I never met my grandmother, who died when I was three, but my father has given me a fairly good idea of what it was like to have a mother who doubled as a spiritualist medium. In the late 1930s, when Grandma’s powers were at their peak, the public’s interest in spiritualism had waned considerably. Still, this didn’t stop her from renting nighttime space from the Niagara Falls Unitarian Church and proclaiming her spiritualist sect “The White Rose of the Free Psychic Truth.” My grandfather acted as church manager and sang duets with Grandma, accompanying her on piano or organ.
Cryptic titles aside, she gathered multitudes of friends and family who sought to connect to their dead loved ones in the supernatural world. Through the wisdom of the spirits, it was thought that questions or problems in the corporeal world could be answered. Entering a mild trance, she gained access to the spiritual realm, basically acting as a modem-cum-portal to the World Wide Web of the paranormal. A piece of clothing would be handed to her and she would be told who among the recently departed had owned it. The cloth acted as a sort of URL for the spirit in question, and various questions would be answered. Interpretation was key on Grandma’s part, as the thoughts, feelings, or images she received from the spirit would have to be depicted in terms the material world could understand. There didn’t seem to be any grand ceremony assisting her logging on and off to the various sites of the undead.
Somehow my father, then a young boy, perused comic books in the balcony, oblivious to any unearthly happenings taking place below. He now claims he had no real interest in the ghostly proceedings going on below, nor had he reason to doubt the authenticity of Grandma’s communications. People were often affected by the inter- action with their dear dead ones and altered their lives if they felt that the spirits wished it. Dad was just assuming that all families had some maternal figure that drenched herself in the preternatural.
Grandma ceased her psychic actions some time in the early 1940s, citing a distrust of her power and its source as her reason for abandoning her contacts with the dead. Still, Grandma would read people’s tea leaves on occasion, pronouncing the future of the tea drinkers, sometimes to their great dismay. The family joined the Presbyterian Church and lived out the rest of their lives as otherwise normal, first-generation immigrants in a rapidly changing physical world.
Jon Dryden is a freelance musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently working on an opera based on Albert Camus’s The Stranger.
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