Requiescat In Pace

by D. E. Fredd

Precious few of my ancestors ever succeeded in accomplishing anything of consequence.  They are an undistinguished lot, and there is no basis to suspect any drastic change in the future.  High school diplomas are more common now than they were fifty years ago, but the academic records left behind by these "scholars" still point to a deficiency in intellect as well as ambition.  Only my cousin Teddy saw fit to better himself beyond high school by enrolling in a two year technical college.  That was back in 1972. He lasted a semester before dropping out to marry and take a job selling Singer sewing machines.

My Uncle Ben sells discount furniture in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  My father still prints handbills, advertising flyers and business cards with my mother aiding that modest income by hand-lettering shop window signs (SALE, EVERYTHING MUST GO!) in and around Gatesboro, Massachusetts.  I have two uncles who claim they chased Rommel out of North Africa and a second cousin, Lester, whose proudest possession and longest story concerns a framed picture, his arms spread-eagled and resting on the shoulders of two buddies, the three of them leaning against a huge, tooth-like chunk of the Maginot Line.

All in all, then, as you run your hand along the handrail of time back through my lineage, it is unquestionably so lackluster, so unobtrusive as to lull one into taking it for granted ad infinitum until suddenly, like a barely recessed splinter, my great grandfather appears from nowhere, either a genetic throwback to some ancestor we have no record of or a complete mutation altogether.

The few photographs we have show him standing ramrod straight even into his late eighties.  During an era when most men left school just after learning to read and write, he graduated from Harvard.  His class picture shows him third from the right, second row, unsmiling and uncharacteristically mustached as though paying the rest of the forty-odd classmates a courtesy by not interrupting the continuity of the hirsute style for that era. 

The class annual of 1890 considered him "introspective," and a "man who will go just as far as his drive will take him."  He is also listed as a member of the Key Society and a contributor to the university newspaper.  The blurb ends with the cryptic remark, "Can always find time for the Charles."

After graduation he married.  The woman was older, thoroughly sophisticated, and had maintained economic independence before marriage by authoring and illustrating a series of children's books that proved quite popular.

The marriage lasted just under two years when she died of influenza, leaving my great grandfather a young widower of twenty-eight with no more direction in life than to leave New York City and return to his ancestral roots of McKeesport, in western Pennsylvania.  There he entered the funeral business his parents and grandparents had established and handed over to their oldest son and an unmarried daughter, Carl and Carla, who had waited so patiently for the will to be read and were therefore the most deserving.

My great grandfather's decision to join his brother and sister in the mortuary business was a travesty.  He was welcome insofar as he was family and something must always be found for relatives to do, particularly grief-stricken ones.  Yet they considered his return a direct admission not only of his failure but also a certain lack of judgment in biting off more of the outside Ivy League world than he could chew. 

Probably to counter the boredom he found in McKeesport, he married again, this time to Carl's wife's sister. This would indicate he exerted no more effort to find a second mate than to look up from reading the latest issue of The American Scholar at breakfast and absently consent to the match. 

Strangely, the marriage lasted.  He drove the team that pulled Carl's hearse, and learned embalming and cosmetology in such a short space of time that he was on a par with Carl who had been at it fifteen years longer.  The undertaking business suited him because his time was virtually his own.  It was his patent rule that he never appear, as did Carl, with a professionally doleful look on his face to comfort the departed's loved ones.  Carl handled the social and personal end of things while my great grandfather stayed contentedly in the background.  He received a salary and lived with his new bride, Mary, in the small three-room apartment above the casket storage warehouse.  There was a rumor that he wrote a novel, failed finding a publisher and subsequently destroyed it.  This seems unlikely. 

He did, however, correspond frequently with the novelist Frank Norris, having met him during the latter's brief foray at Harvard.  When Norris died in 1902 my great grandfather left for Pittsburgh where he boarded a train for the funeral.  It took him a month to return and, when asked for an explanation by Carl, Carla and his wife Mary, he said that he had taken a respite from many funerals to concentrate on one.

From that point on death grew more important to him.  During the afternoons in Carl's basement he worked with Carl as they processed the dead, slowly pumping the fluids to ward off the agonizing smell that would eventually win out anyway.  Rather than ignore or overlook what surrounded him, he became more intrigued by it.

It was then that his interest in the psychic surfaced; an interest that went beyond the evening sťance or a mildly diverting Oui-ja board.  It was the result of a mind which for the past few years seemed to have been lying fallow but which had always been searching for just the right subject to devote a lifetime to, and by sheer accident he found it, like Poe's famous purloined letter, in the most unlikely spot, his own vocation.

