John-Carlos Estrada

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The Journey to Lily Dale: Two New Yorker’s trip to the town that speaks to the dead

  • October 11, 2012

It was Buddy’s last few days and the Levine family knew it.

The beautiful golden retriever with a wagging tail and big brown wooden-panel eyes was reduced to lying around the house and hobbling from place to place in the Levine’s family home in Pelham Manor, N.Y.

Buddy was suffering from a list of ailments: hip dysplasia, which caused his back legs to give out, along with an on-going case of sun downing, a canine version of dementia, and not to mention frequent seizures which began to take hold of him.

“It brought me back to those days seeing my mother fall apart in front of my eyes,” says Marla Riley Levine.

For over 12 years, the Levine’s gorgeous ornamental Italian-style house located 20-miles from New York City was Buddy’s home. A sanctuary where he and his sister, Beauty, could get what every dog wants in life: a meal and affection from a loving family.

The Levine’s brought Buddy and Beauty home after losing their first family dog, Beau.

It was on the way home from Beau’s burial when the family saw an advertisement for two golden retriever pups.

“MUST TAKE BOTH,” it read.

And so they did.

“We were learning to grieve and love at the same time all over again,” explained Levine.

She stayed with Buddy until his last breath — showering him with his favorite treats, massaging him and playing calming music.

For the Levine family, and especially for Marla, the passing of Buddy is more than the family pet dying; it’s another goodbye to a family member taken by the unexplained and mysterious world: death.

Death is part of the natural order. Parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and even beloved pets die.

At the age of 51, Levine counts 17 people, including the entire family of her childhood, who she has lost in the last four decades.  Over the years, she has employed mediums, fortune tellers, and other supernatural guides to communicate with her loved ones.

“For Marla it’s a journey to find out where we’re going and keep a connection to her family,” says Ken, Levine’s husband of 25 years.

Levine isn’t alone.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 38 percent of Americans believe ghosts or spirits can come back in certain situations. In 1990, it was 25 percent. Today, 28 percent think some people can hear from or “mentally” talk to the dead, compared with 18 percent 11 years ago.

This summer, Levine took what is the next logical step for many of these people: she joined the more than 35,000 visitors who take the pilgrimage to Lily Dale, a community in upstate New York which claims to have the world’s largest concentration of mediums or people who say that they can speak with the dead.

****

For many, Lily Dale has remained almost as pristine and quaint as it was in 1879 when it was formed. It’s located in Chautauqua County, N.Y., about an hour drive from Buffalo, New York’s second largest city.

Lily Dale has 13 streets and 5 major avenues which contain around 165 homes and about 200 year round residents.

This small village of Victorian and Gingerbread homes nestled on a wooded hillside along Cassadaga Lake is the largest center for the religion of Spiritualism.

Lily Dale was founded to promote the understanding of the science, philosophy and religion of Spiritualism and 133 years later it continues that tradition.

One of the major tenets of Spiritualism is the belief that life continues after death and it’s proven through mediumship, or methods to contact the dead.

“What we do is not to provide closures. It’s much deeper than that because you’ll never stop thinking of your dead loved ones. What we do it provide solace,” says Martie Hughes, a registered Lily Dale medium for over a decade.

Something to note: not all Spiritualists are mediums or healers.

According to census records, Spiritualists account for less than one-tenth of one percent of the population in the United States.

But in Lily Dale it’s a requirement. All residents must be Spiritualists and to be a registered medium you must apply and be approved by the local governing body, the Assembly.

*****
For Levine, the journey to Lily Dale has been a long time coming.

She estimates since the loss in 1986 of her father, Big John Riley, a beloved radio and television personality in central Pennsylvania, she has been visited at least one medium, healer or spiritual guide annually.

“It initially started as another way to deal with the loss of my dad,” said Levine. “But since his death I’ve began to lose more family members and I began to use mediums more regularly. I wanted to know if they were at peace and whether they were together and if my family would be okay.”

In the past, Levine has dealt with her losses in more traditional ways. She went to a therapist, which for her didn’t provide the answers she was looking for.

“I wasn’t satisfied by the sessions with my therapist,” says Levine. “The more I went in there to talk, the more I wish I could talk to my family. That’s what the mediums and spiritual guides provided for me.”

