Eric Nuzum is a PoPville contributor and Petworth resident. You can catch Eric on Wednesday, August 15th for the launch party, reading, and Q&A at Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon St NW. You can read the first excerpt here, the second excerpt here and the third excerpt here.
Giving Up The Ghost contains both memoir elements and some reporting as well. Specifically, my attempts to find and document ghosts.
As part of those adventures, I went to probably the strangest town in America, Lily Dale, New York. Lily Dale is a pretty tiny place—two hundred homes—about an hour south of Buffalo. However, the town entirely owned and run by followers of the Spiritualist religion. Spiritualists believe that they, as mediums, have the ability to communicate with the dead. The hotels are run by Spiritualists, the fire department and restaurants are run by Spiritualists. Even the post office is run by Spiritualists.
As a result, it’s kind of a funky, weird, and awesome place. Everyone, and I mean everyone, believes they can see and hear ghosts…all day, every day. They have several services a day for residents and those visiting. Here are some examples of what happens at them.
“Okay, our first person to serve spirit tonight is Brenda Hawkins, a registered medium here in Lily Dale. Brenda?”
Brenda thanks George for letting her serve spirit that evening, says a brief silent prayer, and surveys the assembled crowd.
Then she points right at me. It feels like winning the lottery the first time I buy a ticket.
“Sir, may I approach you, please?”
“Sure,” I say.
“A little louder, please?”
“Sure, yes,” I call out. “Absolutely.”
“I’m sensing a spirit . . . a maternal spirit, please . . . perhaps a mother or grandmother. Is your grandmother on your mother’s side in spirit, please?”
Assuming that “in spirit” is a euphemism for “dead,” I guess she is referring to Bobalu. I reply, “Yes.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Brenda says. “Tell me, please, was she a little round in the bottom?”
Now, how am I supposed to answer that? Bobalu wasn’t really overweight, but she wasn’t rail thin, either. Imagine how pissed off Bobalu would be if she traveled back from Grandma Heaven to deliver a message to her oldest grandchild, just to arrive as he says, “Oh yeah, she had a huge ass!”
I just shrug and say nothing.
“That’s okay,” Brenda says. “I feel the spirit that is reaching out to you is definitely Grandma.”
“She wants to surround you with light and love right now and let you know that she watches over you and is proud of you,” she resumes. “She knows that you have a job that is difficult and demanding, and she is proud that you do this work. That . . . that is mostly it . . . she just wants you to know that she misses you and knows how much you loved her. She wants to leave you with blessings . . . oh. There is one more thing, please.”
I nod, then catch George’s glance and remember to say “Yes” out loud.
“Grandma wasn’t much of a car person, was she, please?” Brenda asks.
“No,” I reply. Outside of smoking in them and driving them to the grocery store, my grandmother had no particular connection with cars.
“Well,” Brenda says with a slight chuckle. “Your grandmother wants you to check your tire pressure over the coming weeks, please.”
“My tire pressure?”
Continues after the jump.
“Yes, she says that it is nothing dangerous; just make sure you are watching it carefully to be safe. That’s it. And I leave you with God’s light and love.”
Brenda then receives a message from some woman’s uncle and is off in another direction.
I drove seven and a half hours to get here to have Bobalu tell me to watch my tire pressure? People come to Lily Dale to connect one more time with the recently departed, find out what will happen to themselves and their loved ones, understand the afterlife and how to prepare for it, and finally figure out where Aunt Myra hid her jewelry. All I got is some car advice from a woman who couldn’t tell a tire gauge from a meat thermometer.
The leader for the 1 p.m. Stump Service the next day is Neal Rzepkowski, a family doctor and ordained Spiritualist minister. Neal is famous outside of Lily Dale for being fired as an emergency room doctor from the Brooks Memorial Hospital in 1991 in Dunkirk, New York, because he was HIV-positive. The story made it to the front page of the New York Times. Neal was on Oprah, too.
Now he is offering a prayer and setting up a message service for dead friends and relatives to reach out to the living. The first medium called forward to share spirit was Jessie Furst, who, in addition to giving private readings, runs a guesthouse in town.
“Okay,” Jessie calls out. “I’m sensing a woman . . . forty to forty-five . . . and breast cancer. And I’m getting the name Deborah. Does anyone here have a Deborah?”
A woman sitting about ten people to my right tentatively raises her hand. As she tries to tell Jessie about her connection, she’s becoming visibly upset. It takes a couple of tries to get it out through the crying, but the woman says her name is Deborah and that she receives grief counseling from a forty-three-year-old woman who’d recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Sometimes spirit sends us messages that get all confused and mixed up,” Jessie says.
Then Deborah blurts out that she’s receiving the counseling over the recent death of her son. Deborah’s husband is sitting next to her, with his arms around her shoulders as she sobs. They’re about fifty years old.
“Yes,” Jessie says with sudden assurance. “The message is from your son.”
“He wants to tell you he loves you and that he misses you,” Jessie continues. “He wants you to know he is okay and there is no pain.”
Deborah starts to wail, placing her head in her hands while Jessie speaks. Deborah’s husband starts to sigh heavily, then tears pour down his cheeks.
“He knows how much you loved him and how much you sacrificed for him,” Jessie says. “He just wants to surround you with love and tell you that whenever you think of him, he is right there with you. You know those times when you are sitting alone and you think you can sense him?”
“That’s him. And he loves you so much and says he will always be with you. And I leave you with that, with light and love.”
Jessie moves on to other spirit messages—from someone’s dead aunt, someone’s dead father, and someone’s dead brother. As her time ends and she begins to walk away from the Stump, Neal stops her.
“Jessie, I think you need to stay up here another minute,” he says, waving his hand toward the treetops to his right. “There is a very persistent spirit here that wants to reach out through you.”
“Yes!” Jessie exclaims, raising her hand high above her head and walking back toward the Stump. “I can sense him, too. His name . . . is Peter.”
I hear a cry out from my right; it’s Deborah. She’s so upset she can’t speak. Her husband, openly crying as well, finally speaks out. Peter was the name of their dead son.
A chorus of gasps rises from the crowd assembled at the Stump; many begin crying, too.
“Boy, Peter really loves you,” Jessie says, beginning to choke up herself. “He just wants to take another moment to reach out to you. To surround you with all his love and make sure you know that no matter what happens, no matter what is going on, he loves you and will always be right there. So much love from this spirit for you. He wants to thank you and say God bless you.”
Jessie walks away in tears. For all the emotion I’ve seen in the audiences at message services, I’ve never seen a medium show much at all. They’re a generally stoic bunch—receiving messages is a pretty routine part of their lives. But Jessie seems sincerely moved by what has happened. Neal calls up another medium, but for all intents and purposes, the service is pretty much over. By the time it officially ends and Deborah and her husband rise to look for her, Jessie is gone.
To this day I’m still torn about what I witnessed that afternoon. On one hand, the way Jessie identified the couple and the spirit was just a shade away from the fishing you’d see from a five-dollar psychic at a state-fair booth. It felt manipulative, overly vague, and a little dirty.
However, if you spoke to Deborah and her husband, what they experienced was nothing short of a miracle. They traveled to Lily Dale for a connection and closure to this tragic event in their lives, and they got what they needed. The whole first encounter identifying Deborah and her counselor was probably a standard Lily Dale fluke. The name Peter popping up was probably just dumb luck.
So if no one was being financially scammed and poor Deborah and her husband walked away feeling like they connected to their dead son, where’s the harm? It could easily have been a complete coincidence. So what? What’s wrong with it?
This service would become the defining example of the dichotomy of Lily Dale in my eyes. I know that 90 percent of everything I saw in Lily Dale was pure bullshit; I just don’t know which 90 percent.