“I hope you’re not afraid of ghosts.” It was more of a question than a remark.
“My father was the most sensible man I know,” I reply, “and he saw a ghost once.” My childlike confidence denies my forty years.
“Besides, I’m a Celt, we invented them.” We talk some more, short disconnected sentences that only later would be threaded together to weave the magic of the moment. We stand overlooking the sweeping plains below Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It is a glorious hot weekend in July, and the preparations for the annual Powwow are underway.
“So tell me about this ghost,” I try to keep the flippancy from my voice.
“Oh, just the regular warrior variety,” his matching of my tone did not deceive me. “You’ll have to meet Walter sometime.”
“Walter, is that the ghost’s name?”
“No, he’s the curator of the site. Old Walter’s walked the ridge for years and swears he’s seen the ghost often. This is a very special place.” The old timer puffs on his pipe and peers into the setting sun.
It wasn’t only the ghost my father allegedly encountered in his younger years that made me so certain that I believed in the afterlife. Bower House, a stately manor home set in rural Sussex, England was the conference centre for the large company he worked for. He stayed there once overnight after conducting a particularly intensive training session. As the story went, he awoke to find a young woman at the foot of his bed looking at him. He watched her for a moment, then asked if he could help her. No, there was nothing he could do. She held him with her eyes a little longer, then faded from view.
I remember the evening he shared his intriguing story with the rest of the family. I was very young at the time. The others turned the story into a joke, a habitual practice in our household whenever emotions were in play. Ribald remarks that I only later understood the double meaning thereof. My father would not retract his story yet good heartedly played up to the teasing. He never mentioned the incident again. I think I alone believed him. It wasn’t his excitement in the telling of the tale that did it, for my father was always a great storyteller. Nor the attention to detail as he described her clothing and recounted the words she uttered in response to his question, that convinced me. It was the compassion in his eyes as he remembered her pain.
The Grand Entry is called. The Powwow beings.
The elders carry their eagle feathers as they do themselves, with dignity born of pride and bred through wisdom.
The warriors chant and thump the hardened ground, abandoning themselves to the rhythm their bodies feel. Soft suede moccasins lovingly decorated with beadwork, each design a symbol of their unity with nature. Oiled gleaming tresses denote the warriors lineage. Faces thrown back. Painted red, black, yellow. True, honest colours. Strong, vibrant, proud. Permanent.
The women move at their own pace. Some glide, others spin, holding themselves with the noble bearing of a people older than time. Their dresses witness to the skills passed down from generation to generation, sacred quill work, beading on the whitest doeskin.
The drums reverberate through my body. I can feel my heartbeat surrender to the challenge of the drums, to join them, to be at one with the world. The dancers swirl, and whoop and echo the drumbeat. A cacophony of colours cheer in celebration of a people’s survival.
The sound of the drums is drowned by the pounding of my rage, unleashed. The colours, moments before so vivid and intense, blur as the tears flood my eyes. So much beauty, simple dignity, such intense joy at being on this earth. Honour and wisdom and learning. Old ways and traditions passing down through time. And we nearly wiped it out.
“This belonged to my great grandmother,” the old woman haltingly hands me a beautiful Pendleton blanket, woven over one hundred years ago. I understand the honour that is being bestowed on me. “It will keep you well tonight,” she says. I take the piece of material from her outstretched arms, my words of thanks inadequate to express the feelings of humbleness and gratitude. An empty tepee is offered to me for the night. I hadn’t planned to stay, but I don’t want to leave.
I drape the wool blanket over my shoulders and immediately feel embraced. The hopes and fears of four generations of women are woven into its strands. They will bear witness to my pain. The blanket will not leave my body till the morrow.
My father died in the Summer. He had a bad stroke and ailed steadily. I flew over to Ireland for the funeral. A few days after his death one of my uncles, in his search for legal documents, came across an envelope addressed to my mother. She had never seen it before. Within were two sheets of foolscap paper, torn from an old book my mother had used to save her spare stamps in, before their sheer numbers spilled over into shoe boxes. Traces of gummed paper bleared the words. The country “Guernsey” across the top of the page crossed out. The comment “bloody stamps” in my fathers spindly hand writing was scribbled above it. Two pages bearing his love of life and his family. Love that he had never been able to express in words to us directly although we would all tire of the accolades he would recite, ad nauseam, about one of the other siblings.
Two pages bearing an amazing gift from a man who had tried to do the right thing every day of his life. No, he wasn’t perfect. Maybe I will never admit how imperfect he might have been. But he tried to set it right on those pages. My father, who detested putting pen to paper, wrote two letters that night. One to my mother Kathleen, his wife of 48 years, and one addressed to his four children. His opening sentence read. “I’ve just had a dream – that my mother came to “collect me” and my only reaction was ‘You’re not going to let me see Kathleen and say Goodbye’ – so maybe I’ve now got the chance.” It was 2:30 in the morning. He died four years later. His mother, however, had been dead for 35 years. It is impossible for me to acknowledge the power of the love that Granny had for her son to send him a message over such space and time, without believing in ghosts.
The soft chanting rises from the tape recorder. I sit with two of the drummers who had competed in the Powwow all day. We talk for hours, sharing our cultures and what is in our hearts. Trying to understand what our songs and our drums mean for each other. I describe the Celtic bodrhan and how it reaches to the depth of my soul. The older drummer nods, and clenches a fist to his chest. The tape comes to an end, and we sit in silence as the beauty of the night envelopes us.
The full moon warms my face. Somewhere over the plains to the East a lone coyote takes up where the chanting left off. Many voices join him, their howls stark in the night. Sudden silence. Towards the mountains another coyote takes up the cry. Encouraged, several others howl and yip out of harmony. Silence. With the precision of a world class orchestra the coyotes pick up the song and bandy it back and forth across the foothills. Joyful sounds, mournful cries, shouts and moans and laughter. Questions, comments. Nonsense?
What I would give to know what they are singing about. If only I knew how to listen to the wisdom they are longing to share.
I sit alone on the bluff of the hill. I wrap the blanket tighter around my shoulders, not for warmth but the comfort it brings me. No one stirs in the camp behind me, but all around I feel my father’s presence. It is a year since he died. In some parts of the world, people do not talk about their loss for a year, and on the anniversary of their death, let the departed go in peace.
My father had been with me all day. Earlier in the afternoon I stood on the hillside and remembered that this had been his favourite place to come to whenever he visited me. Unfortunately, inclement weather stopped us from coming down the last time my parents were over from Ireland. I never saw him again.
How he would have loved the Powwow. He would have started talking to anyone, not ashamed to ask questions, ever respectful of being a guest in someone else’s life. He’d have drunk the Saskatoon soup with relish, and asked for more. He would have gone up and shaken the hand of the oldest elder of the tribe, a man of 90 years whose deteriorating body betrayed a razor sharp mind. He would have sought out the warriors who had fought in both world wars and found some common battleground. I saw the day through his eyes and knew we would have shared the same sense of outrage at the Grand Entry when it hits you like a bludgeon that we damn near annihilated all this beauty, the traditions, these people, their wisdom.
We shared today as we shared so much in the forty years I was in his life. He was on this earth long before I was born, and I am here now that he is gone. But the feelings don’t go away, the love remains and will be here, in this place, for all time. Entwined with the memories of others.
I do believe in ghosts. They were with me that night.
© Shena Meadowcroft