Melba’s ghost.

My extended family is very large. My paternal grandmother gave birth to ten children and saw seven of them into adulthood. So I have a multitude of cousins on that side of my family, many of whom I’ve never met, because they were all older than me. My dad was 40 when I was born, and he was one of his mother’s youngest. My mother’s side is much smaller. Her mother had a son and a daughter and stopped there, which has fascinated me as I’ve grown older. Why only two, when you had a farm to run? I got to know the cousins on Mom’s side better, although a couple of them were quite a bit older than me. Melba was my uncle’s youngest, much closer to my age, though. She was only four years old than me.

Simply put, Melba was beautiful. She had the kind of face that Hollywood seeks. Her long brown hair was sleek and soft. She had deep dimples that appeared when she smiled. Unlike me, she was slender, petite. She was a farm girl who worked hard and played hard. There wasn’t a lot of television watching in her life. Her father had inherited the family farm, so in many ways, she won the lottery. They had all the money and status and security that my family didn’t have, but Melba never lorded anything over me or seemed like she had an ego about any of it.

In addition to her looks, Melba had the voice of an angel. She and her brother, Ted, sang in churches all over Georgia (and maybe neighboring states, too – I don’t remember). Ted had learned to play piano from our grandfather, who died when I was of preschool age. (I remember my grandfather well, though. He is one of my best, earliest memories.) Ted could play anything, just like Granddad. He and Melba sang and soared. She had the pipes. He had the harmony. They were the pride of the family, bringing more status and honor through their mission of music.

It stunned everyone then when, at age 15, Melba discovered she was pregnant. It was a scandal and brought shame on the family. It was 1973, and good girls didn’t do that. Certainly not good church-going Baptist girls.

I first saw a photo of her boyfriend when I visited her that summer, before she knew she was pregnant. He was a football player at school. He probably played baseball, as well, because baseball was really my uncle’s favorite sport. He would have approved of Homer Lee Johnson, a man’s man, at least until he impregnated his daughter. When I saw his picture, though, I did what I usually do. I blurted out the honest truth.

“Ew, he’s ugly,” I said. There was something about the red-haired, sleepy-eyed boy in the picture that was beyond ugly. There was something about him I didn’t like at all.

Melba snatched the picture from my hand and said, “He is not!”

I knew to shut my trap then. Melba and I were fairly close. When my family traveled to Georgia in the summertime, I always spent a few nights at her house, which I was always convinced was haunted. There were parts of the house I refused to enter. We would pile up together in her big bed at night and talk about all kinds of things. But she had now reached an age at which silly girl nonsense was over with. She was in love with an ugly boy from South Georgia whose parents also had a farm and some status in the farming community. (All I remember about his family is his mother’s small features and huge hair.)

After she got pregnant, Melba was told by her parents, “You made your bed. Now you can lie in it.”

The family was terribly disappointed in her. There was a quick wedding between two kids, essentially, and those kids moved into a single-wide trailer on the family property, down the hill from the big house. Details are sketchy here, because Melba and I drifted apart. I didn’t like being around H.L. He was like a darkness. She was no longer a young and carefree girl. She was a married woman with a child. From what I understand, she had a very hard time in childbirth and was terrified of ever becoming pregnant again. In a different world, she could have moved on from her mistake and tried to live a better life, but this was the early 70s. She didn’t feel supported by her family, and her career as a singer in churches was over. She was a harlot. No such label was placed on H.L. Boys will be boys.

Eventually, the family put a brick house at the very bottom of the hill on Ten-Mile Rd., across from our grandmother’s small house. Though I visited the house a couple of times, it scared me. I didn’t feel comfortable there. I didn’t even feel comfortable looking at it from my grandmother’s porch. There was something wrong there. I never developed any kind of familial relationship with H.L. He continued to be that darkness that had enveloped my sweet cousin. When he walked into a room with her, it felt like I put up a lead curtain to shield myself from his presence. I remember what he looked like, but in just a sketchy was.

Melba’s little boy, Lee (named after his father), was an angelic, beautiful child, with his mother’s dimples and a shy, sweet face. She adored him and lavished him with love. She sang to him, her only audience, and made sure he knew he was her number one. She got her GED and worked at the bank. As for what H.L. did — shrug? I have no idea. I think he helped on the family farm, but I don’t know. So much about him has been shut out of my mind.

