By Mary Thurwachter
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006
My brother-in-law Dale died in 1995, but I had a lively little chat with him recently.
At a séance.
There were 13 of us huddled in a special room devoted to séances in Cassadaga, a community of people who communicate with the dead. (Actually, Spiritualists view death as a sort of graduation. They say we are all spirits on a journey. Those who die simply don't inhabit a physical body anymore.)
Dale — minus his physical body — communicated like the dead relatives of many of the other spirit seekers in the darkened room. He turned (rotated) a heavy, wooden dining table to indicate a "yes" answer and made it stop dead (sorry!) when the answer was "no."
"Hey, Dale," I said, loudly enough for someone to suspect I had been guzzling Miller Lite (I hadn't!), "do they have beer over there?"
As my séance mates laughed, the table turned to affirm. When he had his physical body, Dale had a healthy appreciation for the golden nectar and an impressive collection of German earthenware steins.
The fun-loving ambience sure felt like Dale, a bright, handsome, fun-loving industrial engineer who understood the value of a hearty laugh and making those around him feel right at home.
In this case, home was a darkened room at Colby Temple, where Sunday services aren't all that different from other churches until the part where the visiting reverend delivers messages from dead people.
I'm not sure what Dale, the son of a minister, would have thought of this place when he was earth-bound. I suspect he would have been skeptical, but curious.
As I stood at the séance (pronounced SAY-ahnce) table (or rather shuffled around it as it moved), I asked Dale a few more questions, sent him the family's love and said goodbye. (He likes the way my sister, his wife, has slimmed down and shaped up, for example, and he's thrilled with the four grandsons, one named in his honor.)
It sounded like he was enjoying the company of the rest of my dead relatives and there may be a party going on over there. (Why not? They have the beer, after all!)
Before filing into the séance room, séance conductor Joan Piper, a medium and spiritual counselor, and her student Chris Ann Silver went over the plan. We were encouraged to be open-minded about the experience and to invite anyone we might want to contact in the spirit world. We said a prayer and, for added protection/luck/good vibes, I reached into my pocket to touch a rosary blessed by Pope John Paul II.
"Spirits like to be asked," Piper said. "They also like singing" — lots and lots of singing and "it doesn't have to be good singing."
"Sometimes the table turns," she said. "Sometimes it rocks and rolls. Once it tipped on its side and sometimes, you'll hear raps."
Once inside the séance room, behind the altar, the lights were darkened and five people including Piper and Silver stood around a heavy wooden dining table. Their fingers touched the table top. The rest of us sat in chairs around the walls of the room, awaiting our turn at the table.
Just as Piper promised, we began by singing, first Jingle Bells, then Row, Row, Row Your Boat, then Auld Lang Syne and then anything that came to mind.
"Come on, Spirit," Piper coaxed repeatedly, "let's rock and roll."
It seemed to take a long time, but eventually the table began to turn. Each of the people at the table took turns asking "Is this for me?" The table stood still for the first three people to indicate "no." And then, as Genelle Spriggs asked the question, the table began to move.
"Is that you, Victor?" she asked.
Spriggs, whose husband died four years ago, wanted to know if he liked where she had spread his ashes. The table turned.
"I'm hearing a drumbeat," Piper said. "Was he a musician?"
No, Spriggs said, but an ardent jazz fan.
Spriggs was able to get a few more questions in before another spirit reached out to touch someone else.
Shirley Kaye connected with a business associate and sought a thumbs-up (or down) regarding a new business she was considering. She got thumbs-up.
One by one, just about everyone made a connection.
Almost two hours after the first off-key rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, the séance ended and participants returned to the Ann Stevens House B&B for dinner.
Was the séance an uplifting experience? I called several of them a month later to get reactions.
Like most, Shirley and Jesse Kaye of Boynton Beach had never been to a séance before. After reading a story about the séance package at the Ann Stevens House B&B, Shirley put it on their list of things to do.
"I didn't have the faintest idea what to expect," said Shirley, who reached out to a former business associate who had died. "I was quite surprised when the table moved. It doesn't seem logical."
The fact that her husband came along floored her, she said.
"He's a psychiatrist, a scientist. Mysticism is not their thing. He was a good sport."
But Dr. Kaye said he didn't go to Cassadaga to humor his wife.
"I went for my own edification and to see my reaction," Dr. Kaye said. "I was surprised. I couldn't truly understand what I was seeing. I watched everything as closely as I could, although the room wasn't very bright. I couldn't understand why the table moved around the way it did. I remain an interested skeptic. If there was anybody playing tricks, I didn't catch them."
During the séance, Dr. Kaye appeared to be talking to his deceased mother. The table moved when he asked if she was present.
"I don't really think my mother was there," Dr. Kaye said. "I think that was sort of staged. I said I was (talking to her), but I didn't get any answers. I thought I might hear a voice, but I didn't."
Shirley Kaye, who had her Tarot cards read by a guest staying at the B&B, said that reading was pretty good.
"People go there thinking they'll tell you something you don't know, but they don't tell you anything you don't know. I noticed they didn't say anything bad."
Genelle Spriggs of Spring Hill said her experience in Cassadaga was wonderful. "I believe Victor (her late husband) was there. I'm totally happy about the experience. It made me feel good."
Her friend Carol Fischer of Pinellas Park was also favorably impressed.
"I truly believe that table was being controlled by the spirits. There was no way it would have been controlled by hydraulics. There wasn't any pattern."
During the séance, Fischer made contact, she believes, with her grandfather.
"Joan (Piper) kept saying how sad he was and that he couldn't communicate. It was like thunder hitting me. I knew it was my mother's father. He was Puerto Rican and didn't speak English. It all made sense to me."
She felt her grandfather was rapping on the table beneath her fingers, she said.
"It was very unsettling. I was astonished," Fischer said.
Worth a return visit?
Dr. Kaye said he would go (to a séance) again.
"It was a very interesting experience," he said. "I learned to be more tolerant of other people's ideas. I didn't come away as critical as I was when I started. I think those running the show believe in
what they're doing."
His wife would go, as well.
"We still ask each other 'how did that table move?' " Shirley Kaye said. "I really don't know."
Spriggs and Fischer, who each had private readings with Piper the day after the séance, are up for another séance and trip to Cassadaga.
"I would go back, but not tomorrow," Fischer said. "To know your soul and energy goes on and that these people can be looking after you, is fascinating."
However, Fischer said, she didn't want to be preoccupied with the departed. "I'm willing to let things unfold naturally with an occasional visit."
You get what you need
Piper says people come to Cassadaga for different reasons. Many have lost a loved one and seek closure. Others want encouragement. Still others, simply look for a relaxing getaway from the stress of everyday life.
I was looking for an entertaining weekend, I told her.
"Oh," she laughed. "You came to have your spirits lifted."