This hand-painted chair was a gift from my grandmother Anna Mary Herr Hess to my mother Barbara Ann.

Have you ever seen a ghost? An angel? The physical image of a departed loved one?

No? Nor have I.

But my mother did. Here’s how it happened.

The year was 1951. Our family of four, Mother, Daddy, baby Henry, and me, lived on a farm near Manheim, Penna.  It was a Monday morning. Mother was breastfeeding baby Henry when she saw her father’s big white car pull up in the driveway.

Her younger brother Allen opened the front right door and walked toward the house. Her father headed to the barn. This seemed strange, and as Allen approached the house, Mother knew something was wrong.

Allen entered and blurted out the message he had come to deliver: “Mother’s dead,” he said.

I have no memory of what happened next, but my own mother, 24 years old at the time, has never forgotten it.

She drove to the farm where she grew up, entered the iron gate in the front-yard fence, stepped onto the porch and crossed over the threshold. She knew that life would never be the same again.

As she turned the corner to the left, she saw her mother’s body stretched out on the day bed where she had collapsed after coming in from milking just a few hours earlier. Her neck was thick. Foam had gurgled into her mouth. Mother screamed upon the sight.

Immediately, she was told to shush. So she did. Holding and hugging, wailing and lament, were not traditions in her family. The woman lying on the day bed had lost her own father when she was only 18 years old. Her grief was a long, quiet, one.

Mother is a woman of faith, but this event in her life tested her faith. She was angry with God. The suddenness of the loss of this good woman with no warning offended her sense of justice. She never got to say good-bye except to the corpse. The fact that as a new mother she needed her own mother more than ever and that her milk for the baby dried up after the trauma of the announcement, these were pains so deep she had no words for them.

One afternoon as Mother was sitting in her bedroom, reading sympathy cards she had collected, she looked up with a heart full of sadness, anger, and pain. There, across the room, sitting in the little green rocker pictured above, was her mother, large as life. She was wearing her black coat and bonnet, the same ones mother had seen hanging in the closet at the house the day she went to see the body.

Mother’s entire body felt electrified. She gazed at her mother’s transfigured face, full of a glorious smile that reached all around the room and gathered Mother in. She heard no words with her ears, but with her heart she heard. “All is well.” These, of course, are the words of St. Julian of Norwich. They also are the words of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints” that we would sing together at my father’s funeral thirty years later.

Mother let herself thoroughly bask in that smile and tried to jump up to clasp her mother in her arms. She couldn’t move. And in the act of trying, she glanced away for a split second.

When she looked back, her mother was gone. The chair was just a chair.

This vision, as she would call it later, was a precious treasure she seldom talked about. It was too sacred. But she told my father. My father told me years later when he took me on a “date” to see the local high school production of Our Town. “Your mother had an experience like that Emily Webb in the play tonight.” I felt very, very special as I listened to this man, so limited in his language skills, reach into his heart and share a profound story.

Last week, Mother told me the story again after seeing the picture of me wearing Grandma’s bonnet in my last post. Grandma was wearing that same bonnet in the vision Mother saw.

Mother and me, sharing another thing we love -- cashew raspberry ice cream -- at the Oregon Dairy.

I’m so thankful I have my Mother and that she has shared her grief, her anger, her love and her joy with me and all her children.

Mother is now 85, and I’m 64. We’ve both been granted many more years than Grandma Hess. My mother has missed her mother every day of her life. Just like her mother missed her father.

Out of such grief many other experiences of love and resilience were born. Mother doesn’t blame God anymore, either for this loss or for many others she has suffered since.

Mother believes she was visited by an angel and the message from the other side of this life has sustained her and taken away some of her own fear of dying.

Have you ever had such an experience? Have you heard any stories? Were you fortunate enough to know your grandmother a long time, or, like me, do you have no memory of her?

 

 

Shirley Showalter

28 Comments

  1. Jerry Waxler on November 26, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for this touching story, Shirley. I have heard many stories like this from memoir writers. My belief is that such stories are fairly common, and that most people tend to keep them hidden because they sound weird. I remember being surprised, and then relieved when my mother told me that she feels comforted by Dad’s presence around her almost all the time. My own vision came in response to an internal debate I was having about my own sense of purpose. Working with a therapist, I couldn’t figure out how to move forward, so she induced a slightly altered state of mind through EMDR. I closed my eyes and had a vision of my brother giving me his blessing and encouragement. His gift lifted the burden and gave me confidence to move forward.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

    • shirleyhs on November 26, 2012 at 10:58 am

      This is a wonderful story, Jerry. I’m afraid I don’t know what EMDR is. Perhaps other readers could use a definition also.

      I think you are right about the frequency, but I really don’t know. At this point, I can only guess. I’m hoping that readers will reach deep into their memories and find connections to this kind of story.

