Tonight, Thacker Mountain Radio, the legendary program that visits us over the airways every Saturday, our own friendly ghost, will be the beneficiary of a story-telling event arranged by Kaye Hooker Bryant, and supervised by Kathryn McGaw and John Cofield. This “ghost story tour” of Oxford will take place at four locations associated with ghosts, and four storytellers: Tim Tatum, Rusty Faulkner, Dianne Fergusson, and Bill Griffith. Tomorrow afternoon in Sumner, MS, Thacker Mountain Radio will reconvene at the Tallahatchie Courthouse in commemoration of the new Emmett Till museum and interpretive center, where another fabled Mississippi ghost will be celebrated.
My story will, in part, be about the ghost of Maud Butler Falkner, mother of William Faulkner but more significantly in my telling the grandmother of my wife, Dean Faulkner Wells. While Dean was alive, Maud periodically “returned” to check on her and see how her “Lamb,” her alter-ego, was doing. I think Dean was, for her grandmother, the better angel of Maud’s nature, the Maud she could have been if she’d been born with Dean’s gentle spirit, or perhaps the young Maud before she was orphaned when her father, Charlie Butler, the town marshal and tax collector, ran away with Oxford’s tax money never to be seen again. In effect both of them were fatherless girls, Maud’s father having abandoned her when she was 16, whereas Dean’s father, Dean Swift Falkner, died in a plane crash four months before she was born. The difference was that Maud’s loss was bitter, and Dean’s was bittersweet. The two shared other affinities, both in genes and spirit. Like Maud, Dean stood ramrod straight. That was the first thing I noticed and admired about her — that erectness of attitude, straightness of character, as if she were perfectly aligned with the earth’s gravity.
To commune with ghosts is a special talent. It never surprised me when she would, out of the blue, say, “Nanny’s here.” She seemed to take for granted that her grandmother had a random need to come and check on her–or check in, as it were, to eavesdrop, breathe the same air, smile across time and space. Dean liked to observe that human memory begins with smell. We identify our mothers by smell. Dean’s first memory of her mother, Louise Hale Falkner, was the smell of the outdoors, no doubt because Louise would come rushing in to see about her baby daughter whom she, as a 22 year old widow, still only a girl herself, often left in the care of her parents–bringing with her the presence of fresh air.
So for Dean it was no surprise that Maud visited her as the odor of talcum powder, her first and compelling awareness of her grandmother. Here is how the visitation usually occurred: Dean would be walking down the hallway–Maud’s hallway which she herself designed perhaps thinking ahead to when she’d need a place to channel herself–and say, with no trace of amazement as if she’d known it was about to happen, “Nanny’s here.” She’d step back and invite me to experience (and perhaps reinforce her impression) Maud’s presence. One step forward and I smelled talcum, Maud’s essence as conjured by Dean; but when I stepped back, there was no talcum odor. Maud was standing in one spot waiting to be recognized. (Stunning when I think that Miss Maud allowed me to smell her, how a visitation of talcum can be conjured from infinity.) Of course it was Dean that Maud came to see, and I just happened to be there. This happened several times. Maud’s hallway somehow became the meeting place, a natural encounter as if Maud were continuing a conversation. “By the way, Lamb, as I was saying….” To be visited by a ghost, I think you have to have a willingness to be visited and not to be surprised. Dean was born with this willingness to believe, an ability not just to sense a ghost but to exchange greetings and a smile. To stand next to her in one of those rare moments was to believe, too.
Lawrence Wells is the author of the WWII novel Rommel and the Rebel. Wells has written three novels and edited six non-fiction books including William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection. With his wife Dean Faulkner Wells, he operated Yoknapatawpha Press, an independent press in Oxford, Mississippi, and co-published a quarterly journal, The Faulkner Newsletter. Co-founder of the Faux Faulkner Contest, he also scripted an Emmy-winning PBS regional documentary, “Return to the River.” He has been a frequent contributor to American Way and Southwest Spirit magazines and The New York Times Syndicate.