Two of our grandchildren called the other afternoon and asked my wife, Gail, and me, if we could come for dinner and a video. When grandchildren call and invite you to do anything, you cancel plans for your dinner at the White House, give away your Red Sox/Yankee tickets, and reschedule your London trip so that you can say "yes."
The video they rented was called Seven Pounds, and starred Will Smith. Its ending contains surprises I'll not relate lest I be a spoiler. But this much is safe to say: the story is about a man who is haunted by events in his past. Seven Pounds is worth seeing!
The day after we saw the video with the grandchildren, I finished a novel by Pulitzer Prize author Richard Russo called That Old Cape Magic. It too was about a man who was haunted by the situation with his parents: one dead, the other alive and living in nursing home.
In a clever use of symbolism, Russo writes of Griffin, the book's central character, as he drives from one end of Cape Cod to the other seeking a place where he can dispose of his father's ashes which are sealed in an urn in the wheel well of his trunk. Griffin's search for the perfect disposal site occupies the better part of a summer or two. His efforts are complicated by a daily deluge of cell phone calls from his bed-ridden mother who can be best described as snarly, cynical, and demanding. What is clear is that Griffin, both as a boy and a man, has always been haunted by his parents—dead or alive. He cannot shake off their influence upon his life.
The word haunted is usually linked to the notion of ghosts and mysterious places (houses, caves, and dark forests). It comes up in these weird horror movies that young people love. When I was a boy, we used the word regularly at camp during the mandatory telling of ghost stories. I was once so scared by one of these stories that I wet my sleeping bag.
But haunted ought to be used in other contexts also. We shouldn't waste a good word.
My first memorable haunting—the one that hangs on me after all these years—came as a small boy when, while playing, I knocked over a prized lamp in my family's living room. The lamp base made of some kind of ceramic material suffered a vertical crack, which I was sure would horrify my parents and earn me a whipping. Rather than face the consequences immediately, I turned the cracked side of the lamp toward the wall with the hope that no one would see the damage.
For many mornings after, I awakened from sleep with an almost paralyzing sense of dread as I wondered if this would be the day when someone, parent-sized, would discover the cracked lamp. I could not walk through the living room without checking on the crack fearing that it was growing larger. I also entertained the hope that the crack would somehow go away by itself or that I would discover that the original "accident" had only been a bad dream and that the lamp was actually unbroken. Haunting, it needs to be said, sparks the imagination.
When the day of discovery finally came, my mother surprised me with her gracious reaction. She entered into the conspiracy of my secret, and from then on she always placed the lamp with its crack to the wall at dusting time. In doing so she defeated my haunting. My father never found out. There was never a whipping.