In 1982, I was living in Texas, working in a phone room where I booked appointments for sales seminars. Just a kid myself, I was living out of a car and sometimes friends’ apartments with my boyfriend (who became my husband). Life had not been kind. I had no idea where I was going or what my life would be like. I was simply living hand-to-mouth. My dad had been sick with lung cancer for a number of years and had gone through many recurrences, always surviving and living to fight another day. When I heard he was in the hospital again that summer, it didn’t shock me. There was nothing I could do about it. I would not have been able to get to him, because my parents – now divorced – were both living in the small town in Georgia where they had grown up and I was in Houston.

You have to remember. There were no cell phones, and since I had no home, I had no land line either. Every now and then, I would place a collect call to my mother. She had no idea how dire my situation was or she would have found the money to send me a bus ticket. I wouldn’t have gone. I was bonded with my boyfriend and wouldn’t leave him.

One day in particular, in midsummer, I called my mother. She started to cry. My father had died in the hospital. She had been down the hall in a hospital room of her own (with pneumonia) and felt guilty that he died alone.

I felt the air being sucked out of the room. Although my relationship with my father was problematic, this sensation of being fatherless was new. This sensation that I would never talk to him again felt like a riptide pulling my feet out from under me. As I was trying to understand that he was gone, she continued.

“There’s something else,” she said. “Melba killed herself.”

Melba had been found on the floor of her bedroom, seated against the wall, with the muzzle of a shotgun against her chest. They said she pulled the trigger with her toe.

I dropped into the chair as the world tilted. I felt as though I were going to faint. Paul, who was right there with me, said I went white. It was too much to process. First Dad, then Melba? It couldn’t be.

Melba, the good girl, the hymn singer, the closest cousin I had, was just gone?

By the time I got the news, both my Dad and Melba were already buried. Even if I had been able to find a way go back to Georgia, it was too late. The pain of knowing that was too much. I saw the pictures later. Melba, dressed in a high-necked white blouse and dark skirt, her hands folded neatly. Flower arrangements filled the church and the cemetery and trailed down the road leading up to it. My aunt said she had never seen so many flowers. The cemetery was overflowing with cars and people and all those white flowers. Despite what the family saw as their shame, many knew and loved Melba, and they mourned her. It felt as though the world had stopped. Melba was only 24 years old.

Something I never told my mother was that just before I got all of this news, I had just miscarried. I hadn’t wanted to tell her anyway, but I had gotten pregnant (unintentionally). Paul had joined the Marines through a delayed entry program. When he was exploring that option, I also took the ASVAB test. I was going to go into the Navy, but then I discovered I was pregnant. I canceled the physical. I knew they wouldn’t take a pregnant recruit. Nobody in the world mourned my baby but Paul and me.

So death came in threes to my family in a single week in the summer of 1982.

Our friend let me sleep in his room and he took the couch while I processed all that had happened to me. I took a few precious days off of work (without pay, of course, because I only earned commissions on booked appointments) and I stayed in bed. During that few days, my father’s ghost came and stood outside the room where I lay crying. I told him I loved him but asked him not to show himself further. All I saw was his shadow there in the doorway. I was alone in the apartment. I didn’t feel I could handle seeing him outright, so I saw him in my dreams, instead. Melba’s ghost came later.

Melba’s marriage wasn’t perfect. H.L. wasn’t the man of her dreams after all. She loved him, sure, but he was not good to her. She was isolated, even though she still lived on the family farm. She left Lee with our grandmother or her mother during the day so she could work. I know she would have preferred to be home with him, but someone needed to earn some money. I think it helped her to be out of the house, too. God knows what her home life was like. She never said anything about it to any of us, because she had “made her bed”. No use complaining about it to ears that didn’t want to listen.

Because of how devout she was, I found it hard to believe that Melba had committed suicide. Also, the thought that a petite young woman, maybe an inch over five feet, weighing maybe 110 pounds, could pull the trigger of a shotgun with her toe as it was propped against her chest was ludicrous. To kill herself in such a gruesome fashion was also extremely far-fetched. I found it even harder to believe that she would leave her son behind. He was her world, and she was his. I heard that in the days and months after she died, Lee would tear pictures of models out of magazines and write, “Mama, you’re prettier than all these girls.” It broke all of our hearts. What on earth was going to become of him?

