“Three Generations of Sonder” by Chanel Earl

Jane – 1959

We rented a small basement apartment next to the University, so John could come home for lunch if he wanted to. But he often didn’t, which left us alone for ten, twelve, even sixteen hours on some days. And although we hadn’t planned on having another child while he was in school—I didn’t think I could handle a third—Linda was born the year after we moved in, small and screaming.

She was louder than our other children, but more delicate, and when I first saw her, I wondered if she had sensed that she was coming to a mother who felt as small and helpless as she looked. Life was a busy mess with three small children at home. Every day I woke up to cries from the next room. Then I fed, clothed, carried, played with, taught, cleaned, entertained, conversed with, and kept alive three small children until bedtime—when I climbed into a hole underneath my quilts and listened to John snore, waiting for morning.

Time passed. When Linda was over a year old my melancholy began to lift. My husband kept going to school, my kids kept crying and making messes, but my soul started to open up to moments of joy. The kids splashing in the bathtub or bringing me bouquets of dandelions. Classical music on the radio. Chocolate. Rain. Creating the perfect Baked Alaska.

And then—in what I expected to be a completely ordinary moment—shortly before her second birthday, during a weekday lunch hour, Linda grabbed my face between her two little hands and pulled it close to hers. She had strawberry jam on her fingers, and I wanted to pull away, but I could tell she had something important to say. She was born of me, but was more than just an extension of her mother. She was a real person, with desires and opinions of her own.

“Jam!” she screamed excitedly. Then she let go, and I wiped my smiling face, while she took a bite of her sandwich.

Linda – 1968

I don’t understand exactly why it hit me at that time. I remember thinking that my life, and the world around me were both falling apart. My parents had decided to get divorced, my uncle had just returned—injured—from Vietnam, my older siblings were pushing forcefully against every boundary, trying to find out what they could get away with.

And I—nine years old—felt like I was beginning to vanish, like I was evaporating into an atmosphere of violence and contention, slowly floating away, alone.

Then, although I neither expected nor sought to be, I was enlightened. I remember the very moment.

It was during primary. I was sitting next to the window, looking out at the parking lot, watching the wind and rain come down in sheets. It swirled around in the gutters and disappeared into large grates near the sidewalk. I was feeling sorry for myself, almost crying, and I noticed the other children laughing all around me. The teacher was telling a story.

I turned back to the window. Outside, a woman got out of her car and headed into the building. She didn’t have a jacket, just a dress that flipped around her legs with the wind. She raised her hands to protect her face and ran to the building.

I was warm and dry. And then I did start crying, to myself, as I turned back to class to listen.

Jessica – 1996

I was fifteen. Mom was driving to the grocery store. I was sitting in the passenger seat listening to “Piano Man” on the radio for the first time.

“I thought this was a happy song,” I said. “It’s called ‘Piano Man.’ I thought it was about, like, a happy man that played the piano for kids or something.”

She didn’t look at me because her eyes were on the road, but she responded by singing along with the music.

I always liked mom’s voice, even though I would have been so embarrassed if she sang like that in front of my friends. I probably should like her voice though, she was the person who sang me to sleep at night when I was a baby, not that I had any memory of it. Today she sang louder than usual, her alto fit right in with the voice on the radio, and it seemed like she had been waiting for a chance to sing this song for years. She knew it really well, and I wondered why I had never heard it before.

“He’s happy.” She said during a harmonica solo, “and he’s playing the piano for people, even if they’re not kids.”

I rolled my eyes at her, thinking she probably just liked the song because it was as old as she was. “Yeah, but they’re all sad. This song is depressing.”

I turned it down as we hit the corner of University and Fourth, next to the Walmart. Mom tapped the steering wheel as the next song came on, whatever it was. I just looked out the window at the cars—then at the people in the cars. It seemed like every car had one person in it. They were all waiting at the light, looking bored. Some of them played with their hands. One lady looked at herself in the mirror and picked at her teeth. A teenage boy was either singing or monologuing. A college student, probably only a few years older than me, crouched low over the steering wheel. She looked tired, and I wondered what kind of day she was going through.

“I’m not the center of the universe.” I thought. “All of these people have places to go and things to do and none of them have anything to do with me.”

“Family Tree” by Merrijane Rice

… I will liken thee,
O house of Israel,
like unto a tame olive tree …
Jacob 5:3

I don’t remember
how we started,
who was grafted into whom,

who first strengthened roots
and tamed bitter thoughts
to tenderness.

But I believe the Master
planted us together,
left us alone a while

not to make us desperate,
but to give time for turning
toward each other

to nourish away weakness
before we wither.
He waits at the gate,

hand poised
midway between grief
and hope.

“Orpheus Sings to Mary and Martha” by Emily Harris Adams

Lazarus is sealed up in the tomb, sleeping in the viper’s den.
And I know that you, like me, will want your God to set him free.
Lazarus is slipping down the path where I lost Eurydice again.

My Eurydice was sweet, with eyes innocent and open.
I thought to buy her freedom: offering my song and love, boundless as the sea.
Lazarus is sealed up in the tomb, sleeping in the viper’s den.

The path between life and death is rife with both Gods and men.
As traveler of that path, let me warn you: only Gods go and return safely.
Lazarus is slipping down the path where I lost Eurydice again.