      Have you read Oliver Sachs’ new book Hallucinations? I haven’t, but I believe it touches on this topic. Dr. Eben Alexander wrote a fascinating Near Death Experience account called Proof of Heaven which I highly recommend.

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Jerry. Always valuable.

    • Jerry Waxler on November 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      EMDR is a method to treat trauma that uses rapid eye movement. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and only makes sense if you’ve actually tried it. Otherwise it seems like it couldn’t possibly work. Like any method of inducing an altered state, such as meditation, marathon running, driving a car for 24 hours, or missing someone terribly — when you’re in that altered state, you become more open to visionary experience. Whether you believe those experiences are “true” has a lot to do with your own belief system. Because people have such wildly diverse belief systems, the best way to understand each other is non-judgmentally through memoirs – I always try to get in a plug for memoirs. 🙂

      I am reading Proof of Heaven right now. It’s a beautiful example of uplifting visionary experience. Thanks for the reference to Oliver Sachs book. I’ll put it on my list.

      Best wishes,
      Jerry

  2. Sharon Lippincott on November 26, 2012 at 11:56 am

    What a poignant and thought-provoking post! My sister reports things like this. She was miffed that Mother didn’t stop on her “way out” to say good-bye! My most poignant connections come in dreams. Over the course of twelve years I’ve had countless dreams that Mother was alive (again?), healthy, happy, vibrant. Better than ever. I take comfort in these dreams. Even though I realize all the experts would explain them away with all sorts of scientific jabber, they reassure me that she’s okay now and that’s good enough for me.

    • shirleyhs on November 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      Good enough for me, too, Sharon! I had a few dreams about my father, who died at almost exactly the same age as Grandma Hess. Come to think of it, one of those dreams was more like a vision. I was walking across campus at Goshen College a few weeks after his death. I caught a glimpse of him dancing with angels. But he did not exactly “appear” before me. It was a picture in the mind, a little like the pictures we make when we read stories.

      I loved it. My Mennonite father never danced on this earth. But he may well be now!

      I believe there are connections between life before and after this life and our dream life here on earth. In time, more will be revealed. In the meantime, we can enjoy the comforts of Love reaching us by any means. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Love your calm, wise, presence here.

  3. Marilyn on November 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    “My mother has missed her mother every day of her life.” That sentence reached me. It’s been about 800 days since my mother’s gone and every day, she’s missed. I’m guessing that’ll continue for the rest of my life. Wish I could see her across the room right now! Thanks. MNolt

  4. shirleyhs on November 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you, Marilyn, for sharing a sentence that touched you. I wish too that you could see your mother the way mine saw hers. I send you some of the radiated warmth from that smile in 1951. Your mother must have been a wonderful person — her light shines in you!

  5. shirleyhs on November 26, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    Thanks, Jerry, for explaining EMDR. Here’s a YouTube of Oliver Sacks http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vK2CTPjTuI

  6. Kathleen Pooler on November 26, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Shirley, this post really touched me. I felt the pain of loss echoing into the next generations. I have never experienced a vision like your mother did but I have had prophetic dreams that have enlightened, inspired and strengthened me. These experiences are hard to explain to others but if one believes in miracles, they can be claimed as such. What a lovely picture of you and your mother. Beautiful!

    • shirleyhs on November 28, 2012 at 7:43 am

      Kathy, thanks so much for sharing your own experience of “prophetic dreams” here. Sorry I missed your comment yesterday as I was responding. I look forward to reading your memoir. Will your dreams play a role in your story?

  7. Henry Hershey on November 26, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Yes, I have heard such stories, although this one had two details of which I was unfamiliar. Empathy for the infant son.
    HHH

    • shirleyhs on November 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Oh yes, so much empathy for that baby! And also so much admiration for a mother who kept on giving and loving her children even when she herself was in so much pain.

      That infant son grew up to be a wonderful man.

  8. Clif Hostetler on November 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    I’ve not experienced a vision as described for you mother, but I would find it comforting if I did (especially if “all is well” is the message). Both my father and sister died (a year apart) when I was 14 and 15 years old. I often wonder how things would would be different had they lived a normal life span.

    • shirleyhs on November 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm

      Clif, that’s a huge amount of loss for such a young boy becoming a man. My heart goes out to you even now. Have you found stories, in your vast reading, that have shed light on your own loss of loved ones? That have perhaps comforted you or offered insight?

  9. Jennette Marie Powell on November 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    What a touching story! I was blessed to have both my grandmothers, plus a grandpa, until I was over 40. My mom’s dad passed away when I was in my early 20’s – on my mom’s birthday! It threw her into a major depression, but later, she swears she saw him around our house – a shadowy figure she could never quite get a good look at, but a comforting presence just the same. Thank you for sharing your mother’s story!