For years, Levine has been on two medications, one for depression and another for anxiety which also helps her sleep.

To know Levine, you’d know that many people depend on her: her husband, her two young-adult daughters, nephews/nieces, and a group of dedicated friends.

Last winter, Levine tried last winter to wean herself off her medication but after seeing Buddy, the family dog, suffer this spring and summer she decided to go back on it.

“I really tried to use yoga or meditation but it just wasn’t enough for me. Buddy’s suffering was too much for me,” she explains. “It reminded me of the way I lost my mother. Her body shutdown on us just like Buddy.”

Prior to her interest in using mediums, Levine turned to the Catholic Church to help her answer her questions. She attended a few meetings of a church support group but it again didn’t help her.

“I felt like my grief was advanced. It wasn’t enough for me,” says Levine.

It wasn’t until she began to have one-on-one session with a nun, Sister Dolores, that the church provided some type of way to cope with the loss of her loved ones.

“Sister Dolores was good about threading God in there when he needed to be there,” says Levine. “She made me look at my 17 deaths in a different way. That nothing is granted in this life and whatever time we have here with our loved ones is a bonus.”

With Sister Dolores’ counseling, Levine decided to take on writing as a way to deal with her losses.

Levine graduated from Penn State University in 1983 with a degree in Business and Advertising. After earning her degree, at the age of 22, she moved to New York City to work as an Associate Buyer for Bloomingdale’s. Two years later she was set up on a blind date with Ken Levine, who is 5 years her senior.

“I remember I didn’t want to go on this date,” says Levine. “I was a young girl in the big city and I wasn’t really looking for anything but Ken and I met and here we are 25 years later.”

The couple was married in 1986, a little under a year after meeting each other. At the time, her father was in a coma after suffering a brain aneurysm.

“My life was just beginning and I didn’t have my dad there for the most important part of my life,” says Levine. “That really stuck with me — not being walked down the aisle by my dad.”

In 1986, Levine left Bloomingdale’s and went to work as the director for merchandising and adverting for Corporate Property Investors, which owned 24 shopping centers across the United States. After 8 years for the corporate life, she became a stay-at-home mom of her two young daughters. In 2003, she opened her own retail store, The Purple Pineapple.
After the death of her mother in 2001, Levine began to work on writing about her losses as a way to help with the healing process. She is currently turning that writing into a memoir and self-help book currently entitled “16 Headstones,” which doesn’t include her grandfather’s twin sister, May Fleck, as one of 17 family members she has lost. She hopes the book will be a guide for others who’ve lost important people in their lives.

“It is okay to do it all as a way to cope with unanswered questions. There are no rules when it comes to the grieving process,” says Levine.

********

Although Levine is roughly twice my age, and although I have experienced far fewer deaths than she has, I too am a person with a drive to contact the dead.

My mother, Gloria Estrada, died in 2010 at the age of 47. She died so suddenly and unexpectedly in her home of Garland, Texas that I never got to say good-bye because I was beginning my career in New York City.

I decided to journey with Levine to Lily Dale in part to complete my article, but also to discover for myself if contact with the afterlife is possible.

I found that the mediums employed at Lily Dale do, indeed, have a special gift for dealing with the bereaved and, whether or not they actually contact the dead, they provide a level of comfort and solace. But I also found that the hard, emotional and searching work of reaching the other world is mostly in the hands of the bereaved. The mediums only provide a framework for the encounter.

People like Levine and me are the ones who experience the loss most acutely. We’re the ones who have to live without the ones we love. And while we find healing and solace in this world, we reach out to the other side in hope of recovering some of what we lost.

******
As we begin to board our plane to Buffalo, the closest airport to Lily Dale, I ask Levine which of the 17 family members she’d like to hear from.

“I’d like to hear from mostly from my mom,” says Levine. “My mom, Dee, because in her own words ‘I don’t believe in this shit’ she’d tell me every time I’d come back with a message from my dad given to me by a medium. It would be great to hear from her.”

With those hopes in mind, she and I took the journey to Lily Dale on a cool summer end of July weekend, the high season for the town that can talk to the dead.

Arriving into the town you could feel a sense of sad energy.

“It seems like everyone here is desperate and on a mission,” explains Levine.

