card was signed by a whole bunch of women.
I didn’t give too much thought to the card because Abby was thrashing around in the corner of the garage. Apparently she was stuck. I called to my husband to get off the tractor and get her out. He moved a chair and a few boxes and Abby managed to wriggle loose. She was still interested in that corner, though. I snapped the leash on her collar, dragged her to the truck, and lifted her into the camper-covered back.
As I closed the tailgate, my husband (still in the garage) said, “There’s a dead possum back here.”
He got a pitchfork and returned with a small limp grey body. Its eyes were still open, albeit glazed. No doubt a fresh kill. At least he hadn’t forked it; he’d reverently scooped the pitchfork under the body.
Now, what to do with a dead possum? He decided he’d put it on top of the bush-hog and dump it in a ditch when he got to the farm. Seemed like a workable plan to me. I stuffed the card into my purse, got into my truck, and followed the tractor down the driveway and three miles to the farm. Abby and I stayed right behind the tractor and the corpse all the way. When my husband turned onto our gravel right-of-way, he had to slow down. I was still right behind him and I had to go slow, too.
That’s how I had a front row seat for the resurrection.
No sooner did the tractor turn onto our right-of-way than the possum stood up, jumped off the bush-hog, and ran up the bank. My husband kept going; I stopped. It’s not often you get to see a genuine resurrection. I had my camera with me and managed to snap a few pictures before the possum disappeared into the underbrush.
When I caught up with my husband, he was unfastening the cable across our farm road.
“Where’s your possum?” I said.
He looked behind the tractor. “Must have fallen off,” he said.
“No,” I said. “He was resurrected.” Then I told him what happened. I’d heard the expression “playing possum” before, but this was the first time I’d actually witnessed it.
After he parked the bush-hog, my husband drove my truck home while I rode in the passenger seat. On the ride home, I looked at the latest card again. A church bulletin was in the envelope. Somehow I’d missed seeing that before. Must have been the excitement of the stuck border collie and the allegedly dead possum.
Reading the bulletin, I noticed that Mama was named “Shut-In of the Week” for October 24. Church members were encouraged to send her get-well cards in care of me. Sure enough, my name was misspelled and the zip code was wrong. Beneath the information about Mama was a listing of Mrs. Martin’s birthday. Hers was the card Mama had gotten from Mrs. T. I could just picture Mrs. Martin’s bewilderment when she got the get-well card with “To Mrs. Smith” at the top.
Further down the bulletin was a note congratulating one of the church groups about how many visits, phone calls, and contacts they’d made to shut-ins. If they counted each person who signed the latest card to Mama as a separate contact, then Mama accounted for over half the total contacts made. Apparently, they used her to run their numbers up. Either the requirements for being the church’s “Shut-in of the Week” were very loose, or else no member of the church had any idea Mama had died. I suspected the latter, though I thought it improbable that not a single church member had read her obituary.
However, on Samhain—with the veil between life and death at its thinnest–perhaps thinking a dead woman still alive and a living possum dead is not so far-fetched after all.