Road Trip to the Spiritual Assembly

Travel Stories: When her Aunt Noonie needed company on an annual pilgrimage, Nancy Davis Kho tagged along. Just how "woo-woo" would things get?

01.26.16 | 12:18 PM ET

The medium at Lily Dale. (Nancy Davis Kho)

Growing up, it was not uncommon for gatherings with my mom’s extended family to include an assessment of which kids were showing psychic powers, or whether the Magic Eye pendulum had predicted rain for the weekend. My mom’s oldest sister Eunice, whom we call Noonie, is an adherent of Spiritualism, a religion that believes the Spirit world is just another train stop on our ride and that mediums can help communicate messages back and forth between the living and dead. Western New York, where I was raised, was a hotbed of the Spiritualist religion in the 19th Century; many Spiritualists were also ardent early supporters of abolition and the women’s suffrage movement that arose at the same time. So while Spiritualism always seemed a little woo-woo, and I sometimes teased my aunt about it, I also believed it to be good-natured and compassionate—much like Aunt Noonie.

The highlight of Noonie’s year has always been her summer vacation to Lily Dale Spiritual Assembly, a tiny Spiritualist settlement southwest of Buffalo. Now in her 80s, Noonie doesn’t like to be away from home for long, but even one night in the bosom of what is allegedly a powerful energy vortex and unquestionably a beautiful spot at the edge of Cassadaga Lake restores her. When my uncle passed away and Noonie could no longer drive there on her own, my older sister Sally stepped in and began chauffeuring Noonie and her younger sister—our mom—to Lily Dale every July for an overnight. Wrangling the ladies’ various age-related mobility issues while staying at a hotel with the finest amenities 1895 has to offer is not for the faint of heart. Last winter Sal called me in California and said, “I can’t do it alone anymore. You’ve got to come home and help me this year.” So one warm morning last July, two sets of sisters, a generation apart, set off west from Rochester.

The sisters. Author at top left; Sally at top right; Mom at bottom left; Noonie at bottom right. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Davis Kho)

It’s a two-hour drive if you take the New York State Thruway, but my sister purposely took backroads. We were in no rush, given how Mom and Noonie tag-team-tell stories, including one that ended with, “And that’s how we figured out it wasn’t the driveway to the Dollar Store, but a gatehouse for a federal penitentiary.” As we wended down two-lane roads that took us through the villages and hamlets that no one ever thinks of when they hear the words “New York,” the ladies kept pulling things from their bags for show and tell, like battery-operated mini fans, Avon jewelry, and a device Noonie ordered from the back of a National Enquirer that guarantees it will rid you of your throat wattle. Unfortunately, we pulled up to the small white gatehouse at Lily Dale before I could give it a proper test.

After paying for our 24-hour visitor passes, we pulled down the small lane to the only hotel within Lily Dale’s gates, the Maplewood. The visitor brochure given to us at the gatehouse said: “We open our community to you that you may experience that which is for your highest and best. We encourage you to participate in the activities and to open your minds and your hearts to receive.” I vowed to be open and receptive to my highest self, meaning not make fun of Noonie or Spiritualism, at least until my visitor pass expired. While Mom and Noonie settled into their small shared room on the first floor, Sally took me on a quick lap around town.

The settlement is a tiny Victorian village where most of the colorful gingerbread cottages happen to display signs that say “Medium” and have desk calendars on their front porches to sign up for a reading. We walked past the large open-sided wooden Assembly Hall and the Lecture Hall, with signboards listing presentations and sessions by registered mediums; a Healing Temple where visitors come for meditation and spiritual healing; a cafeteria; and the store where, I realized, Noonie had bought all the astrology and numerology postcards and birthday cards she’d sent me over the years. Lily Dale was cheerful, peaceful, and yes, there did seem to be a slightly unusual energy there, manifested by me not thinking of a single snarky thing to say.

Back at the hotel, Noonie sat in a big rocker on the wraparound porch of the Maplewood, her walker next to her. “You girls should go to the afternoon lecture,” she directed. “I’m fine here, just looking at the lake.” She and my mom then began a spirited debate about who had the single room key, which required two trips to their room, one to the trunk of the car, an emptying of purses, and finally, a directive by my sister and me that everyone needed to check their pockets one more time. I won’t say who had the key the whole time, but it rhymes with Shnoonie.

Sal, Mom, and I headed off to the auditorium where, after a short lecture, a visiting medium took the podium, looked over the expectant faces in the crowd, and began delivering messages.

“I’m drawn to the lady in the purple shirt with the hat. May I come to you?” Once the person said yes, the medium might say, “As I step into Spirit with you, I have a feminine presence, someone who is a mother or a mother figure to you, a woman with very broad shoulders and a big laugh. Do you know who I’m talking about?” Then the message would be delivered: Believe in yourself, put yourself out there because you need to make new friends, stick with your studies, nurture the people around you because you have a gift. Oftentimes whoever was sending the message from the other side would say, “I see a lot of myself in you, and I want you to know how proud I am.”

After the 5 p.m. early bird dinner at the Lily Dale cafeteria (bill for four: $26, including dessert), Sal and I walked to Inspiration Stump, where visitors gather on long wooden benches in a leafy glen, to bat away evening mosquitoes and see what Spirit was saying up there.

Spirit singled me out: “I’m drawn to the lady with the striped shirt and glasses.” What Spirit had to say to me was that I was surrounded by wedding bells. I’ve been married 23 years, so I elbowed my sister, who had a new beau, in the ribs. Spirit then said that I would be called to play a special role in whoever’s wedding this was, and I whispered to Sally, “I’m going to DJ your wedding.” Spirit added that whatever I am supposed to do, it’s a stretch and a new challenge. I whispered to Sal, “I am going to do interpretive dance at your wedding.” Spirit said an aunt on the other side—surely my mom and Noonie’s late sister, Margaret—wants me to make it a fun party. I whispered to Sal, “I am doing an ice sculpture for your wedding.”

We giggled all the way back to the hotel, then sat on the Mom and Noonie’s twin beds and recounted my Spirit message. Noonie nodded, squinting her eyes. “That sounds like Margaret.”

Sally and I went to bed by 9 because, well, they roll up the sidewalks in Lily Dale by 8. Before we could go to sleep we had to make our beds, by which I mean Sal lifted her mattress and box spring six inches while I sat on my butt on the carpet and used my legs to push the sides of her bed frame closer together so we could replace the three of four slats that had fallen out. My bed was beyond help: the mattress was two inches too long for the frame, so housekeeping had just propped it up on the headboard, hypotenuse style.

We had finally stopped laughing over our respective precarious resting spots when an idea flashed into my head.

“I’m going to get ordained as a mail order minister so I can perform your marriage ceremony.”

Sal said, “Oh my god, that’s it.” Then a slat fell off her bed.

The next morning, I signed up for a personal reading at one of the cottages. The medium brought across messages that were a combination of accurate, eerily accurate, and just plain wrong. She knew that I had two daughters, but her view that my husband wouldn’t mind if I hired both a daily housekeeper and a cook missed the mark by a couple hundred miles. If I am the reincarnation of the person she told me, I’m definitely not living up to my potential. I can’t say it made me a convert.

Even so, Lily Dale gave me a spiritual gift beyond price—a reason to road trip and bond with three women (four if you count Aunt Margaret) to whom I’m lucky to be connected, in this world and the next.

Nancy Davis Kho

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