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Land of the Spirits

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New Mexico’s official state slogan is “Land of Enchantment,” adopted by the railroad industry to encourage tourism, but the Anasazi word from which that saying originated actually means “Land of the Ancient Ancestors” or, alternatively, “Land of the Enemy Ancestors,” and New Mexico is, indeed, a land filled with the spirits of ancestors and of the deceased.

I’ve been able to see spirits — some might call them “ghosts” — since I was a little girl. Of course, I never told anyone in my family about them: they would have just said I was making up stories. But I did tell a few of my friends, who also wanted to see them but never could, especially after we moved into the house that even my parents declared was “haunted.”

The first time I realized we were living in a house of spirits was when I was 11 years old. I was “babysitting” my siblings on New Year’s Eve while my mother and stepfather went out for the night. I was sitting in the living room, watching old movies, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little girl — about the same age as I was — sitting on the steps, holding on to the railings, her face pressed against the wood.

At first, I thought it was one of my siblings — most specifically, my younger sister, who, being only about a year and a half younger than I was, didn’t understand why she couldn’t also stay up to babysit our younger brother. When I turned toward the stairs to tell her to go back to bed, however, there was no one there. I wasn’t frightened: I simply thought she’d jumped up and run back to our bedroom.

I turned my attention back to whatever movie I was watching. I don’t remember the title, only that it was an old one, and that it was in black-and-white. The little girl reappeared. Without turning my head, I told my sister to go back to bed because she wasn’t “old enough to babysit” (like I was, at age 11, but things were different back in those days). The little girl didn’t move. Annoyed that she was “disobeying” me, I turned to her again. She wasn’t there. No one was.

Now I began to feel goosebumps on my arms, and an unsettling fluttering in my stomach. I turned away from the staircase. I could distinctly see the little girl in my peripheral vision. She was wearing a nightgown, had a blanket and doll, and had long blonde curls. She was just sitting there on the stairs, looking at me. She was most definitely not my little sister.

I didn’t tell my parents when they got home in the early morning hours, woke me from the chair where I’d fallen asleep, and shuffled me off to bed, shutting off the TV, where the off-air signal was blaring.

Soon, my mother began to complain about something unusual in the house. Actually, about lots of unusual “somethings” that were going on: the vacuum being unplugged from the wall while she was running it, the stove burner being turned off while she was cooking, the washing machine dial being pulled out (thus, turned off) in the middle of a load, hearing footsteps when she was alone in the basement, things moving around the house, footsteps.

My stepfather heard the footsteps, too, most often late at night long after we children were in bed. He’d stand at the bottom of the stairs and shout, “Get back in bed. Quit running around. Don’t make me come up there.” Except we were all in bed, usually sound asleep, and we simply didn’t know what he was talking about.

I began to see the little girl more often, all over the house. My parents experienced more disturbances around the house: the locked front door unlocked and open, the screen door from the kitchen to the back yard unlocked and propped open, flowers from the “garden” along the walk uprooted and left on the sidewalk that led from the house to the garage at the back of the property. Noises: running footsteps, giggling, crying, talking — always in the room next to the one they were in, or upstairs, or in the basement — crying, sobbing, weeping.

They had the house exorcised by a Catholic priest (and these were the days before The Exorcist, book or film). Things got worse. They talked to the neighbors, who readily admitted that previous residents had complained of the same things, mentioning a little girl who’d died in the house under mysterious circumstances, a little girl whose parents had been forced to leave the house and the neighborhood because of suspicions about their involvement in her death. No one, the neighbors told my parents, had lived in the house longer than 6-9 months. It was haunted: that, they claimed, was why my parents had gotten such a large house for so little money.

They had the house exorcised again, this time by the Monseigneur himself. I watched from the adjoining rooms as he made his way around the house. As long as I didn’t turn my head, I could see the little girl standing beside me. The second exorcism, too, worsened the “hauntings.” My mother insisted that she couldn’t live in the house any longer, especially since the “ghosts” — she always insisted there were more than one, although I never saw more than the little girl — seemed to have a special animosity toward her.

I wasn’t surprised. She was violent and abusive. I assumed the little girl didn’t like my mother any more than her own children did, myself included.

We moved after 3 years, though my parents hadn’t yet repaid my mother’s parents for the loan they borrowed from them for the downpayment. My mother tearfully insisted that she simply couldn’t take the “persecution” anymore.

Over the years, more in some places than others, I continued to see spirits, always noticing that if I turned my head to look at them straight on, I couldn’t see them. Sometimes, they seemed sad, sometimes angry. Mostly, though, they just seemed to be there. With me. Near me. I didn’t know why. When I was younger, it never occurred to me to try to communicate with them. I just accepted their presence as a part of my life experience.

After my boyfriend and I moved to New Mexico, officially “The Land of Enchantment,” but really “The Land of The Ancestors” or “The Land of the Spirits,” I saw spirits more often than I ever had before, especially after we moved to the little house on Big Rock Candy Mountain. I saw the pets we’d lost to death — even those who’d never lived in that house — and I saw lots of old Spanish women, dressed all in black, including veils, walking around the house outside. I saw them from the porch, through the windows, going down the flagstone path to the bridge over the arroyo that cuts across our entire yard, moving among the trees in the back yard.

I talked to my adopted Little Brother about it: he’s Lakhota, and I thought he’d understand. He was envious. He told me he wanted to be so “spiritually advanced” and “intuitive” that spirits appeared to him. I was confused. He told me that he’d talk to the Grandfathers (the Elders of his tribe) about the spirits I was seeing, but assured me that it was a privilege (he lived in New Mexico for a time when he was young, but apparently, never saw any spirits).

The Grandfathers were very impressed, he told me, and said that the spirits of ancestors — not necessarily personal ancestors, but of humans in general — only appeared to those around whom they felt safe. The Grandfathers told him that spirits, animal or human, always appear first in one’s peripheral vision and that if you turn your head, you will no longer be able to see them.

“Eventually, when they feel safe enough around her,” the Grandfathers told my Little Brother, “the spirits of the ancestors will appear in front of her. Just tell her not to look at them when they come to her: they’ll come around in front of her one day. Perhaps, they’ll even talk to her.”

My Little Brother was very excited. I was stunned. Seeing spirits meant that I was “spiritually advanced” and “extremely intuitive”? I could agree with the latter statement since many therapists had told me that, and I was, after all, a writer who listened to my intuition when writing my stories, novels, and poetry. The Grandfathers told me, via my Brother, that I could speak to the Ancestors and Spirits — I didn’t have to do it aloud — and that my acknowledging them would make the Spirits feel safer.

I did, sending the old women around the house, who seemed to be Spanish ancestors, welcome and blessings. Whenever I saw the spirits of our beloved pets, I told them I loved and missed them. The spirits came so regularly that I simply greeted them as a matter of fact.

The day my boyfriend first saw one of the Spanish ancestors, who simply seemed to have lived on this land at one time, he caught a glimpse of her walking down the path from the house to the bridge over the arroyo, past the barn where he was working. He thought it was me, looking for him, so he went to the bridge to see what I wanted. No one was there. Confused, he came to the house, asking me what I’d wanted. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about: I hadn’t left the house. He was frightened.

I reassured him, telling him that, after four years in this house on Big Rock Candy Mountain, he’d finally seen the ancestors himself. I don’t think he could make up his mind whether he was pleased or upset. I assured him that the ancestors weren’t unhappy or sad: they were simply on their land. How did I know that, he asked. I just do, I told him. He decided to trust me.

He also now sees the dueñas — plural of housewife, matron, proprietess, lady — as I’ve come to call them, and also says the same thing to them that I say, something I got from my Little Brother: Blessings on your path, Ancestor. He also now sees our cats who’ve died, one of whom was his first, so it gives him great happiness. I feel the cats sometimes rubbing against my ankles, but when I look down, none of our current cats is there. He wants very much to feel them rubbing against him.

I’d like the spirits to feel safe enough to come from my peripheral vision and stand before me, or walk in front of me, or simply pass me where I can see them more clearly. I would feel honored that they felt so safe with me, which is what the Grandfather’s of my Little Brother’s tribe said it would mean.

I’d also like New Mexico to stop hiding behind the deliberate misinterpretation of the original Anasazi saying for the area, which originally also included Arizona and parts of Colorado, and change the motto from “The Land of Enchantment” to “The Land of the Ancient Ancestors” or “The Land of the Spirits.” I don’t think such a change would “scare” tourists away since most of them wouldn’t be sensitive enough to see the Ancestors anyway. It would, however, attract those who were spiritually enlightened, intuitive, and able to honor the past which the Ancestors lived in.

I think that would please the spirits immensely.

Because, unlike the “spirits” in horror movies, like the “Book of the Dead” scene in Nicole Kidman’s The Others, the spirits are nothing to fear. Instead, they should be welcomed and embraced as part of our history.

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