November 22, 1963, cont.: The Assassination

A continuation of my recollections of my early days in Nashville, Tennessee, and of my first experience with death–the assassination of JFK.

Sunrise in Nashville, July 2014

November 22, 1963, cont.: The Assassination

When I was five years old, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee with my parents along with my older brother and sister. Our modest, two story brick house on Fairfax Avenue near 21st Avenue was just a couple of blocks from the elementary school which I attended.

One Friday afternoon, on November 22, 1963, I was seated at my desk in my first grade classroom. Today, when I close my eyes to envision the scene, I can picture myself somewhere in the center back of the room.

I heard a voice begin to speak over the intercom. I believe it was a woman’s voice, possibly that of the principal’s. An eerie silence came over the room as if everyone immediately sensed the importance of what was about to be said. While the detached words began transmitting, I looked up at the brownish-black intercom box that hung above the chalkboard. Through my child’s eye, it appeared ominous, projecting the tone of the message that had traveled along its grim path, through the intercom’s inner workings, and  on to us.

As with any shocking moment, it took a few moments to comprehend what was happening. I heard a string of words such as “The President,” “shot,” and “assassinated.” And finally…“John F. Kennedy is dead,” the voice without a face stated. Immediately, time was encapsulated by those words, as if a giant jar had been placed over our classroom, allowing nothing to come or go. A classroom full of little children trapped by the enormity of news that we were too young to  begin to fathom.

Fifty-three years later, I can still clearly see this singular moment, a stark black and white image branded forever onto my soul. I can’t help but wonder why this event had such an impact on me.
Perhaps the memory endures in all its original power because only six months earlier, on May 18, 1963, I had actually seen Kennedy in person during a visit he had made to Nashville. It had been Vanderbilt University’s 90th anniversary and my family and I had gone to the stadium where Kennedy was to speak in connection with the commemoration.

Kennedy’s visit to Nashville was an extraordinary event for the city, and it is said that if you took the crowds who greeted The President upon his arrival at the airport and combined them with those along the route as well as those in the stadium, nearly half of the population of Nashville saw The President that day. Lining the route, from Murfreesboro Road to Broadway to West End, were cheering masses, an abundance of flags and banners, and dozens of musical performances all along the way.

I recall sitting in the stands of the stadium, surrounded by thousands of people, where I waited with youthful anticipation for The President’s arrival. I understood, in my childlike way, that what ever was about to happen was going to be very important.

Finally, the moment came when the motorcade made its entrance at the far end of the stadium. The scene was as if scripted for a movie, with Kennedy standing in his Lincoln Continental convertible and the Secret Service, dressed in their dark suits, looking nervously in all directions as they ran alongside The President’s car. The procession made its way out onto the playing field, and a roar filled the stadium as Kennedy waved to the crowd from his perch. And even from where I sat, many rows back from the field, I could see his wonderful smile.
Unexpectedly, the presidential convertible slowed to a stop almost directly in front of where we were seated. To everyone’s shock, Kennedy suddenly leapt from the car and ran in our direction. Even the secret service seemed to scramble into action, as if caught by surprise. (Apparently, Kennedy enjoyed these impromptu interactions with the crowds and this happened several times during his visit that day.) The crowd went berserk as Kennedy began shaking hands of those in the front rows, not too many yards away from our seats. It was an electrifying moment.

Despite my youth, what impressed me the most at the time was this man’s incredible presence. Looking back, it is astounding to me that a five year old could sense something so abstract as charisma. But there I was, along with 33,000 others, engulfed in it.

It has been noted that Kennedy’s visit to Nashville would prove to have eerie similarities to his later Dallas, Texas trip, including Kennedy waving to his admirers from his open presidential convertible; numerous spur of the moment interactions with the crowds; and a published motorcade route.  One could even say that it forebode what was to come. For six months and four days later, on November 22, 1963, this man with the endless charisma and bright smile had been shot. And 664 miles from the site of the crime, a five-year-old girl who barely knew what death was, sat at her desk in her classroom, listening as a detached voice on the intercom told her that her president was dead.

This, then, was my introduction to death.

(to be continued…)

November 22, 1963

It’s a few days from the end of the year, a time that always causes me to be in a reflective mood. And not just because another year is almost over. It also happens to be the time of year when I came to be. A kind of double whammy of reflection and I’m always relieved when I’ve finished running this particular gauntlet…

So I’m taking a brief break from “My Life with Ghosts” series to present the beginning of a different kind of piece–one that deals with my earliest memories of Nashville, Tennessee  and… my first memory of death.

 

 

In the distance, Baptist Hospital, downtown Nashville. Where I came into this world. 

November 22, 1963

My life began as a tax deduction.
Late one night in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 31st, 1957, I was ready to come into this world. My father, always anxious to save a buck, was beginning to see me not as the welcome arrival of a third child, but rather, as a valuable asset in the shape of a write-off. So he urged the doctor to hurry things along and I was dutifully born twenty minutes before the beginning of the New Year.
Or so the story goes. With my father, it was difficult to separate actuality from his tall tales for with each telling of notable events in his life, his stories evolved and grew and took on a heroic, dare-devilish stature.
In fact, one of my first involvements in my father’s escapades took place when I was still an infant. I was in the car with my parents one evening, riding along a Nashvillian residential street, when we drove past a private party taking place in one of the large houses. A policeman was directing the heavy traffic out front, when inadvertently, my father struck him with our car. What makes this story even more out of the ordinary is that the car’s stick shift was broken at the time, and in its place, my father had inserted a metal nutcracker, using this unusual substitute to shift the gears of the car. I’m not sure if the nutcracker had anything to do with the reason my father was hauled off to jail, but a lawyer relation was fortunately able to extricate my father out of this particular jam. This event was typical of life with my father. It became my “normal.”
I emphasize “life with my father,” for Daddy would figure large throughout all of my existence.
In fact, he is the heart of one of my earliest memories…

I am five. My father is walking me to school. The octagonal shaped paving stones that form the sidewalks on our street rest at awkward angles due to the underlying growth of large tree roots. As I hop from stone to stone, clutching onto my father’s hand, I feel that every moment in time holds an endless potential for magic…

That feeling of magic must have been felt by my father as well, for he would later go on to immortalize the ritual of walking me to school with one of the many poems he wrote throughout his life.

My wonder for life manifested itself in odd ways during those early years in Nashville. Of course, there is the usual montage of childhood memories that still inhabits my brain, a random sampling of what was taking place in the bigger, adult world at the time: S & H green stamps; Nashville’s version of The Parthenon, with its dark and smelly interior; the nativity scene set out in front of The Parthenon every Christmas, with its glowing lights which I could see from Broad Street as we made our way to my aunt’s house; the mansion turned art museum called Cheekwood where I loved to play among the boxwoods–I can still smell their earthy fragrance.

View of Music Row, Downtown Nashville. Much the way it was when I was a child.
But I also had an unusual fascination with all the advertising and stores and products that swirled around me in my little child’s world. Especially remarkable were the Red Goose shoes with the snapping toy that came with your purchase; Harvey’s department store with its indoor carousel horses and escalators; Castner Knott’s with its smell of new fabrics and its glittering counters; the shops that filled the Green Hills Mall; and the neon Jim Reed Chevrolet sign (which remained on display for decades into my adulthood).
Food ads were also at the forefront with Colonial Bread, Martha White flour, Elm Hill sausage, Shoney’s with its Big Boy statue out front, precariously balancing his hamburger, the potato chip factory near Vanderbilt with its giant potato chips sign, and of course, a proliferation of signs up an down the the highways that brazenly pushed Jack Daniels’ whiskey (which we would partake of by way of our Christmas eggnog out at my grandparents who lived in rural Tennessee.)

My lifelong fascination with bright, colorful signs originated with the neon signs along Music Row near The Ryman Auditorium, once home to The Grand Ole Opry.
All of the above made itself known through a glorious onslaught of billboards and neon signs, T.V. commercials and magazines-an explosion of popular culture in the early 60’s. And I felt as if I was right smack in the middle of it all. That made me happy.
Now that I think about it, food also played a large part in my early happiness. There were the warm bags of popcorn purchased from the department stores’ machines that luringly glowed yellow; the brown paper sacks full of candy and gum which my grandfather delivered to me from his country store during his visits to town; and the pleasure of drinking milk from the elementary school cart that rolled up and down the halls during break time, pausing to make deliveries at each classroom door.
And one of my favorite food related memories is also one of my earliest memories of my mother. It was of her making doughnuts, with me observing intently as she first rolled out the dough, then carefully molded it, most likely using the rim of a glass for a circular shape, then cutting out the centers to make the holes. I think I tried to help but I was barely tall enough to see above the rim of the fryer, so I would struggle to stand on my tiptoes to watch as she’d drop the shaped dough down into the sizzling oil where it slowly browned. When done, she sprinkled the doughnuts with cinnamon and sugar or simply powdered sugar, creating an aroma that smelled like heaven…

But there were hints that not all was well with the world. First grade memories of the sugar cubes handed out to students in the auditorium–a vaccine against polio—led to my concern: what exactly, was polio? But my question was overridden by my desire to eat sugar, so I ate the cube without complaint. And then there was The Cuban Missile Crisis that had us practicing diving under our desks while awkwardly covering our heads with our arms–an exercise that left me with no small amount of consternation. (Curious how, with the recent passing of Castro, The Cuban Missile Crisis is still so prominent in the news some 54 years later.)

