Ghost Songs

Regina McBride

October 19, 2016 
The following is from Regina McBride’s memoir Ghost Songs. McBride grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico earned a Masters degree in Poetry from New York University. She is a recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and The New York Foundation for the Arts, and is an Adjunct Professor of English at Hunter College, where she teaches creative writing.

A particular memory preoccupies me. A theater party in Santa Fe. I don’t know many people and walk to the back patio, where, in the porch light, two young actors are reciting lines from Shakespeare. Turning and seeing me standing at the open French doors, one of them goes down on his knee and bows to me. The other kisses my hand and in an impassioned whisper utters, “My lady Ophelia.” The two of them fence for me with rapiers of air.

I lie in the sterile psychiatric ward, playing and replaying this memory. In my mind I wear a long green velvet dress and flowers in my hair. I feel bright lights on my face and gesture out into the darkness of my audience.

* * * *

I hear breathing, a dry broken noise like fabric dragging on rough wood. On the wall in my hospital room, something shimmers in the afternoon light. It is my father. I sit up and avert my eyes and he becomes more defined, as if he is meant to be seen from the far side of the eye, where apparitions live.

The air is mineral-heavy, like it might rain inside the room. A sharp, sweet odor deepens around me—garbage and rotten apples. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I collapse forward, close my eyes, and hold my breath against the smell—but I can’t hide from the sound, a dry struggle to breathe. My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.

* * * *

I lean against the headboard of my bed in near darkness, looking across the hall into my parents’ room where the bedside lamp is on. I must be almost five years old because we are in the new house in New Mexico. My parents are getting ready for bed, my mother wearing a white nightgown with no sleeves and my father with his shirt off.

They face each other, standing close whispering so they don’t wake my baby sister, Sheila, whose crib is near their dresser. With a finger, my father gently moves my mother’s hair away from her temple. She says something and they stifle a laugh. They kiss and my mother rests the side of her face against his chest.

My father sees me watching and tells her. She comes in very quietly so she doesn’t wake my little sister Tracy, who is sleeping in the same room with me. She makes me lie down, kisses me on the forehead and cheek, and whispers for me to go to sleep. When she goes back to their room, she closes the door.

* * * *

“I fit in one hand when I was born. I was two pounds,” my mother tells me, smiling as she cups her hand, palm facing up. “I wasn’t expected to live.”

My mother seems proud of this, as if it helps define her.

I imagine Nanny carrying her around in her hand, waiting for her to die. I imagine Nanny waking up every day and looking at her, expecting her to be dead but finding that she is still alive.

* * * *

All night nurses disrupt my medicated sleep, muttering purposefully or laughing in whispers outside my room. Their footsteps recede down the hallway, booming softly like footsteps in a cathedral.

* * * *

The early morning sun lights the white and metallic surfaces in the hospital room. I have to squint. The curtain between my bed and the next hangs open and a woman who must be in her late twenties peers at me. She’s heavyset, with long, dirty-blonde hair and a bad complexion. When I was brought to this room late yesterday afternoon that bed was empty.

“I’m Mary,” she says.
“I’m Regina.”
“How old are you?” she asks.

“Seventeen,” I say, but remember that I just had a birthday. “Eighteen.”

She is about to say something more when a man with a thin face and wire-frame glasses holding a clipboard comes in and pulls the curtain closed. He introduces himself as the psychologist assigned to me, explaining that he will come to see me every morning. I smooth my hair, sit up straight, and pull the covers over my lap. He sits on a chair at my bedside and looks at handwritten notes, probably the things the doctor in the emergency room wrote yesterday when I’d come, unable to stop crying. I wonder what’s written there. I can’t clearly remember everything I said. The doctor looks up, studies my face with a cool expression. I pull the covers higher on my lap.

“You said that ghosts have been coming to you.” The tip of his pencil touches the clipboard.

I nod.

“You see them?”

“Yes, sometimes.”

He focuses on me.

“Sometimes I feel something there, and I won’t look.”

He fiddles with his pencil, then smiles slightly. “You know, fear sometimes creates what at first was only imagined.”

I can hear Mary sighing and shifting behind the curtain. She sounds agitated.

I look down at my hands and study the edge of the sheet, lit brightly by the sun.

“How often do you see ghosts?”

