Cleaning a House – My True Ghost Story – II

My second paranormal encounter happened years later, about two miles from where I saw the ghostly apparition on Halloween night. This patch of town is charged with stranger things. I had a friend, actually he and his mother were friends of my family for years. Not quite sure how they met, or what sustained the relationship because they were so unlike my parents. They were secretive, tightfisted, aggrieved. The mother, Eleanor, had a sense of humor, but her son Thomas, not Tom, always Thomas, was a bundle of ticks and neuroses. They were not unkind people just troubled. Part of the glue that held this friendship together was, I would guess, that they and my family were residents of the area for a long time. I’m harping on this, but the relationship between mother and son, I believe, is key to the creepy things to come.

Thomas’s mother passed away after a long illness, and I was living at my folk’s place sort of in-between things. By default, Thomas and I would occasionally go to a movie, meet for a meal. I think I felt sorry for him, he seemed so dissolute without his mother – they were uncommonly attached – and he had never lived on his own. He remained living with Eleanor. He never seemed to have a girlfriend, had never married. What he did with his time was a mystery. Eleanor was quite wealthy and the property spanned 40-50 acres of prime real estate. Neither worked yet they lived well, traveled extensively. There must have been a significant coffer from which money was drawn.

During my time of hanging out with Thomas he asked if I would house-sit for him. He was going to Paris, Zurich, and Turin – for “business.” He had four semi-feral cats, to whom, he was uncommonly attached as well. I agreed to house-sit. Dumb.

Thomas’s house was traditional – I don’t know the style – it was attractive and there was a cottage (unoccupied) on the property. The house was situated on a hill with a beautiful view. No neighbors in sight. It was decorated tastefully yet fussily, a lot of white and Biedermeier. During Eleanor’s reign, if you were allowed into the living room for tea or a drink, you couldn’t relax for fear of spilling on the white damask and brocade, wriggling under Eleanor’s hawkish gaze. Good times! What’s the point of having stuff if you don’t use or enjoy it. More often, to my relief, we would congregate in the kitchen which was the only room that had any degree of warmth. It was spacious with an oak table by a stone fireplace.

The house had a strange vibe. It was hollow and a little sad – devoid of personality. Thomas told me that there had been a fire years ago and most of the house was rebuilt. Thomas’s mother was gone nearly ten years, but he tentatively moved around the house and agonized over moving or changing anything. He was an only child and had inherited the lot, but acted like he still needed permission from mom.

I go to get instructions on the care and feeding of cats and house. After all this time of “knowing” the family I had only seen the first floor. Neither upstairs nor down. When I got the tour I was barely allowed to see the upstairs but did get a tour of the basement which should, had I been a sensible girl, have sent me running. It was unfinished and ramshackle with many stone and dirt creepy crawl spaces wherein the cats would mysteriously disappear. The basement was the truth – the main floor the lie, and I was to discover, the upstairs was the awful truth.

I was told to sleep in the guest room on the first floor. It was inexplicably freezing cold. Since watching movies and shows about the paranormal that was a sign: cold spots. Teeth-chattering shivering cold. Thomas called from Europe and I told him about the Ice Station Zebra problem. He hemmed and hawed and finally said I could sleep in his mother’s room. Hallowed ground! I knew this was a big concession and something he didn’t want to do. Thomas’s bedroom was also upstairs, which I was instructed not to go into, and by glancing from the open door why would I? It was pitch dark and full of junk. A black hole. Across the hall was Eleanor’s room which resembled a Golden Age Hollywood starlet’s bedroom combined with Rebecca’s bedroom from the movie. Ultra-opulent and feminine. Boudoir. Which was strange because Eleanor was none of those things and quite unattractive. That was sad too. So I slept there. One night. It was slightly less frigid than the room downstairs.

The following morning I woke up and was cold. I hadn’t brought enough warm things so I went into Eleanor’s walk-in closet/room hoping there may be an old sweater handy, and I jumped. Among the rows and rows of negligees and fancy slippers was a mannequin head with a red wig on it. Everything was as if Eleanor would walk in at any moment and need a peignoir to entertain guests. Now I’m thinking Norman Bates.

I had enough and went downstairs to make a cup of tea and devise an excuse to get out of my obligation. I was in the kitchen and the sun was pouring in. Another sign – the sun would come in but it didn’t warm or light the house in the normal fashion. As I turned from the stove holding the kettle I see – Eleanor. Dressed in flowing white – but not a shroud. She glances at me and moves through the swinging door into the dining room. I froze. I couldn’t believe it. I put down the kettle and followed her. The door was still swinging and I caught a glimpse of her back as she turned the corner and vanished.

I got into my car and drove to my dad’s house. I didn’t say anything but I did call the girl at the vet’s office (who was the backup plan) to go care for the cats. I planned to leave it at that, but I called my sister’s Wiccan friend, Helen – I wrote about her in an earlier essay – and told her. I had to tell somebody, and Helen would understand? I made her day because she was amped and told me, “Clare, you have to clean that house! Thomas is holding his mother there and she wants to leave!” How did she know? Helen also had some choice observations about Thomas and his cats, but I’ll leave it at that.

Why did I agree to this “plan?” On the surface it’s pretty stupid, but I was curious and wanted see what, if anything, would happen. I have to say that Helen knew her stuff, she rattled off a list of things I would need which took me a day and half to assemble. Including a trip to Home Depot and a sizable length of thin copper wire which a kindly salesclerk cut into 4″ lengths. He looked at my quizzically at one point and I said, “Don’t ask.”