I had a habit as a child to go over and over memories of my experiences, savoring each one. I was especially attached to those “first time” events—the first time I rode a sled down a hill; the first time I rode a bike; the first time I took a plane ride…Eventually, the number of my experiences greatly out powered my capacity to remember them all, but their sum total still had the effect of filling me with awe during those early years…

This was my world at the time of my first experience with death.
It was one of those life-changing moments that has become a landmark in our country’s social consciousness and which has often led to the clichéd question “where were you when it happened?” I’m referring of course, to the death of John F. Kennedy.
This is how I remember it…

(to be continued…)

My Life with Ghosts: The Crying Woman and The Funeral

My continuing tales of having lived in a haunted house, documented as the events occurred…. 

 

At times, it seemed as though the whole  world had gathered in The House, largely due to Barney’s diverse collections (aka hoarding) along with his astute eye. He had great insight to current events and trends and what he saved reflected that. (Barney, Lee’s grandfather, was the first generation of the family to live in the house. He and his wife, Eloise, bought the house back in the 1940’s using money from the estate of their dear friend, Mrs. Warner.) These stamps are just a few of  which I tore from the 100’s of pieces of mail  found during our purge. Much of it was business correspondence–Barney sold industrial equipment, and often sent off for various brochures and catalogs. These examples show postmarks from all around the country.

 

My Life with Ghosts: The Crying Woman and The Funeral

My hyperactive brain did not allow me to be still for long. Once again, I had my poor husband off on a quest. This time–to retrieve from the basement the jewelry boxes which we had gathered over the years from various parts of the house. Having belonged to several generations of the women in the family, they contained everything from costume jewelry to boy scout pins to saved baby teeth. And there were a few gold items as well. Gold prices were high and I thought it would be a good time to sell off all of the little broken bits and pieces. But why I felt compelled to undertake this project at that particular moment, I’ll never know. It was as if I were driven by something much more powerful than myself. Soon, the real need for a visit to our basement would be revealed.
My “goldmine” of treasures from the jewelry boxes turned out to be a dud. All except for one of the quirkier finds–a gold filling, which I proceeded sell for 40 or so dollars to a nearby jewelry store. Selling what was once part of someone’s mouth caused me to reflect how my life had not quite turned out how I had hoped. But one of my lines to live by is that if you set out to find one thing, you often find another.
In this case, I made a rediscovery of sorts. While winding our way through the maze of junk in the basement in search of the jewelry boxes which I had tucked away somewhere on a shelf, we passed the very spot where our adventures in the house had first begun. The place where we had literally swept up a Civil War ambrotype. It was also where the two trunks still sat–one of which held the photo of the Civil War twins which had helped us identify the soldier in the ambrotype {see earlier story, The Civil War Twins}.  And it was because of these discoveries that we had first grown aware of the incredible history with which we were residing.

Coffins for the dead. That was my grim first impression of the two trunks years earlier. But that was not my thought this time around as I stopped to look them over. Instead, my artist’s eye inspired me to think how they’d make great coffee tables. So there  we were, heaving one of the huge, heavy trunks up the stairs to its new home, the living room. Out of the dimness of the past and into the light of the living…
As we emptied the trunk’s contents, we found inside things once belonging to Lee’s distant relatives–a family from around the 1910-30’s who had lived in a small Alabaman town. This family consisted of four brothers, a sister, and a father, C.H. (Lee’s great-grandfather), three of which came to tragic ends. And there were also items belonging to the mother, Lessie, who had endured those losses so early in her life. We placed their possessions into white garbage bags, which we then carried into our dining room for sorting. All the while, I worried about what was in store for us that evening, for once again, we had dared to disturb the lair of the ghosts.

Sure enough, I had an uneasy sleep with the cats and dog jumping up and down on the bed all night. As I lay there wishing that they would settle down, I heard a sound coming from the hall. It was the antique armoire’s door creaking eerily, seemingly opening on its own. I hoped that it was simply one of the cats trying to find a warm spot to curl up and sleep.
A little while later (it was the middle of the night by now), I was awakened by crying. I thought it was my daughter having a bad dream. But when I tiptoed into her room, she was sound asleep. I stepped inside my son’s room which was directly across the hall. He was asleep as well. Perhaps the crying came from outside, I thought. I went back to bed.
The next morning, I reflected on the previous night. I began to think that the crying had sounded like a grown woman weeping. With that realization, I grew increasingly uneasy for I did not know what might lay ahead.
A couple of days later, I told Lee about the weeping woman. Once again, it turned out that we had had simultaneous, inexpiable experiences. For on the very night on which I had heard the crying, he had been awakened to the feeling of being poked in his shoulder by a finger–the same way his dad, Harold, used to awaken him as a child. And the same way my daughter had once been mysteriously roused from a nightmare. I grew worried about what I might find among the trunk’s things.

What had taken twenty to minutes to drag up from the basement ended up taking weeks to sort through. Here is some of what I found: photos, newspaper clippings, a teaspoon, blueprints, red and black wooden candlesticks, school scissors, a Coty manicure kit, a white lace shirt, composition books, cotton mill books, a Look magazine from 1945 featuring Maureen O’ Hara, a Handy-Andy lunchbox, two arrowheads, a fuse, golf tees, a cork screw, a ball of white string, and a ball of red string.  A portrait of a family’s history sketched out with this random collection of odds and ends.

One evening, as it neared bedtime, I had finally reached the last object from the two trunks. It was a small white box full of cards, with a different name printed on each. A few of the cards had the hand-written words “deepest sympathy.” Many had little wooden posts attached with wire, and many were still in their wax paper envelopes. And some of the cards had been crudely created from little pieces of ruled paper, as if hurriedly torn from a child’s school notebook. I realized that what I had found were sympathy cards which had once accompanied flowers at a funeral. And then it hit me that once again, I had been thrown back in time where I found myself at the doorstep of  someone’s death.
Judging from the sheer number of cards (over eighty), I guessed that this had been Lee’s great-grandfather’s funeral, where it had been reported in numerous papers from around the state that the entire town had showed up for C.H.’s service, and that the quantity of beautiful flowers that filled the room was extraordinary. {Having built and run a cotton mill in Alabama back in the 1920’s-30’s, Lee’s great-grandfather, who I will call simply “C.H.,” had been an important figure in the area. The story goes that he had been murdered, supposedly by a partner, for his million dollar life insurance policy. The cotton mill had been hit hard by The Great Depression, and from the letters that I found from that time, many people in the largely rural area were desperate.}
I scanned the names on the cards, many of which sounded familiar–probably from all the papers and letters that I had read since living in The House. And then…I was shocked to the core to see the name of the very person whom the family had suspected of being responsible for the death of C.H. It was a chilling moment to realize that C.H.’s murderer had most likely attended his funeral.
I felt like I did when I had dipped my fingers into Harold’s ashes years earlier, curious to know what they felt like (a mixture of fine powder, sandy material, and coarse pieces of bone). Handling the notes of sympathy was as if I were dipping my hands into the core of a dead person’s remains, the cards from nearly eighty years earlier the ashes of the deceased.
I showed the cards to Lee. He had that same pained expression I’d seen so many times since we had began the purge of the house.
I suddenly had to stop. It was simply too much. I left the cards and other objects from the trunk strewn about the dining room floor, like a cremated body having been thrown to the wind with its ashes landing randomly across earth’s landscape.

The next morning, Lee saw the mess and asked “What’s this?” When I explained, he simply shook his head and walked off. I packed the trunk’s contents and put them out of sight.

Ever since that day when we brought the trunk up from the basement and into our lives, I have often thought about the woman’s crying which I had heard later that night. I can’t help but wonder if it had been Lessie, C.H.’s wife, grieving for her murdered husband.