One of those people, Chelsea Williams from Buffalo, had come to Lily Dale a few times in the past and came back that weekend because she need to speak with her mother, Lilly, who passed away 13 years earlier.

“I only live a few miles away and I had this urge to come back and try to see if my mom had anything new to tell me,” said Williams, who came with her were her husband, Mark, and her best friend Angie. Angie was also there to get a private reading.

I met Chelsea Williams and her entourage at Inspiration Stump, a traditional meeting place in Lily Dale that dates back to the beginnings of the community. The stump used to serve as a makeshift stage for the mediums to connect with visitors. But now, with the stump in danger of erosion, it is surrounded by a black gate.

A crowd of over 200 people sat down in benches while many were left standing in the back all facing the gated stump.

At this point, Marla and I notice that the mood in the forest area just a few steps from the small village was filled with what can only be described as desperation for a free message from their loved ones.

It is at the stump that those seeking to connect meet the registered Lily Dale mediums, visiting mediums, and student mediums who will guide them on their spiritual journey to the other world.

It is here that mediums, in an attempt to connect with the visitors, attempt a “cold read” of the crowd.

“A cold read is very difficult to do because you look out into a crowd and you begin to feel everyone’s energy and desire to be read,” explains Elaine Thomas, who has been a medium at Lily Dale for more than 30 years. “The really good mediums can give someone a message but still find a way to include everyone there. With the amount of people we have come to Inspiration Stump we won’t get to everyone.”

Thomas is one of numerous mediums who spend about 10 to 15 minutes each trying to send a message to someone in the crowd.

It at times appears to be a guessing game for the mediums, some who talk fast and others who try to joke around with the crowd.

“Who here has lost a family or friend due to suicide?,” says one of the visiting mediums.

About half of the crowd raises their hands.

“Jackpot,” he must be thinking.

From there he attempts to “find” who’s trying to reach out to their loved one.

As with all encounters with mediums at Lily Dale, there seems to be some elements of sincerity and some of trickery.

The questions are often so general that they would have to apply to someone in the crowd.

The mediums are specialists at picking up clues – and exploiting them in the best sense of the word. They can only do their work if they have the full consent, belief and trust of the person who has experienced a loss.

The greatest evidence that it works is that thousands who come each year come back again. Either they have made contact or they feel that they are so close that next time they will.

Lily Dale has some big critics and none bigger than the James Randi Educational Foundation. This foundation was founded in 1996 by magician-turned-skeptic James Randi to help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

The group even offers a still-unclaimed million dollar reward for anyone who can produce evidence of paranormal abilities under controlled conditions, many which include mediums or psychics.

“Places like Lily Dale that foster the belief in mediumship are interesting to us because we think the claims of mediums and psychics by in large hurt people,” says D.J. Grothe, President of James Randi Educational Foundation. “They are harmful and they are not backed up by research, by scientific investigation and while certainly not all of the mediums are frauds we think not all the mediums are real. Mediums might not all be frauds but are all fake.”

Grothe, who has been to Lily Dale many times, goes on to says that this community might provide people with some type of relief for those who have lost loved ones but there’s better ways to deal with grief and mediumship isn’t one of them.

Even in Levine’s household there are those who believe what she’s doing isn’t normal or health for her.

“It’s just creepy,” says Shaun Levine, Marla’s 21-year old daughter. “I’ve never connected with it but I believe everyone that has.” I think it’s cool she wants to do it; I believe it could work; I just don’t personally want to go there. I think it’s kind of creepy and it would really freak me out if it got somewhere.”

Maddy Levine, Marla’s 19-year old daughter, agrees. “I mean God forbid if my mom or dad or my sister passed away… I don’t think there would be any closing words that I would need. They just want to see do my best and they all love me and that’s all I need to know. I feel like going to a medium just reopens wounds.”

****

Visitors say that Lily Dale’s most authentic moments come in the form of private reading with one of the town’s 41 registered mediums.

These mediums, mostly older women, have studied this form of spirituality and are tested by the Lily Dale Assembly.

They ask for a donation of $75 per session, which runs for 45 minutes to an hour.

During the town’s busy season, beginning in June through late-August, many of the registered Lily Dale mediums are fully booked.

From the recommendation of Darryl Catherine, professor of religion at Le Moyne College in New York, Levine and I decided to have private sessions with two Lily Dale mediums, Elaine Thomas and Martie Hughes.

