My brother liked to do his ghost-talking at night, in the dark, with only the colored bulbs strung around the Christmas tree lighting the room with their intermittent blinking. My sisters and I would bundle ourselves under the branches of the plastic tree, needles that never broke poking into our heads and shoulders, and watch his face flash yellow, then blue, then a demonic red.
He and my older sister had arrived at our house in Honolulu one Christmas. They were born from my mother's first marriage, to a Korean man who was later killed by a drunken taxi driver on the streets of Pusan. Previous to their manifestation, I had ruled the home as the oldest child. Upset with my demotion to a "younger," I mercilessly ridiculed their accents, thick with kimchi and Korea, singing nonsense rhymes that confused them with speed and alliteration. My brother would get so mad that he'd chase me around the house. The one time he caught me -- by the ponytail -- he didn't know what to do with me, sure that if he beat me, our mother would beat him.
My older sister tried to tame me with ghost stories, too. I think she intended them as a threat, as in, "The boogeyman will get you if you don't behave." Instead, my younger sisters and I were intrigued and begged her for more. Her accent now gave her credibility, transporting her and us into the otherworld of Korea, where anything seemed possible.
That Christmas, we were haunted by:
An aunt who had died as a baby -- "Leave candy for her before you go to bed," my brother instructed, "so she doesn't throw a tantrum. Her favorite is a Tootsie Roll." In the morning, like the cookies other children left out for Santa, the candy would be gone, evidence of a ghostly visitation.
My older sister's classmate who fell into the school's outhouse and drowned. She visited us that winter -- piggybacking onto the plane my sister rode because, my sister said, she had always wanted to see Hawaii.
And a father who came in a dream, somehow leaving fisted in my brother's hand the exact amount of money -- $15.65 -- he needed to buy the remote-control car that he had been coveting.
"Ghosts are always around us," my brother explained, "but especially at Christmastime. They like to come back to take care, to see what's happening -- sort of like a family reunion. They like to see the presents and taste the food." Ghosts were the dead people tied to us, maybe family and friends, maybe just someone we passed by one day on the street who decided to follow us home.
"The closer you are to the ghost, the stronger they are," he would moan, as if going into a trance, and we sisters would huddle closer together under the flock-flecked plastic tree. "One family of orphans I know, their mother comes back every year to put the star on the tree."
"Ooohh," we'd gasp, staring at our own tree and waiting for a sign. If the wind happened to blow or if, more likely, my brother rustled a branch, my sisters and I would scream, "Ghost!" It was thrilling.
My brother and sisters and I identified with these orphans; for the most part our mother and fathers were all ghosts, floating in and out of our lives. While my older siblings' father actually lived in the spirit world, my father lived in New Jersey. It was nearly the same place to me. Both fathers visited only during the Christmas holiday.
After my father and my mother were divorced when I was 5, he evolved into a holiday father: arriving in Hawaii for Christmas loaded with presents and only as real as Santa Claus. My mother, trying to support five kids, worked at a series of bars and restaurants; she was someone we mostly saw sleeping when we came home from school or on every other Sunday.
One year, instead of my father coming to visit us, my younger sisters and I were sent to New Jersey to visit him. The first night there, in an upstairs bedroom, the three of us made a nest of blankets on the floor and stayed up late talking in the dark. Just as we were drifting off to sleep, listening to the creaks and moans of old wood and settling stone, one sister said, "I think I hear a ghost!"
We quieted, held our breath and -- sure enough: There was the sound of shuffling footsteps. "Listen," my sister continued, "now he's opening the hallway door."
In the dark, there was the thud and click of a lock being turned. "And now the ghost is walking to the kitchen," she continued, mimicking my brother's trance voice. "Now he's opening the refrigerator, and now he's getting something to eat -- probably drinking milk right out of the carton!"
"Eeeee!" we giggled and rushed next door, into my father's room. "Someone's downstairs," we shouted as we jumped on his bed, "and they're getting something to eat!"
My father bolted up, fumbling for his glasses. "Huh? Huh? Huh?" he said.
"Hurry." We pulled him up. We were too scared to go downstairs by ourselves, especially in a strange house, but we didn't want to miss seeing our ghost, either.
Turning on the lights as we crept downstairs, my father led the way, holding not a baseball bat or a big stick, but a Stephen King novel. He had grabbed the first available thing to protect his family.
When we finally entered the kitchen, my father said, "No one's here." But we sisters knew better.
My father marched us to the front door. "Look here," he said. "The door is bolted tight and we have bars on the windows."
My sisters and I felt better, safe and comforted not because of locks and bars, but because even so far from Hawaii our ghosts knew how to find us and had come to visit.
What we felt that night must have been something like the way my brother and sister felt when they told their ghost stories. It must have been a comfort to invoke an invisible family that watched out for you, always present, no matter how far you traveled from home.
This year, however, I find the ghosts have changed.
As a mother preparing for our Christmas in Hawaii, I try to give my daughters the "normal" Christmas I longed for while growing up. I hang stockings and post letters to Santa. We bake cookies, sing carols, hang handmade ornaments on Charlie Brown trees that spice the air.
The ghosts that visit me these days are not the same ones that came in childhood to shake the ornaments off branches or raid the refrigerator or put stars at the tops of trees. With my brother and sisters and their families an ocean away -- in California, in Seattle -- my ghosts, memories of Christmases past, are more reminiscent of Dickens's A Christmas Carol.
So I am thinking it is time for a new tradition: To tie my Christmas past with my daughters' Christmas present, after we hang the stockings, after we decorate the tree, I will snuggle my two girls next to my body, moan as if entering a trance, and tell them a Christmas ghost story.
Nora Okja Keller's novel, Comfort Woman, was published in 1997.