As our time in The House progressed over the years, the more it was emptied through yard sale after yard sale, carloads of donations, and trash lined up like an army along the curb at the beginning of each week. At times it was difficult for me, for as we emptied it of its memories, whatever seemed to have a hold over The House felt as if it were dying. I couldn’t help but feel as if we were ripping out the very heart of The House.  And I began to realize that my attachment was too great. It was, after all, just a house. Wasn’t it? And I wondered if it weren’t time for us to think about  leaving.
But the events continued and here’s a couple more incidences…

It was the night before Valentine’s, 2009. My son was sick with a high fever and I had fallen asleep in his room. And just like a similar occurrence years before, I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sensation that my hair was being pulled.
The next day, Lee and I were hunting about in the attic, with the usual pretext of organizing, but with the real purpose being to seek out some stray adventure, perhaps overlooked during our previous forays to this strange land that resided above us.
While rummaging around, we suddenly heard a voice from the opposite end of the attic.
“I feel great!” It was Ernie, the toy from my children’s early days. {See earlier story, “The Imminent Passing.”} The very same toy that had inexplicably called out a few days following Lee’s father’s death some eight years earlier!
“Lee…?” I asked, befuddled. Ernie had long been packed away with other special items to save, and had been exiled to the rafters where it had been in storage for many years. There was no way that we could have triggered the motion-activated Ernie, as we were standing at the far end of the attic, many yards away from this odd toy that seemed to have come to life on its own.
I waited for Lee’s logical explanation.
He had none. He simply replied, “I know.”
What could we do but laugh? I suddenly felt a lightness in the air. The same lightness from when “Harold” had whooshed about us following his death. Jokingly, I asked out loud for Harold {my father-in-law} to help us find something valuable. And within seconds, we found a Sheffield silver plate and crystal bowl set, NIB–or New in Box, as they say in the business. But I complained out loud. “That’s not quite valuable enough.” And immediately we make another discovery. Actually, a recovery. We unpacked an object that had once sat in the living room before the big cleanup  began. It was an antique bisque pot, made in China, with beautifully detailed carvings of men and trees and clouds and other oriental motifs. It was perhaps more of sentimental worth than anything else, for it most likely had belonged to Eloise’s friend, Mrs. Warner, who had probably purchased it during her legendary travels around the world. I carefully carried it downstairs so that it could be  returned to its rightful place.

The event in the attic on Valentine’s day had me thinking of another find in our house. One that happened many years earlier {see earlier story, “My Life with Ghosts}. Our latest encounter with Ernie took place exactly 112 years after some unknown soul from the late 1800’s had inscribed a small, white card with the words “Souvenir–Saturday night.” The date indicated that it had been Valentine’s Eve. That person had then tucked the card inside a leather-bound edition of Tennyson’s poems, the card remaining hidden away from the world, its meaning lost forever.

And because our house was full of not only ghosts but of strange occurrences as well, I seemed destined to be the one to find this particular book. For one day, as I was going about my chores, surrounded by the 1000’s of books which had been packed into our house throughout the generations, I had been inexplicably drawn to that particular volume of Tennyson’s. As if an actor in a play, I felt compelled to slowly open the book to the very page that had held hidden for decades a message from some ancient night.
And it would be that book that had first revealed to me the magic contained inside the walls of our house.
A beautiful book, a beautiful card, winding their way through time and space, to me.
I began to notice how there were odd connections and overlaps between lives, both past and present, in our house {which I documented and will be told in another story}.
And I am starting to recognize how life continually makes its patterns…circular, intricate, beautiful, through space and time, on and on, forever and ever…
This is what my life with ghosts has revealed to me.

(To be cont.)

My Life with Ghosts, continued: The Dream in Red and Other Events

Here is the latest installment of my stories from when I lived in a haunted house. I documented the “events” as they happened (as a way of dealing with my fear, I suppose), and these particular entries are from the year 2008. It’s only now that I feel comfortable sharing what I wrote at the time, for the entire experience was strange, inexplicable, and sometimes frightening. I can honestly say that upon emptying “The House” over 5 years ago, the hauntings completely ceased. And after moving from The House, nothing like it has  occurred since…

My Life with Ghosts, continued: The Dream in Red and Other Events

Christmas card from late 1920’s- early 1930’s. Harold (my father-in-law) as a little boy with his grandfather, C.H. C.H. built and ran a cotton mill in a small Alabaman town in the 1920’s. In 1932, C.H.’s life ended with his murder–and a mystery which we possibly solved through a note found in our attic. But that’s another story for another time…

August 18, 2008: The Figure
It has been nearly five months since my last “ghostly” event. The peace during these long breaks from the disturbances is welcomed. I can almost imagine that we live in a normal, red-brick house in an average neighborhood.
But unfortunately, I woke up yesterday morning with a hankering to go visit the attic. So up we go, Lee resigning himself to the dirty, frustrating, and always sad task. With this particular excursion, however, we would be rewarded.
I sent Lee to the rafters to explore the detritus that had been tossed out into the darkness, then left momentarily while I went downstairs to take care of my nine-year-old son. When I came back up, I asked the usual question: “Did you find anything?”
Instead of the gruff response I normally get, Lee actually sounded excited: “You’re not going to believe what I found!” He held up a picture mounted onto a thin wooden frame, approximately six feet by three feet in size. It was a vintage poster of Santa Claus! Most likely an old store display, it had probably been lying there, face down on the wooden beams, for over fifty years.
Encouraged, we scoured around and found a few more Christmas related items, a box full of cotton mill related papers (Lee’s family had built and managed a cotton mill in Alabama in the 1920-30’s), and some personal items, including a wallet that had belonged to his great-grandfather (who I’ve nicknamed “C.H.”). We even dared to reopen a full to the brim trunk where, years earlier, we had found a Buffalo Bill autograph. But after rummaging through its contents for a few moments, we decided to leave it for another day. It was just too daunting a task.
Early the next morning, before daybreak, I was having trouble sleeping. A noise kept awakening me. I looked around for Lee, but he was already up, working on the computer down the hall. I went back to sleep. This went on for a while, my waking up, then drifting off. I finally opened my eyes, and as they focused, I saw a dark figure standing at the foot of my bed, watching me. At first I thought it was Lee, but the figure immediately dissipated. I had no time to reflect on this strange occurrence. I had overslept and had to hurry to get the kids ready for school.
I told Lee about the incident over breakfast. He replied, as if it were the most ordinary of things, that with our visit to the attic the previous day,  we had once again stirred up the souls. And off he rushed to work.
Later, when things were quiet, I thought about the figure. It was unlike the previous “sightings” for I had no sense of who this being might be. My quick impression was that he had been dressed in dark clothing, perhaps a black suit or a black coat, almost military like. The figure had dark eyes and his hair was black, parted and neatly combed to the side. I had the feeling he was from the distant past, as if he had stepped out of a photograph from the late 1800’s. (Could he be the twin from the ambrotype?) His presence was not threatening in any way. If anything, I felt he was simply observing me, watching, waiting.
I wondered, like so many times before, if I had been dreaming and if this dream had been triggered by the finding of Lee’s great-grandfather’s wallet the previous day. I recalled that the wallet contained a hunting license that had a description of C.H. from the year 1926. I retrieved it and read:

Age – 52
Color of hair – grey
Eyes – brown
Height – 6 feet
Weight – 175

But this description of C.H. was nothing like the figure that I had seen. And judging from family photos, the figure did not resemble Barney, or Harold, or Martin, or any of the other presences I have stumbled across since living in this house. Now I am worried, for I have someone new, something else from the unknown to deal with…

November 2, 2008: Voices
It was a quiet Sunday, full of sun and blue sky. We were all quietly going about our business, working on the computer, reading, cleaning…
Independent of each other and unbeknownst to one another, my children both heard their name called. It had not been me; it had not been my husband. My son heard the voice in the morning, my daughter in the afternoon. I told my daughter, who was playing in her room which had once been Harold’s, that perhaps it was the girls next door that she had heard. She said no. It had been the voice of a strange sounding man.

