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…)