This is my very first post.
I thought with Halloween approaching, it would be an appropriate time to share my real life stories of having lived in a haunted house. Despite having been 5 1/2 years since I moved from there, what I went through still puzzles me and sometimes disturbs me. I am sharing the documentation of my experiences that I made at the time, beginning with the backstory of how it came to be that I lived a place where these events were even possible. This first installment is titled “The House.” The ghost stories will follow soon…
During the late moments of the day, when the light is soft and glowing, a time in filmmaking that is so special that it is referred to as the “magic hour,” I stand in my dining room and look to my right. There, I see the leafy view outside the kitchen window of what was once Uncle Martin’s world, a place where he quietly nurtured to full life his garden of roses. But over the many decades since, a bamboo thicket has won out, destroying almost all signs of the red flowers, and the tall, thin trees that bend easily in the wind are now my children’s world.
If I turn slightly, I will find standing before me Mrs. Warner’s china cabinet that wearily displays various old objects from her travels to ancient places, each item rich with its own story. And if I look towards the living room and beyond, I can see into the distant porch room, a room that was once Gretchen’s, and which has now become my own special place for quiet thoughts and creative tasks.
It is at this instant that an enchanted thing happens. The house comes to life. Its force, in the shape of a complicated interaction of sparkling light and faint shadows, flows through the rooms and I’m almost sure, through me.
But let me back up and tell you the story of this house and of its many inhabitants throughout its numerous years…
The house had made its way through three generations of my husband’s family and following the death of my father-in-law, Harold, it landed squarely in our laps. A gift, yes. But a curse as well. For the house was packed with junk. From the coal-littered basement floor all the way up to its spidery attic’s raftered heights, there was barely a space within which one could move. It quickly became obvious that for sixty years, every previous family member had left their mark in the shape of their things. And apparently, it was now our problem to remedy.
But I sensed that underneath all the clutter there had once been a charm to the place and I was determined to bring it back. The first time my mother came to visit, before dementia had completely stolen her mind, she exclaimed as we drove up: “Why, it’s a storybook house!” It does have that innocent aura with its red brick, white trim, a green roof with matching green door, and making it unique from all the other houses on our street, its three gables. It was partly due to those three gables that my husband’s grandmother, Eloise, had first chosen the house back in the 1940’s following an exhausting search for the perfect home.
So I persevered. I was on a quest to make the house our own “perfect home.” My first line of attack was against the ocean of books. Thousands of them, on every level of the house, dealing with every imaginable topic, in all different shapes from the fascinating antique volumes held together with embossed leather bindings, to the more recent cheap fiction paperbacks. In their totality (at my estimation, at least 6000), the books seemed an incarnation of all the varied lives that had previously called this three-gabled house their home throughout the passing decades.
During this book sorting, endurance task from hell phase of my life, (which, by the way, took four months just to deal with the books on the main level of the house), I came across an antique edition of “Tennyson’s Poetical Works” from the late 1800’s. When I first held it, I tentatively turned through its gilded pages, for I felt such a presence emerging from the book that I hesitated at invading another’s world. Inserted in a passage from “Guinevere,” I discovered a small white card. Hand-written in ink in beautiful cursive penmanship were the words “Souvenir-Saturday night. Feb.-13.97,” underneath which were a series of intertwining initials inscribed in a heart-shaped configuration. Stitched to the card with black thread was a small pressed flower, so ancient it was hard to determine its type but I guessed it to be a violet.
February 13, 1897. The day before Valentine’s. Suddenly, time had done a reversal and I found myself spying on a very private moment that had occurred 108 years before. One special night in one person’s life, long lost, long dead. My body felt curious, caught between my ordinary, task-laden life and this mysterious, romantic moment in the past, one so powerful that it had driven the owner of the book to immortalize it. What had happened that evening?
This would prove to be just one of many such moments, full of magic borrowed from the dead, that I would experience over the next many years during our time living in what I have come to refer to simply as “The House.”
As we continued cleaning, several things occurred. First, with every excursion to the attic or basement, my horror grew at the job ahead. Secondly, as my brain became more focused, I was finally able to discern individual objects rather than simply massive heaps of junk. And finally, we became aware of the numerous trunks and cabinets and satchels scattered about, including five trunks in the attic and two in the basement. Each time we pried open one of these repositories, we’d discover it filled to the brim with items once belonging to one or more of the house’s previous inhabitants.
Here, for clarity’s sake, is a brief summary of the varied souls that this place once held. The very first person to live in our house was the contractor who, back in the 1940’s, originally built the house as well as many of the other houses on our street. Then there was Barney and Eloise along with their son, Harold. Once grown, Harold married Gretchen and they lived, along with their son, Lee (my husband), with Barney and Eloise. Various other relatives passed through as well: Lessie (Barney’s mother and Lee’s great-grandmother) lived here for brief period while she attended a school for the blind; Uncle Martin, Barney’s brother and editor for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, lived here for a number of years; and there were many cousins that came and went. Our home was almost always full, and as we were about to discover, they all left their mark in various forms, both tangible and intangible.
Over time, my original purpose of cleaning and straightening the house was slowly joined by an overwhelming desire to know exactly what lives were entombed here and what their stories might be. Hence began what I nicknamed “The Great Trunk Hunt.” We set out to tackle the trunks (along with all the cabinets, boxes, satchels, and any other form of vessel a particular person had chosen to hide away their treasured belongings) from which we wrestled their decades-old secrets.
We approached the job like a couple of amateur archaeologists. Once locating a trunk or some other such repository, we’d slowly raise the lid, wary of what might jump out, careful not to breathe its foul air from ages ago. Its contents would then be examined, piece by piece. We’d make a mental note of the original owners, all dead. A sad job. An item or two might be removed to join us in our living space–a letter opener, a pocket watch, coins and stamps–but the rest of the things would be returned to their crypt, to remain there for who knows how many more years. I think it was at this point that I became fully became aware that what we were dealing with was not a simple cleaning/purging/fixin’ a house up kind of thing. No, we had landed in a place caught in another time. And soon, we’d discover that otherworldly occurrences in “The House” were not completely out of the realm of possibility…