I think about my father’s ghost coming to me the day before. He stood near where the doctor is now.

I shake my head.

“The real reason I’m here is because I couldn’t stop crying.”

“Why couldn’t you stop?”

Before I answer, he says, “I was told that both of your parents committed suicide.”

A storm of particles swirls in a shaft of sunlight that touches the shoulder of his white jacket.

He looks at his notes again. “Did they die together?”

I shake my head no.

“I’m sorry, these notes are disorganized. I see it was five months apart.”

I don’t respond.

“Who died first?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say and want to laugh because I really and truly don’t know and that is an odd pleasure. I do know that if I concentrate, I will remember—and I like not knowing.

* * * *

A window fan hums in the kitchen in the big house on Park Hill in Yonkers, New York, blowing and stirring the humid summer air. My parents stand close to each other at the counter, laughing softly as they fix breakfast. I sit on Nanny’s lap, facing her, her nose and forehead glistening. She lets me rub the powder puff from her compact over her cheek, frail, fine hairs beginning to show like peach-colored fur.

I like it when Nanny visits, making the trek from her small apartment a few minutes’ drive away. In the warm weather, Nanny’s loose skin grows hot when I hug her. She smells like talcum powder and a waxy, flowery fragrance. The red lipstick she wears gets into the tiny wrinkles above her upper lip when she sweats.

While my father cooks bacon, my mother butters slices of toast behind us. Nanny asks my mother, “He still has the other job?” It is my father she means, but she talks to my mother. “How can you afford this house?”

My mother looks at my father and rolls her eyes. He holds back a laugh.

Nanny fans herself with a folded piece of newspaper. “What happened to this big job he’s so sure he has?”

“He’s definitely getting it, Mom. They just haven’t made the change yet.”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Tully,” my father says cheerfully, taking a step toward her, smiling. Nanny won’t look at him so he turns to my mother, who gives him a quick kiss.

I cup my hand around Nanny’s ear and ask her to tell me again, something she’d told me only days before.

She whispers back, “I love you best! You’re my girl.”

* * * *

My parents throw a party in the big house on Park Hill in Yonkers. Grown-ups gather in the living room and there is a lot of talk and laughter, a record playing low in the background, Rosemary Clooney singing about the mambo.

My brother and I are the only children at the party. I am four and Jerry is five. My baby sister, Tracy, is still too small to be out of the playpen.

“Look, Mommy!” I say and dance side to side to the mambo song. The ladies laugh and clap.

Cigarette smoke drifts overhead toward the kitchen, blown by two fans set in open windows. Everyone is sweating. Two ladies take turns leaning their faces and bare necks close to one of the fans.

“Cheers, Vincent!” a man with rolled-up sleeves says to my father, who is holding a bottle and pouring more into their glasses. “And where is your mother-in-law this evening?”

“That great doorfull of a woman?” my father asks, and the man laughs boisterously. “Be glad she isn’t here, Emmet, she’s got a tongue that could clip a hedge.”

Someone takes the needle off the record and asks my father to sing “Nell Flaherty’s Drake.” My father stands:

He could fly like a swallow or swim like a hake
Till some dirty savage, to grease his white
Most wantonly murdered me beautiful drake!

Everyone smiles and claps.

“To grease his white cabbage . . .” my mother echoes, then bows her head and laughs, her eyes wet.

“Sing the part about the pig!” Jerry cries out.

May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig
May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a

People raise their glasses. My mother says my father’s name: “Vincent,” and it sounds like the noise dimes and pennies make when he jingles them in his pocket.

“My uncle Michael never sang that one,” my mother announces to everyone, “and he knew them all. He and my father were off the boat!”

My father, who is standing in front of the screen door, takes his handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the dampness from his forehead. “Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,” he says. “It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

Thunder sounds just then and everyone cheers. Behind my father there is a sudden downpour.

“Ye brought the rain, Vincent!” Emmet says.

I go to my father and stand at his leg. I touch his freckled forearm and he puts a big hand gently on my shoulder, nods slightly at me.

“Thank God!” cries one of the ladies who had been standing near the window fans. “This should cool things off.”

* * * *

My father carries me along the wet sand on Far Rockaway Beach. We have been collecting shells. The tide comes in with an unexpected power, flooding him to the knees. He holds steady and we laugh. Gulls screech and wheel above us.

