The Hungry Ghosts: Chinese All Souls Festival

As we approach the temple building in Chinatown, we can see smoke rising from the tiny courtyard, smell strong incense and feel a fine spray on our faces. Through the filagree of the metal fence we catch glimpses of red-robed figures and hear their chanting. My friend peels off at this point, allergic to such strong incense and smoke. Entering by a side gate, I come upon other chanters in light blue robes, coming down from the temple on the third floor.

Inside the tiny office area, I am pointed toward the English list. The Chinese list looks to be more sizeable. The man before me is busy adding a folded package containing a paper sports jacket, paper dress shoes and a paper cell phone to his bag of paper money. I know these customs having attended a Chinese funeral, although the deceased also received genuine Scotch whiskey to help her on her way. When it is my turn, I am greeted happily. “We didn’t know you would be here to burn your own!” But I eschew extras. I am sending only these ersatz silver and gold bars to my parents.

For weeks, we have been rolling this paper money at our tai chi club and sending it down here in huge green plastic bags. The money has been redistributed into the small parcels, such as the one I hold with my parents’ names and their memorial plaque number on the label.

“You know what to do?” asks the volunteer in charge of the English list and she proceeds to remind me, but I do know what to do. This is the sixth year that I have burned an offering.

“Why don’t you do it for Aunt Mae?” Georgia has asked me. Aunt Mae got us through our tough young lives.

“Aunt Mae doesn’t need any help,” I reply.

Perhaps our mother doesn’t either, for when she left, she never looked back. She went so completely and utterly that her leaving left me questioning my beliefs, questioning them all the way to a two-week hospital stay.

My father, on the other hand, hung around, offering, for example, financial advice: buy lottery tickets. Those who have read my memoir, Never Tell, will understand that he was the sort of parent, one is better off without.

I climb to the third floor, clutching my paper sack. Through the door to the temple I can see more blue-robed chanters moving about among what surely must be “graven images” of the Quan Yin and Confucius and other Buddist, Taoist and Confucian “saints” or holy beings. They are large and colourful and delight me, but today my business is in the anteroom where the memorial plaques are posted. Mine is #588 and easily found.

I stand gazing at this innocuous slip of yellow paper, bearing my parents’ names and the name of their native town -Hereford. How strange to see it here, amid these gaudy red and gold trappings, above this altar covered in dishes of food: fruit, pastries, rice, tea, pots with many sticks of incense, and beautiful flowers. Hereford of rolling green hills and low mountains, Hereford Hill that lies under slope-shouldered Hereford mountain and looks down over the Indian and Connecticut Rivers, a wooded place that is turning its back on cultivation now, turning back to dark and tangled forest.

I bow, the parcel tucked awkwardly under my arm. I choose a joss stick, light it on a candle, bow and stick it in the sand of an incense pot. I bow again. I don’t want to leave.

I am 76 years-old, but I am also 2 and 4 and 5. I am living through the Great New England hurricane and watching my parents build a load on the hay wagon and walking the dirt road with my mother and fishing the trout stream with my father.

If they were alive my mother would be 95. Her mother lived to that age. And my father, 98. But they have been gone for 44 and 24 years. Most of the family is profoundly grateful and it certainly has made life easier. No one else, Georgia or my visiting brother, wants to be here with me.

Downstairs, I am waved toward the back parking lot where a small iron burner stands ready. Two of my favourite instructors are there to feed the fire. They are my age, perhaps, although their wiry small bodies are in such good shape, it’s hard to tell and they are teaching another Chinese man how to do the tor yu as one of them pokes my bundle into flames.

I stand watching it burn, leaping up in bright gold and red flames, dying back to black ash and leaping into flame again. My eyes are watering. Must be the smokey wind.

I am feeding the hungry ghosts, my father who waited his whole life for a windfall, my mother who loved beautiful things -cranberry glass, cow pitchers (!), my father who sought some adrenaline high to fill the emptiness of his orphaned heart, my mother who sought solace, a gift to soothe her battered soul. And my own. My ghost is still more or less grounded here for the time being, but I know its tendency to wander, howling in the wilderness.

It’s all about me as usual.

Measured against the forests and the granite, the myriad lakes and waters, the un-reckonable ages, I am just a flame. These steadfastnesses support me, not I them. I can flicker and go out and reignite. I owe my life to Something greater.

When the fire has died down to black, I thank the men and walk through the back gate to my car, which still has a lot of time on the meter.

6 thoughts on “The Hungry Ghosts: Chinese All Souls Festival

    • So glad. It lingers with me. I love those two old Chinese guys who have been so patient with me in class. They put the ancestors in a different frame. The experience was full of beauty and sudden flashes of brightness.

  1. Thank you for nominating me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. It is a surprise,I guess, because writing the blog was so rewarding in and of itself. Like most of my posts, it got me into a headspace where I wanted to be. It helped me sort things out.

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