Normally I wait until October to let loose with the g-g-g-g-ghost stories, but consider this a little preseason warm-up; Mary Phillips-Sandy’s podcast Let’s Talk About Cats is back up and running for season two today, and the first episode features a very otherworldly tale from guest Alexandra Silber. Clearly go listen to that, but also BONUS! because Mary hopped on the phone with me last week to divulge a few supernaturally-tinged memories from her childhood in Maine, one of which unexpectedly resurfaced as recently as last year! So without further adieu (a-BOO, if you will…), let’s get into it:
Featured photo credit: Jonsar Studios 2019
So I heard you have TWO stories to recount today; what’s a good jumping off point?
It probably makes sense to start chronologically. So I grew up in a small town in Central Maine. Or, let’s put it this way – I grew up about an hour from where Stephen King lives, and of course a lot of what he writes is fiction, but I do think there’s a certain energy in a lot of places in small town Maine. Lots of old buildings, lots of dark forests. It was never scary to me, though, because that was just the world that I lived in.
My dad was (and still is) a small town lawyer, and he likes to joke that his practice covers everything from fishing violations to murder. And that’s true! But I was always around the office helping out, and I remember getting paid a nickel to file things. By the time I could read, I was reading the descriptions of crimes and things that had happened, but again, that was just reality, right? It wasn’t scary or weird, it was just the world we lived in. But my dad went into business with a really close friend of our family, another attorney, and they decided to combine their practices and share an office. We were all really excited about that, but right after, unfortunately my dad’s partner was diagnosed with what was then called Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. Just a devastating diagnosis, and he was only in his early forties, a super athletic, former military kind of guy. He declined really rapidly, and that was really tough. I think I was in kindergarten, and I remember how stressful and sad that was for my family and for his family. Of course I was really fond of him as well, and that was sort of my first experience with, you know, “He’s going to die.” And he didn’t live very long after the diagnosis. I think he passed away when I was in the first grade? I was young, six or something, but I remember it very clearly because it was such a sad event. And my dad was then left with the practice by himself.
The office itself was a very old building that predates the Civil War, and it used to be a rectory for the church across the street, had been a stop on the Underground Railroad (or at least that’s what we were told), and my dad was there working very late sometimes. His office was on the first floor by the stairs, and his partner’s office had been at the top of the stairs. And it sort of became this thing – I think it was my dad who first said, “I think Smoky’s still around.” (Smoky was his partner’s name.) “I think I’ve seen him upstairs.” And again, it didn’t seem scary to me, it was just like my dad was like, “He’s still around.” And I remember many nights being at the office late with my dad (and sometimes my mom, because she worked there, too), and it would be dark and we’d see a light on the landing upstairs, but the lights had been off. My dad would just say, “It’s Smoky.” I remember very clearly waiting outside my dad’s office one night and looking upstairs and seeing the curtains at the top of the landing moving, sort of like someone was walking past them, and I was maybe seven or eight, but I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s okay. If it were anybody else I’d be terrified right now, but it’s just Smoky. He’s our friend.”
And so it became a thing, and if my dad ever hired a new secretary he’d joke with them that, “There’s a ghost upstairs, but it’s fine! He’s one of our dearest friends, he’s just keeping an eye on things. He’s really dedicated to his work.” So then everybody who worked there started having these stories, like, “Yeah, the storage room door was locked and it doesn’t even have a key! Smoky must’ve been playing a prank on us.” I guess at some point the stories kind of ran out, and what we sort of thought was, “Oh, he thinks we’re okay. He thinks we’ve got this and he’s moved on somehow.” I just remember looking up at the landing in the dark and seeing that shape or shadow or movement and not feeling scared, but feeling grateful in a way. And I think that’s unusual, right? Because you think ghosts are supposed to be scary, but I think that really shaped the way I think about these things, that maybe it’s not scary and that maybe there’s something beautiful and reassuring in it.
Right! Wow, that’s so interesting.
Yeah, I’ve told people that story and it’s like they absolutely do not believe me, but listen, my parents are very practical, non-mystical people, and they don’t have that mindset. So it’s a nice little coda to a really tragic story, I think.
Absolutely. And so then maybe that helped shape the next story that I think you’re going to tell me, which happened when you were in junior high I think you said?
Yeah, I wanna say it was early junior high. I was old enough to be out by myself and sullen enough to be listening to my headphones, wanting to get away from my parents, so I think it was probably junior high. [Laughs] And it was summer, so I was home from school. It’s hard to explain sometimes to people who didn’t grow up in rural areas, but there are roads with no sidewalks, just a dirt shoulder and trees and sometimes houses that were set back from the road a bit with a fair amount of space in between. And so I was walking up this main road, which is something I did all the time, and it was a beautiful summer day – blue sky, the whole nine yards. I had my headphones in (I’m sure I was listening to something embarrassing), and there weren’t many cars that went by since it was the middle of the day and people were probably at work. I also didn’t see anybody while I was walking, which was normal.
But as I was walking, there was this big rock right at the edge of where the woods got thicker. I’d walked past it a million times before, but this time I noticed a little kid sitting on it. That didn’t seem that strange, because I knew there were a lot of families that lived nearby, lots of kids, and it was summer, so there were people visiting and staying at the summer camps along the lake. It didn’t seem that weird that there would just be a kid out playing. But then as I got closer I realized two things. The first was that the clothing the kid was wearing had no logos, no designs, it was just a plain white shirt and plain blue shorts and a red baseball cap pulled down really low. And all of his clothes were really bright. Since it was the nineties, everything should’ve had a logo on it, right? Like, GAP or something, but his clothes were totally plain. And as I got closer, I noticed the child seemed very small. Four or five, maybe? I was thinking, “This is weird, because it’s just woods on either side here, no house or yard adjacent to this rock.” I didn’t know a lot about childcare at the time, but I thought, “I wouldn’t let a four year old out by themselves without being able to have an eye on them.” And there was nobody else around. So as I got closer, I waved, but the kid didn’t move or look up.
And that’s when I started to have a weird feeling. Like, “Oh, I think something’s not what I think it is right now.” I had a moment of fear, like, “I don’t want to look closer,” but I did, and it seemed like the kid had very short, dark hair, but the hat was pulled down so low that I thought, “Either this kid doesn’t have a face or I can’t see it, but either option is very weird.” I just remember feeling both like I wanted to stop and look, but I also wanted to get the fuck out of there. And something sort of came over me, because I was starting to have this moment of panic. I don’t know how else to explain this without sounding like a lunatic, but it was this feeling of, “Hey, it’s okay, just keep walking. This is for you but it’s not time yet.” And so I did, I just kept walking. I put my headphones on, kept going and didn’t turn back, walked another mile down the road until the rock was way out of sight, and then I started getting tired and felt like I wanted to go home. And something inside was like, “Okay, just walk back.” So I did. I walked back, and nobody was on the rock. There was nobody anywhere, no sign of anybody having been there. And I just went home and didn’t say anything about it, because it was too weird to explain, and I didn’t even want to try.
So jump cut to 2014 – I had a baby, a little boy. (Parenthood is also terrifying and exhilarating in its own way, because you sort of want to stop but have to keep going and so on and so forth.) But I had this bizarre moment last summer. My son was almost four, and he was wearing a pair of blue shorts, and he went to his room, and most of his clothes have patterns on them and are very colorful because that’s what kids like, but he has this white shirt, and I guess he just put it on somehow. He was sitting on the floor with his head down playing with a toy, and I just had this insane feeling come back of like, “Oh, it was you. You were the one…” I don’t know how to explain it, again, without sounding like a lunatic, but it was this feeling of, “It wasn’t for you then, but now I’m here for you. Now we’re together. Here I am, it’s fine.” And it just sort of all clicked. I hadn’t thought about that episode in years. I’d finished high school, gone to college, all of this life had happened, and then all of a sudden this moment came rushing back.
