I believe there are living ghosts. People you bump into in life who influence you, make an impact and move on, who become part of who you are as a person, part of your makeup or character. People who nudge you awake, like ghosts, just passing through.
My first encounter with someone I would call a living ghost occurred when I was quite young. An old and obviously destitute man, perhaps an alcoholic, with stained clothes and stubble had taken a shine to me in a little cafe in Sooke, British Columbia., where I was sitting with my parents one day.
On impulse, he bought me an ice cream cone. He appeared beside our booth, leaned across my parents and thrust the cone in my direction. His hands were shaky and his fingernails rimmed with dirt. I promptly turned it down. He hadn’t banked on this, had fully expected me to take the cone. He didn’t know what to do, and neither did I. He remained standing there for what seemed an eternity and kept sort of pushing it across the table at me.
Finally my father told him, “You heard the child, my friend. She said, ‘No.’ ”
By this point in my short life I had already learned that if my father used the expression ‘my friend,’ he usually meant business. It was kind of like using our full names. If he called me Margaret instead of Margie, for instance, I’d know I was in hot water. ‘My friend,’ which he reserved for strangers, was usually a warning that trouble was brewing.
There was no further discussion. The man got the message. He left our table and went straight to the back of the cafe where there was a washroom and an exit to the parking lot. He was angry and made quite a commotion before he left.
Out of frustration and futility, he threw the cone at the swing top garbage can beside the washroom door. Later, on the excuse of washing my hands, I went to investigate and came across a puddle of melting strawberry ice cream lying, cone up, among the stray paper towels and debris on the floor. An image that has stayed with me all these years.
There was another old man who would go from door to door in our neighbourhood when I was a child asking if he could do odd jobs around the house. No one ever hired him, and it got to the point where he would just come to the door and straight out ask for money. One morning he was on our doorstep. Soiled overalls, a duffel bag.
He asked my mother for a nickel. I remember being very surprised to hear her tell the man that she did not have a nickel. Poor Mum, I thought. She doesn’t have a nickel. I stuck my head around the door and said I had money. I took three pennies out of a jar in my room and gave them to him. I remember the man hesitating at first, and my mother telling him to go ahead and take the coins. We continued to see him in the neighbourhood from time to time, but he never came to our door again.
I don’t know exactly how my mother explained this one, but she managed to get the nuances of the lesson across, that just because someone comes looking for something doesn’t mean you have to comply; that in life you must keep a balance of compassion and self preservation. Now, as a parent myself, I believe that that moment at the front door must have been just as much of a lesson for her as it was for me.
A decade or so later, when I was in my early teens he resurfaced. Occasionally I’d catch glimpses of him panhandling downtown. The locals referred to him as ‘Odd Job’ because he’d stand at bus stops and chant, “Do you have an odd job around the house? I need a cup of coffee.”
The last time I saw him was at sunset one evening after I’d been to a movie with friends. It had been raining and the sun was shining on the office buildings on lower Douglas Street. He was muttering to himself and banging his back against the window of a large bank, unaware that the reflection of Christ Church Cathedral was rippling ominously in the plate glass behind him.
My third living ghost approached me when I was in my mid teens. I was waiting for a bus one Saturday afternoon and a well dressed elderly lady came and sat next to me on the bench. She chatted very pleasantly, wasn’t at all like the fussy old ladies I was used to.
She spoke to me as though I were an adult, asked me if I travelled, inquired about what I was studying in school, what my plans were for the future. She was a pleasant upbeat person and I got the feeling that she genuinely did care about what I had to say.
She’s long gone now, of course, but still comes to me occasionally when I pass that bus stop, when the trees on Cook Street are in bloom. I often wonder why she chose to sit and talk with me that day. Did she have relatives? Are they still alive? Would they be interested to know that she made an impact on my life; that even though we had a short conversation I still remember her after all this time?
She never did get on the bus with me when it came. She just waved goodbye to me from the curb. I was on my way to other things, just beginning my life and she was wrapping up hers.
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