November 30, 2008: Dream in red
It was the end of our Thanksgiving break and I was scurrying around trying to make sense of the chaos that accompanies the end of that holiday and the immediate beginning of the next. Somehow, in my warped mind, it seemed that a storage chest would be helpful in the transition. Hence began what I referred to as “The Chinese Puzzle.” That is to say, if you move one thing from its place in our house, it unleashes a torrent of puzzle solving necessary to restore order. We moved my son’s chest to the hall to store “junk,” then put in my son’s room another chest which we dragged down from the attic–a nice cedar one which once held Gretchen’s things. And of course, in the few moments that we were up in the attic, we made a couple of interesting finds–a vintage framed print of Stone Mountain, and a 1940’s calendar with a print by well known graphic artist which we put on eBay. It sold immediately.
But in those few brief moments, we had dared to disturb the sanctuary of the attic and we paid for our crime that night…
I had been sleeping soundly when suddenly, something awakened me. As I opened my eyes, I was shocked to discover that everything in the bedroom was washed in a rich, velvety red. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted through the crack in the partially open door a quick movement followed by a flash in the hall, as if someone was scurrying past while carrying a light. I wondered if an intruder was in the house. I whispered “Lee” but he was sound asleep.
I got out of bed and went to look out the window, thinking perhaps the red light that bathed my room was coming from a car pulling into the driveway next door. But all was still. I then tiptoed to the living room, and it was just as I had left it earlier that evening. By the time I got back in bed, my eyes had adjusted to being awake and my room was back to its normal black and white, middle of the night, darkness.
The next day, my husband recalled that I had walked around the room the previous night. But other than that, what had been a dream and what had been real, I’ll never know…

These “paranormal” stories of mine could probably go on forever (and probably will). Are they dreams? Ghosts? Divine inspirations?
I have faced the common theme of sadness over loss head on through my stories of living with ghosts. But my questioning has raised yet another issue which is beyond my realm of comprehension. And that question is, what happens to all of our emotions–love, anger, frustration, desires, and so on–after we die? It doesn’t seem possible that they simply dissipate at the moment of our last breath. That seems like such an ordinary and useless end for all the extraordinary feelings we carry within for all of our days.
I begin to wonder. Is that what I am experiencing in The House? The leftover passion of daily life originating from those who came before me? But I struggle with the fact that it is very possible that there are simply some events in life that have no explanation and never will. And I suspect that even the cumulative power of all the lives that currently reside in our house, including those of our children and those of all of the various pets who fill the rooms with their simple and beautiful existences, are not enough to send the stubborn spirits on their way.
With our “adventures” in our house, I have opened my mind to the improbable. So my days with the dead, my days with the living continue. And the lessons to be learned from both continue as well…

(to be continued…)

My Life with Ghosts, cont.: Angels, Whisperers, and Other Events

Here’s my latest installment of stories from when I lived in a haunted house…

My Life with Ghosts, cont.
Angels, Whisperers, and Other Events

 These vintage objects which we found in “The House” most likely came from Cuba (cigar cutter), China (matchbox), and Japan (two disappearing coin magic trick boxes). I’m not sure of the origin of the bottom center wood box, but it contained several vintage pen points which I believed belonged to a Mrs. Warner,  a dear friend of my husband’s grandparents. Mrs. Warner traveled around the world from the 1910’s on, and all of these items probably came from her travels, for I know that along with many other destinations, she visited Cuba, China, and Japan. And I’m assuming that the pen points were used to write her travel diaries, for they were found together in a wicker carrying case up in our attic. Stories about Mrs. Warner coming soon…

Mid January, 2007: Female angels?
We had put the kids asleep. Lee wanted to stay up and watch a movie but I was too tired so we went to bed at 9:30. For some reason, I had ended up on Lee’s side of the bed so he crawled in on my side, something that never happens. Things felt backwards.
We live not too far from a major road in Atlanta called Ponce de Leon. Sometimes in the night, when things are still, you can hear the sounds of distant city life coming from that busy thoroughfare. Or perhaps it originates from an expressway that’s a bit further away. I’m not sure. Either way, I like to imagine that it is the roar of the ocean I’m hearing, and on this particular night, I let the soothing sound put me to sleep.
I had a dream. And in my dream state, the sound grew very intense, almost to the point of being painful. It was as if my hearing abilities had been magnified many times over and I was now in possession of some kind of super human powers.
Then, over the sound of the traffic, I began to hear faint voices. I could not make out what they were saying but they sounded feminine. And these voices were not of this world. No, they seemed as if they were from another time or another place and I, for a few brief moments, was privy to hearing them. Their voices formed a kind of celestial chord as if I were hearing the sound of earth and heaven at work.
Suddenly, I felt a couple of presences hovering over us. For the first time since living in this house, these presences felt like female beings. And as we slept, they moved in a slow circular pattern directly over our bodies. They were glowing and light and warmed my face. It was not a malevolent force. Rather, it seemed to be a caring one. Somehow, I sensed that they were there to make sure that we were all right.
All while this was occurring–the intense sounds along with the presence of these beings–I felt as though I was rising towards awakedness.
When I actually did wake up and opened my eyes, I saw in that briefest of moments a bright streak of light at the foot of our bed. It rushed up towards the ceiling, then disappeared with a bright flash. It was as if the beings had traveled up and away through the stream of light.
I was left feeling scared. Not because I felt threatened, but because perhaps yet another inexplicable incident had just occurred.

March 2007:
I had put the kids to sleep and then fell asleep myself. I once again sensed the approach of the “female angels” that had visited recently. The sound was at first very distant. It gained in momentum and built towards the “celestial chord” music, the same music which I had heard before. The presences moved close and began to circle above me. It was a very pleasant and happy feeling.
Suddenly, a noise from real life awakened me and the “angels” quickly dissipated.

March 19, 2007: The Whisperers
Other than the “angels,” the paranormal activity in our house had finally diminished to the point where I actually felt a sense of relief. We had not experienced anything out of the ordinary for quite some time. I began to be hopeful that it was all over.
Lee and I were asleep. I had been in a deep sleep for what seemed like a while when I begin to hear what sounded like whispering. The whispers hovered, sometimes over us, sometimes to either side of us. I had the impression that two or more “presences” were having a discussion, maybe even a disagreement. Their whispers grew louder. They now sounded angry but I could not tell if the anger was directed towards us, or if the anger was between themselves. I interpreted it as a squabble as to how to approach or think about something.
I woke up. My first thought was that it had been Lee talking in his sleep. It was not. He lay beside me, quiet. Once again, I had that unpleasant feeling of the air being heavy and thick. I was disturbed enough by my dream to go in the other room and sleep with my children.
The next morning, Lee told me that he had had the most amazing dream. I said: “Tell me, because I had something strange happen to me too.”
Lee’s dream went something like this…
We had opened the door to the attic and looked up. The attic was full of junk and furniture, just as it in real life. But in his dream, it was greatly exaggerated. The stairs were as if from a carnival’s crazy house, and the junk was packed to the rafters. As Lee walked around, he recognized some of the items,  such as a red over-stuffed chair, from his childhood.
There were two canvas straps hanging from above. Lee pulled on one. To our horror, a dead body fell down and landed near our feet. Lee pulled on the other strap. Another body came tumbling down. The bodies had indistinct features and were unrecognizable. Suddenly, a cousin of Lee’s (who in real life, is still living and who is one of Lee’s few living links to his past) appeared at the top of the steps. “It’s O.K.,” she said. “We’ve got them all up here.” We go up into the attic and there everyone was, all of Lee’s deceased family members, sitting around having a good time. Narrow paths had been cleared between the mountains of junk and in the small clearings, furniture and lamps from the 1930’s had been set up. There were other people there as well, but like the two bodies that fell from the attic, their faces were indistinct and Lee did not know who they were.
Did the whisperings which I had heard in my sleep have anything to do with Lee’s dream? Or was it simply a coincidence, after a near drought of otherworldly events, that we would both dream on the very same night about presences in our home?

March 25,2007:
My son wakes up early on a Sunday morning. It is still dark. He calls out for me. Luc tells me that he saw a ghost by his bed. He described it as a shadowy figure with a light coming from inside. He is afraid. I am tired of this. I want to live in a normal house.

May 28, 2007:
My son cried out in the night. When I arrived at his bedside, I asked: “Did you have a nightmare?” He replied: “I heard creepy voices.” I was frightened by my son’s words. So frightened that I could not sleep. When I finally did fall asleep, I dreamed awful nightmares. In one, I was standing in the corner of my bedroom, the same corner where I once “saw” the light whoosh up and out through the ceiling. In my dream, I took these stories that I am working on and placed them inside a manila folder. As I did so, I was suddenly enveloped by a dark, ghostly cloud. I was scared and woke up.

June 2007: Happiness and the smell of coffee
My daughter called out for me during the night. She told me that she saw a white shape. She thought it was a ghost. I explained to her that the color white reflects light and that it was probably the side of her white bookcase that she saw. I comforted her but I am disturbed the rest of the night.
The next day, my daughter tried to rationalize her fears from the previous night. She believed that her imagination had been carried away when she thought she had seen the white shape moving. Still, she remained uneasy and that night, I had to sleep with her. I was awakened by the sound of her laughing in her sleep. After everything we’d been through, the sound was like heaven.
Later that night, I had a dream…I was wandering through an upscale grocery store which was packed with people whom I don’t know. For a brief time, an old lady followed me. Is she death? I wondered. She disappeared. I came to an aisle packed with all kinds of coffee. Suddenly, I smelled the incredible aroma of freshly ground coffee. I was overcome by a simple, pure, deep, uncomplicated happiness. I was completely satisfied. I woke up and wondered, is this what all my soul searching and questioning of life and death had led me to? That happiness is simply the smell of freshly ground coffee?