The day of battle arrived. I drove to the house fully equipped and with Helen’s written instructions because this was complicated business – I won’t go into detail. The first thing she told me to do was to light a white candle in a silver candlestick holder – in the room where I saw Eleanor. I placed the candle and holder on the kitchen table and went to light it and realized I didn’t have matches. I walked to the other side of the kitchen where they were on a counter, and the candle flies out of the holder at me. Like someone whipped it – hard. This was the moment where I should have reevaluated the situation. I had goosebumps but I kept on. I put the candle back and proceeded. The interior cleaning took time because it had to be done exactly as Helen prescribed. After that process, where I could feel myself getting physically exhausted, I was to extinguish the candle, close the door to the house and start on the copper wire.

According to Helen, the copper wire is an energy conduit, and as I had “cleaned” the inside of the house I needed to create a route out for Eleanor. Luckily there was a water source at the end of the long drive, and I was pushing the wire into the soft earth from the house all the way down to the stream. As I was nearly finished, it was a sunny cold October day, I looked back at the house and I heard what sounded like many doors slamming violently. More goosebumps.

Helen told me not to reenter the house, to let it rest at least an hour before returning. No convincing needed! Happy to see the place in my rear-view mirror. Later, when I had to go back to get my things, I talked my father into coming with me. I told him nothing, not because he wouldn’t have believed me, but he would have shaken his head and thought that we – I, Helen, Thomas, Eleanor and the cats – this is what we had time for? So we go, and as we’re walking towards the house glancing at two inconsequential garage doors, my father, who was a marine and feared nothing said, “You know, this place gives me the creeps.” Validation! From a sane person!

As Helen predicted, the house was different – better – and the cats were upstairs. Had Helen’s recipe worked? Still I didn’t stay. The cats were attended to by the vet girl and I went home. When Thomas returned, he called to thank me for house-sitting and at the end of the conversation he asked, “By the way, what did you do to the house?” Nothing, I said, and he dropped it. My guess is that he was weird enough to conjure Eleanor back, but I never returned, so I can’t say.

I didn’t see Thomas much after that. A couple of years later we received a postcard with a picture of a renovated cottage and a charming apartment. Thomas had moved to Geneva, why I don’t know. Maybe they have scarier ghosts there, or in the spirit of Swiss neutrality, ghosts without an agenda? I heard through the grapevine that Thomas had subdivided his sizable landholdings, made millions, and leveled the house.

Shortly after my “white magic” encounter, I was in a bookstore that specialized in theology, New Age and crystals. Something for everybody. It was a delightful store and the staff was knowledgeable. One of the last privately-owned bookshops. I was at the register and the woman who was checking me out did a double take and said, “You just did some major housecleaning!” I was impressed. We became friends until she died suddenly and unexpectedly.

As I close, remembering the experience and Eleanor’s and Thomas’s unhappy backstory – which I had to leave out because of length, I feel uneasy and a little sad. All those people, for better and worse, are gone from my life and so is any semblance of where they inhabited. Even so, I wouldn’t have changed a thing and am grateful I was shown something….unusual? And, maybe in some small way I helped Thomas move on.

Happy Housecleaning,

Clare

 

The House on the Hill

Last week I was getting books together for a friend who is ailing. I was in my office going through the bookcases, looking for things that might tempt her. Of course, I was distracted and started looking through the books; I found an old newspaper clipping of a book review, a five dollar bill, a note in someone’s hand I didn’t recognize, a bookmark from the Getty Museum – it’s curious what we leave behind. I came upon a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and I stopped to thumb through it. I haven’t read it in ages, saw the movie (and the BBC miniseries) long ago, but I was struck by the first lines, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It goes on to describe the narrator’s – the second Mrs. de Winter’s – dream of returning to her former home – a great house on the Cornish coast.

The dream sequence continues for several pages and I was riveted. It’s so well written and haunting and moody, but there was something more. I realized that I too have had a similar dream – of my old home where I grew up with my family. I would have the dream often, for years. As in Rebecca, I am on foot and it is twilight or dusk and the drive winds and winds until our home comes into view. In my dream sometimes the house is a combination of my family’s old home and my great grandmother’s wonderful stone house. Sometimes, I can walk in and pass through the rooms, other times all I can do is look through the windows. I am so thrilled to see it again, to recognize familiar things. Like the narrator, “I stood, my heart thumping in my breast, the strange prick of tears behind my eyes.” When I awaken, or the dream ends, I have an achy feeling in my heart, both elated and crestfallen.

I never mentioned the dream to anyone even though it occurred frequently. That is, until I was deeply involved in a romance of my own. I must have had the dream and it was weighing on me. The man, who was older than I and fairly intuitive about women, saw my distraction and prompted me to tell him. So I did. He listened carefully and intently. When I was done, he said, “You want to go back to the house on the hill.” He was right. The house, both of them in fact, were gone, yet the desire to return to the house on the hill remained. I do believe he understood, even though we were at that moment on another continent in another hemisphere, but I knew vaguely that there was a house on the hill for him as well. Entirely different, and not a house per se, but  a place and time no less powerful. If I had continued with this man I would have been a second Mrs. de Winter of a sort, and was keenly aware of living up to a memory of another woman who had died. The dream, the memory of my romance, the novel, images of my home and my great-grandmother’s were all shuffling through my mind. Then, I remembered that I had gone to a lecture at Princeton on The Odyssey and the speaker discussed the idea of the eternal returning – not just of Odysseus but of all life travelers. The need, the yearning, to come home. An ancient theme no doubt, it’s in Genesis as well, I think.

As I write this, I think of all us through those years: playing, running, throwing our bikes in the grass, catching fireflies — and the day ending as the lights would come on in the house. I can see my father in his study reading, my mother talking to one of our dogs or the cat while she readied dinner, one of my sisters at the piano, a thriving hive of activity and halcyon memory. Like Manderley ours is no longer, our Manderley is no more. Even so, as the narrator in Rebecca writes, “Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Clare Irwin