Oma told my mother that she believed it was something to do with William IV, Prince of Orange, and the end of the Tweede Stadhouderloze Tijdperk. The child in question–Cornelia Valter–had died on 4 May, 1747, the day William became General Stadtholder of the seven provinces.
My old-oma had told my Oma that it was sickness.
My old-oma’s mother had told her that it was witchcraft. That the girl had been born feet-first and had come out with her small fist gripping her own umbilical, and with a birthmark shaped like a star on her throat. This had all been the doing of some other woman, name unknown, whose husband had had an affair with my maternal ancestor. Jealousy is a hard thing. The wronged wife had nailed the wings of two birds to my ancestor’s door, bound together loosely with a twining of her own hair and some wheat sheaves. In between the wings was a bird’s heart, pierced with a hairpin, and a note, unreadable then and certainly not readable now, several centuries later. An illiterate woman’s curse, written in blood.
And that’s as far back as the story goes.
I heard this story only in the last week of my mother’s life, when she called to ask me to come visit. In the last months of my mother’s life, every visit was a trial. Not in the way you think. She didn’t want to wait until she was dead to divest herself of the goods she had spent a lifetime accruing. After visiting in June I left with a good skillet, three teapots, and a silver medicine spoon. In July two good chairs, and an armoire. In August a potted lime and two old ginger jars filled with earrings. My back was sore and my car too small to easily accommodate her generosity. And the growing emptiness of her house unnerved me. There were not enough chairs to sit any more. Not enough tables on which to set the tea.
It was September. I made ontbijtkoek (not an old family recipe, but one I downloaded from the internet), and took the long way so as to avoid the tolls.
So, my mother said, only one thing to give you today. And then she told me this story, of Cornelia Valter with the star on her throat. Just here, my mother said, and pointed at her own throat, just below her left ear. She’s been my ghost since my mother died, and was my mother’s ghost before that, and so on. Oldest daughter. She laughed. Now she’ll be yours, she said. She’s not much trouble.
Two days later my mother died. I thought the ghost would come immediately, but the time of the dead is not our time, and they don’t travel the way we do, zipping about on planes and in cars. The funeral came and went, and though I felt grief like the root of some great old tree inside me, I could not cry. I stood in the line and felt people’s hands touch mine, and saw their mouths make the shape of each gecondoleerd, but I was dried out inside and only nodded and thanked them.
Four weeks later I was hanging out the sheets when I saw a small, dark-haired girl sitting in the garden. She was singing an old Dutch song I remembered my mother humming while she ironed. When I finished hanging out the sheets I went and sat with her, my great-great-great-great grandmother’s daughter’s ghost, and she taught me how to sing the words and said that, when she was small and real, her mother had taught her the song, and how to spin, at the same time. She said she was sorry to take so long, but it had been a great walk from my mother’s house. A month of days. And then she took a spindle out of her pocket and taught me the little spinning song. And told me that her mother had said she would find a good husband if she could spin a thread as fine as her own hair, but she could never do it. And she never had found a husband. But she had had my mother, and my mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on and so forth, and she had found them all good husbands and she supposed that would have to do.
[This is a slightly altered version of a dream I had, and wish I hadn’t, in which I lost my mother and inherited a family ghost.]