* * * *

My father is at work. Nanny sits with my mother in the kitchen. They bow their heads, holding their rosaries as they recite together: “Mother of the Church, Mother of Divine Grace, Mother Inviolate, Mother Most Merciful, Mirror of Justice, Seat of Wisdom, Mystical Rose, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted, Queen of Prophets, Queen of Martyrs, Queen of Families, Queen of Peace, pray for us.”

* * * *

The doctor peers at me over his clipboard. I don’t want to answer any more of his questions. I want to tell him that I’m tired.

“Do you recognize the ghosts you see?”

I feel protective of my father’s ghost. I don’t mention it.

In my uncle’s house a few nights before I came to the ward, I woke up and there was a lit figure standing at the foot of the bed. It was leaning forward looking at me. I tell the doctor this.

“Do you know who it was?”

“No, but it was gentle. It wasn’t going to hurt me.”

“Was it a man or a woman?”

“It didn’t seem to have a gender.”

“And the face?”

“It could have been anyone.”

“What do you mean?”

“All this light was coming from it. I knew if I focused on it, it might change.” I pause. “It wanted to tell me something.”

“It didn’t?”

“I yelled, ‘No!’ when I saw it and it rushed away through the closet door.”

He writes. “So all of this is really upsetting you.”

“There are other things.” I try to think of how to articulate what I want to say. “Sometimes I can’t trust the laws of physics.”

He waits for me to explain.

* * * *

vI describe how things around me distort, rooms and hallways become foreshortened, walls and floors warp. Objects enlarge and shimmer. I cannot trust a chair not to move, or a door not to open or shut of its own accord. There are sudden shocks of sound, the air vibrates. I hear breathing close at my ear, a loud staccato buzz near the back of my head, like a chainsaw. Sometimes a bitter metal smell, the taste of a nickel.

“I won’t dare turn and look when those sounds or smells are behind me. I know whatever is there is awful.”

He writes.

“They’re horrific, these things.” Not like the figure at the foot of my bed. Not like the strange, gentle ghost of my father.

“What do these things want?”

I struggle to answer, and then say, “To terrify me.”

* * * *

I am still a child when I find out that neither of my parents has actually ever been to Ireland and I wonder how they can love and miss a place their ancestors left before they were born. Yet somehow I understand. And even though I am young, the idea of Ireland fills me with an inexplicable nostalgia, as if it belonged to me once and I somehow lost it.

* * * *

I sit in Nanny’s lap and turn a page in A Child’s Garden of Verses. I show her an illustration of a little girl gazing into the flames in a fireplace and seeing a castle perfectly formed there.

“The girl is imagining that castle,” she says.

“Yes,” I say, nodding my head. “But you can see it and so can I.”

“She’s imagining it, Reggie.”

“I know, but it is there.”

* * * *

I wake up crying. In my dream, my mother and father drove away and left me standing outside a store. We must be in Yonkers because I am very small.

My mother comes in and holds me. I tell her the dream.

“We’d never do that,” she says. “Never.” She carries me into her and my father’s bed. “Never never never!” she says and kisses my forehead.

I sleep with my face next to hers on the pillow.

* * * *

Alone in the bedroom I share with Tracy, I wear a pillowcase as a veil. I stand before the mirror with my hands pressed palm to palm as if in prayer.

“Behold,” I whisper, “the handmaid of the Lord.”

* * * *

In my favorite picture from the illustrated book of saints, a nun, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, lies in a small white bed, lifting her head slightly from the pillow, a delicate ribbon of blood dripping from one corner of her mouth. I am studying this picture and Sister Maria del Rey—herself young and pretty—comes to my desk and bends close. “Saint Thérèse had a disease called consumption,” she says with a gentle smile.

Consumption—the word makes me shiver.

Still smiling, Sister touches my forearm reassuringly. “Suffering brings us closer to God.”

* * * *

The doctor asks me to give him a recent example of what happened when I couldn’t trust the laws of physics.

“On the desk in my room in my uncle’s house . . . something moved that shouldn’t have.”

“What moved?”

“My hairbrush,” I say with embarrassment.

I hear Mary grunt impatiently. Maybe she doesn’t like listening to all of this. Or maybe there is no one really back there.

