My grandfather Lewis Hatcher was a seanchaí--an Irish storyteller. He was a larger than life individual who was the first man I ever loved. My adopted father wasn't around much because he owned a fleet of trucks so he was almost always on the road. My Pa-Pa, however, lived with us and he is the reason I became a storyteller in my own right.
I didn't know until I was much, much older--married, actually--that this wonderful man I hero worshipped had worked for the mob in Miami during Prohibition. It was rumored that he and his oldest brother Tom had been enforcers, hitmen for mobster Meyer Lansky. I don't know if that is true or not but I do know Pa-Pa never went anywhere without his snub-nosed .38. He also had a strange looking gun under a blanket in the backseat of his car. It was something he called a Tommy gun. I always thought the gun belonged to Uncle Tom, his brother, and that was why my grandfather called it that. As you can see from the photo of the two of them together, they were not--as Worf once said--merry men. Uncle Tom never, ever smiled and I was terrified of him. That's Pa-Pa on the right (wearing his ever-present Fedora).
Back in the 1950s, we didn't have air conditioning in SoWeGa (southwest Georgia) so sitting on the screened porch was the only way to keep cool on a humid night. Pa-Pa and I would sit in the swing and tell each other tall tales. He'd begin a story then leave it to me to finish it. If I couldn't, he wouldn't give me the buffalo head nickle he had waiting for me in his pocket. It was important to me to finish the tale--and do it well--because he graded me on just how interesting and plausible the story was. We'd work on the ghost story--it was always a ghost story--until we had it just right.
Of course, the kinds of tales he told had no basis in reality according to my teachers at school. But my family knew better. Pa-Pa was not only a great storyteller who could scare the bejimminy out of you with his ghost stories, he also had 'the sight'. He 'saw' things the rest of us couldn't. It was an ability he passed on to his only child, my mother Vivian. They both seemed to know when death was about to strike someone close to the family. Mama saw angels hovering near the person. Pa-Pa saw something dark that he never described.
Because he had nerves of steel, it wasn't unusual for the local undertaker to ask Pa-Pa to sit with a deceased family member or friend at the funeral home prior to the embalming. The corpse would be laid out on what was called a cooling board and Pa-Pa would sit there all night long. Historically, the reason for the cooling board--which was traditionally made of cane lattice--was to make darn sure the person on it was really dead. Everyone knew a tale of at least one corpse that had sprung up on the cooling board. Most of the time, it was simply rigor mortis setting in but sometimes the person actually was alive. Pa-Pa sat with the deceased out of love, respect and to honor that person's wish that he or she not be left alone in the funeral home.
In the South of my tender years, it was the custom for deceased family members to be brought in their caskets to their home or the home of a loved one on the day before the funeral. Family and friends would pay their respects in a much more private way than they could at the funeral home. It was considered bad form not to bring your loved one home or to leave him or her at the funeral home alone.
Pa-Pa passed away when I was six years old and they brought him to our house in a big black hearse. To this day I can still see the six solemn-faced men in black suits bringing his casket into the house. Mama had them place it in the dining room under the windows. When they opened the lid, it seemed to my six year old mind that my grandfather was just sleeping. I'd never seen a dead body before and I really had no conception of what death was. Pa-Pa had always told me about ghosts and the undead--he called them haints--coming back to see their loved ones so I fully expected him to open his eyes and speak to me. You can imagine my deep disappointment when he did not. He was my hero and I loved him dearly. I'd always been afraid he'd go away like my daddy did and never come back. When I'd voice that fear, he'd tell me: "Baby girl, your Pa-Pa will always be here for you. When you need me, I'll be there. That's my promise to you."
Many years passed. I grew up. Got married. Had kids of my own. The youngest was just four months old when we were sent to Chanute A.F.B. in Illinois. Because my husband was a non-commissoned officer, we were assigned to base housing. Wherry Housing, as it is called, is like a two-story apartment building with usually five or six apartments per unit. The bedrooms and bath are upstairs. Since our children were both boys, we were given a two-bedroom unit. (Had we a boy and girl, we would have been given a three-bedroom unit). Separating the two bedrooms was a steep uncarpeted stairway.
At around three o'clock in the morning, I heard footsteps on the stairs. My husband was sleeping beside me and our oldest son was only three years old--much too small to make the heavy noise that I was hearing. My first thought was that we were being robbed. I was terrified but I couldn't seem to move. I was frozen in place. There is a term for that condition. It's called sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is the experience of waking up (usually from a dream) and feeling paralyzed, except for being able to breathe and move your eyes. Hypnogogic hallucinations (episodes of seeing and hearing things as one is falling asleep) and sleep paralysis often occur together.
I tell you this because it is the logical explanation for what happened that night. I was dreaming and woke, had a hypnogogic hallucination complete with sound. Sleep paralysis had taken hold of me. Yes, that's the logical explanation.
But I know in my heart--down deep in my soul--that it was no hallucination or parasomnia I experienced that night. That night, my grandfather came back from the dead to keep his promise.
As I am lying there--unable to move and sweating bullets--the footsteps stopped at the top of the stairs then turned toward our room. A dark shape came through the bedroom door and around to my side of the bed. I found myself staring up into the gently smiling, beloved face of my Pa-Pa. He was wearing the same suit and ever-present Fedora from the photo above. Same tie, too. BTW: he was buried in that suit.
All my fear evaporated as he stood there. I felt a soft breeze on my cheek then he said only one sentence: "Baby girl, go check on your son."
Just those seven words. Nothing more. His message imparted, he smiled again then slowly vanished. His leaving broke my paralysis and I sat bolt upright in the bed and screamed for my husband. Tommy jerked awake and I grabbed his arm. Shook him so hard I literally heard his teeth clicking together.
"Check on Michael!" I yelled "Check Michael!"
Tom didn't hesitate. He was out of the bed like a shot and ran across the landing to the baby's room.
It's a good thing he did. Mike had somehow gotten his blanket wrapped around his head and he was suffocating, unable to cry out. He was already blue by the time Tom tore it from him. Trembling like a leaf, he brought the baby in to me.
"How did you know?" he asked, his voice breaking.
"Baby girl, your Pa-Pa will always be here for you. When you need me, I'll be there. That's my promise to you."
Pa-Pa had kept his promise.