August 30, 2007:
Two small incidents in one day… I was doing around the house during the late afternoon when I walked into my bedroom. I paused in the corner near the bathroom door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blackish, grainy, flat shape pass by. I thought at first that someone, a child or my husband, had just stepped into the room. I glanced in the direction of the shape. There was nothing.
During the same time period, late afternoon to evening, I was standing near the computer in the breakfast room. I saw for just a fraction of a moment two spiraling, blackish wisps of shapes. The wispy shapes disappeared before it even registered that I had seen something.
The next day, I sat down at the computer to document these occurrences. Emma, our dog, sat close by. Suddenly, I heard three, distinct steps. They were heavy and tired sounding, like those of an older, heavy-set man. For some reason, I immediately thought of Barney (Lee’s deceased grandfather). They sounded like they were coming either from the hall, which was right behind where I was sitting, or from the attic stairs, which were close by. Emma heard it too. She jumped up. I had her follow me as I searched the house. Nothing. I doubted that I would sleep well that night.

October 4, 2007:
Katie is alone in the living room, playing the piano. She hears someone clap at the end of her performance.

October 5, 2007:
Luc hears someone call his name. This is not the first time that this has happened to him since living here.

March 29, 2008: The Breathing
On this particular night, it had been over five months since my last entry concerning our encounters of the inexplicable kind. I had settled into a feeling of comfort in our home, even during that dreaded time of two to five in the morning, believing that the house was finally ours and ours alone. So when Lee went wandering off in the middle of the night to put our son back to sleep, I was not too concerned. I actually welcomed the rare chance to stretch out and enjoy not having to contort my body next to my husband’s, who’s large frame is too big for our antique bed forcing him, and me, to sleep diagonally.
It was close to the first light of the morning when I was awakened to the sound of breathing. The sound was slow, steady, and quiet. But it did not sound like the breathing of one at rest. Rather, it was as if someone were standing nearby, waiting quietly, at the ready. I opened my eyes slightly and turned to see if my husband had returned. He had not. I looked to the foot of the bed–our dog was not there.
There were three possibilities, I later concluded. One, I had been dreaming; two, my own breathing had awakened me; or three, “it” had started again.
When I told my husband about the incident, he pointed out to me that we had made a few recent excursions to the attic. And I think it is possible that once again, we had roused the souls guarding the vestiges of their past existences.
If there are ghosts (emphasis on the word “if” for I remain reluctant to believe), I hope that they are not angry with us. Rather, I’d like to imagine that they are trying to direct us to something of great importance, whether it be of the materialistic kind or of the spiritual kind. If this is the case, then why not simply speak out? They have breathed on us, tugged our hair, poked us, turned on T.V.’s, and rung the phone. But beyond calling out our names, their voices seem to be paralyzed. And I wonder, if they could, what would they say?

April 19, 2008: The Dream of Resolution
I had a dream that brought me nearer to the end of my nine year journey of writing these stories of life in “The House”…
I dreamed that Lee and I were sleeping in a cottage by the ocean. In my dream, I wake up early in the morning. I tell my half-asleep husband that I wanted to feel better and needed to get away from the sad sound of the ocean waves. Lee mumbles something and goes back to sleep.
I get into a car and began driving inland. I have only a gone short distance when I find myself in a mountain valley very much like the valleys found in the Rabun Gap of North Georgia of my youth. With the exception of slight dips in the road, it is a straight shot ahead. It is a beautiful day and the light feels as if it is alive–very much like when, following Harold’s death, that beautiful “wind” came through and rushed around me and my sleeping children.
It is an scene full of rustic houses, barns, and farmland. Ahead in the distance are mountains, but unlike the gentle hills of North Georgia, these mountains are much more dramatic and reach far higher up into the sky than any I have ever seen. I wonder if the mountains are heaven.
Immediately after I enter the valley, I see a man standing to the right of the road. He is an older man dressed in overalls. Smiling, he proudly holds up a fish that he has just caught. And to my left, a middle-aged man stands by a pond; at his side is his faithful dog. There is obviously not a lot of money in this place but it is full of simple, pure pleasures and a sense of great happiness. I somehow now know that the road ahead of me is the path to heaven.
But before I can travel any further into this magical world, I wake up. I am sorry when I realize that it was just a dream.
The meaning of my dream seemed obvious to me. The ocean is a symbol for my sadness over the gradual loss of my parents as I’ve always associated them with our many trips to the beach together. And it is clear that I am finally moving away from my grief over the loss of my grandparents. It is time for this journey, the journey of looking back, to be done. I am hopeful that I can now move forward along a path where happiness can be found.

(to be cont.)

My Life With Ghosts: My Daughter’s Dream and Other Events

 

My Life with Ghosts: My Daughter’s Dream and Other Events

fullsizerenderA sampling of some of the 100’s of pieces of old ephemera found in ‘The House’

In the hard time of night, when I suddenly find myself awake and pondering all that has taken place, I think of things. I think of all those who have come and gone. I daydream of Mrs. Warner and of her exotic 1920’s travels to the Orient, Egypt and beyond. {Mrs. Warner was a dear friend of Lee’s grandmother and many of her things ended up in our possession}. I worry about our packed attic and basement and how I can possibly ever make sense of it all. And I think how life can often be tough.

But during the day, as I navigate my travels about my house, tripping over Barbie dolls and plastic dinosaurs and the toys of our newest friend, Emma, a dog which we recently took into our family, I think how life is also very good.

Over the years, our family of four has been augmented with the acquisition of a dog, two cats, several pet fish, and many millipedes, and collectively, all this life seems to be causing the ghosts to drift further and further away. There is simply no longer room for the dead here.

But apparently, even a house full of life is not enough to keep the spirits at bay. To my consternation, the strange dreams and inexplicable occurrences have returned. The following is a continuation of my documentation of those events that pertain to ghosts and which include both dreams and actual occurrences…

July, 2006: Uncle Martin                                                                                               It was the middle of summer when I was standing at the bathroom window that overlooked the backyard. I glanced out towards the bamboo thicket, as I often did, when suddenly, I saw a shadowy figure of a man crossing our yard. The “apparition,” which lasted no longer than a fraction of a second, was walking among the remains of a rose garden. He was a desolate figure, tall and thin, and dressed in a loose-fitting dark suit. As he walked, he was slightly bent with his face turned down, completely wrapped up in his sad solitude. Intuitively, I felt it must be Uncle Martin, for it had been Martin who had originally planted and nurtured the gardens from long ago .

But upon reflection, I sensed that it had not been an actual figure in the yard that I had seen. It was as if somehow, the veil of present time was peeled back and I was allowed to see for a very brief moment, a glimpse of the world as it was in the past.
I later described the man to Lee and he was chilled by my words. Lee told me that Martin typically wore his overalls and wingtips to do his gardening, but for his editing job at the paper, he would wear a suit–the same kind of suit I had seen in my vision.

Once, many years earlier, we had run into Uncle Martin at a local grocery store. I have a vague recollection of having to look way up at this tall gentleman. He had broad shoulders, gray hair, and a distinguished presence. It was the first and last time I’d ever see him. The apparition which I saw in our yard decades later was a younger, thinner version of the man whom  I’d met in the store.
Sadly, at the end of his life, Martin, like his mother Lessie, began to go blind from glaucoma. Depressed over his condition, he killed himself. And I had to ask…had Martin returned to find solace among the gardens that he had once loved so much?

September 2006: The Answer
Towards the end of September 2006, I was getting my son back to sleep after he had awakened in the middle of the night. I ended up falling asleep myself and had a dream that his bedroom door began to slowly open. The door blocked sight of who or what was entering the room. As it swung open, the room grew brighter, being illuminated by whatever it was that was entering.
Somehow I understood that the answer to the mystery of what had been taking place in our house was about to be answered—I would finally know what all the paranormal activity was about. But just as the entity entered, it exploded into a wild scramble of images and noises, like a churning, black and white cubist painting gone berserk. I woke up both relieved–I would not have to face my fears on this particular night; and disappointed–the answer to the mystery of our house still eluded me.

