The Ouija Board
by Ron Van Sweringen
“Everybody keep your hands on the table. No foolin’ around while I’m working the Ouija board. Got it?” All four of us kids answered up, “Yes’m.”
You didn’t mess around with mother, especially when she was communicating with the spirits. I was a twelve-year old “Okie” kid, in 1936, with no idea what “communicating” even meant. What I did know was that my Irish mother had a quick temper and a strong hand to back it up.
She sat at the north side of a large round oak table that filled the dining room of the old farmhouse we all lived in on the Oklahoma plains a few miles outside of Ardmore. Her auburn hair was pinned back in a bun and two rows of pin curls made little circles above her forehead. Each morning when we came into the kitchen for breakfast, my younger brother Murphy and I made bets on how many curls there would be.
She had her best dress on, the navy blue one with little white flowers all over it. She always wore it when communicating with the spirits. “They can see you right well,” she said. “You don’t want to look frumpy.” Us kids wore what we always did, but our hands were scrubbed clean and fresh parts were combed in the boys’ hair. My two sisters had ribbons tied around their pigtails and their cheeks scrubbed rosy.
It was a special night and we all knew it. There was an important decision to be made. My father had been gone for over three months, and Mr. Owl, our landlord, had come knocking on the door twice for the rent. The first time, my mother took a folded ten-dollar bill out of a match box and handed it to him. The second time, the match box was empty.
“You and your children need to make other arrangements,” he said to my mother. “I ain’t happy about it, but I need my rent. It’s hard times.”
I never saw mother cry. It was her way. When something bothered her, she took out her frustration on the washboard in the sink. We had few clothes, but they were clean.
The decision had to do with moving. Mother’s sister, my Aunt Isabel, offered to take us in. She lived in Washington, D.C. and ran a beauty shop in her house. Her husband had finally drunk himself to death, leaving her with one son, my cousin Tommy. I had never seen him, but I envied the fact that he was an only child.
Tonight mother was going to ask the Ouija board if going to live with my Aunt was the right thing to do. The way I saw it, we had no choice.
“Turn off the lights, Rosie,” Mother instructed my sister. “Let’s make it easy on their eyes.” Rosie dutifully obeyed and suddenly the room was cast in eerie shadow, lit by a single coal oil lamp. Mother placed her hands on the Ouija board and closed her eyes, as if in a trance.
“Magic board,” she said, barely above a whisper, “answer my questions and show us the way.” Hardly a breath was taken by anyone around the table. We all sat, staring, transfixed at the Ouija board. Suddenly mother squealed in a most unusual fashion.
“I feel it moving!” Her hands began slowly traveling across the board. Caught in the excitement of the moment, Rosie burst out, “I have to go, Mama,” darting away from the table and slamming the back door on her way to the outhouse.
“Takes after her father,” mother whispered under her breath. That was her favorite saying any time one of us kids annoyed her. A boom of thunder rattled the windows a moment later, followed by the hiss of rain beating against the glass panes and what sounded like a freight train roaring toward us through the night.
“Everyone down in the cellar,” mother shouted before jumping up from the table and screaming Rosie’s name.
My brother, sister and I hit the cellar floor in a tumble, missing half of the rickety steps in our panic. We huddled together, arms around each other in a black corner, listening to the wind scream above us. I was sure we were all going to die, and I imagined that mother and Rosie had already been blown away and killed by the tornado.
As the old house rocked and creaked, flashes of lightning lit the tiny cellar through cracks in the floorboards overhead.
“I’m hungry,” my four-year-old sister Agnes said. “Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?” I busted out laughing as she stuck her finger in her mouth.
“Yer nuts,” Murphy replied. He snuggled close beside me. “She’s nuts!”
I couldn’t help but laugh harder, until I realized I had peed my pants.
As quickly as it arrived, the storm passed, leaving an eerie silence that almost hurt our ears.
“You two stay here, till I see if it’s all clear,” I instructed Murphy and Agnes. The cellar door had blown shut and I didn’t know what to expect. When I opened it, my jaw dropped. Mother and Rosie were sitting on the floor under the oak table and there was a large white chicken in my mother’s lap.
“The wind blew her in,” mother said, when she saw me staring at the chicken, “just in time for Sunday dinner, since we don’t have anything else.”
It was then that I noticed mother’s pin curls and her thick red hair were gone.
“Oh Lord!” she gasped, suddenly realizing what had happened. “Stop laughing, Teddy McConnell, and start looking for my hair or I’ll fan your butt.”
An hour later we found mother’s wig. It was hung on a nail in the outhouse door.
“I must have lost it when I pulled Rosie off of the pot,” she said with a sigh of relief. “I guess we’ll be going to church on Sunday after all.”
Two days later a decision on what to do about our future still hadn’t been made, so mother chose to tempt fate again with the Ouija board. I prayed for a happier outcome this time, but made a quick trip to the outhouse, just in case.
I suspected that mother was putting off making the decision to move, in hopes that my father would come home. He had disappeared before, usually for a month or so, and then suddenly showed up out of nowhere. The last time, he appeared one night with two hundred dollars in one pocket and a pint of gin in the other. My sister Agnes was born nine months later.
“Can you send a spirit to answer my question?” mother asked just above a whisper, that night while we watched the Ouija board. “Yesssssssss,” came the answer out of nowhere, making my hair stand on end.
Along with the voice, there was a tapping at the window, as a shroud of gray smoke rose in the air. Alice started laughing, until Rosie jerked one of her pig tails.
“Should I take my children and go to live with my sister?” mother asked, her eyes large, looking at the smoky apparition.
“Better you should join the circus,” was the answer, which stunned us all.
“The circus?” mother repeated blankly.
“If you’ve a mind to follow your husband, that is,” was the answer, followed by a boisterous laugh as my father, a cigar in his mouth, stuck his head through the open window.
“Ahhh, yer a good looking woman, Mrs. McConnell.” My father smiled.
“Don’t give me that,” mother replied sharply. “You’ve been gone nearly three months, without a word. I should use the frying pan on you.”
“Not when you hear my good news, darlin’,” he answered, climbing through the window. “It took me that long to find a good job, but find one I did.”
By now my brothers and sisters and I were all over him.
“There will be no more hard times, Mrs. McConnell,” he said, taking mother’s hand. “You’re looking at the number one grip, in charge of putting up the big top, with the Barnum and Bailey Traveling Circus.”
To my recollection, mother never used the Ouija board again after that, except once, to ask for the name of my brother Billy, who was born nine months later.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen