Wednesday, July 30, 2008


All of Evelyn’s ghost talk got me thinking about…ghosts.

And spirits, and the supernatural, and the occult, and tea leaves...which all lead me back to my Irish grandmother, Maga.

Maga—a name she received from me because I could say neither “Margaret”—her given name—or “Grandma”—the name given to her by my older cousins—was an immigrant from a small county in Ireland that nobody has ever heard of—even the Irish. She came to America as a broke nineteen-year-old who crafted a real estate business out of nothing, “flipping” houses after renovating them from a state of disrepair to a state that was attractive to home buyers. She lived in many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, some quite fashionable these days. My mother, her daughter, moved a lot, as they traveled from one neighborhood to another buying and selling houses.

When my mother married and she and my father decided to move to the suburbs, Maga, now a widow, accompanied them, leaving behind her beloved Brooklyn for the sticks. One of our nightly rituals was a post-dinner snack of tea and toast. The tea was really sweet, the toast covered in butter, and the stories scary and eerie. There was the one about her walking home from school (uphill both ways in the snow) and seeing a man sitting on his “honkers” (the best translation we can approximate is “haunches” but it sounded much, much scarier with “honkers” inserted) on the side of the road. When she confronted him, he disappeared into thin air. My brother and sisters still shudder at the thought of a little man, crouched down and scaring a young girl on her way home from school. There was also the story of her father bringing the children together to pray for the victims of the Titanic—which as it happened, was an event that happened the day after this collective family prayer.

But Maga’s special gift was reading tea leaves. She predicted many an event—from my Aunt’s being trapped in a big hole (she broke down in the Holland Tunnel the next week) to a friend of my mom’s, long finished bearing children, bringing another person into her bed. (That was set us giggling for a few days, as this was a very passionate and gorgeous Italian woman who resembled a blond Sophia Loren—we could only imagine who would be joining her.) The other person turned out to be the son she never thought she would ever have, a son who was about thirteen years younger than her youngest child. Incidentally, said child slept with his mother and father until he was eight.

I was there when she took a look at another family friend and felt the presence of an impending tragedy that ended up happening the very next day. She wasn’t specific and she wasn’t sure what was going to happen but she knew something bad was afoot. And she was right.

I can’t explain it and I don’t know what it was, but the woman had a special “shine” that showed her things that were meant to be. What she couldn’t predict was the triumph of the human spirit as my aunt got out of the tunnel and conquered her claustrophobia, my mother’s friend embraced her new child and made him the light of her middle-aged life, and our family friends carried on from the tragedy that changed their lives. There was nothing she could do to stop the wheels from turning but her faith in the world and the divine made her take it all in stride.
Crazy, right? I know how it sounds. But my siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends all had at least one experience where they witnessed the impossible. It has been twenty-seven years since her death but every once in a while we reminisce about the stories she would tell, the things she would predict, and chuckle. We’re imagining what we remember, right? we ask ourselves. We’re embellishing the facts, yes? Who knows.

I had a very vivid dream a few years ago in which I was sitting in my uncle’s kitchen in Brooklyn with him, a place he vacated close to thirty years ago. My uncle--Maga's oldest--and I were drinking tea and eating toast when my grandmother came in, just as real as ever, and sat down to chat with us. I implored her to stay. “We miss you so much,” I said, crying. She looked at me sadly. “But I have to go home,” she said. “I live in a new home now and I’m so happy there.” I knew that home didn’t mean the place where she had grown up, any of the houses in Brooklyn, nor our house in the suburbs. The way she said home made me believe that she was in her eternal home and that was the place she needed and wanted to be. It broke my heart—I woke up crying—but the beauty on her face as she consoled me made me feel that she was okay where she was. And that she had been near for just a few short minutes.

Recently, my brother sent his naughty three-year-old daughter to a chair in the corner of the dining room and told her to sit there until she composed herself. While in the kitchen, he heard her talking, an animated one-sided conversation about the injustice of having to sit in the chair, protestations about her innocence. He had heard her do it before and chalked it up to childhood imagination. But he heard some specifics in her rant and finally asked her who she was talking to.

"I’m talking to Maga,” she said. “I always talk to her.”

Draw your own conclusions. I know that I have.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. What a great memory!

    My husband's mother died when he was five, he says she came to tell him goodbye. He also has had visitations from other relatives shortly after they've passed.

    After my son-in-law was killed in the line of duty, and after the funeral, my daughter and her three children all felt him kiss them goodbye.

  2. I've read this blog several times today, marveling each time at how with a few words you've made your grandmother come alive for us. You're a very good writer! You've certainly inherited your grandmother's storytelling talent.

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

  3. I've been thinking about Maga a lot lately...just last week I moved her little table to a more visible place in the house and put her pics on it. Thanks for writing this...