Medium Well – A True Adventure in Genealogy

The medium, an athletic-looking, bald man in his early forties, loped long-legged across the sunlit floors of his Manhattan office as if anxious to meet me. He had a friendly scatter of freckles over his nose, below his kind blue eyes. I noted the immaculate crease in his linen trousers and the way his shirtsleeves drew back from his wrists. He smiled. I smiled too, hesitated, and then took off my sunglasses. I leaned back on the white leather couch, shifted my legs yet again – left over right, rather than right over left – and wondered if he’d ask about my black eye and the mauve bruise encompassing my chin. Should I offer an explanation? Did he already know? Perhaps, even now, he could see a cartoon flashing over my head. The day before yesterday. Early twilight in my red brick Philly neighborhood. Me, losing a shoe. Crumpling down hard on a tree-root-upheaved sidewalk.

Cancelling the appointment had been unthinkable, however. A rabbi I knew and respected had recommended him. He’d made the same trip after the death of his daughter. “No guarantees,” he’d said, “But I’d go again.”

I’d waited seven months for an appointment, making Tom, my quietly skeptical – but still supportive – husband of forty years my only confidant. I’d flown into La Guardia that morning, eaten lunch at what turned out to be a gay sports bar, and checked into a hotel. As instructed by a confirmation email, I’d carried mementos related to my questions, though I thought of them as “relics.” In that difference I should have sensed trouble.

Looking at me, the medium no doubt imagined I’d lost my sister or husband. He’d guess the envelope in my lap held a ring or a scrap of clothing, not the scant evidence I’d gathered in an eight-year attempt to break through a genealogical brick wall. Most of his clients arrived with the one thing I wanted: the story behind the evidence. My envelope held a DNA analysis, a sketch of a farmhouse and a daguerreotype of my great-great-grandfather, George, with his waterfall beard, whose father was apparently not the Pennsylvania Quaker of record, but a Confederate tobacco farmer with quite a different surname. I was after the story.


The medium sat on a stool in front of me. “Welcome! How are you? Goodness, what a bruise! How painful!”

“I’m just fine,” I insisted. He didn’t inquire further, so I was fine and grateful both.

“All right, then. You can relax. This is my work, not yours. You won’t need to talk at all, really. I’ll need some feedback as to how it’s going, but I can usually tell. We’ll record the session, if you agree,  and I’ll email a copy tomorrow. Most people want to listen again once they’re home.”

I nodded. Non-responsibility and a recording sounded right.

“We’ll begin with a prayer that your hopes for today are satisfied, your questions answered.”

He bowed his head. I did. He whispered a brief plea for our efforts.

I said, “Amen.”

When he looked up, he said, “They’re coming in.”

This was easy!

“At least three or four,” the medium added. “There’s a girl. Quite thin, long dark hair, dark eyes,” he said. “She’s about twelve – with a dog. A big black dog, jumping at her heels. She plays with it, rubbing its back. She loves that dog!” He looked me in the eye.

I said nothing, but he knew right away the dog girl was unknown to me.

“No?” A scant scowl. “Hmmm.”

I felt bad for him.

“No worries,” he said. “There’s someone else.”

I vowed to do better.

“A man this time,” he said, and turned briefly to the side, asking a mumbled question. I learned later that this entity is known as a spirit guide, a sort of facilitator of these connections.

“I’d really like to give you a name,” he explained. “An ‘H.’ Hal? Harry? Wiry, sandy haired, middle-aged.”

Perhaps I made a poor subject.  Something about me was too … what? Too fearful, inhibited?Too stolidly a creature of this world? Or maybe I didn’t truly want to connect. I swear the medium heard my doubts.

“No! It’s not you.”

I nodded.

He looked over his shoulder again, then to me.

“The same man. He wants to say he feels as if he was a second father to you.”

What? How could this be a mistake? I scrutinized my life. No such person. No match for this guy who’d come so far from wherever. Worse. Come to wait on a middle floor of a mid-block office building, only to find that I didn’t recognize him.

“All right. Remember. This is my work, not yours. Don’t take any of this on. I mean it.”


