WESTON — Sukey Forbes opens the door of her home wearing one red patent leather loafer and one green one. Paired with Forbes’s white jeans and shirt, the shoes offer a striking pop of color.
“Charlotte had the same pair,” Forbes says, smiling. Mother and daughter had gone shopping, and after Charlotte picked out one red pair and one green pair and mixed them together in her 5-year-old’s fashion statement, her mom decided to do the same.
Now, Forbes sometimes wears the mismatched pair in memory of her daughter.
On Aug. 18, 2004, Charlotte Saltonstall Bigham spiked a fever and within minutes of arriving at the hospital died from malignant hyperthermia, a rare genetic disorder. She was 6 years old.
Forbes was devastated but soon found that she couldn’t grieve “normally.” The tears would not come. She wasn’t falling apart. She greeted relatives and others dry-eyed, signing for flowers that arrived by the armload. Her husband, in contrast, was literally bent over with grief.
“At first, I was so stuck in the shock and numbness of it,” says Forbes, 49. “Then I was terrified of coming unglued, of becoming that screaming, mad woman in the Gothic romances I’d read. I was worried that would be so wrong and disappointing to my family.” Finally, she was terrified of not feeling anything: “I did not have access to tears and feelings.”
In a new memoir released this week, “The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death” (Viking, 2014), Forbes, who descends from two of New England’s most prominent families, explains how her austere Yankee upbringing at first hindered her healing, and later helped it through her forebears’ belief in ghosts and spirits.
On her father’s side of the family tree, Forbes is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose daughter married the son of John Murray Forbes. On her mother’s side, she is a Saltonstall. In other words, 100 percent WASP.
Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry makes a cameo appearance in a pivotal boating scene in the book, where he’s referred to only as “cousin John.”
Forbes grew up in Milton with private schools and a stiff upper lip. “There was not a lot of discussion about emotions and feelings,” she says. “We were encouraged to contribute to the family by doing chores around the house and yard, planting trees, clearing paths, repairing stone walls. My parents looked on it as character-building.”
Tears were met with disapproval, overexuberance greeted with admonitions to take “three laps around the house,” she recalls. Forbes says she has never heard her parents raise their voices or utter an obscenity.
Through her research, Forbes learned that Emerson, whose oldest child Waldo died at age 5 of scarlet fever, had written: “I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve . . . I comprehend nothing of this fact but its bitterness.”
Emersonian beliefs in self-reliance and the primacy of nature were also her parents’ values. Every summer for generations, the various branches of the Forbes family summered on Naushon, a 6,000-acre island in Buzzards Bay owned by them since 1843. There are about 30 houses on the island, with no cars or stores.
Sukey Forbes has gone every summer since birth, and so have her children. Cabot is 17 and Beatrice 13.
On a recent day, Forbes sits in her Weston living room, with an oil painting of William Hathaway Forbes, her great-great-grandfather, staring somberly down from the mantle. She wrote her book at an intricately carved wooden desk given to her great-great-uncle, who was governor general of the Philippines, by Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.
On the desk are Charlotte’s favorite shoes, sparkly pink Mary Janes, well worn. “I love them because they still show the impressions of her toes and the arches of her feet, a reminder that she was in fact here physically,” says Forbes, who speaks with animation in her voice and her hands.
But it is her daughter’s spiritual presence that makes up the latter part of the memoir, and that ultimately helped Forbes heal. She says she wrote the book because after Charlotte’s death, she could find no writings on grief that were hopeful. “Mine is the story of one woman who made it her mission to go out and find comfort,” she says.
That mission includes a lively acccount of a “spiritually eccentric” family tree. On Naushon, Forbes dug through family archives and discovered her ancestors’ belief in ghosts and reincarnation. As a child, she recalled during a terrifying thunderstorm seeing what she believed was a human form emerge from a lightning bolt and walk across a field on Naushon.
