Smoke Signals

This is a brief piece about mother and daughter, and the unexpected things that bring them together. It’s my mostly-true interpretation of mostly-true events.


I didn’t know until I was in my mid-twenties that my mother believed in ghosts.

I also didn’t know that she liked country music, enjoyed a glass of red wine with dinner, or had kept a painting in our basement that was given to her by her high school boyfriend. At age 24 I wondered, how is that possible? How could it be that I had lived with my mother for this long and not known any of these quirks?

There had been hints in the past that my mom was interested in the paranormal. Sometimes I’d come home after school and she would be watching Hollywood Medium. As long as my dad wasn’t home to gently mock us, we could sit and watch together. Every now and then: “This is so silly. Who believes this stuff.” But we just turned up the volume, riveted.

She knew all of my quirks, of course, usually even before I did. It became amazing to me, later, how little I could know myself while also being so incredibly selfish. But as a teenager none of that was visible to me yet; I was too busy dealing with the turmoil of pushing my mother away and pulling her close to me all at once. It was a delicate dance, painful at times.

“You don’t trust me! You don’t get it!” I would say to her at the back door of our house, after getting home later than expected. It took a few years of being a practice grown-up (and of living with my parents as an adult) for me to realize how I had sounded.

It also took me until my mid-twenties to find out that I believed in ghosts, too.

One night I was in my attic bedroom and smelled something peculiar burning. It didn’t smell like food, or frayed wiring, but still very distinctly burnt. I went downstairs to follow the waft of the smell. It was strongest in the living room; by the time I got to the kitchen, it faded away entirely.

It was probably nothing, of course. I knew that. But I went to get my mom anyway and dragged her over to see if she noticed the smell too. She did. We checked to make sure nothing was burning in the house. Our house was old, built in the 1930s, so I thought it was entirely possible that something could have just spontaneously combusted. But there was no sign of fire. My mom and I scoured the living room again, giggling and calling out theories.

“I wonder if this used to be the kitchen.”

“Maybe there was a stove here.”

“It’s a friendly spirit, right? Or else the smell would be…brimstone, I guess?”

Before we knew it, we had already decided; there was a ghost in the house. My dad laughed as we darted back and forth across the threshold of the living room, sniffing the air and grinning at each other.

I started imagining what kind of ghost would live in our home. It was a maternal presence, in my imagination. One that had watched my growing up, and before that, watched my mother start a marriage in a place far from home. What must this spirit have thought of us as we each grew up? As I lost sight of my mother, searched for her, and then found her, again and again?

I imagined our ghost as a waft of smoke curling around my mother and me. I hoped she watched us smiling as we tried to find her, and when we gave up, as we linked arms on our way to the kitchen.

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