Catherine spent about three seasons in Lily Dale writing his book “Haunted Grounds: Journeys through a Paranormal America,” which was published in 2010.

He lists Lily Dale as one of the three most paranormal regions in the United States; along with Roswell UFO festival where allegedly in the summer of 1947 in New Mexico a UFO crashed; and the American Society of Dowsers’ annual convention of “water witches” in Vermont.

According to Catherine, these three locations in the United States mix the unexplained with the explained together — people must venture into this location to decide on their own if these places are paranormal.

“Martie and Elaine have different style of mediumship,” explains Catherine. “Lily Dale for me was something unexpected and really did prove a connection to the other world.”

With those recommendations in hand we began our private session at the home of Thomas.

Thomas’ summer home is in the center of Lily Dale off the town’s main avenue. The single-family home sits on a slope on Library Street painted light blue and surrounded by a 7-foot white fence. Near the door hangs a black iron holder a tiny navy blue sign that reads: Elaine Ferris Thomas.

A sign is posted on the door to her sun porch: Please take a seat. I’ll be right with you.

Levine and I sit on her sun porch that’s filled with white wicker chairs and tables. Next to her door into her reading room there’s a table filled with brochures that explain how the session will work and how much of a donation is expected. Also, on the table is more information about Lily Dale’s official religion, Spiritualism, and the mediumship school which Thomas’ co-founded.

Thomas, sporting brown cropped hair, white eye shadow, and a black outfit, greets us with a warm smile.

“Welcome. It’s so nice to meet the both of you,” she says. “Come into my side room. It’s where I do my readings.”

We follow her into a small room with two comfy chairs between a round table on plush blue carpet surrounded with windows, which are partly covered by white curtains. The room is filled with an array of crystals of all sizes on the small round table and on the floor.

“As you can see I’ve started a collection of crystals,” she laughs off, mostly gifts from people she’s read.

Thomas tells us about she’s been in Lily Dale as a registered medium for 37 years, the longest continuously registered medium on the grounds. She’s been an ordained Spiritualist minister since 1974 and is seen by many in Lily Dale as a community leader.

Thomas also serves as co-founded and co-director of The School of Spiritual Healing & Prophecy and Foundational Pastor of Fellowships of the Spirit, which is a non-denominational Spiritualist Church. The church trains and ordains spiritual healers and mediums from around the United States and Canada.

Thomas holds a Masters in counseling from Canisius College in Buffalo.

“I’ve always had a passion to teach,” says Thomas, who was a reading teacher in Buffalo prior to her work in mediumship. “I’m happy to keep doing that and embrace this gift of healing people.”

While Levine takes a seat in a chair across from her, Thomas explains that she’ll be recording the session for her on a CD.

Thomas pushes record and shuts her eyes.

“Oh God as we open the door to communication in the unity of the Holy Spirit the Great, I am in the presence of the Universe. We give thanks for we know that the word spoken is filled with your love, truth, wisdom and understanding of the highest. Amen,” she says beginning each reading with an opening prayer.

Thomas opens her eyes and begins by saying that “they” are showing her a few things.

“They are showing me here first not only now. I saw you way ahead at 78 and 85. And I want to say still going strong,” says Thomas. “I can’t prove it to you but they say here that you’ve got a long-term contract left on the planet.”

With this information, Levine’s eyes begin to swell up.

“We promise that she will live to be an old lady but not a fat old lady they are telling me,” says Thomas.

She laughs and Levine joins in the laughter and adds: “Thank god.”

Thomas continues: “They want me to say that you won’t have white hairs just white roots and I’m not sure if they are saying this to make you laugh but your cheek bones will hold up too.”

Levine wipes away the tears in her eyes with a Kleenex.

A grin appears on her face.

“Good. Great!,” is all Levine can get out.

Laughter fills the reading room.

Thomas goes on to say that Levine tends to take care of her things but not herself.

Levine agrees.

“They want me to tell you to calm down and really understand what it feels like to be exhausted,” says Thomas. “What they are showing me here is that’s the k-e-y … key and q-i … qi, not in English, to everything else. You can do all those other things. I feel that many times it’s the habit of getting it done and finished rather than anything being imperative.”

“Absolutely,” says Levine.

Thomas continues. “And what they are showing me is one of your biggest throw away lines in your mind and to others is ‘Oh… I can handle that’.”

Levine once again agrees.

“And yes you can. You are very capable though I don’t see the actual W for Wonder Woman on your chest,” explains Thomas.

Levine breaths a bit deeper with this information.
“I also want to say to you there’s someone coming in on the spirit side of life who I feel had problems in the chest area,” says Thomas. “Can you understand that they were here and then they were gone?”

Levine whimpers an “Uh huh” that’s masked in holding back tears.

“They are saying that it would have been better for everyone else if — and can you understand they had a great sense of humor? — this person is saying a twisted sense of humor,” says Thomas.

“Yeah,” says Levine as she cries and laughs at the same time.

Thomas continues: “This soul is saying it would have been better for everybody else if I had suffered and hung around for awhile.”

“So true,” interjects Levine.

As they’re laughing, Thomas declares that the soul is in the room with them.

“I know who that is,” says Levine.  She later revealed to me it was her oldest brother, John Riley Jr. or Butch, who died from a heart attack 18 years ago.

“They are coming in with a great deal of love and want you to know that they are fine,” says Thomas. “They say the joke is on them because they never would have had it on their radar to come to a place like this to have me talk to you about them. They would have written it off as if this place were complete nonsense.”

Thomas tells Levine that when Butch passed he was welcomed by a group of family members on the other side; at the time of Butch’s death in 1994 there were already 14 others there waiting for him.

Thomas confirms this for Levine. “He wants me to tell you that that was an even bigger surprise. I’m doing so well and I’m not far away.”

Levine once again cannot hold back tears to know that her big brother Butch is with the rest of the family.

Thomas goes on to describe him a bit more for Levine by mentioning that his handshake was better than most contracts and that was his motto or ways he lived was “you can’t buy a good name, you can only live it.”

Levine told me later that it was then that she knew the soul in the room had to be her brother Butch.

He worked as an executive for a cruise line in Florida towards the end of his life. Butch was someone that Levine would call on at the beginning of her career for advice about how to build up herself up in the corporate retail business.

“I closer to my brother Butch after I started working because I was in this you know business arena and I wasn’t really sure how to navigate so I would phone him and he’d help me strategize how to get the next raise,” she told me about her brother weeks before our trip to Lily Dale.

Thomas concludes that Butch has given her this message for Levine: “I’m so proud of how you live, your good name.” Thomas adds that Butch checks in on his little sister every day.

A few minutes left in the session Thomas asks Levine if she has any remaining questions. She asks if any other relatives came into the room.

With the remaining time Thomas goes on to describe the presence of a woman.

“She had so much love and she breathed it out her pores… does that make any sense to you?,” she asks. “She didn’t know how not to be so caring and loving.”

“Yeah,” says Levine with tears in her eyes as she begins to pinpoint that it’s her Aunt Marie Riley or Ami, who died 5 years after her mother, in 2006.

“What do you think I’m an octopus?,” explains Thomas about Aunt Ami’s ability to multitask her wife, mother, and friend duties.

“You’ve dreamed about her since her passing,” says Thomas, which makes Levine again swell up and cry. “And on the mornings where you have slept very deeply, which doesn’t really happen for you, that’s when you were relaxed enough to travel out of body to hang out with her where she’s solid.”

“Oh wow,” says Levine grabbing a couple more Kleenex from Thomas’ table.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that I and the others are going anywhere because your generation and the next one down will all be in spirit before anyone decides where they are going,” Thomas says Aunt Ami told her.

“Thank you,” says Levine wiping away her final tears from the reading.

*******

Then I take the hot seat in front of Thomas.

I came into this project with an open mind but a bit skeptical of someone’s ability to tap into the other side.

I take a deep breath as Thomas opens with her prayer.

“I saw you very briefly as a kid growing up and I’m seeing when someone said no to you… you were like this mischievous little monkey… I could see this glim in your eye and then you’d say, ‘there has to be another way to a yes,’” says Thomas.

All of which is pretty accurate. I would play both my parents off one another into getting them to say yes to most of my requests. However, in my mind I kept saying, that might be true but isn’t it true of every other kid?

Thomas goes on to describe how I’m very empathic — it’s something that I apparently cultivated at a young age because of the dynamics in my family home. “Were one of your parents very moody?,” she asks.

In my head is the image of my father, who immigrated from Mexico at 23 years old and has been working nights since he arrived to Texas. He’s the moody person in my life. Thomas says I found a way to navigate this emotions and it’s something I use in my career to this day.

All pretty general things I thought anyone could tell me.

It wasn’t until she asked me this: “do you have a brother or sister that you tease and kid around alot with?”

I question her, “tease in a good way or a bad way?”

Because I’m on good terms with both my sister and brother and we tend to kid around when I get to see them.

She adds, “can you understand that there’s a sibling who is not doing so well emotionally?”

At this point I feel an instant connect with her. My younger brother, Javier, has been dealing with a mental disorder for nearly 4 years now.

Thomas goes on to explain that he recently had a tough time, which is true, and that he needs the guidance of me and the rest of the family to make sure he continues on the path to success.

With this information I’m convinced that Thomas must be in touch with something to know that private information about me.

She tells me that one of my great-grandfather on my dad’s side of the family walks with me. “They had a lot caring, common sense, and wisdom about them,” she explains.

Of course, I was too young to know him. My sister later revealed to me that I had met him once when I was young and confirmed his personality to me.

With 10 minutes left in the reading, Thomas declares that my mother, Gloria Estrada, has entered the room.

I feel a throbbing in my throat and my eyes feel with water.

“She was a woman of colorful emotions,” says Thomas. “She loved deeply and I won’t have wanted her angry at me… only over the big things not the petty things. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” I say.

“I feel like there was something unexpected about the timing of her death. How can I put this? I don’t know how she died,” says Thomas. “But I keep seeing this unexpectedness and everyone was blindsided.”

At this point, tears roll down my cheek.

I’m placed back to the last conversation I had with my mother on September 21, 2010. My mother had spent a fulfilling day at work and night cooking dinner and resting in the living room with her family in Texas while I gave them a last minute and rare late night call from New York City.

She would go to bed that night never to wake up again.

And, now, Thomas, who didn’t know much about me, hit the most important day of my life right on the nail.

“She is saying here: the thing that was hardest for her was not how — how can I put it? — It’s not how she died; it’s how hard she realized it hit everybody else. And it left debris all over,” says Thomas. “And she is saying I’m so sorry for that — she’s in a good place — she’s saying here I left such a mess.” While Thomas is saying all this she pauses from time to time as if she’s listening to someone else in the room.

Thomas hands me a Kleenex because I can’t fight the tears anymore. I’m sobbing as she tells me that my mother apologies for the way her death happen and the way our family had to cope with it.

“She didn’t realize what the impact of her death would be until she got over to the other side,” Thomas explains. “She just wants you to know that she’s so sorry for the mess she left, but the most important part is how proud she is of how you picked up the pieces and put them together.”

“There’s not anything anyone could have done to change it,” Thomas continues channeling my mother. Her statement rings true because, according to the doctor, what caused my mother’s death was a brain aneurism that was in her “like a ticking time bomb.”

At this point, I’m in tears by the overwhelming details about the circumstances around my mother’s death and her advice for me.

“She smiling and one of the things I want you to remember — she is saying — you always knew growing up that I believed in you,” said Thomas. “You might go into therapy for other things but at least I did that right.”

I laugh a little thinking of my mother in the room whispering these things to Thomas.

 

*******
Emotionally drained by our sessions with Thomas, Levine and I walk four streets over to the home of another registered medium, Martie Hughes.

Hughes, who has been at Lily Dale for 10 years, lives in a home smaller than Thomas’. Her reading room is surrounded by hundreds of books on four big shelves — mostly about Spiritualism and the mediumship.

Hughes leaves no room for chit-chat. She gets right down to business.

Hughes’ style of reading was a bit more conversational. She began Levine’s reading by asking her about her life.

“What’s your dad’s name?,” starts Hughes.

“John Riley,” replies Levine.

“Your mom’s?,” says Hughes again.

“Dee Riley,” says Levine.

“Let me open with prayer,” she quickly recites it. The prayer is almost word for word from Thomas’ opening prayer.

“There are a number of things that flew right at me right away,” she says to Levine fairly quickly. “You alone are equipped to handle the amount of loss in your life. The lesson about loss is about detachment,” explains Hughes. “The problem is once we are attached to them — what do we do with them?”

