Published on May 12th, 2022 | by Jessie Carson0
Ghost Stories I Have Told My Son
“Tell me our family’s secrets,” my son said to me one night when I was putting him to sleep. I lay in his bed beside him with my eyes closed and his head on my shoulder. For the first six months of his life, he could only sleep if his face was touching me. Eleven years later, he would still fall asleep this way every night if I let him.
I told him I couldn’t really think of any. He pushed: “All families have secrets. What are ours?”
Tired, I said, “There are things I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I can’t tell a ten-year old that the family secret I have been dwelling on for decades, the thing that spurs most of my writing, is that his great grandmother and two great aunts were murdered. Or, that when I can extract myself from his bed, I would likely go to my room and try to write about the ghosts that they are now. How stories dwell in our bodies, change form, and never die.
I can’t tell him that his father has a scar on the side of his neck from a butter knife because his own father would say “So, you think you’re a big shot, heh?” And once, he stood up to him.
“Tell me tonight”, he insisted. But I didn’t. Instead I told him about the first time I saw my friend, Chelsea, delicately pluck a cicada skin that was clinging to the bark of a tree. The skin was almost gold in color and at first I thought it was a live bug. She held it out to me, but I recoiled and wouldn’t touch it until she laughed and pinched it so that it crumbled between her fingertips.
I told him the skin was a thin translucent shell shaped like its host and it was malleable when the cicada slipped out; then it dried to be like a crispy ghost of itself.
Chelsea and I didn’t see the live bugs, but would collect the skins in a jar before dumping them out onto the ground. The two of us would take turns picking up a skin and crushing it between our fingers, both delighted with the quiet, snappy sound it made when the remnant collapsed into itself.
“You’ve already told me that story,” he said. Switching gears, he asked, “Why isn’t my father around?”
I hadn’t been prepared, though I should have been. I could have told him that we were not a good match, but that wasn’t the entire truth. I could have said shame can sometimes make someone run away or be almost paralyzed, afraid to call, afraid to send a card, afraid to come visit. Or that now I’m glad his father has not been in my life, but before I was afraid that he would stay and I was also afraid to be alone.
My son may have then asked what shame is and I may have said, kind of like a feeling of unworthiness of something or another person. Then he still might have asked why. And I would have likely had the same answer that I gave him.
“I don’t know all the reasons,” I said inadequately.
“Yes you do,” he said.
It was true, though. I didn’t know all of them.
I want to tell him our family secrets, the ghost stories that keep me awake at night too. Who knows when he will be ready to hear them? I have a plain black journal that I bought soon after I found out I was pregnant. My intent was to give him a story. I wrote to a future version of him. I mainly did this so that he wouldn’t notice that his father, the other half of his history, wasn’t physically in our lives. I knew better than that, though. A missing person does not disappear completely.
I cringe to read the journal now. My writing reads like it’s wearing too much makeup. A young woman pretending to be happy, pretending that everything was all right; doing the opposite of telling secrets. I can’t remember if I knew I was lying when I wrote most of what’s in it. I was trying to save face for our relationship, for his father and for myself during this lonely stage in my life. I didn’t think I should feel lonely with another human being inside of me. I wanted someone, but not his father. I felt shame for feeling needy and dependent. His father stayed away, something he has become prone to doing.
Maybe my son will read the journal someday. Maybe I’ll tear out a few pages first. He’s a reader, though, the kind who is late for school because he can’t seem to put a book down and who wakes up at 3am because he’s excited to see how a story turns out. I’m sure he’ll see right through it.
My entries in the journal are filled with the kind of lies parents tell their children because they think they are too young to hear the truth. Or the kind one tells but barely knows they are telling because they have said it again and again, hoping that it will become true.
The woman who wrote in the black journal had barely started to grow up. She was naïve, but still understood that she was embarking on one of the greatest ventures in love she would have in her life. She was desperately trying to give her son the best she could possibly manage, feeling like only half of what he needed. She was trying to give him a story. No matter how a story is told, there is always something that isn’t being said. And once a story is told, you can’t take it back. It will take on a life of its own, especially to a child.
“What is he like?” my son asked.
And I don’t know if I did the right thing, but I knew he needed something. Still not giving him a straight answer, I said, “What would you like him to be like?”
With hardly a pause, he answered, “Nice. Good at sports and Lego and drawing.”
“How about intelligent and loving?” I said.
“Okay,” he said, smiling. “And he loves me a lot and is super-fast.”
“Definitely, and maybe he can even fly,” I said enthusiastically.
“No,” he said, “just super-fast.”
“Okay,” I said. “So all very much like you.”
I went to my room that night and pulled out the black journal for the first time in years. This time, I wanted to write something that was true.
We are enough without him, I wrote.