All Soul’s Day on November 2 is also known as Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or The Day of the Dead.
As a German Catholic family, we commemorated this holy day and fully understood the differences between heaven, purgatory, and hell. You did all you could to get into the former, avoiding the aeons-wasting middle ground of purgatory, and not committing any deadly sin that might cast you into the latter for eternity.
Navigating these tiers of sanctity was a serious business, reinforced by rumblings from the pulpit and violent art depicting rivers of blood, smiting, hellfire, and the miserable damned in our old family Bible.
When I was very young, the gentle sentiments of All Soul’s Day – remembering and praying for loved ones who had passed way – were trumped by the fresh horrors of Halloween on October 31st.
And pranking brothers.
And dread evoked by Hollywood’s early werewolf, vampire, and mummy movies, building to unforgettable (for a Catholic) nightmare plots like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.
In my view, kindly or not, anything with a soul was a dead thing.
And until I was 14, when my grandma Mina Hilsgen died, I was fortunate that the only people I knew were alive.
I liked it that way, and still think it’s a pity things had to change.
The Night of All Soul’s coincided each year with autumn and its temperamental Minnesota weather, which could range from balmy and mild to inches or even feet of early snow.
On the Night I most remember, my brother, who is seven years older, offered (unusually) to escort me upstairs at bedtime.
We peered through the sash windows into our silent garden and suburban street with its boulevard of trees. Moonshadows raced across the blue-lit lawn and my mother's trellises, hung with rustling husks from that year's runner beans.
“This is the night when souls walk the earth,” said Steve. “Maybe we’ll see some.”
He was matter of fact. I believed him. Maybe we would.
The fast-moving shadows did resemble apparitions if you squinted and used your imagination. Gusts shook the trees and bent the garden’s last dry raspberry canes.
“How do you spell the sound the wind makes?” I asked Steve.
He didn’t hesitate.
I now remember many loved ones who are buried in small towns in Minnesota, and some at Fort Snelling, without requiring a special day to pray that heaven is real or they are at peace.
And I think about spirits and their mysteries not just on the Night of All Soul’s, or in that week of Halloween, but on any night when the wind feels like talking, and I recall the moonshadows and the blue-lit grass and my brother standing at the window.
“W h h h h h h h h h h h …..”Stephen lee hilsgen
Steve has lived in Anchorage, Alaska for most of his adult life. He’s an elaborately mustachioed photographer, fisherman, fixer, skier, reader, retired painter of large buildings, biker, hiker, gadget king, family guy, deep thinker and devotee of quality potato chips and the baseball cap. Our mother enjoyed Jim Reeves’ Bimbo song and often sang it to Steve, who pretended to hate it. When we were painting Mom’s basement before she sold ‘the old house’, he criticised his sisters’ bad technique and said “work with the roller – the roller is your friend”. Steve may not remember that he knows how to spell the sound the wind makes, but I love him for it. And for the roller tip – it’s a keeper.
Photos Artjom Kissler and Ilbusca, istock