I read an essay by Amy Tan last year, for an English project where we had to write a personal essay about something that we believed in — a philosophy, an aspect of our religion, or anything else that would qualify as a worldview worth sharing. Tan wrote an essay about ghosts, and being able to really see them after her mother died. She saw her grandmother’s ghost, her brother’s, her father’s, her
mother’s — all of the ghosts of her family that she had sensed her entire life but had not ever seen before.
I think about this essay often, but especially now that it’s summer, since summer has come to be a many-forked road. Summer is the cusp between spring and fall, the seasons of birth and death, as nature has exemplified. Summer is the stretch between two school years, the bridge shrouded in a mist of opportunity and the unknown for students to navigate until the bell tolls once again in September.
But summer is also the season between my family's annual pilgrimage to the cemetery upstate where my relatives are buried. Once every spring, my family goes to pay respect to our ancestors during Qingming, otherwise known as the “Tomb-Sweeping Day” or “Ancestors Day” in English. We bring boxes of fresh fruit, sweets, meats, and drinks, as well as paper goods — money, clothes, jewelry, houses for those that had died very recently — up the winding and mountainous paths of the cemetery until we reach the graves of our ancestors. We always start at my great-grandmother’s grave; clean the headstone, plant two bunches of flowers on either side of it, wedge incense sticks into the thin strip of dirt in front of it and kowtow with bundles of three smoking joss sticks in our hands.
My mother always told me that we should speak to the dead at this time, and take the opportunity to tell them everything that we held dear in our hearts. I usually had to grasp at the corners of my mind for stories to tell my great-grandmother, since I had never known her. But once we made our way to my grandfather’s grave, I’d kowtow on the corrugated cardboard we laid over the dewy grass of early morning, and stay there silent for a while; I whispered secrets to him internally, and I’d speak to him like I did back when he was alive. Sometimes, I swore when I stood up, I’d see his smile wrinkle in the clouds above. It’s almost like his ghost actually hears me, almost like ghosts are just people who are living in limbo.
When I remember ghosts, I remember my ancestors and everything that I was in a past life. Now, in the sweltering heat of summer, I am left with time to reflect upon them. As we approach autumn in a few short months, we approach a waning of life. We spend our summers living in between two divides. When you think about it, our entire lifespans are graphs of exponential decay; each year becomes a smaller fraction of our life until we’re practically speeding through the ends of our lives and time has once again become a social construct that has no impact on the decisions we make in our lives because by then, we’d be too old to experience time fully. By then, we’d have become ghosts ourselves, lost in the past and present. But if there’s anything to be learned about speaking with ghosts, it’s that you learn to appreciate the present more than you used to. So why don’t we, before we get stolen away by the infinite space of limbo?
Stephanie Tom is a high school student who lives in New York. She's an editor for her school newspaper, and an assistant editor for her school literary magazine. She has previously won a Gold Key from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her poetry, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dear Damsels, Hypertrophic Literary and elsewhere.