And of course I haven’t spoken about it with him because he’s four years old, and it would be very hard to explain, but it’s funny, because kids do…like, there are some really great Reddit threads about the creepy things kids say, and there have been times where he’s offhandedly said things. Like I was telling him about something I’d done in college or after college or something, and I said, “That was before you were born,” and he’s like, “Yeah, I know about that.” I mean, look, he’s also told me that when he grows up he wants to be a unicorn, so you have to take it all with a grain of salt, but there’s part of me that’s like, “Did you know about that???”
That’s so interesting! It’s also just funny how the human body will respond to those eerie sorts of moments very viscerally. Because if you pass a little kid in the middle of the day, that’s not inherently creepy, but something about that experience and the way you described it, it’s just that something about it was slightly off, and that’s when your body just goes, “NOPE! NO THANKS!”
Yeah! And I honestly think things through, you know? If I’m in a tough or stressful situation, it’s like, “Alright, I’m gonna keep my cool and I’m gonna logic my way through this.” That’s always been my approach, and so it’s very…I’m always a little bit shaken when my sympathetic nervous system takes over. So those moments are really memorable, and to have something like that happen…I’m just not someone who has that kind of experience that often. And obviously people have all kinds of reactions to things in the world that ultimately have some explanation that isn’t supernatural, but I’ve never been able to make sense of that particular one. And it affected me mentally, physically…you know that sort of cold feeling of your blood in your wrists when you’re like, “What’s going on?”, followed by this warm wave of reassurance that came over me and allowed me to walk away and leave it behind until 2018, and something about my brain and my kid and what he was wearing all came clicking back together, even though I’d completely forgotten about it at that point.
Right, that’s so interesting! Alright, so we’ve established that you and I believe in people ghosts, but I’m gonna abruptly segue back into the podcast by asking you if you think animal ghosts exist, specifically cat ghosts?
You know, that’s an interesting question, and we talk about this a lot on the show, the otherworldliness of cats and how they might be capable of traveling between realms in ways we don’t understand. I have never personally experienced a cat ghost, but I will say that in our episode that’s premiering on the 17th, our guest tells an incredible story about being visited by a cat that was the embodiment of her late father.
Yeah, it’s really incredible. Again, it’s one of those stories that’s like, “Okay, you don’t believe it? Fine. You offer another explanation for this.” The story even ties into a dream that she had, and I mean, obviously I’m going to say that people should listen to the show anyway, but that episode, specifically, is incredible. If you believe that there are things about cats that we don’t understand, and that they are in some way a bridge into other worlds or aspects of the world, then it’ll make a lot of sense to you. If you’re a skeptic, I just invite you to listen with an open mind. When she told me the story I was like, “Oh, yeah, I get it. That makes total sense.” But she was like, “Of course you do, but other people…” [Laughs]
But yeah, it’s absolutely possible, and I believe in what I call the transitive nature of cats. I don’t know how to explain it…again, I’m sounding a little bit weird, but I’ve had a cat die and then a cat that’s still alive indicate to me that they’re bringing a message from the cat that’s just died. The cat that I grew up with died while I was living in New York with another cat, and the day that she died, the cat I was living with was being unusually attentive, and at one point climbed up onto a bookshelf (which he never did), and was sort of curled up on the bookshelf, which is something my cat back home did all the time. And that was the day my parents called and said, “We hate to tell you this, but she passed away.” And I was like, “Oh, I think Milo knew, because he was sitting on the bookshelf in a way that she used to.” Like some inter-cat spiritual communication. Again, is it possible my cat just wanted to try out sitting on a shelf? Sure. But that’s not how I choose to interpret it, right?
Totally, the timing is bonkers on that. They say animals and children are so much more in tune with that sort of thing, with energy.
Totally, because they haven’t been told not to, you know? It’s just like how kids will say what they’re really feeling, which is both good and bad. [Laughs] Yesterday I was told I am “stinky and bad”, but you know, there are absolutely times when you just want to go up to someone in your life and say, “You know what? You’re stinky and bad!” But we’ve trained ourselves to suppress these things, and kids and cats…they don’t. As someone who’s in my own brain a lot, I think being connected to cats helps remind me that, “You know what, there are things you can’t explain and you just have to go with it and accept it.” And that makes life more interesting.