October 2006: The Circle Ghost
Once again, my son woke up in the night. Again, while trying to get him back to sleep, I fell asleep myself. While there, my son had a bad dream which awakened me. As I opened my eyes, I saw a wispy, gray circular loop about two feet in diameter hovering over me. In the center of the loop was what looked like a hand. It was extended out above my body as if about to grab me. I cowered low under the covers to escape its touch. I closed my eyes tightly as I went back to sleep, shutting out “The Circle Ghost’s” power.

My daughter’s dream:
Probably more frightening to me than anything else we’ve experienced is when these events happen to my children. For my children know nothing of our paranormal experiences since moving here, and it seems to only confirm my worst fears about our house. My daughter’s experience frightened me to the core for it was so similar to what had been happening to Lee and me. Early one morning before it was light, she called out for me. When I got to her, she told me that she had just had a bad dream. She added that as she was waking up, she felt someone poke at her leg. How many times since we’ve lived here have we felt something pull at our hair, breathe on our neck, or touch us? Lee told me that his dad, Harold, used to wake him up that way—not with a gentle shake on the arm but with a series of rough pokes. Katie sleeps in what was once Harold’s bedroom. Perhaps he was trying to help her by arousing her from her bad dream?

Angelic lights:
On several occasions, both before and after the arrival of Emma, I have experienced what I can best describe as angelic lights. On this particular occasion the “encounter” was the most defined to date. I was in a fairly deep sleep when I was awakened by what felt like a non-threatening presence. As I slowly went from a deep sleep state to a state of alertness, I became aware of a glowing, warm light near my bed. It felt peaceful and sheltering. By the time my eyes opened, it was gone. Like so many times before, I asked myself: was it just a dream?

 

November 13, 2006: Is someone there?
I was having a fitful night with a series of nightmares that were accompanied with that now familiar cold, prickly skin feeling I get when the “spirits” are at work. And each time I woke up, I feared what I might see as I opened my eyes. The finale to my uneasy evening was a dream where I finally brought myself to face my fears…
I was in a room that I was not familiar with. Before me was a brown leather chair. As I looked at it, the cushion suddenly depressed, then rose back up as if an invisible person had just sat down, then stood back up. I went to the chair and made myself sit in it. I gripped the arms of the chair as I faced squarely towards the darkness of the near empty room.
And I made myself do the thing I feared the most. I shouted out: “Is someone there?” Before me materialized the ghostly figure of Lee’s father, Harold. He was red-faced and muttered about something which had angered him. I had seen Harold like that in real life on many occasions. But the angry Harold disappeared and was replaced by a kind Harold who appeared as a reflection on a T.V. screen. He was now holding Luc, who was crying. Harold comforted him. This is the Harold I knew at the end of his life, when his anger had melted away and an almost angelic spirit took hold of him. I interpreted the dream to mean that finally I had the strength to face my fears.

December 9, 2006: The Hand
I was having a hard time sleeping and had been awake from midnight until about 2:30 or 3:00 when I finally fell back asleep. But it was not a restful sleep. I dreamed I was in a house with many rooms. It was not a place I knew. It was possibly a house that combined many of the homes I’ve known throughout the years.
I was leading my parents through the house. Neither spoke—they simply followed me. In one room there were numerous lit candles and lights. I turned out the lights and blew out the candles. I then went to another room where I could hear a huge wind blowing overhead. A man cried out from above: “Hurry! It’s howling up here!” I begin the ascent with my parents up the ladder towards the next level of the house. I felt like I was sending them away…forever.
I woke up. I had no time to reflect on the meaning of this dream for I immediately heard my son call out for me. In a half sleep state I got out of bed and as I stood up, I saw at the foot of the bed a hand. It was a glowing white-green hand of an old man, fleshy and thick as if it belonged to a worker. What was even more strange was that the hand looked like it was partially protruding through a slit in space. I have often written in my fantasy works about schisms or slits between one existence and another, whether it be between the dead and the living or between one universe and another. Was I simply living out this idea in my barely awake condition?
I forced myself to walk past the foot of my bed where I had seen the hand—helping my son was more important than any fear I might have. But just as I passed through the area, my dog Emma, who had been asleep at the end of our bed, suddenly sat up and shook herself violently. Perhaps just fleas but her timing was very strange. I couldn’t help but think that something had disturbed her as well…

More angelic lights:
One day over the Christmas break, my son opens the bathroom door, which is located right next to his bedroom, and gasps “Who put the glitter in the air?” He describes the bathroom as being full of colorful, floating dots. I rationally attribute this “vision” being a result of a knock on the head he had suffered the day before–perhaps he had bumped into the wall a little harder than I had realized.
But one thing really puzzled me. I had recently had my own “sighting” of floating color in that very room. I had been taking a bath in the middle of the day when I looked up and saw beautiful golden droplets suspended in the air all around me. At the time, I attributed the vision to the tricks one’s eyes play you as you age. But now, as I have so many other times since living in this house, I had to wonder…

(to be cont.)

My Life with Ghosts: The Civil War Twins

Here’s the next installment of “My Life with Ghosts,” a series of stories written about my experiences while living in a haunted house (the home that had been in my husband’s family for generations).  Once again, with our efforts at cleaning and purging the house, we had stirred up the “psychic dust.” This time, the  ghosts we encountered dated all the way back to The Civil War…

Ambrotype found in the coal dust…

One of my earliest memories of visiting “The House” was from when I first knew my husband some twenty years earlier. At that time, his father’s house was heated by a furnace fueled by coal, and on colder days, that coal would have to be replenished several times. I remember Lee taking me down to the basement where I would watch from the stairs as he opened the furnace door and shovel little pieces of shiny, black coal into a hopper, which then delivered the coal into a red hot flame. It seemed an antiquated process but a romantic one.

Years later, my father-in-law, Harold, replaced the coal furnace with a gas one. But in his typical style of neglect, the mountain of coal remained in the basement for many years after. In fact, the coal was still there when we eventually moved in following his death. Realizing that we might as well be living on top of a keg of dynamite, we hired a couple of workers to remove the coal–it took three days of shoveling and bagging before it was finally gone from our lives.

Not long after, Lee and I went down to the basement to clean up after the workmen. Lee was just about to empty his dustpan, when I saw by the bit of daylight that was creeping in from a dirty window the glint of something in the black coal dust. “What’s that?” I asked. Lee, of course, inwardly groaned. “Yet again,”  I could hear him thinking,.”She’s going to save another piece of junk.” But I ignored him. I picked the object up out of the dustpan. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, I saw that it was a photograph of a man, whose face was barely discernible in the dimness of the basement’s light. The effect was eerie.

We carried the photograph over to the window where we could study it closer. The picture’s frame served also as a carrying case, with the back side made of a black material, perhaps leather, and embossed with a decorative floral pattern. The front side of the case was missing. The old photograph itself, only a couple of inches across, was under glass and surrounded by a decorative gold border. The man in the photo was clearly a civil war soldier, and was dressed in full uniform with a rifle at his side.

Curious to know what we had found, we took the photograph to a local civil war shop to be appraised. They identified the object as an ambrotype, an early style of photography on glass from the 1850’s. They estimated its worth at several hundred dollars. But in order to give us more exact information about the soldier, the experts at the shop needed the man’s name. With the identification of the soldier, they explained, it would be worth much more. Lee knew that he had ancestors, twin brothers, that had fought in the war. Perhaps this was one of them. And our priority suddenly shifted from potentially making money from selling old junk, to seeking out a family’s story.

We returned to the basement and searched the site of our discovery, hoping to find clues to the identity of the soldier. There, immediately next to where the ambrotype had been swept up from the coal littered floor, were two trunks, both brown, dirty, and old. I had passed by them many times before, maybe even glanced inside, but I’d never made the effort to really examine them. On this particular occasion, when we examined their contents, I finally realized the full significance of what we were living with in The House.

We  opened one of the trunks and right away, found a small piece of wood covered with red velvet. It fit like a puzzle piece onto the ambrotype. It was the missing front of the case.

As we dug through the two trunks, we realized that we had stumbled across the “burial plots” of many , including a great-aunt, a great-uncle, a great-grandmother, and as we were about to discover, the Civil War twins.

We did not have to search in the trunks long before we found what we needed…an old reproduction of a photograph measuring approximately 2′ x 2 1/2′. It was of two young men, seated side by side. Each was dressed in their finest–white shirt, vest, black bow tie, and black dress jacket. At the moment at which the photograph had been taken, they were both looking solemnly into the eye of the photographer, creating the chilling effect that they were now looking straight at me some 150 years later.

It was one of the few photographs in this house with any kind of notation. I recognized Barney’s {Lee’s grandfather} cursive penmanship immediately, and miraculously, it gave us the information we needed. Written on the back was the following:

John and William McKinnon,
twin brothers of Catherine Amanda Cole.
One killed in War Between the States,
other died of typhoid during the war.