* * * *

A nurse arrives with my first pill and when she leaves Mary pulls the curtain partly aside and asks, “Do you mind? You’ve got the window and I’d like a little morning light.”

“Sure,” I say.

After a pause she says, “It’s for psychosis, in case you didn’t know.”


“Thorazine. What he’s starting you on.”

* * * *

I take the Thorazine, and in spite of the brightness of the morning I cannot keep my eyes open. My father comes to me in a dream, relieved when he sees me. He asks me to help him, to tell him where to go. He seems certain that I will know, but I don’t, and that devastates him.

* * * *

On Far Rockaway Beach my father and I walk where the sand is wet, the tide rushing as it comes in.

“That way,” he says and points to the horizon over the sea where nothing but sky and water are visible, “between here and Ireland, is a place called Tír na nÓg.”

“What is teernanog?” I ask.

“It’s the land where there is no pain or sorrow.”

I think of the old wrinkled photograph, white and pale brown, of my mother’s father and his brother, my mother’s uncle Michael, when they were young men, standing on rocks near the ocean. The picture, I was told, was taken on the edge of the Atlantic, just off Ireland. Maybe they had been standing on Tír na nÓg.

“Where?” I plead. I squint my eyes, searching for those rocks, but see only water.

He kneels down in the sand and points, and closely following the direction of his finger, I search the moving water far in the distance.

I don’t want to tell him that I don’t see Tír na nÓg.

* * * *

Group therapy is mandatory, at six every night in a big room at the end of the hall. I join a circle of women and a few silent men. Most everyone wears bathrobes and slippers; many look startled by the brightness of the light. Almost no one’s hair is combed. Some wear regulation hospital bathrobes like the one I wear, white with small blue triangles, and paper slippers. Some have their own robes and slippers from home. Still groggy from Thorazine, I stare at the robe of a woman sitting across the circle: a satin kimono printed with Japanese geishas, cherry blossoms afloat in the blue around them.

She does not look up but sits with her hands folded on her lap and hidden in the drapes of the sleeves. She is a plain, dark-haired woman in her late thirties or early forties. I can tell that she is different from everyone else here. Some sit hunched and open-mouthed, their chests caved in, while others radiate an angry energy, as if they’re on the edge of something, waiting to be pushed off. The woman in the kimono is self-contained, thoughtful. There is a steadiness to her.

Though an orderly checks in every few minutes, the meeting is moderated by patients. One woman speaks the most.

My roommate, Mary, leans close to me. “That’s Patricia, the permanent fixture,” she says in a drowsy voice. “When I was here more than a year ago, she was here then, too.”

“Hello, Mildred,” a meek man in the back says as an old woman slides noisily in on paper slippers. She ignores him and sits in a chair outside of the circle and close to the door. Whenever someone speaks she crumples a piece of cellophane. A few people roll their eyes and smile, but no one gets angry.

When a thin young man speaks in a halting voice about how sad he feels, Mildred coughs, then grabs a small plastic wastebasket near her chair, hacks, and spits loudly into it.

* * * *

The lights are low and the curtain is closed between my bed and Mary’s. I hear the wheels on the medication cart as it goes from room to room. I’m very tired and wonder if I’ll fall asleep before the nurse comes with my Thorazine.

“My parents,” I say to myself. I like saying parents, making them one being instead of two.

On the verge of sleep, I feel a pleasant sensation of relief as if what happened in my family was fate. As if it was all meant to be and my parents have found each other and everything is finished. Peaceful and settled.

I hear the squeak of the wheels as the cart rolls into the room.

* * * *

The doctor comes to see me on my second morning in the ward. I sit up on the bed, disheveled, and glance at my brush on the nightstand, thinking I should run it through my hair, but the memory of it moving across the desk feels too fresh. I don’t want to touch it. I leave my hair a mess.

“I had a dream.”

“What was it?” he asks, settling into the chair.

I tell him that it had to do with an old movie, The Uninvited, about a house haunted by a mother who had committed suicide, and how her disembodied voice filled the rooms as she cried for her daughter.

“I wondered what the ghost wanted,” I say.

“You mean the one that stood at the foot of the bed in your uncle’s house?”

I quake a little. “No.”

“What did the ghost in the movie want?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I never watched the whole movie, but I think that ghost

“Do you think that maybe the ghost you saw was your mother coming back because she feels guilty?”