Most people view death as the accepted consequence of living, assuaged at crucial moments by kindly references in the Scriptures to a life beyond, an assumption which the majority of the populace agree with for the lack of anything more optimistic.  Conscious of this, my great grandfather pursued his interest in silence.  For the better part of two years he read avidly on the subject.  The funeral business became a distraction.  To save what little family honor there was his wife, Mary, took his place at the embalming table and bought him time he would otherwise have stolen.

 He appeared to be in perpetual thought.  By 1908 he managed to write a critical appraisal of the spiritualist D. D. Home, taking the summer of the following year to travel alone to Scotland and England to do research as well as visit Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also a devotee of the psychic, and to set up a joint European and American Research Organization.

Upon his return, he discovered Mary had given birth to a child.  That daughter, my grandmother, was a considerable nuisance as she was a constant reminder of paternal and financial responsibilities as well as a vocal distraction to his studies, though his diaries reveal something that was dominating his mind even more.

It seems that the good people of McKeesport and environs were having second thoughts about their local undertaker having an interest in the "next plane."  Business fell off.  It was comparable to a family physician becoming an authority on voodoo.  He was tampering with a natural process, something considered dangerous by some, foolish by others.  The local newspaper often pointed to the apparent paradox with such headlines as BURIER OF DEAD ATTEMPTS RESURRECTION and UNDERTAKER FORMS CLUB TO CONTACT DEAD.  None of these stories ever came close to the real truth, but from that time on my great grandfather never granted interviews or spoke with anyone except a trusted few whose interests were much his own.

His experiments in the area of the psychic rarely awed him.  It was a simple case of a rational man attempting to cope with death by academic methods.  His writings were heavily laden with obtuse scientific terms.  He lectured and wrote on such topics as dynamism, poltergeists and astral projection.  His works were well thought out and invariably marshaled their insights into some grand schema.

His labor, however, brought him little or nothing financially.  The funeral parlor, now fully in the hands of Carl, gradually began to climb back into a respectable profit-making enterprise since great grandfather had been publicly disassociated from it.  Privately, Carl kept him on to embalm now and then and to do other odd jobs as he was his only brother and, more importantly, his wife's sister's husband.

Freed from the bulk of life's more mundane tasks, great grandfather traveled regularly to New York to lecture and bring back mountains of information to be sifted through in order to separate fact from fiction with respect to the many who claimed to have psychic power.  Charlatans, the bereaved and the genuinely curious sought him out in person or by mail for endorsement, consolation or mere entertainment. 

Several mediums came to stay, often having to be fed and clothed by Mary, who was torn between her husband's hospitality and neighborhood opinion. The legendary Mrs. Fitch, though aging and her powers waning, was a house guest for three weeks.  Marcus Gateway, Lionel Partridge as well as the Albrecht-Meyer sisters had longer stays.  As would any man surrounded by such luminaries for so long a time, he took it all in stride.  Contacts from beyond were a nightly occurrence, rarely mentioned unless they proved strikingly eventful.  Marcus Gateway brought through great grandfather's dear, departed first wife, Cora, and she and my great grandfather chatted as amiably as long lost friends over Sunday chicken dinner.

Several times during this period my great grandfather buttonholed Carl to inform him that, during some of the sťances, their parents had been asking about him.  Carl, who suspected any contact with the dead not only a sham but also a religious sacrilege, never attended.  Carla was finally persuaded to attend a gathering headed by Lionel Partridge, and, in her first sťance, she was thoroughly berated by her own mother for not having treated her black sheep of a brother with more respect. Rather than being overwhelmed by the fact that she was talking to her dead parents, she took umbrage with the message and abruptly left, like someone hearing Edison's first phonograph recording and considering it a waste of time because she didn't particularly like the tune.  She was never again to speak to her brother until after her death when she came through the medium Evelyn Pierce to offer a tearful apology.

The only interested member of the family was his wife Mary.  Much of what she had to endure at the sťances took some courage.  Quite frankly, my great grandfather found his dead wife Cora much more interesting than any members of his living family.  Being more intelligent than Mary and possessed of an extraordinary wit, she could easily devastate those present when she took a notion to.  She announced rather callously one evening that, at the time of her death, she had been two months pregnant but had not revealed it to anyone.  As much as this was a shock to my great grandfather, as well as to Mary, he checked it out down to the last detail and found medical records to back it up.  This event, above all others, convinced most of the family of the powers that lay hidden beyond them, and which they genuinely began to fear.