So here were Lee’s ancestors from the Civil War, the brothers of which he had heard of but knew so little about. Now we knew not only their names, but their faces as well. We noted how the twins differed in their features. They parted their mid-length hair on opposite sides; one’s mouth was turned down; and one had a rounder face than the other. But their light-colored eyes were almost identical, and their gaze was hard to shake.

Most importantly, we immediately recognized one of the men as the Civil War soldier from the ambrotype. I excitedly gave the experts at the Civil War shop a call and gave them the name of the soldier. Within minutes, the woman at the other end of the line was rattling off information about the soldier found in the coal dust:

John A. McKinnon had been a thirty-four year old farmer whose residence was in Moore County, North Carolina. On 3/13/1862, McKinnon enlisted in the 49th NC Infantry and was part of Ransom’s Brigade. On 9/13/1864 he was listed as wounded. Two days later, he was dead.

It was at this moment that it sunk in. It wasn’t that we were living in an ordinary house that happened to be full of interesting old junk. No, it was much more than that. This was a house full of history which was not limited to one family’s story. The house, piece by piece, was beginning to tell us a saga of times dating back a century and a half.

We continued to search the remaining contents of the two trunks. The items were largely from the early 1900’s–letters, receipts, small town Alabamian newspapers (apparently saved for the articles which detailed the deaths of various family members), boxes full of mementos, photographs, greeting cards, and a gift of a gold ring still in its Christmas wrappings. It was poignantly sweet how so many of these things had been tied up with string, ribbons, and even an old tie. My favorite find was Lessie’s box of mementos {Lessie was Lee’s great-grandmother}. Her brown box, which once held a bible, had been bound with a black sash and was a veritable treasure trove. It contained among other things a 1901 photograph of Lessie–a thin, serious young woman dressed in a floor-length dark skirt and striped shirt decorated with little black bows; another photograph of Lessie which notes the year of her birth, 1879; report cards for her children; a homemade collaged book given to one of her children in 1916, postcards; an antique valentine; Christmas tags from presents; a button hook; and a sad find–photographs of someone’s grave.

Many of the items in the trunks were simply too personal to bring up into our living space: a military hat (from WWII?); a woman’s mirror and brush and a man’s toiletry kit, both from the 1920’s. These stayed in the trunk. And there was a mystery–a large piece of white cotton splattered with what looked like blood. What had happened here? It was disturbing. The two trunks, it turns out, held within many lives, many mysteries, and I grew determined to get to the bottom of it all.

Unfortunately, an eerie pattern with “The House” was making itself known. For whenever we made an attempt to straighten and purge, some strange event was sure to follow…

That night, Lee and I both had nightmares. Unusual enough in itself. But what was even more disturbing was their similarity. Lee dreamed that there was an old man standing in the room looking at him.  And eerily, I had almost the exact same dream. It was of a frightening person lurking in the shadows. When he realized that I had caught sight of him, he tried to hide from me. It was as if the opening of the two trunks had had a Pandora’s Box effect, spewing into the world threatening and unwanted things. In our case, the unwanted things were troubled souls that haunted our dreams.

With the finding of the ambrotype, I had the same sensation I experienced when I found the handwritten “souvenir” dated Feb. 13, 1897 tucked in the antique volume of Tennyson. Once again, we had landed in a place trapped in another age.

The parallel nightmares we dreamed after opening the two trunks foreshadowed the many strange and inexplicable events that followed. And we found ourselves struggling to come to grips with the fact that otherworldly occurrences in The House were not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

My Life with Ghosts: The Imminent Passing

In going through some of my old writings from a time during which I lived in a house full of “ghosts” (see my previous posts), I came across this recounting that concerns the death of my father-in-law, Harold. The following excerpt really belongs at the beginning of my collection of stories entitled “My Life with Ghosts.” For this is where it all began…

Harold loved books, At the time of his death, he owned thousands of them. And he loved giving books. I was the lucky recipient of many, usually books about art, which he always inscribed with a kind little message…

My Life with Ghosts: The Imminent Passing 

For months, my husband and I had seen death heading towards us like a bleak tidal wavechurning, angry, and relentless. We tried to prepare ourselves best we could for Harolds imminent passing. Two months earlier, we had been through a dreadful experience when were told that Harold would not make it through the weekend. We experienced every possible emotion during those two days and later, we looked at it as a dress rehearsal for death. But no amount of preparation can help when that moment actually occurs, when the tidal wave finally hits with its violent impact, and you are left tossing about in the grayness that has just swept over you.

Death makes you feel like an idiot for you look around corners, glance into empty rooms, and listen out for the phone, all with the sensation that youve simply misplaced the person in question. If you could only take a few steps back in time to where you were standing just moments before, you’d find that person still living and breathing and talking about such topics as books and travel and what interesting kinds of things you had been doing lately. But because death makes you forgetful, you can’t remember exactly where you were at the moment when the tidal wave hit…and that person’s life is lost for an eternity.

It was about five days after Harold died when it happened. My children, who were two at the time, were taking their afternoon nap on a sleeping bag on our living room floor. I was completely spent, so I lay down alongside them. It was just the three of us in the house…and our two cats who were wandering around somewhere. Soon, I fell asleep.

Something awakened me. A crackling sound followed by a sensation of a breeze traveling through the rooms. But there was no movement of air inside our home. It was more like there was a presence which whooshed its way from one space to the next.

What happened then was both odd and absurd. Ernie, the childrens Sesame Street toy, suddenly called out from their room. “I feel great! he announced happily. Ernies voice is activated by lifting him into an upright position, but as we were all asleep, how could that have happened? I slowly rose to my feet and picked up a flashlight of all things, planning on using it as a weapon if needed. I carefully made my way towards Ernie.

There he reclined in his usual resting place on top of a laundry basket, which was heaped full of stuffed animals. My first thought was that one of the cats must have jostled him. I looked around. There was no sign of either cat. I moved quietly towards the dining room. There was our cat Yoyo, quietly asleep on a cardboard box.

I returned to the sleeping bag and lay back down. But I was unable to rest. I turned my head and looked out the windows. It was an incredibly beautiful day with bright, sparkling sunlight and a calm wind that made everything feel lighter. And I thought about what had just happened. It was as if all that beauty had taken a momentary detour, entered our house, taken a quick spin about, then exited, leaving behind a cloud of peacefulness that hovered lightly, then dissipated.

Harold, a math teacher and an extraordinarily learned man, was also an inventive person who would commonly bypass convention and often devise some original or unusual way to approach anything and everything. I couldn’t help but wonder. Had we been just paid a visit from Harold? And did he use the ridiculous voice of Ernie, not only to reassure us that he felt “great,” but to also celebrate his new-found liberation? It would be just like him to have the last laugh in figuring out some quirky method of communication between the dead and the living.

But the strange happenings didn’t stop there. Many times during the months following Harolds death, our children related to us incidences that puzzled, even chilled us. They claimed, in their earnest two-year-old voices, that Harold, or Danda as they called him, came to visit with them while they played. And, as our twins often do, they spoke simultaneously, telling their stories independently, but at the same time. There was no prompting. They told us how Danda would sit in the big chair by the lamp in the living room, the same spot where he had sat the week before his death. They spoke of how he would watch them play and chat with them. They had complete belief that their grandfather had been there. We did not know what to think.

Harold had died in November. The following spring, after the weather had warmed, we took a trip down to the Gulf of Mexico with the sad mission of dispersing his ashes. We went to a secluded, uninhabited locale along the beach which had been a favorite spot of his. We walked, with the twins at our side, quite a ways until we were sure that we would not be disturbed, all the while carrying Harolds remains as discretely as possible.

When a body is cremated, I had always assumed that you get back a cup or two of light, fluffy ashes, similar to the kind youd find in the fireplace after a chilly winter day. Not so. What you receive from the mortuary is a large, ugly, brown plastic box approximately the size of two large family bibles put together. Inside that is a plastic bag full of the deceaseds remains. The ashes are not soft and delicate and ethereal feeling. No, they are dense, coarse and uneven, and with tiny fragments of bones throughout. The ashes seemed disproportionately heavy, like a black hole where a huge amount of life got sucked into a tiny amount of space.

And there are no recommendations that come with the box of ashes as to where exactly to place the remains. Harold, in his ash form, has probably been in five or so different spots in our home since his death. For a while, when we were using the dining room as a storage spot, he was under the dining room table. At one point, he was in my closet. That gave me the creeps. He made it up to the attic but was brought back down when I begin to fear that we might loose him altogether in the piles of junk. He was then carried down to the basement and placed on a work table, but that seemed disrespectful. Harold finally landed in a cabinet at the foot of the basement stairs which was full of his fathers tools. I came to the conclusion that there was simply no good place to put a dead person. So I was relieved that we were finally at the moment when Harold was going to be launched off into the beautiful blue-green waters of the ocean which he so dearly loved.

