© Copyright 2003 by Hilary Finchum-Sung
“Granny believes it’s true. She swears Agnes was there and no one can tell her different.” An odd combination of matter-of-fact brevity, concern, humor, and fear flavored my dad’s voice as he softly reported the words he had heard from Aunt Dixie.
Growing up, I had read stories of haunted houses, of specters appearing at the site of their death, of messages beyond the grave. Pouring over ghost stories of the eastern seaboard, the South and the Midwest while girls my age read serial novels about cheerleaders and baby sitters, I preferred the thrill of the otherworldly and relished the unpredictability of the supernatural. In high school, I raised the eyebrows of Sister Bonaventure, the school librarian, when, carefully avoiding eye contact, I checked out The Exorcist. Thinking I had hidden the book well, my mother found it and commented, nonchalantly, that she “heard voices for weeks after reading that book.”
To me they were exotic escapes, guilty pleasures: scares. Even tales of a “local” spirit, the Bell Witch of Adams, Tennessee, were not as much entwined in my everyday reality as they were tools for making slumber parties more exciting. Go into the bathroom, shut out the lights, and count backwards from twelve to summon the Bell Witch who, upon arrival, will proceed to scratch your face. I never made it past eight. It was not until college that I understood the Southern witch as a real force that terrified a family in rural Tennessee. Rumored to be the spirit of a woman who sold her soul to the devil, “Kate” still makes her presence known in the farmhouses and caves of Adams. And narratives of close encounters abound, including that of a friend who recorded an album on site at the Bell farm. She claims that some of the voices heard on the recordings are not her own.
The relationship many white Southerners (especially those of the older generation) have with the supernatural does not stray far from the Scotch-Irish ancestry of the residents. The spiritual and the mundane intermingle as individuals attempt to exercise control over their destinies and cope with the unexpected. Patterns in tea leaves reveal the patterns of one’s life while brooms swept under the feet of an unmarried woman dooms her to spinsterhood. In addition to African-American beliefs and those of other culture groups, Irish legacies of lonely spirits, banshees, and premonitions have woven the rich tapestry of Southern folklore. Premonitions, in particular, play a part in the lives of many friends and family members. From the colors of the sunset signaling the nature of tomorrow’s weather, to three knocks at the door warning of tragedies to come, premonitions mingle human effort and otherworldly efforts at communication. One of the most common is that in which the death of a loved one is signaled by the wailing or appearance of a spirit.
In my case, death was signaled by the ringing of a telephone. “Hilary, Mammaw’s passed.” My paternal grandmother had died after years of suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. We had all expected her passing at any time and had braced ourselves to understand her death as a relief, as a final act. We were not prepared for her story to continue beyond her last breath.
It was a beautiful sunny day on English Mountain in northeastern Tennessee. My great-grandmother, Lettie, was busy cleaning up after lunch when she heard a knock at the door. Expecting it to be Dixie, her sister and neighbor, she was pleasantly surprised when she discovered it was her daughter Agnes. Although Lettie worried about Agnes and visited her as often as she could, she had not seen her for some time and was concerned that Agnes had traveled so far.
“Agnes, are you feelin’ alright?”
“Yes, mama, I’m feelin’ just fine.”
Lettie said, “Well come on in. Have you eaten?” Lettie boiled water for tea and sliced two thick pieces of apple pie for herself and her daughter.
After about an hour of tea and conversation, Agnes said, “Mama, I’ve got to get going. I just want you to know that I’m alright and you don’t need to worry because everything is going to be fine from now on.” After a brief hug, mother and daughter parted.
That afternoon, Dixie found Lettie in an animated state of excitement. As she approached her sister’s home, Lettie ran out.
“Dixie, you’ll never believe who came to visit. Agnes was here and we talked for the longest time. She told me she was feeling much better. Did you know she was in town?”
Stunned, Dixie said, “Well, Lettie. I’m coming to tell you that Agnes passed away today. She couldn’t have come to see you.”
Lettie insisted that Agnes had been there. “No, she was here. We had pie…look…” and she dragged Dixie into the house to show her two plates of pie crumbs and two emptied tea cups. “No, Agnes isn’t dead, she was here.”
Though she consistently referred to herself in the third person, Lettie had not succumbed to age-related dementia, and no one in the family claimed her story was a product of senility. Instead, we understood that she had experienced a visitation, although it is hard to know whether Agnes had really visited Lettie or whether the visit had served as a premonition. Lettie had experienced premonitions before, once in the form of a fireball rolling toward her house that signaled the death of a close relative. To their credit, no one in the family pushed the ‘truth’ on Lettie, preferring to let the visitation stand as it was intended to be, a comfort to an old woman in the last days of her life. At her death, it is understood, Agnes felt the need to travel to her childhood home in the Appalachian Mountains and free her mother from worry. My dad spoke of it as a ‘gift of love’ that brought Lettie peace at Agnes’s death.
When I tell this story to friends, of whom none have their roots in Appalachian culture, their eyes grow wide at the ‘scary’ story of a spirit coming to call. Yet, to my family this is not a ghost story, a tale of haunting at which one should experience raised hairs on the back of the neck or a shivering of the spine. For families with their roots in southern mountain culture, these occurrences are part of life and are not cause for exclamations of surprise but for reflection. Such premonitions or visitations are taken seriously as a sign that there is something beyond this physical reality, something more to life that makes life itself worth living. For all of my education and my residence in the Midwest and Northern California (where people see themselves as infinitely more erudite than Southerners), it has taken me years to understand the relationship many of my relatives have with the supernatural. At the root of this relationship is a quiet sophistication that, masked under broad smiles and slow drawls, displays a real awareness and acceptance of life’s mysteries.
Both my great-grandmother and my grandmother lived through trying times, and their hardships created a bond between them. Two fiercely independent women, they forged a spiritual connection through blood and experiences. Considering this final communication between these two women, my dad said, “Maybe my mother’s appearance to Granny was an act of pure love that came out of the last moments of her misery. Maybe for a moment she was not trapped in that helpless body and was not bound by the laws of physics. She made a choice. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that my mother’s final act, knowing that Granny needed that comfort and reassurance, was one of love?”
Born in Shelbyville,
Tennessee and raised in Nashville, Hilary Finchum-Sung holds an M.A. in
folklore and a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Indiana University. Although her specialty is Korean music and culture, she remains fascinated with her Southern heritage. Childhood experiences that included visiting relatives in East and Central Tennessee and listening to stories of family trials and tribulations remain an essential part of her identity. This transplanted Southerner currently lives in Oakland, California with her husband and three-year-old daughter.
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