In the beginning, I guess we all believed that she did it, though. We had no information to the contrary. I tried to imagine what she had done, how she had done it, but I couldn’t. I could imagine the scene, though, in the great detail that only the creative mind can muster. There were rumors that H.L. had been having an affair and she found out. There were other rumors that she had found out she was pregnant again and couldn’t bear the thought of going through childbirth again. Horse hockey. (Incidentally, she was not found to be pregnant at the time of her death.)

It was around two years later that Melba’s ghost started to show up. I’d like to think she came to me because she knew I was one of the only people who didn’t believe it was suicide. Maybe it was because no one else was listening. Because this was yet another scandal on the family, they worked with the local authorities to conclude the case quickly, leaving no room for an investigation. They didn’t want to put H.L. and Lee through it. Open and shut.

At first she only showed up in my dreams, saying nothing. Later, she began to speak.

“Tell her,” she said.

Tell who? Tell her what? I had no answers.

I began to try to actively participate in my dreams. It took awhile. These dreams went on for about two years. I would fall asleep with the questions in my head that I wanted to ask her. I talked it over with Paul. He believed, like me, that my gift was real. I should tell you that all these ghosts visiting me was unnerving, even though they were people I loved. But I had been visited by spirits before that were not so benevolent.

One night, I finally heard my answers.

“Tell Mama I didn’t do it,” she said. “I didn’t kill myself.”

There it was. You can think, if you want, that it was a manifestation of my own beliefs and wishes. You’re entitled to think that. But I know the truth. I had to tell my aunt about these visitations.

It took me awhile to get up the nerve to do it. The last thing I wanted to do was to upset my aunt or to bring up bad memories. But one summer, when I was visiting my mother, I went with her to my aunt’s house. My aunt was always so sweet to me. I think life had taught her that being rigid with the people you love is the wrong way to be. That isn’t love. Life doesn’t have a firm set of rules, no matter how much the Southern Baptists would like to believe it does. You have to first love. Everything else will fall into place.

I made sure that my aunt and I were alone. We went into her bedroom, which sat at the front of the house, overlooking the farmland. There was always a nice breeze in that room, a breeze that smelled of peanuts and soybeans and the freshwater ponds that dotted the farm. We sat down in the chairs near her bed. I was trembling. I took her hands.

“Melba has been coming to me,” I said.

She met my eyes steadily and nodded.

“She wants you to know,” I said, “that she didn’t kill herself. She did not commit suicide.”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she nodded again.

“Thank you for telling me that,” she said.

“She wanted me to tell you specifically,” I said, because Melba never mentioned her father. “She needed you to know. I don’t know who killed her, but I have an idea.”

She shook her head. “We can’t do anything about what’s in the past. We have to take care of Lee now, don’t we?”

With that, she put an end to any further speculation on my part, at least out loud. In my heart, I knew it was Melba’s husband – that darkness in a man suit – who did it. He was remarried within six months to a young girl. Nobody wanted to rock the boat, though. In their minds, I suppose, going after H.L. would have taken the only surviving parent away from Lee.

That might have been better. As he grew older, Lee became a drug addict, like so many of the younger generation of my family. My aunt is now dead, but the last time she saw Lee, he had come to her asking for money. Many times in the past, she had handed it over, but that time, she didn’t. She knew that he would only use it to buy drugs, so she declined. He left, and she never saw him again. No one knew what had happened to him.

I went looking around online for him as I was doing some genealogy work last year. I found him. He isn’t dead from drugs. Instead, he’s in prison in Florida for attacking a police officer with a rock, hitting him in the head multiple times. This happened at a homeless encampment. When I saw the mug shot, I knew him immediately. He has the same face, but all of the sweetness is gone. It has been replaced with the darkness he inherited from his father. His facial features are more like Melba’s, but his visage is that of a hardened criminal. It was shocking. With all of the drug addictions, prison naturally has gone hand-in-hand for our younger generation. Violence grows from that incessant need to feed the body’s physical and spiritual illness. Eventually, you reach an end – prison or death. Had his mother lived, I like to think that he would have become a good person, gentle and true. But she was taken from him.

After I spoke with my aunt, Melba’s ghost only visited me a few more times. She was silent but emitted gratitude. I felt she was at peace, and eventually she moved on. Sometimes I wish for Lee’s sake she had been able to stick around and intervene. I miss her. I will always miss her.

I love you, Melba. As long as I breathe, you will never be forgotten. And as long as I tell your story, you will live on in others. – Jude

Melba, with her nephews

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