We reached a secluded spot on the beach with no one in sight and where we could have privacy in our moment of sadness. Of course, there would never actually be a moment of sadness. Not with twin two-year-olds along.

Lee had worn his swim trunks, and was prepared to wade out as far as needed. But my son, Luc, had his own plans. He wanted to be in the middle of it all. As Lee struggled awkwardly with the plastic bag, trying to sprinkle out just the right amount, for we wanted to save a few ashes to someday sprinkle into The River Seine (Im not sure how the Parisians would feel about that, but Harold loved France), Luc followed Lee out into the waters.

And to our horror, the ashes did not sink gently to the ocean’s floor to their final resting place. Instead, they spread in an ever widening circle, growing and taking on a life of their own until the circle must have been fifteen feet in diameter. In the middle of all this was Luc, gleefully splashing about in the sickly mixture of the Gulf waters and his granddaddy. And just at that moment, perfectly timed, a flock of pelicans flew overhead. Since things were not going as planned, I hoped that the birds were a sign from the heavens that things would soon turn around for the better. Not so.

It happened to be one of those gloriously beautiful days when the Gulf waters were a perfectly clear with just the barest hint of green. The ugly gray ashes were now looking very much like a chemical spill. I looked anxiously up at the sky, fearing a plane or helicopter would catch us in action. And I thought with frustration how, just as nothing had never been normal with Harold, nothing had ever been easy with him either.

I suddenly realized that perhaps this was not the proper method in which ashes were to be sacredly dispensed into waters. Were we supposed to do it from a boat? Were we to have received permission? Would we be arrested? And I hoped that we would emerge from this experience unscathed.

But I didnt have time to dwell on ash dispersing techniques or what laws we might have just broken because my daughter, who was in the middle of potty training, insisted that she had to go to the bathroom that instant. And as every parent knows, you dont argue with a toddler when that happens.

I took one last look at our surroundings, trying to memorize the trees, desperately trying to find some landmark in case we wanted to relocate the spot someday in the future. I fumbled with my camera and managed to take a quick snapshot, and off we raced in search of a toilet.

That was the end of Harold.

It was not long after depositing Harolds ashes into the Gulf when another visit from Harold occurred. Katie and Luc told Lee that he had come and played with them again. After that, there would be no more talk from our children about their grandfather for many months. We felt that the presence of Harold was finally drifting away. We were released.

But there would be one more event involving our children seven months later, long after we thought that they had forgotten about Harolds death. This incident was after we had moved into Harolds house. One night, my son, who was at the time three years old, was going to sleep when he said to his father: God lives in this house. He went on to say: Danda {Harold} is still here. Luc explained that Harold once again,  had come and sat in the big chair in Lucs room while he played. Luc told his father that God is in that chair. Perhaps it was a three year olds way of saying that Harold was now with God. And maybe it was Harold’s way of letting us know that everything was as it should be…

A footnote…Five and a half years later, Lee and I were playing around with Google Earth, revisiting some our favorite spots from our lives together. After some searching, we found Harolds resting place on the Gulf. We zoomed in as close as we were able without the image going too much out of focus. I looked at the beach where we had stood that day and wondered about Harolds ashes. Were they still there? Had they ended up at the base of the dunes and sea oats that lined the coast? Did they wash out to sea from the force of the tide and then drift down to the ocean floor? Or have they long since wandered about the planet, visiting exotic locals here and there along the way? Harold would have liked that–he had loved to travel.

We still have the little bit of ash destined for Franceit rests quietly in the basement with Harolds fathers tools. We have not yet undertaken the last leg of the journey with Harold, but perhaps that time will come someday soon…

 

My Life with Ghosts, part 5, (The Confirmation, Conclusion)

Found at the foot of the basement stairs, one of the many vintage bottles discovered among the possessions of the dead…

The Confirmation, Conclusion

One good thing has come out of this latest “haunting.” I begin to write furiously, working on these stories of the dead in particular, with the words becoming my weapons. For the more I fling the words at the paper, the less the incidents occur and the less intimidating they become.

Ultimately, however, I decide that it is time to spend much less time thinking about the past and to get back to the living. And I certainly make a valiant try. But despite this desire, the dead continue to be use me as their conduit for some reason that is beyond my grasp. And the strange events continue…

One night, I swear the ghosts are teasing me. I dream that my children are calling me, but they sound far away as if at the end of a tunnel. I awaken, go to their rooms, but they are fast asleep.

And is this another taunt from the ghosts? On several occasions during my sleep, I hear a “pssst!” sound as if someone is trying to get my attention.

Every night Lee gets up once in the middle of the night to use the restroom off our bedroom. The routine is always the same. Four or so steps to the bathroom, then the squeaking that accompanies the opening and shutting of the old door, followed by his return a minute later. Often I hear this in a half sleep state.
Last night was no different. Except the footsteps were different. I think I was dreaming for they sounded like leather shoes on the wooden floor. The steps were slow and heavy—like those of a tired, elderly person. I heard the familiar squeak of the bathroom door. I think I heard the steps come back. I visualized in my dream an elderly man’s legs, dressed in dark suit pants and slightly bowed. I then pictured a pair of black, worn shoes, old-fashioned in style. The sounds awakened me. I opened my eyes to find Lee in bed beside me, sound asleep. It had not been him walking about. I snuggle closely hoping the contact of our real-life bodies will form a shield against the imaginary ones.
The next morning I asked Lee what kind of shoes his grandfather wore. Why I thought of Barney, I’m not sure. Lee had no idea why I was asking. He answers without hesitation, “black leather shoes.” The expression “spine-tingling” was very appropriate at that moment. I told him of my dream. He shook his head as if it was all too much. He reminded me that our bedroom was once Barney’s.

Our time in “The House” is no longer an interesting adventure. It has become frightening. And I can’t shake the feeling that we are headed towards some kind of crisis.
A footnote to this particular story about Barney’s shoes: I get a call from a friend this morning while writing down these very words. After we hang up, the phone rings again. I pick up the phone, thinking it is her. Dead silence. Another one of those strange “no one at the end of the line” phone calls.

One night, I wake up brushing something away from my mouth. It felt like something sharp, like a fingernail, had been dragged across my lip.

August, 2006:
My son gets scared when he hears “funny” voices in the hall that sound like “walkie talkies.” He says accompanying the voices are shadowy shapes like “ghosts.”

Finally, gratefully, the strange experiences begin to subside. But still, I make sure that I am never asleep alone in my bedroom. And I often wake up in the 2-5 A.M. “witching hour” and feel that all too familiar oppressive feeling. It is difficult to breathe, as if the air is choked and heavy with souls.
I tell Lee about this. He replied that there was one recent night when he woke up, and sensed a similar ominous feeling. He wondered if he was about to have another one of those “moments.” He was relieved when he did not.

Over time, I have come up with a theory about the “haunting” of our house. That day when we had cleared out the small area at the bottom of the basement stairs, we had encountered a tangled knot of souls. Upon thinking over the variety of items we handled during that particular purge, it hits me how many deceased people we were dealing with in just a few feet of space. We had revealed Mrs. Warner’s oriental embroideries (and I’m guessing those were her antique books as well); Gretchen’s carefully color-schemed towels; Harold’s obsessive use of baggies to protect the mundane; Barney’s industrial tools and vintage army lighters; and a vast amount of vintage jars likely used by most everyone that had lived there at one time or another.
But it wasn’t just the objects we were untangling, it was the memories as well. Memories of camping trips and vacations; thoughts of childhood and growing up with parents and grandparents; and reflections on all those who have left us and gone on…
It seems to me that the process of extracting the belongings of the dead from their hiding places and exposing them to the light of day, is somehow loosening the bindings of trapped souls. The more we clean and purge, the more we are lessening this strange hold the house has over all those who once lived here. It’s like a giant spider web that, with our help, is slowly coming unraveled, its captives finally falling away.
My question is–and it’s a question I believe that will most likely never be answered–why do the ghosts seem to be trying to get our attention? To make their presence known? To say goodbye? To express their anger? Are they trying to guide us somehow, or to tell us something? Maybe they are asking us to stop our actions, that they don’t want to leave this place that they once called home for so many decades. Or perhaps they are begging to be released. I have to believe that that’s what they want. So we carry on, dismantling memories and lives, piece by piece.

And that is how it goes, in this house of ours…