My Ghost

Imagine leaving all of the unpleasant things from the old year behind and just starting all over again in the new year.  Now that we’ve entered the second month of 2024 I’m aware of the 2023 residue that clings – wars, extreme weather, lingering effects of the pandemic, political animosity.  To say that we’re living in unsettled times is an understatement.  And it makes me anxious.

But in addition to the anxiety that I brought into this year with me, I also brought a surprising source of inspiration: Matilda.  Matilda Hoyt Alexander, to be precise.

I never met Matilda. Not in this life, anyway.

She was my ghost.

When I say she was my ghost, I mean that she was the ghost I portrayed in my town’s annual October Ghost Walk, sponsored by our local historical society.  On the appointed Sunday afternoon, in one of our many cemeteries, we “ghosts” position ourselves by our gravestones as the audience gathers to hear stories of lives and times long since forgotten.

Our ghosts are generally pretty ordinary folks, though over the years I’ve been assigned a handful of colorful characters.  I’ve played a hysterical woman who discovered a corpse, a cantankerous centenarian, and a drunk.  Matilda was none of those things.  At least, not that I know of.

To prepare my part I had few bits of information that a town historian gleaned from property and census records: her birth and death dates, places she lived and with whom, what she did for a living (dressmaking and running a hotel with her husband).  The juiciest bit was that after 30 years of marriage, and no children, her husband divorced her for abandonment.  All told, it was a meager collection of facts.

But I soon realized that the 93 years of her life (1844 to 1936) spanned decades of extraordinary turbulence and change.  Technological wonders emerged, like the telephone and the radio.  And transportation was revolutionized. When she was born the common mode of transportation was horseback or some form of horse drawn vehicle.  When she died, she may well have been carried to the cemetery in a motorized hearse.  The transcontinental railroad was completed, and not only automobiles, but airplanes were invented – and used in wars.

And, oh the wars!  The Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, or the Great War, as she would have known it.

Her lifetime saw not one, but three presidents assassinated.  She survived the 1918 flu pandemic. When people were instructed to isolate and wear masks. If you can imagine that!

She lived through emancipation, the first impeachment of a president, reconstruction, the rise of the KKK, the enactment of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, the “Roaring Twenties” and prohibition, followed by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

And all of this was happening while she busied herself sewing and cooking and welcoming guests.

Reading her obituary, you learn that many cards and flowers were sent to her survivors.  It would seem that she was blessed with a number of friends.  Clearly, she valued relationships.

This is who I brought with me when I stepped out of 2023 and over the threshold of 2024 because I recognized that she has a lot to teach about a life well lived.

As much as I hate to admit it, there are times that I look at the turbulence and the collective angst that seem so prevalent in our world and I feel overwhelmed, and I don’t know how to respond.  And then I remember Matilda.  It’s true that what we’re living through and what she lived through are not exactly the same, but the effects on us are similar.

Matilda teaches us the value of living an ordinary life to the fullest in our own era of extraordinary change.   Like her, most of us will never do anything that will alter the course of history.  But tending what is ours to tend in this world and contributing to the life of our community matters.  A lot.  This is how we lay a foundation for others to build upon.  A foundation that’s necessary to hold us as we undergo the inevitable and necessary changes that help us to grow and evolve so we can confidently move from one year to the next.