To their way of thinking my great grandfather had spies checking on their every movement as well as diviners of the future pointing out to everyone but themselves the pitfalls that were to befall them.  Fear turned to hate, envy to revenge, limited conversation into strict silence and avoidance.  Carl found someone else to do his embalming, and my great grandfather had to find somewhere else to live.

With wife Mary and daughter Susan in tow, he moved to London under the auspices of the Kirkland Institute of Psychic Research and was installed as director.  His salary was small but adequate and his only official task, aside from investigating psychic incidents, was to edit a monthly newsletter.

His most noteworthy achievement in England was a concise study of several mediums.  He set about, not to authenticate spiritualism to the world, but to produce one of the most probing, factual accounts of this strange power ever written.  He failed insofar as he never reached a definite conclusion as to the gift. "A precise behavioral pattern does not exist for one gifted with psychic powers; mediums differ in ability, power, intellectuality and moral values as much as do the general population" (Edward Dedham Burroughs, The Crossing of the Bar, Ridgeway Press: London, 1913, p. 97).

His investigation was quite newsworthy, the most notable event being the unmasking of the celebrated Madame Chamblee.   This was retracted somewhat as Madame Chamblee had been a gifted medium but, with advancing age, had lost most of her power and resorted to trickery in an attempt to keep up her reputation.  There were several lawsuits, so a return to the United States was dictated to avoid the legal struggles on the continent.

Once back on native soil the family lodged in New York City, where he and Mary were swept up by the cognoscente of the time.  Writers, artists and political figures were guests in their lower Manhattan apartment.  Financially, with magazine articles, book advances as well as the lecture circuit, he was doing well.  There were several inducements to get him to set up a psychic advisory council which would sit in regular session to conjure up the future and distribute its findings to the public, something akin to an elected congress.   Rather than make a public appeal for funds for the venture, he financed it himself, retaining Marcus Gateway and the legendary Mrs. Dove as consultants.

With them he launched a new publication, The Futurist, which had a circulation of nearly 100,000 after its first two issues.  Harvard granted him an honorary doctorate and paid lip service to his magazine.  At first, the publication strove to predict events of general interest.  But the public clamored for something more.  There was a move afoot to elect him president and run the entire country using mediums and seers.  In 1923 Mrs. Dove let loose the exact time, date and place of Woodrow Wilson's death which, a year later, proved correct. 

This event, above all others, launched The Futurist, perhaps most unwillingly, into a new arena.  It was slowly being pushed into the political and economic area.  Public pressure mounted for the publication to tell all, and the periodical, hesitantly and with much reservation, began to do just that.  The Crash of 1929 and the election of Harding and Hoover were some of the predictions, but they were prognosticated well before they happened and therefore were largely forgotten when they occurred.

In 1926 my great grandmother Mary died, just two months after her only child, Susan, passed away in England during the birth of her first child (later to become my mother).  At fifteen Susan had married an Englishman who claimed theatrical ambitions.  Soon after the marriage and announced pregnancy, he ceased aspiring to much of anything and opened up a pub, the profits of which he soon drank up. He slipped from the scene as obsequiously as possible after Susan's death.  The child, Caroline, my mother, was brought back to the States by my great grandfather.

With the Depression came the decline of The Futurist.  He had foreseen the event and managed to save enough to get through the tough times.  His spiritual council disbanded formally, each to seek out a living as best they could, though they remained close via letter and occasional visit.  Great grandfather moved to New England, taking a small farm in Western Massachusetts near Gatesboro, hiring a Mrs. Landis as his housekeeper/nurse for Caroline and throwing himself completely into his studies.

Political and economic future no longer interested him.  He, in his advancing age, was becoming obsessed with the thought of his own demise.  He studied other religions and philosophies, and, after teetering on the edge of several, plunged wholly into reincarnation.  Just what advantage he felt this offered over what seemed to be adequate proof of an after-life based on his many contacts I don't know.  To his way of thinking an individual had as many choices as he had knowledge of those choices.  No one who was ignorant of reincarnation could be reincarnated.  The same was true of any other religion or system of beliefs.

Great grandfather was well aware of the next plane from his contacts with his first wife.  Cora's description of her state fell short of his specifications.  First, he considered it too static, not quite the thing for a mind that enjoyed mystery and challenge.  It was true that others who were talented carried on with their work from beyond.  Dickens managed to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood through a spiritualist, and Schumann composed some chamber pieces from beyond but both, getting a few things off their chests one evening through the gifted Mrs. Dove, complained of the inadequacies of working that way.  They not only had to create, with all the difficulties involved, their own works of art, but then had to transpose such works to the mind of a living being, often less critical, talented or flexible, who would try to represent their wishes as best they could.  Those spiritualists (Ethel Carney was one) who could be taken over completely by the writer, composer or painter in such a way that he could work through them were few and far between.

Aside from what great grandfather considered "bad working conditions," his notebooks describe, again based largely on his contacts with the other side, that "life" on the next plane was rather dreamlike with a sense of time completely absent.  Individuals did not speak to one another directly except by crossing into the plane of the living and going through a medium, something comparable to going from Boston to New York via Tokyo.

Form was absent.  Things existed, if at all, in wispy patterns of veiled thought.  Everything was viewed through a gauze curtain, and these amorphous vagaries were highly ephemeral and almost naughtily ceased to exist or else skirted the fringes of the mind just as one perched on the edge of insight to them.  Boredom did not exist but neither did interest.  Drive, ambition as well as lethargy were devoid of presence.  Instead, perpetual narcosis possessed the mind with the important difference being that the individual was cognizant of this state.  It was as if two states of semi-consciousness existed; one dream-like, the other the apprehension of the dream-like, yet both existed at the same instant, making it impossible to see either in perspective.  It was a mirror image looking at another mirror image. The appeal of this was largely negative to him, as wonderful as it may have seemed to others.  If it came down to it, he would accept it and make do as best he could.  But the real goal, the only solution to death as far as he was concerned, was reincarnation.  It was his best solution and was researched to the degree that it finally became his most firmly entrenched belief.  By 1938 a schema for his philosophy was fully developed and published privately, Samsara.

With that finally settled and confident that he would be coming back after death in another form, he returned to the study of spiritualism with a nostalgic bent, fondly recalling all his past experiences.  He traveled.  He returned to London in 1941, and though in the midst of war it was still nearly the same as he remembered it when he had lived there.  He treated it as a place he would never see again, which was to be expected for he had been able, through the aid of Cora, to forecast the end of his own life in 1951, and he began to live in accordance with that event on the not so distant horizon.

He visited old friends and toured the English countryside when German planes would allow it.  When the United States entered the war, he returned and offered his services to Roosevelt and was at least given the courtesy of being listened to with half an ear.  He made a sojourn to Virginia Beach to see Edgar Cayce, and his notes reveal that he was favorably impressed.  He was approached to do his memoirs but refused under the premise that he would rather spend the last few years of his life living it than sitting in a room immersed in the dead past.

In 1945 he attended the occasion of my birth with no more pomp and circumstance than he had any other.  He still lived in the same Gatesboro farmhouse, only now he had his grown granddaughter, her husband and me as boarders.  A few years later, 1949 or '50 if I recall correctly, I was asked to visit his study on the second floor.  He overlooked my presence for a good quarter of an hour then asked me a few questions which I vaguely remember as nothing extraordinary before dismissing me.  I was to learn much later from his notebooks that behind my name on that day he had written, "A second Carl" and followed it up with the observation that "one would have been enough!"  That remark still burdens me to this day.

Towards the end he was eccentric in my father's eyes and by most everyone else who knew him.  He preferred hot soup for breakfast, the English custom of tea in the late afternoon and nothing more substantial than fruit before bed.  He allowed my mother and father full use of his home, from which my father kept a small printing business barely above water.  His only stipulation was that the press be used during the late morning or early evenings when, weather permitting, he took his walks. My parents paid little attention to him and most any conversation immediately ceased whenever he entered or passed through a room.

In February of 1951 he began putting his study in order, speaking of the future beyond May 9th, his predicted date of death, with no more regret than if he had forgotten an umbrella on a threatening day and was now too far from home to go back and get it.  My birthday was in August.  He presented me with a gift in March.  He always gave books.  Even though I was not yet six this one was Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop.  His own books and papers were sent to London to the society on which he still sat as ex officio.  Other possessions, less important, were stored in the attic.  Money was taken from the bank and deposited in my mother's savings account.  He grew more and more within himself as though preoccupied with the idea of having forgotten something of major importance. 

Friends and associates were written to, periodicals and newspapers were cancelled and bills brought up to date.  Towards the end of April, his organization caught up to him and he was left idle.  His books and papers having been stowed, he was relegated to pacing in his room in mounting irritation as though waiting for a train which, due to the inefficiency of the crew, would not arrive on time. 