“Exactly,” says Levine.

She tells Levine that there’s a lot of stuff going on around her and that she was surprised to know she was married because she carries herself as an independent person.

“I can’t get mom to come in over here because her space is very weird over here,” Hughes tells Levine. “But I’ve got dad coming in.”

“He’s got a giant smile on his face and button-busting pride,” says Hughes as she mimics pulling suspenders from her chest. “Do you understand that?”

Levine laughs it off. “Yes, yes I do,” she gets out.

“That’s my girl, that’s my girl,” whispers Hughes as Levine begins to tear up about the presence of her dad in the room.

Her father was a radio and television broadcaster in central Pennsylvania, who had a huge personality and sense of humor.

It’s something that pops out of the reel that Levine allowed me to watch. Big John Riley just carried any segment with such ease and grace. Whether it was funny piece on Levine’s hometown of Altoona’s July 4th celebration or a serious piece about homelessness in central Pennsylvania; he was able to pull the viewer right in.

I can’t help but think that the charisma of Levine’s father is the same feeling you get in the room during the reading with Hughes. After all, Hughes says that she takes on the characteristics of the person coming through during reading.

“He’s so proud of you for doing all you do… even when you didn’t know how you were gonna do them,” says Hughes. “Because this is what I want to do — it’s like the FedEx commercial ‘I can do that, I can do that, I can do that, and how am I going to do that?’”

Levine agrees, “Exactly.”

“There’s a peace with him finally when he reached the other side. It was like all of a sudden a whole lot of things — oh wow that’s an interesting way to look at it — it was like he was on a meat hook,” explains Hughes. “You understand that?”

“Yes, I do,” she says as she begins to cry.

Prior to our trip to Lily Dale, Levine told me that father’s death wasn’t an easy one for the family. He was in a coma for almost three years from a brain aneurysm.

And the town’s press was looking to photograph him in this state because he was a local celebrity. “It was a tragic situation the look on his face was frozen from the trauma and people wanted to get in to take photos of him and friends would volunteer to sit outside of the room when we weren’t visiting.”

Hughes hit a significant moment in Levine’s life.

Hughes adds, “I don’t think he ever talked about the demons in his life.”

“He didn’t,” Levine says as she continues to cry.

“But to him those things weren’t important,” says Hughes. “Your mom knew all the demons and she wanted to make sure that his demons didn’t get to you.”

Levine said to me earlier that day that her father was an alcoholic, but that many people didn’t know about it.

“He’s saying here that your handbags are horrible,” says Hughes.

“They are terrible,” laughs Levine.

“The thing about about ugly handbags is that you don’t take care of them… the other thing about handbags is that they represent all of the things that you hold dear,” explains Hughes. “So if you have sloppy handbags you are not honoring the things you hold dear. He wants me to tell you that.”

Levine nods as she’s told this.

“From a man who held things dear to himself, he’s making an observation about this,” says Hughes. “He says besides, you can afford them.”

As she and Levine laugh off her dad’s comment.

She leaves Levine with a better idea about her writing.

“You should write about how funny funerals are sometimes… a sad book about death isn’t going to go anywhere. It needs to be about the joie de vivire,” she tells her.

Hughes tries to channel Levine’s mother. “She is happy and there isn’t any discomfort no mental disconnect because there was a whole lot of that,” says Hughes.

It was true Levine’s mother, Delores Riley or Dee, did suffer from loss of memory towards the end of her life.

Levine’s last question: “Are they together now?”

“That’s a silly question… of course they are,” explains Hughes. “Your mom and dad have a lot of music around them, a lot of laughter, a lot of light around them. There’s a lot of easy times, good memories, the bad memories were from this lifetime but the good memories are right there.”

Levine tears up about this message to hear this from Hughes.

“You are my girl… and now back to you,” says Hughes, mimicking the hand moves a broadcaster would do.

*******
With only 5 minutes before her next appointment Hughes conducts a quick session with me.

“John, I’m looking at you and there’s a lot of stuff coming in, up until now she probably wouldn’t have come in,” says Hughes. “She wasn’t quite ready. She had a lot of stuff she had to deal with and sometimes it’s what they have to deal with when they get to the other side. Now that doesn’t mean that when she left she didn’t have everything wrapped up.”