We waited. As if a giant kite-winged bird had swept by the window behind me, the sunlight in the room blinked off and then on again.

“This is sad,” the medium said. “I’m afraid this woman died by her own hand. She’d been depressed for a long time. You knew her history; you’d been close friends since you were both little more than children.”

I must know this one. My mind raced. What if one of my friends has died like this and I don’t even know? What kind of person am I?

The medium fiddled with a button on the recorder next to him. Giving me time.

“Well,” he said. “That’s three strikes against me. I’m sorry.”

We sat in silence.

“Try as I might, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Of course, you don’t owe me anything.”

He saw my disappointment. Anyone might have. Even I could feel the pull of it on my face.

“One more try?” he offered.



A minute passed. He murmured to the being at his side and spoke with evident confidence. “Yes! A gray-haired woman, at least eighty. When she was ill, you visited. Your talks, your humor were important. You didn’t have to say any more. She hopes you can tell the others, the people who took care of her, night and day …. she’s so grateful.”

I had to speak. “I visited Mom last month. She’s living near my sister in San Diego. She’s got dementia, but she still likes to paint.”

We gave up.

“You said no charge,” I said, “but that’s not fair. You spent a long time trying.”

“Enough for a cup of coffee. How about that?”


“Coffee in Manhattan is ludicrous.” I gave him $50.00 and we shook hands.


Home in Philly, my husband was curious about my quest.

I said, “It was good, but something was off.”

“Like what?”

“All of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“My friend who committed suicide.”

“Really? Who?” He’d been emptying the dishwasher and stood with a plate in his hand. He shook his head through tendrils of dish steam.

I began to extricate warm spoons. “I’d known her since we were just kids,” I said.

He bent, slid the same plate back into its slot, and uttered a name. “Jen Carillo.”

I was stunned. She was a friend of our daughter, Liz, but more than thirty-five years younger than me. Could it be said that we were close? Did I know her history? No, but my daughter must have.

Tom grabbed the same plate. “What else was off?” he asked.

“An elderly woman who remembers my humor. Who wants me to tell the family who cared for her how appreciative she is.”

He sighed and turned to slide the plate into a cabinet. “That’s Rita, of course,” he said. His mother, not mine. He was the visitor with cherished conversation, the emissary to his sister’s family, entrusted to convey gratitude.

I’d caught on. “How about a man, first name beginning with ‘H’,  who was a second father to me?”

“Harry, my dad’s brother.”

“A second father to you? You never told me that.” And I’d only met Harry briefly over the years.

“No, but it’s true. He always listened, made more of an effort to connect with me, out of the six boys.”

“What about a tall, thin, dark haired girl with her black dog?”



“Sure. As in ‘dark.’ That’s Rita, again. When she was a girl, she looked very much like her Jewish Gypsy ancestors. Maybe not so much by the time you met her. Noir was her dog, back when she was such a beanpole kid. I guess the dog’s not in the photo, but we have one somewhere.” Tom sighed. “It’s just like her to show up twice.”

“So I went in your place? And maybe Liz’s? Like a conduit – a lesser type of medium myself?”

Unanswerable questions.

Still, I’d never say it was a wasted trip.


Author's Comment

It’s sometimes a handicap, but I need to write in order to know what I need to write about, be it fiction, nonfiction or poetry. This short piece is an example. I wrote to know about what happened, as I understand it. When I read it today, it continues to feel authentic in that way, though I’m open to rereading this account in the future and being surprised that something new occurs to me. A good friend told me, “I don’t know for sure what I learned about those spirits, but I did learn more about you.”


Susanne Dutton is a Philadelphian living and writing in an old house with a dragon over the front door. Her work has appeared in Milk Sugar Literature, Kakalak, Main Street Rag’s Coming Home, Unruly Catholic Women Writers (SUNY Press), Depth Insight’s E-zine, Bards and Sages Misfits Anthology, and Zimbell House’s The Neighbors. She has been a hospital chaplain, director of mind/body health programs for a major healthcare system, a spiritual director and a certified mediator. Nowadays, she aims herself at her keyboard most afternoons, hoping for diligence and luck enough to write something worth reading. Contact: