I've never seen angels with halos or wings, but I've known flesh-and-blood people who I felt were "guardian angels" and whose presence I have sensed after their death. First and foremost in this regard, I think of Aunt Ollie, who opened me up to the reality and beneficence of the unseen when I was a 14-year-old boy in Indianapolis.
Her full name was Ollah Toph, and she was not really my aunt but a distant cousin on my mother's side of the family. She was famous--or infamous, depending on your viewpoint--among my relatives for being able to foretell the future, as she did one summer afternoon when she called my grandmother to ask, "Where is Charles?" He was my mother's younger brother, the favorite son of my grandma Irene who reported that this bright 21-year-old was on vacation at a lake in Michigan and wondered why Aunt Ollie wanted to know. The chilling reply, carved in our family's history, was, "I sense death and water." Charles drowned that afternoon.
My parents took me to Aunt Ollie when I was beginning to suffer the angst of adolescence, hoping perhaps that this woman in her 80s could bring some kind of hope or comfort to a troubled teenage boy. She lived north of town in a house that was like a cabin in the woods, filled with books that included a privately printed volume of her spiritual poems that had been published in local newspapers, and a foot-pedal organ she played with love. With a beautiful crown of snow-white hair, Ollah was a striking woman of great poise and dignity.
As well as being an organist and poet, Aunt Ollie was a clairvoyant and a dedicated member of the Spiritualist Church. She had served as a delegate to a Spiritualist conference in England attended by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle--a yellowed clipping in her scrapbook testifying to the event. She believed that when people died, their souls or spirits went to a higher plane and that some of them looked over us in the role of "guardian angel." She believed she sometimes could communicate with those souls, which was part of her religion, along with her belief in God and Christ, which she conveyed in sensitive manner in some of her verse. She was offended by any suggestion of being a "fortune-teller" or dabbler in the occult. The spirit, and the spirits, were simply part of her life.
To ask her to use her powers of seeing or communicating beyond the five senses would have insulted her, but if she was in the appropriate mood she would sometimes close her eyes and with a sharp intake of breath describe a person standing beside us who we could not see yet sensed as she spoke, perhaps saying, "Danny, I see a tall man standing beside you, wearing a vest and a gold watch chain across it..." By a sign or gesture, a sense of interest and protection was conveyed, an aura of benevolence.
There were also times when Aunt Ollie would take my hand or a hand of my mother or father and in a deep, trance-like state speak of the future. On one occasion I remember still, she took my hand and said, "Danny, you will be close to death through some experience that will interrupt your education, but you will survive it and complete your education, and then you will cross several oceans--the Atlantic, and oceans beyond it--to a farther land than Europe."
In Indianapolis in the '40s, that seemed as remote as something out of "The Arabian Nights." But the memory of her prediction came as a comfort when I had to stay out of college for a semester after suffering a broken and dislocated cervical vertebra in an automobile wreck that could have killed me or left me paralyzed. I missed a semester of my senior year but graduated from Columbia the following February, and the following January, of 1956, I went to Israel to write a series of articles for The Nation. As I was standing on the deck of the S.S. Israel, approaching Haifa, Aunt Ollie's words came back to me, at first with a chill, then with a warming sense that there is a power in the universe beyond what we can touch or see, that our lives are part of a more profound mystery than we can hope to understand. And that mystery, for me, leads to God.