I nod my head.

“She did have everything wrapped up,” explains Hughes. “But she was in this funny place of well I need to make sure everybody is taken care of and ta-ta-ta-ta. You understand that? Ta-ta-ta-ta.”

“Huh,” I say trying to make sense of what Hughes is saying.

She continues: “So until this, you know, she hasn’t been ready to come in. She also wasn’t sure that if she were to show up to you that you would have believed it was her.”

“It’s true my mom never believed in this stuff — the supernatural stuff,” I say.

“It’s not supernatural its normal,” Hughes explains.

I go on to tell Hughes the one time my sister, Veronica Estrada, played with a weegie board at a slumber party and my mom was so angry at her for doing it.

“Oh please those things are scary,” says Hughes.

“I didn’t think she was gonna show up here,” I tell Hughes. “Because she didn’t believe in this stuff.”

“Yeah well she’s awhole lot smarter now than she was when she was here,” says Hughes. “And part of the reason she didn’t show up is because it scared the shit out of her.”

She asks me about her ethnic background. I tell her my mother is Mexican and practicing Catholic.

“God forbid,” says Hughes. “And yet in the apostle’s creed it says we believe in the communion of saints… Hello?”

“I have one question,” I tell Hughes. “My mom and I were very close by the end but the one thing I didn’t tell her was that I was gay — did she know?”

With a smirk on her face she says, “Does it matter?”

“I just never told her when she was alive,” I say.

“She’s laughing,” Hughes says.

Hughes looks over her right shoulder and says, “What?”, as if she were talking to someone next to her.

Then turns to me and says, “She’s laughing. She thinks that’s hysterical. How would I not know?”

I laugh and reply, “Well, when your boy comes back a cheerleader from college – I guess that’s what gave it away, right?” In reference to the two years I was on the co-ed cheer team at The George Washington University.

“That wasn’t it,” says Hughes. “That wasn’t it. She says … I’ve known since you were 10.”

My body tightens up hearing this information.

“She said … would I disrespect you so much as to say something you weren’t ready to say to me,” says Hughes.

I begin to tear up.

She continues: “I would never fill your words. I would never make you feel bad. She says… I would always hope you’d say something. I had alot of questions.”

I get out a laugh.

“Why would I… I’d wouldn’t do that to you,” says Hughes. “And if you couldn’t tell me then that was alright too.”

With tears rolling down my cheeks Hughes tells me that my mom, who never finished high school, is now a very wise woman.

“She was very wise,” I say.

“She was a trip actually,” says Hughes.

“She loved to have fun. She loved her margaritas,” I say.

“You think? Oh my God. Yeah tequila makes me stupid too,” says Hughes as if she were talking to my mom to the right of her. “She says… I can’t drink tequila it makes me stupid.”

I picture my mom watching over me and my family with a giant glass of margarita enjoying her life in the afterlife.

******
After both sessions I asked Levine what she thought of the experience.

“I was really hoping to hear more from my mother,” she tells me walking from Hughes’ home off as we go into the center of town. “She almost came through with Martie but I wanted more.”

For Levine, who has been to about 20 mediums and spiritual guides in the past two decades and spent thousands of dollars to communicate with her dead loved ones, Lily Dale was underwhelming.

“I guess I had just built it up so much in my mind, you know, I had done a little research and really believed they could give me more,” explains Levine.

As for me, I didn’t need much more than what Thomas and Hughes offered to me. They confirmed two things for me: my mom is happy and finally resting after living a tough life. When Thomas and Hughes both asked me if I had any more questions — I had a millions of questions to ask my mom but I decided to take a deep breath and let her go. As much as I’d like to spend talking to my mom through these mediums it wasn’t the same — I couldn’t hear her voice, the nickname she use to call me, and other little things that made my relationship with my mom special. I decided that I would never use a medium to talk to her — I would just remember her as she was.

It wasn’t until later that day that I realized that Levine’s conclusion was similar to mine. Maybe Lily Dale does that to people.

“I think I’ve exhausted that resource,” Levine said of her experience with mediums as we headed toward Buffalo airport. “I have my confirmation that they are all together. It’s my work… writing my book and raising my two girl is what will help… that will help heal me at this point.”

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