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Ghost Stories | Center for Babaylan Studies

(Tera writes: I wanted to thank you Leny. I started out writing about imperial trauma and Urduja, but your invitation to be part of the babaylan anthology really pushed me to consider the babaylan figure. What started out as an intellectual exercise has really become part of my spiritual practice, of who I am… I have grown so much over the past year, and it is really shifted things for me and my family. I wanted to include a draft of something I’m writing that perhaps expresses this babaylan journey better (it’s short).)

Ghost Stories (a draft) by Tera Maxwell

I grew up hearing ghost stories, the supernatural made natural in my otherwise conservative Mormon home. Home, rather a small rental, perched just outside the entrance to the Pensacola Naval Base, was inhabited by a ghost. A ghost is what made me cry when I was a baby. A baby, I cried whenever I was brought to that corner of our family room. Family room unsettled me, according to my dad.

My dad, otherwise skeptical, tells me, “One night, your mom and I were in bed, but I was awakened from sleep. Awakened from sleep when I hear your wail, I saw a shadow creep across the hall. Across the hall, it must be Cecilia, your nanny, I thought at first. First, I checked Cecilia’s room, but she was sleeping. Sleeping, and not wanting to wake her, I picked you up and held you until you nestled to sleep again. Again, I checked the doors and windows of the house, but they were all locked. All locked up” he insisted, “I know that house was haunted.”

Haunted by this story, intrigued by ghosts, I always ask about Cecilia. Cecilia is only mentioned in this ghost story:

“After your mom and I got married, she was given to us as a wedding present.” A wedding present, I can’t imagine my father used those words–always solicitous of others–, yet that was what I understood, that she was a wedding gift. Gift, servant, all the family that make your business their business when you marry a Filipina, it made my father very uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, he said, because “I didn’t like a third adult in our home when we wanted to raise you ourselves, so after a year, we asked her to leave. “To leave? “Then what happened to her after that?” “After that, she went to live with some other relative…”

With some other relative, the story drifts off, and I never question this story about the nanny Cecilia, a ghost memory in her own right, only surfacing in this telling of other ghost stories. Stories fed my own childish fantasies about having a nanny, like the English upper-class novels I’d love to read as a kid. As a kid, I asked my grandmother about Cecilia, and she explained, “She was staying with us cleaning and cooking but when we were stationed in Brussels, Belgium (my grandfather served in the US Navy, that’s how he came to the states) we couldn’t take her with us because she had no visa. No visa, so I left her with your mom to help her with the baby. With the Baby and your mom only twenty, I felt bad I couldn’t be there, so I left her Cecilia.”

Cecilia now drifts across the margins of my scholarly research about imperial memories, all sorts of ghost stories.

Ghost stories are what my grandmother tells me about when she was a young girl growing in the province of Bataan, Philippines, so she tells me, when she was scaling up the mango trees next to her house, oh it made her tita, a spinster, so angry to see her climbing her mango trees and devouring her mangoes, her tita came out wailing a stick and scolding her to come down from there right now, but this time, she was dangling with her tomboy legs from the branches when she saw the ghost of her grandmother, Nanay, who had just recently died–my grandmother tells me, “I just looked at Nanay, and she waved at me, and she wasn’t so frail anymore, but I was so surprised to see the ghost of my lola.”

Now, I tell my own ghost stories. Ghosts visit me at night. Or sometimes, after the children go to school. I’m sipping green tea. I look up. They are the spirits of my ancestors. I rarely see them, only feel them. Sometimes, I taste their sorrow. Mamang’s sorrow, for never showing my mother love. My grandmother was always critical, Mom says.

Now, I recognize and welcome these gifts. Before, I swallowed antedepressants or talktherapy. These spirits of my mothers and fathers. They visit to be acknowledged. I am ready for this work. A burden shifts. Joy scratches the back of my throat. I clear energetic beliefs passed through generations. Pebbles of regret ripple through one’s posterity. Never releasing the anguish of losing a child. Tears sting my eyes. Deep breath. Or centuries of anger like vinegar tracing through my blood. Our property was seized. We used to be royalty. Unworthiness laces through our DNA. Spirits witness the struggles of their children. The cycle continues. They want to be released. It is time.

I close my eyes. I see images. I feel the flames of a fire. This man mourns a loss. Never mind, we let it go. Mamang’s rape stifles my breast. I now feel her. My mother never understood. We clear the unspeakable together.

I am a babayalan, a Latter-Day-Saint babaylan. I bridge multiple worlds and oceans. Don’t tell other Mormons, academics, or even friends. I am crossing a line. Soon, the line will move over. The earth is shifting too. I clean and clear out the energetic baggage. The burdens of my ancestors. I feel lighter. Laughter reigns more freely in my home. My mom is starting to walk in her own power. I am noticing joy. We breathe miracles each day.

I write this now. It’s a memoir, or fiction? My grandmother knows. My mom, and my blond, blue-eyed (half) sister understand. And maybe, my babaylan sisters. For them, ghosts stories aren’t so strange.

Submitted by Leny Strobel. Tera Maxwell retains all copyrights.