Six months after Charlotte died, a friend suggested that Forbes see a medium. When she did, it would change her view of life, and of death. She began reading about the afterlife and how loved ones await us “on the other side.”
She writes: “Where do we draw the line between reasonable faith and nutty magical thinking? That’s when it occurred to me that on Naushon we never drew the line. On Naushon, the boundary between the natural and supernatural had always been negotiable. The spirit world was never discussed — we were WASPs, after all — but it was always assumed.”
Ghost stories involving family members were passed down matter-of-factly, no opinions expressed. “So to us, as kids, having ghosts seemed about as remarkable as having a refrigerator,” she writes. “My great-great-uncle Don . . . has been encountered dozens of times in the halls, sometimes running with a football. Emerson’s daughter, my great-great-grandmother Edith, often appears at dinner, as does John Murray Forbes’s daughter Sarah.”
More recently, a cousin’s wife, who had been away from the island for a while, remarked upon her return that she’d just had a lovely chat with cousin Lawrie near the bridge. “What she didn’t know was that Lawrie had died the previous year,” Forbes writes.
A handyman who had worked on the island for years stopped bringing his dog with him “because she gets too bothered by ghosts,” the man told Forbes.
Forbes herself was spooked by the ghost of James Bowdoin III, who built the main house on the island in 1809. Two years later, he died so suddenly and mysteriously, she writes, that family, servants and farmhands all fled, leaving food on the table and in the cupboards. No one returned for seven years.
Over the decades, there were lots of “sightings” of Bowdoin in the house. In the 1990s, as Forbes and her husband, Michael Bigham, were restoring the home, she feared his ghost. She writes that one night: “I said out loud, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Bowdoin. I’m scared of you, and I don’t want to see you. I know you’re here, and I’m not saying you have to leave. But we love this house just as you do, and I really don’t want you to scare us. You can stay, but please leave us alone. And whatever you do, please do not scare the children!’”
Forbes says that since then, she has felt “a comfortable kinship” with Bowdoin, greeting him by name each time she arrives and saying goodbye to him each time she leaves.
Seven months after Charlotte died, she attended a presentation by the medium recommended by a friend who had also lost a child. Forbes was in an audience of 500, and there had been no obituary for Charlotte, so there was virtually no chance that the medium would have any foreknowledge about Forbes’s loss. The medium walked in her direction, described a young girl who had died suddenly with a high fever and had a brother and a sister.
Forbes raised her hand. The medium told her: “She wants to acknowledge something you carry in your pocket all the time. It’s sort of white and sparkly.” Stunned, Forbes pulled out the small angel she found in Charlotte’s closet after her death and always carried with her. Forbes had told no one, not even her husband, about the angel.
After two private sessions with the medium, who relayed messages from and about Charlotte in accurate detail, Forbes says she began to heal. With her “newfound access” to Charlotte, who was reportedly happy and healthy, she began talking to her, often out loud.
But she was no longer speaking to her 6-year-old daughter. “Her incarnation as my daughter had come to an end,” she writes. “She was now a spirit guide and a special soul. . . . Charlotte was on her very own and very wonderful path. She was well cared for. She was looking out for us.”
Forbes’s son, Cabot, wants to be a professional race car driver and races go-karts in California, where he is in prep school. “Every time before a race, I say, ‘Charlotte, will you keep me safe?’ So far, so good,” he said in a telephone interview. “I do believe that she is constantly watching over both myself and my family.”
In the fall, Forbes and daughter Beatrice will spend the year near Cabot in Mill Valley. Forbes and her husband divorced in 2012, in part due to the strain over Charlotte’s death.
Though she still grieves, and always will, Forbes says she no longer fears death. “In fact, I look forward to it — not that I’m in any hurry, mind you,” she writes. “But I have a child over there, and family, and lots of other great people.”
Emerson’s last words stick in her mind: “That boy. That beautiful boy.” She has no doubt, she says, that his long-dead son, Waldo, appeared to him as he lay dying.