Of all you have to offer, perfection is the only bid you can make and win.
And as good as you are, perfection is beyond your means to give or be.
Lazarus is sealed up in the tomb, sleeping in the viper’s den.

At the command of anyone less than a God, no tomb will open.
So, ask your God, not for a bargain, as I did with Hades and Persephone.
Lazarus is slipping down the path where I lost Eurydice again.

Ask your God to be the price, the ransom, the trade for men.
And ask for more than Lazarus. Ask for Eurydice. Ask for me.
Lazarus is sealed up in the tomb, sleeping in the viper’s den.
Lazarus is slipping down the path where I lost my Eurydice again.

“Perfection Is a Fullness” by Jeanine Bee

In the spring of 2020, all the temples were closed.

A few days later, my grandma showed up in my living room. Which wouldn’t have been so concerning had she not died twenty years ago.

At first I thought it was just me. An effect of extended isolation on my mental well-being, perhaps. But then some of my neighbors took to social media.

Does anyone have any tips for getting rid of ghosts??
You have one too?
3 at our house. They’ve taken over the basement!
Maybe garlic?
That’s vampires.
Try sprinkling peppermint oil around your house and putting a dab of clove oil behind your ears.

It soon appeared that every home in the neighborhood had at least one visiting relation. And as the days stretched on, we learned that the phenomenon was not limited to our suburb. A homeowner in Texas accidentally shot a hole through his back door when he wandered into his kitchen and found the specter of Davy Crockett rummaging through his junk drawer. And one couple in France was abruptly awakened on a Sunday morning to find Benjamin Franklin snuggled in between them like a child who’d had a nightmare.

Our new houseguests couldn’t communicate audibly, so we were left to conjecture as to their sudden arrival. The church released a statement about how, since the temples were closed, perhaps these spirits were seeking refuge in the home, another holy place. They quoted scripture—“neither can we without our dead be made perfect”—and they said that we’d been focusing on baptizing the dead, but now it was time to learn from our ancestors. Personally, I wasn’t sure what my grandma could teach me without any kind of discourse. It seemed like she just wanted to watch me go about my day, though I felt a little self-conscious, having her eyes on me all the time. I tried asking her questions, but she didn’t attempt to answer. Larissa Palmer down the street found an old Ouija board and thought that it might be a promising way to communicate with the spirits. They didn’t seem interested, though. Her own ghost rolled his eyes when she pulled out the board, finally indicating the letters that spelled out the phrase, “Put that nonsense away and find me a damn cigar.”

But it didn’t actually matter why they were here. We couldn’t get rid of them, so we adapted. A new trend appeared on social media called “ghosties,” where people would post selfies with their ghosts. Unfortunately, the ghosts didn’t appear on camera, so most of the pictures just looked like a normal selfie of you, standing in your empty bedroom, pointing at nothing.

Some people started attaching social status to the quality of their haunting. After digging through their family tree, the Millers proudly announced that the monk who regularly interrupted their family scripture study with wild gesticulating was none other than Martin Luther. And Sister Jordan, who had always faithfully done her family history work, claimed to know immediately that the woman who sat stoically in her late husband’s easy chair was Harriet Tubman. Both women seemed pleased with the company.

Of course, most of us just kept living our lives. Rebecca Cho told me that her great-aunt Deborah had taken to following her around the house, shaking her head disapprovingly as she watched Rebecca complete housework. It was a little obnoxious, sure. But Aunt Deborah also taught Rebecca some great recipes, standing over her shoulder and pointing at the spice cabinet as Rebecca cooked.

As for me, my grandma’s arrival didn’t really change my day-to-day. For the most part, she didn’t demand any attention. She often sat in the corner of the room, an adoring smile on her face as she watched my kids play together, or read over my shoulder as I worked on a writing project. I was nine when she had died, and most of my memories of her were tainted by cancer. I didn’t remember her looking so fresh, with plump cheeks that pinked up when she smiled. Sometimes she would stand by the bookcase and indicate to a book she wanted me to open, and in a quiet moment we would sit on the bed together and flip through a Romantic poetry anthology or a collection of fairy tales. I hadn’t known how much she loved reading. And one day I found her sitting at the piano, her eyes closed, her fingers poised, melting down into the keys as she tried to play a song. I sat on the bench next to her, and she looked excited, pointing to one specific book of Debussy songs. I flipped through the pages until she motioned for me to stop at an Arabesque. The book fell open easily, the spine worn on what was one of my own favorite songs to play. And as I sat at the piano, my fingers strong and willowy, my grandma closed her eyes and placed her wispy hands over mine, and together we swayed as the notes filled every empty place.

“Resurrection by Easter 2020” by Selina Forsyth

Our god has slept,
though somewhat fitfully,
for a few days. Maybe weeks.
How we long for the promised return,
preferably stronger than before.

But resurrections, we have learned, require a sacrifice.
This time it is not heart nor spirit our god demands
(we have already given these)
but lungs –
perhaps a million,
perhaps two.
The lungs of the aged, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned –
all probably strangers –
and those who dare to care for them.

Though our god cannot offer itself for us,
as we have heard some Gods do,
it wins our devotion with this exalted vision:
a zion society
in which “every man prospers according to his genius,
and every man conquers according to his strength.”

But if the lungs that Mammon requires end up being yours or mine,
instead of our distant brother’s
(we were never his keeper anyway)
will we still say “all is well in zion, because zion prospereth”?