“No, I don’t think that it was my mother, and if my mother feels guilt it wouldn’t be toward me.”

“Why not?”

“I caused a lot of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

I shake my head. “I was drinking a lot and cutting class.” I explain that my mother blamed it on the friends I had and arranged things so that instead of going for my senior year, I took two college classes in the summer when I was sixteen and earned my high school diploma. I don’t tell him that I drank and cut class in college too.

I sit in silence, staring at the peaks and folds of the off-white blanket on my lap.

“What are you thinking about?”

“I don’t like saying my mother or my father. I’d rather say my parents.”


“When I say my parents it feels like they’re together. Like they drifted apart and it took their suicides to find each other again.”

He gives me a searching look.
“Do you understand?” I ask.

He nods.

“The ghost at the foot of my bed—maybe it was both of my parents mixed together.”

A look of cool skepticism crosses his face.

Talking with the doctor exhausts me. I want him to leave, but he’s settled into the chair and writes with determination.

“That ghost—” he begins, sitting forward.

“It was probably no one,” I say, “just some random ghost passing through.”

He stops pushing me and allows a long silence.

I am the one who speaks first. “My youngest sister woke up one morning and my mother was standing at her door holding a gun.”

The doctor waits for me to go on.

“When she saw that my sister was awake, she left.”

“Why do you think she was holding the gun?”

It shocks me, the insinuation in his voice, as if the answer is obvious. It’s there too, in the way he’s looking at me. I can tell that he thinks my mother intended to shoot my sister and then herself.

I scowl and shake my head. He takes note of my reaction by scribbling something. I tell myself he’s wrong—it couldn’t have been that. But I begin, almost against my will, to fathom the possibility. Shoot Sheila then herself. Right there in Sheila’s room. Right there where Tracy would have to find them both.

I feel a surge of hatred for the doctor, but instead of strengthening me, the anger drains me. I stare down at the damp ball of Kleenex in my hands and say nothing.

* * * *

The nurse brings me my pill. I take it and everything around me blurs. I feel like I will throw up.

* * * *

I wake to the sound of my sisters saying my name.

I sit up in my hospital bed, looking for them in the overcast afternoon light.

* * * *

We are visiting my parents’ friends who have a first-floor apartment just outside of Yonkers, with access to a backyard. Their son ignores Jerry and me because we are too little, but their daughter, who wears a red hair band and is eight years old, tells my mother she will play with us. We follow her out into the backyard. Through the screen door of the kitchen, I can still hear my mother’s and father’s voices mixing with the voices of the other adults. Now and then they burst into loud, uproarious laughter.

The girl points up at the fire escapes that climb the side of the building. “They look like cages,” she says. Back here it smells of damp red brick and ashes.

“If you stay up until dark and you sit out here,” she says to Jerry and me, “you can see fireflies.”

* * * *

At the party on Park Hill, another man sings, but no one listens to him the way they did to my father. As soon as he finishes, my father is called on again.

While people gather around him, I follow my mother, who collects glasses, putting them on a tray. I want to help and try handing her a coffee cup, but a lady grasps my mother’s wrist, leans close, and says, “Vincent should have gotten that promotion. It’s a shame. He should have gotten it.”

“Oh yes,” my mother says and picks up an ashtray.

“I was surprised you didn’t cancel the party,” the lady whispers.

My mother shrugs, turns away. I try to hand her the cup again but she doesn’t take it. She stares into the smoke. My stomach hurts.

She looks at my father, something dark in her face. I run over to him and stand at his leg.

“Vincent,” she says, no noise of dimes or pennies. “Can you help me with something in the kitchen?”

A man is in the middle of telling a story. “I’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Barbara,” my father says, his face red with pleasure.

“No, Vincent,” she says. “It needs to be now.”

When my father returns to the room his eyes are glassy, but the guests don’t seem to notice. They crowd him. Would he sing “Whiskey, You’re the Devil,” or the one about Johnny the roving blade?

But he does not sing. In a hollow voice, he recites Yeats:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to . . . our proper dark . . .

He doesn’t finish the poem.

No one speaks. The rain has quieted outside, but the smell of it rushes through the metal screens and into the room.


From GHOST SONGS. Used with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2016 by Regina McBride.

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