    • shirleyhs on November 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm

      Hi Jennette, it’s so hard to lose a parent, at any age. And I’m sorry your mother experienced depression when it happened to her. Not at all unusual, but terribly painful nonetheless. I’m glad she felt a comforting presence. I am beginning to read Hilary Mantel’s excellent memoir A Ghost in the House. You might want to look it up. Very interesting and relevant to your story.

  10. Gloria holub on November 27, 2012 at 12:18 am

    I DO believe in visions! My own experience was when I was about 7 years old and it’s still very vivid to me. I was at an after school program called “Good News Club” which was a child evangelism program. There was a woman talking to the group of children, and all of a sudden I saw a vision of Jesus standing beside her with his hand on her shoulder. After the meeting I went to the woman and told her what I saw. She absolutely believed me and said that she had prayed to God to be with her that day while she talked to the children. Something I’ve never forgotten. The woman is still living and whenever I see her I think of that day.

    • shirleyhs on November 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      Thank you, Gloria, for sharing this story. I’ve heard of other children who have seen visions of Jesus. In fact, John E. Fetzer, the founder of the Fetzer Institute, where I worked for six years, had a vision of seeing Jesus when he was quite small also. Stayed with him all his life. Even after he became a radio/TV pioneer and the owner of the Detroit Tigers.

      I’m so glad the woman believed you. Have you talked with her about the experience since you are an adult?

  11. Carol Bodensteiner on November 28, 2012 at 10:46 am

    What a beautiful story, Shirley. Thanks for sharing it. After my father died, I had several dreams about him. He was happy, at peace, and without pain in those dreams and they comforted me. After my mother died some years later, I waited (and yearned) for similar dreams. But they never came. I took comfort in the fact that I was with her the day she died and knew that she was completely healthy and happy until the stroke took her. They are both always with me.

  12. shirleyhs on November 28, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Thank you, Carol. Since I read (and loved) your memoir, Growing Up Country, these two parents are real characters for me. You made them come alive, and in your book they will always live!

  13. lois hess on November 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    This is very interesting. My father told me about Grandma Hess’ passing but I never knew about this experience until my mother passed away and Aunt Barbara Ann shared this with me. When my mother passed away last year I had some interesting dreams. After talking to Aunt Barbara Ann I knew my mother would be alright.

  14. shirleyhs on November 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Lois, I’m glad you heard the story from Mother. That’s definitely the best way to hear it. Blessings to you and Uncle Allen as you go through the holidays for the first time without Aunt Shirley. All is well.

  15. Barbara Sue Bollinger on November 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks for writing this story so beautifully-I knew of the experience but not all of the details. I am so grateful that Mother is still here and able to share her life experiences with us.

  16. shirleyhs on November 28, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    So glad to have your comment, Sue. Mother has given us a great legacy, and it’s an honor to ask her to tell her stories again. Those details make a lot of difference. I wish she were online so she could enjoy reading these comments. But I know she’ll enjoy doing so at Christmas.

  17. Linda Zeranko on November 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    my father in law into my first marriage , lost his life in tragic car accident .I never got to say goodbye . that made my heart sad , and I felt cheated by death . I was close with my father in law.
    when his ashes were laid to rest , at the year anniversary of his accident , I was not able to attend . again I feel cheated by death.

    about 2 years after his death I was driving home from Goshen Indiana to Lancaster Pennsylvania , driving on the turnpike, I saw the kind of pickup truck that’s my father in law was traveling in the day he died . suddenly I had a vision of my father in law , he was sitting in my car with me , and I had to pull off the shoulder of the road . what I experienced that afternoon was a visitation from my beloved father in law , it was my chance to say goodbye , my chance to grieve , and my chance to know that he is at peace . I have really spoken of this , but I will always cherish that memory in my heart .

  18. shirleyhs on November 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Linda, what a touching story. I feel honored that you were moved to share your own visitation from your father-in-law by reading this story. I am learning a lot by reading these comments. Thank you.

  19. Richard Gilbert on November 29, 2012 at 12:09 am

    One of my students yesterday polled the class, for a sociology class project, on whether we believed in an afterlife and whether we believed in some sort of spirit world. Like a few of the students, I surprised myself by saying no to the former and yes to the latter. We got coded as believing in both.

    After reading Jung’s autobiography, I began having a hard time saying I didn’t believe in a dimension beyond our usual understanding—though I have not truly experienced it myself. I have talked to a few people, like my former minister, whom I believed, who have had unexplainable phenomenon occur.

    • shirleyhs on November 29, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Richard, I was moved deeply by Jung’s memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections also. I read it with recognition of my own experience, however. I had my equivalent of my mother’s vision after my father died. I didn’t see him, but I saw things he described when he had visions during the last weeks of his life.

      So, yes, I agree with the coders. If you believe in the reality of the invisible world, you almost inevitably are led to a belief in life after death.

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