During the evenings he would come down to the parlor where the three of us sat and listen to a baseball game with forced interest.  Idle conversation had never been part of his lifestyle where it concerned adults, so he often passed the time with me; my benign, childish observations were like background music in a department store.

On May 7th, a Friday evening, he forbade us to leave the house for the weekend or to invite anyone to visit. He phoned New York and left specific instructions for Arnold Copley, his legal advisor and trusted friend, to come to Pittsfield for the weekend and be at the farm no later than 8 AM on Monday the 10th.  It was Copley's task to transport the body back to New York where it was to be cremated, the ashes taken to England and then to India to be spread in equal parts in both places. 

On Saturday the 8th he barely slept.  Downstairs we could hear him pacing about for the better part of the day and night.  Sometime before midnight he came down and asked my father for a bottle of brandy.  Just after 2 AM my parents heard all movement cease. My mother went up to look in on him, found the brandy half gone and great grandfather in a sound but somewhat sonorous sleep.

The next day my mother and I went to church, returning to find my father sitting on the porch leafing through the Sunday papers, and my grandfather still alive and well in his room, just having finished his morning mulligatawny soup, though breaking custom by topping it off with a piece of mince pie.  We spent that entire day sitting on the front porch, our ears attuned to any sounds inside.  During prolonged moments of silence, my mother would go to the foot of the stairs and in a soft voice call out "Grandfather?" in steadily mounting octaves until she caught a noise from above that convinced her it was best to return to the porch.

After twilight there was a light tapping noise (he considered it befitting to carry a cane though he did not need one) from the room. One after another we mounted the stairs.  He lay fully clothed in the usual black suit and the thin shoestring tie he always wore on every occasion great or small.  His hands were folded comfortably across his stomach, as if signifying nothing more than an afternoon nap after a heavy meal.  His eyes were the only sign of life, and they stared out over the end of the bed towards some remote part of the room.  His last words before I entered had been, "Let the boy see," and I had been dutifully brought closer to him.  We stood by the bedside, my mother, in time-honored accord with approaching death, weeping silently.  My father was somewhat indignant over the power a frail, dying man could have.  There was a pause in his periodic breathing and just beyond the window the last remnants of light were being absorbed by the closing shadow of the house itself.  We tried to focus on his face which, immobile as it was, seemed to twitch occasionally.

There was the sound of a deep breath being drawn as if one were about to begin an arduous athletic feat, then it was released very slowly and barely above this sigh came the words, "They've come for me."  Then with a slight smile of inward satisfaction that a man can only have after spending a lifetime building something which he lives to see work to perfection, he died. 

We waited in the room for some time until my father took matters into his own hands, switched on the lamp and approached the bed.  Mother noted the time.  It was 9:10 PM.  Somehow we had all expected something earth-shattering, or, if not, then at the very least some mystical symbol or phenomena like a screeching owl or a clap of thunder.

Mr. Copley was called and advised us that he would be out early the next morning but, until then, a doctor would be needed to sign off on the death.  We called the county hospital and an ambulance, Klaxon blaring, was dispatched rather than the coroner, a mistake due to my mother's highly emotional state at the time she called.  They arrived, licensed his right to die, and departed.  The following morning Copley arrived and he was removed, taken by hearse to Springfield and placed on the New York City train.  Mother cleaned the room thoroughly, changed the curtains and replaced the entire lot of furniture.  His minimal belongings were removed from the room and packed away in the cellar. 

A week later my father invited his older brother, Ben, to come and stay with us, and he was placed in the newly vacated room while we, the heirs to my great grandfather's modest estate, settled back quite comfortably into our precious family mediocrity.

Uncle Ben went into the mushroom-raising business in our cellar and, after that went belly up, moved into the discount furniture business, where he was skillful enough to talk his customers into buying on credit.

My father went back to printing wedding announcements and campaign leaflets any time he felt like it.  I grew up, dropped out of school, spent four years in the navy, married and took a job as a letter carrier.  Eight years ago I inherited the family homestead.  Through the many years since great grandfather's death, I've kept a lookout for signs of his reincarnation.  None has ever surfaced although, each evening, as Maureen and I sit in our matching recliners enjoying the latest reality or game show on the fifty-inch plasma TV, our  black lab, a stray who showed up a few years ago, stares at us from across the room with a look that borders on disdain.   At times it's discomforting enough that we go upstairs, shut the door and finish watching on the small black and white set in our bedroom.

© 2007 by D. E. Fredd.

D. E. Fredd has been published in over fifty journals and reviews. He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005. A novel, Exiled to Moab, will debut this spring.