“Mommy, I’m having that anxious feeling again.” Vivi and Pengy curled up on the couch next to me, ten minutes past bedtime. I stretched her legs over mine so i could rest my hand on her knee.
“What’s got you feeling anxious?”
“I’m scared of ghosts.”
I gave her a skeptical look. “Are ghosts real?”
“No…I know, but Myca was talking about maybe Biscuits is a ghost cat. Like there’s this cat spirit and it lives in the woods until it decides to come out and haunt a family…”
Biscuits heard her name and promptly hopped up on the couch with us. I tucked a long curl behind Vivi’s ear. “Honey, if you know ghosts aren’t real, it doesn’t really make much sense to get worked up thinking about them.”
“I just can’t stop thinking about them. They might hurt us.”
“OK. Well, if you are going to think about ghosts that might want to be hurtful, then why don’t you also think about the ghosts who are on our team?”
She twisted up her face and gave me a sideways look.
“So let’s say there is some kind of life after this one and there are some ghosts that linger on. If that’s the case, then the spirits that want to take care of us hang around us too?” She was thinking about it. “Like Papa. You’d have Papa on your team of friendly ghosts.”
“And he’d be…” She threw her voice down into a gentle growl. “…you better get in here!”
“Right! When you were a little baby, there was one night when I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep. I remember leaning over your crib and wishing I could quit worrying and go to sleep. So I summoned my protector spirits and asked them to sit on the roof of the house and watch over us.”
She lit up. And I did too.
“I imagined my Pop on one corner, and my Grandmama Eunice on another corner and Daddy’s daddy–the first Carlos Jose–was out there, and I imagined Richard right up on top of the roof because he wasn’t afraid of heights. Now we’ve got Papa up there too, watching out for us.”
Vivi shook herself back into worrying and stuck her finger in her mouth. “But how could they keep us safe from mean ghosts?”
“Papa was a really good shot when he was young. He won riflery medals. And he was strong! He could throw a cow to the ground with a rope and his bare hands.”
She caught the tail of the story and held on. “What about your grandmama?”
“Oh, well she was a gentle lady but she would not tolerate any foolishness. And if you messed up, she made you pick your own switch. Do you know what that means?”
“Like you had to spank YOURSELF?”
“No, you had to go out to the yard and break off a switch and then she would spank your bootie with it.”
“What about your Pop?”
“Pop wasn’t a fighter that I know of, but he chewed tobacco…”
“So he could SPIT AT THEM!”
G walked into the den. I asked him, “Hey, Daddo. What would your father do to protect us if he was a friendly ghost?”
“Oh, my father, he was a pretty laid back guy.”
“Right, but if someone threatened you?”
“He’d get his father’s Beretta from the war.”
Vivi hooted at the idea of all these fiercely friendly ghosts hanging out on the roof. “What about Richard?”
“I always pictured him right up on top of the roof, sitting lookout. Richard knew a lot about how to take care of himself. He knew how to fight…”
“Like karate chops?”
“Not exactly, but, well, just stuff. He wouldn’t let anybody get in this house.”
It took a few more minutes, but eventually we sent her off to bed with no more worries about ghosts in the night.
Our talk got me thinking the Roman belief in household spirits. The lares domestici were the spirits of family ancestors who watched over the home and hearth. Each lare protected a specific physical spot (for example, a 1961 ranch house with a little girl trying to avoid her bedtime).
If the family moved, they took their lares with them. The lares sat out on the table during meals. They received offerings on important days and they witnessed family events like marriages. Remember, in the movie “Gladiator,” those small carved figures that Maximus carried with him in a little leather pouch? Those were his lares.
On that night several years ago, when I couldn’t imagine a way to let myself rest now that I was responsible for a tiny sleeping wonder of a child, I called upon my lares domestici. Pop, who smelled of Levi Garrett and I can hear his smooth fingertips glide over the pages of a Louis L’amour novel while he guards his corner of the roof. Grandmama Eunice, dressed for church in a purple pantsuit with her purse on her lap, keeping watch over her corner with a Sunday school teacher’s all-seeing and all-loving gaze. Carlos Jose the First, quietly singing a lullaby in Portuguese and watching over the dark backyard where the hummingbirds sleep. Richard sitting watch on the crest of the low shingled roof, never in need of sleep, never daydreaming.
Now I see Papa sitting beside him. Telling stories, talking politics, enjoying each other’s company. Keeping watch until morning.
When my child finds herself wandering off into the frightening dark maybes of the world, I call her back and remind her that there is more good, more protection, more fierce and unfailing love around her.