Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride,
Tin House Books, 297 pages
After the death of a loved one, many people report encountering them in some way — perhaps as a breeze through a room, a voice in a dream, or a vision at the foot of the bed. After Regina McBride’s parents committed suicide in 1974, she experienced visitations from what she believed were their ghosts. Terrified, she began to cry and couldn’t stop. She was so unmoored by the apparitions that she landed in a psychiatric ward while visiting family on the East Coast. She didn’t belong there, though, and she soon returned to Santa Fe, where she had grown up and where she was enrolled at the local college.
Ghost Songs is McBride’s memoir of her childhood, leading up to her parents’ deaths when she was in her late teens, and retracing her first couple of years without them. The nonlinear narrative jumps around in time and place, from her early days in Yonkers, New York, to New Mexico — the family first lived in Albuquerque and then in Santa Fe — to her time in college and her sudden decision to travel in Ireland. She has an older brother, Jerry, who went to the University of New Mexico, and two younger sisters, Tracy and Sheila, whom she was unable to properly care for as a grief-stricken theater student. McBride threw herself into juicy roles on stage at the Greer Garson Theatre. Though she never explicitly names the College of Santa Fe in the book, she mentions the productions she was in during college — The House
of Blue Leaves, Moonchildren, and The Music Man among them — as well as her favorite professor, Kim Stanley, a one-time film star who taught at CSF (on the campus that now houses Santa Fe University of Art and Design).
For readers who live in Santa Fe or who attended CSF, Ghost Songs is a chillingly nostalgic scavenger hunt that can be pieced together through careful reading and a working knowledge of local geography over the past half century. McBride’s Irish-American family lived off Siringo Road, near the rodeo grounds and what is now Richards Avenue. McBride’s father tended bar at the Tap Room at Coronado Center, on Cordova Road, and her mother worked as a secretary at the Institute for American Indian Arts when it was located at the Santa Fe Indian School. Cerrillos Road was dirt where it petered out into the highway to Albuquerque, on the southwest edge of town, which was then mostly undeveloped mesa.
Far more than a trip down memory lane, however, Ghost
Songs is a deeply moving exploration of the tragedy of anger within a family. McBride’s grandmother, Nanny, was an oppressive, hostile force in their household. She held on to a long-standing hatred of her dreamer son-in-law and manipulated her daughter through guilt and a twisted sense of duty. Her grandchildren reviled her and wished she would live somewhere else or even burn in hell, but Nanny’s eventual death set off their already unstable mother. Home became, even more than it had been, a war zone of irrational shrieking, scratching, biting, and suicidal ideation.
McBride found her mother’s suicide far less surprising than her father’s, five months earlier, for which she felt enormous guilt. She told few people what had happened, fearful that she would be blamed for being the kind of daughter that parents would abandon in such a violent and final way. In her office in the theater, Stanley attempted to help McBride come to terms with the deaths, if only by encouraging her to play dramatic roles with the same commitment she gave to comedic ones, but McBride resisted her professor’s efforts. She could not look directly at the apparitions at the end of her bed; nor could she create a cohesive narrative around her parents’ motivations. She wasn’t angry with them but bereft, ravaged by loss.
McBride left Santa Fe to seek redemption in Ireland — in Yeats country, which her father had talked about in hushed and reverent tones throughout her life, with tales of doorways to magical lands and fanciful creatures. She was raised Catholic, and though she doesn’t really believe in fairies, or that the apparitions she saw were communicating with her from the other side, in a perfect melding of Irish and Santa Fean sensibilities, McBride is not closed off to the idea that a spirit world exists. In Ghost Songs, she has conjured her childhood as an act of healing and storytelling, which she accomplishes in terse yet vivid poetic scenes and fragments. She has also brought back to life, perhaps unwittingly, tiny pieces of old Santa Fe that might well have disappeared under a thick layer of dust were it not for her drive to expose them to sunlight after all these years. — J.L.