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Do You Believe in Ghosts? (A Mother’s Day Tribute–honest, it is)

I believe in ghosts. As a psychologist, I am not supposed to subscribe to such an unscientific idea. But sometimes personal experience trumps science. Now I don’t believe in haunted houses and such. I’ve never met a malevolent ghost. But I do believe in the theory that people’s spirits sometimes stick around because of unfinished business. I have seen this happen twice in my life.

My brother was always my grandmother’s favorite. I didn’t really see anything wrong with this since I thought my big brother was the neatest person ever myself. And my grandmother never short-changed me in the love department; she just loved my brother a little bit more.

At the time that she died, my brother and his first wife were having marital problems. Shortly after she died, they split up, and my brother moved into my grandmother’s now vacant house. He invited his good friend, Doug, to be his roommate, and all was well in their bachelor pad.

About a year later, my brother started dating a gal who was, shall we say, a bit high-maintenance. She eventually moved in with him. At first we thought Sandy was making stuff up when she talked about finding spent matches on the edge of the stove. The old thing had a flaky pilot light that tended to go out on a regular basis. Sandy was convinced that Grandma was re-lighting the pilot to keep her precious boy from blowing up or being overcome by leaking gas. We didn’t even believe her when she told us she’d actually seen a plump gray-haired woman up in the attic when she’d gone up there looking for something. The woman was standing in front of a pile of boxes of my grandmother’s things, glaring at Sandy.

Then one day, she asked my brother why he kept moving her slippers out from under the edge of the bed. For the fifth time, she’d found them across the room when she was sure she’d left them close to hand (or foot rather) under the bed.

That stopped us cold. My grandmother was a lady. She never, ever said anything blatantly off color. But when she was watching old movies with Rock Hudson or Cary Grant, she would sigh and say, “That man can put his shoes under my bed any time he wants.” We, as kids, had no clue what this meant. It just stuck in our heads because we thought it was a strange thing to say.

When Sandy accused my brother of moving her slippers, the pieces fell into place. Grandma did not like Sandy! She did not want this girl’s slippers under her grandson’s bed.

A few months later, my brother decided he agreed with our grandmother and he gave Sandy the boot. Awhile after that, the sweet young woman who ended up becoming his second wife moved in. And we never heard from Grandma again.

Fast forward 35 years. My mother died at 76 after a 6-month battle with cancer. She and my stepfather had retired to Florida but most of their friends and family still lived in Maryland (including my brother and I at the time) so he decided to have her memorial service up north. After the service he headed back to Florida. He had already decided that he didn’t want to live in their house alone; he was going to move into a condo. On that long drive south, he was thinking about everything he needed to do to get the house ready to put on the market. As he thought about how he would dispose of my mother’s clothing, he started getting a case of the guilts. Was it disrespectful to be so hasty about throwing out or giving away her clothes and other personal belongings?

When he got home, he walked into the bedroom and opened the closet door. The rod in the closet had broken, on my mother’s end, and had dumped all my mother’s clothes onto the floor of the closet. He looked at the ceiling and said, “Got it, Marty,” and went to get bags to start packing up her clothes for Goodwill.

So, this is a Mother’s Day tribute. To Ma and Grandma, who stuck around even after they were dead to make sure everybody was okay.

Anybody have their own ghost story or Mother’s Day tribute to share?

posted by Kassandra Lamb

IS IT ABOUT THE WHODUNIT OR THE WHO?

At a mystery writers’ conference last summer, I was drifting a bit as the long day was starting to catch up with me, when the presenter’s statement jolted me wide awake.

“Mysteries are not about the mystery; they’re about the characters.”

My first thought: “Say what?” Second thought: “Damn, he’s right.”

“Two weeks after the reader has finished a mystery,” the presenter continued, “they’ve forgotten most of the plot, but if it was a good story, they remember the characters.”

 I knew, as a mystery reader, that this rang true.

 But why is it true? my inquisitive, analytical little mind asked. And I’ve been pondering that question ever since. I’m not sure I have the answer, but here are my thoughts.

We are surrounded by two things every day. One, we are surrounded by ordinary people: butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. Two, unfortunately in American society today, we are also surrounded by violence.

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, which has the distinction of having dropped off of the top ten list of worst crime cities in the country in the last few years (it was #11 in 2010). The TV show, Homicide (1993-1999), was set in Baltimore. When my husband and I are staying at our summer cottage in Maryland we refer to the local Baltimore news broadcast as the “litany of murders.”

Okay, before you decide to click over to some less depressing blog, I am going to lighten up here.

So why in the world are murder mysteries and thrillers in the top three genres on anybody’s list? Why do we turn to murder–that depressing gruesome thing we hear about every night on the evening news–when we want to relax and be entertained?

Because we, as ordinary people, are fascinated by the idea of extraordinary things happening to other ordinary people like us. We want to see how the characters deal with the murder. If we find the characters engaging, if we can relate to them, then we are hooked.

When the everyday-person, could-be-you-or-me protagonist in a mystery is brave and daring, we are empowered. When s/he is scared, we swallow the lump in our own throats. When s/he is sad, our eyes tear up.

We project ourselves into these ordinary people who are struggling with out-of-the-ordinary situations. We are proud of their successes, mournful for their losses, terrified by the risks they must take, and relieved beyond measure when they are okay in the end.

 In the past, when people have asked me why I love to read mysteries, I have said, “Because they are as far away from my own life as I can get. They are great escapes.” This is true, since I’m not in the habit of stumbling over dead bodies.

But I now realize that this statement is not entirely true. I love mysteries because they are about people like me! Just not in situations like those I normally encounter in daily life. I love to see how these people, i.e., me, deal with the challenges of extraordinary events.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Why do you love mysteries? Do you agree or disagree that they are mainly about the characters?

Posted by: Kassandra Lamb