12 August 2007

Silly Goose

I do not get goosebumps.

Okay, that's not strictly true. I get goosebumps (or goosepimples, or gooseflesh, both of which phrases give me the willies) on a fairly regular basis. In fact, I have goosebumps right now, because I'm sitting in front of a window open to a breeze that's finally less than 90 degrees. What I mean is, I don't get goosebumps.

The hairs along my arms and back will only stand up and be counted when there is something going on concerning the temperature of the air versus the temperature of my body, and my feeble attempt at fur would like to wrap itself around me and get warm, please. I get goosebumps every Saturday while cooling down after my long run (even if it is 90 degrees, which until yesterday it has been). I get goosebumps when I step out of the shower in the morning. Dock chair to lake: goosebumps. Aftermath of a sneeze: goosebumps.

But my body's weird-o-meter does not seem to be located on the surface of my skin. Instead, it seems to be harboured somewhere deeper, along my inner forearms, and at the anchor of my ribcage. Those are the places that hitch and tingle when a soul breaks loose from a phrase of music and flies toward the ceiling; when I wake from a dream that I already know despite not yet having been told; when the ordinary becomes more than that, becomes real.

The first night I spent in my apartment near Princeton eight years ago was like coming home. Only it wasn't I who was coming home, but Elizabet. Elizabet had been the previous tenant, making her home there since shortly after the apartment complex was built sometime in the late fifties. Her husband dead and her children left the nest, Elizabet had made the practical decision to downsize and moved into the garden apartment just north of the Millstone River. The only reason she was vacating now was because her sons had decided she needed more assistance than the neighbours could provide, so they made plans to move Elizabet and her belongings to an "assisted living facility." (which, as we all know, usually means "not really living, but still breathing".)

Elizabet was having none of this, apparently, because the day before the scheduled move, her sons arrived to find her dead on the living room floor. This was not a particular shock to anybody, as she was past 90, but it did put a crimp in the proceedings of moving house, since now there was a will in probate and a coroner who needed to follow rules, despite the obviously apparent cause of death. In the bustle of activity in the weeks that followed as her children hastily cleaned out the apartment, it somehow never occurred to them to take down Elizabet's mezuzah, and the maintenance crew simply painted around it. And so it came to me, with my Bible and my grimoire, my crosses and my pentacles and brooms, this old Hebrew blessing.

It shouldn't have surprised me, that first night, to wake to see a woman standing at the foot of my bed, her hair as white as smoke and her high-throated nightgown clutched between her gnarled fingers. We regarded each other warily; she in distrust of this young thing sleeping in her bedroom--but where was her bed? where were her matching night-tables? for that matter, where were this girl's nightclothes?--and me because....well, because though I could see her, I could also see clearly the closet doors she stood in front of. She was also clearly upset about the cats. Who had let them in?

Then I understood. It was the mezuzah. Because it hadn't been taken out with all of her other things, she didn't understand that this was no longer her home. The cats were mine, I assured her. She was not going to get in trouble for having three illegal pets, and they weren't going to claw her sofa to shreds. I told her she was welcome to stay, and that the mezuzah would remain with me wherever I made my home. She seemed satisfied with this, though slightly annoyed that she was dead--although I can imagine it must have been an inconvenience.

Elizabet has become my personal ghost. Thankfully, my husband took this in stride; the first time he spent the night at the apartment, he woke up the next morning, rolled over to open one blue eye from under his hair, and simply grunted, "You could have warned me about the short dead chick." When we moved me into the house we would later share, it was he who rooted about in still-packed boxes until he unwrapped the mezuzah and thumbtacked it firmly to the lintel, announcing that he was sure Elizabet was relieved to be out of storage.

Sometimes I remember this comment and feel badly that she has, in fact, been wrapped in a box for more than a year. I know, of course, that Elizabet doesn't live in the mezuzah. That's about as ridiculous as a genie who lives in a lamp, or a cat who lives in a teapot. If you want to get technical about it, in fact, Elizabet doesn't actually live anywhere....really. But she always seems more comfortable when she sees this last relic of her days here, affixed firmly beside the door. And somehow, despite whatever faith remains in me and despite not knowing a letter of Hebrew--somehow, so do I.


Rob Kistner said...

Fascinating... and creepy!

raymond pert said...

Gorgeous. This story confirms the persistence of Elizabet specifically and more generally the persistence of what we call the past to impose itself upon us after we think what's gone is gone. The past is never gone. It's always with us. I shudder whenever I hear the statement, "I put (fill in the blank) behind me" or "That's history. Let's move on." In the sense that history means something has vanished and is behind us is a delusion. What we call the past is always present and you had a most vivid experience with how there really isn't such a thing as the past. We always live in all dimensions of time.

Cherie said...

A fabulous tale - gave me goosebumps! Thank You!

Deirdre said...

Now I've definitely got goosebumps.