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

 

My True Ghost Stories – I

I will describe, as best I can, two events that happened years apart which defy explanation. The common denominator is they both took place in a remote area of New England, in the same town, and they occurred in the month of October. One on Halloween night. It’s Native-American ground up there, you can sense it, and I don’t know if the town’s founding fathers respected that. I need to channel Stephen King; I cannot do it justice. He is the master. I’m thinking about the Mi’kmaq burial grounds in his writings. The names of places in my story are all Native-American. We would find arrowheads in the woods, which we gave to the historical society, or if a tribal elder was passing through or we had an address, what we found was returned.

I was not a child who was afraid of the dark or had any issue with ghosts or monsters or things under the bed, so I tend to trust that my memory is reliable, if not definitive. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other about believing, or not, in the supernatural, I am open to the idea and certainly there are things in this crazy world that are mystifying.

The first encounter happened when I was around 10. I had come out to the town to visit a family I knew and Halloween fell during my stay, so I went trick or treating with my friend Sara, her little brother Eddie, and her older brother Andy as our “escort.” There was a fair distance between houses, no lights on the road and it was dark. Halloween began as one would expect, knocking on doors getting candy. Then the weirdness crept up gradually like a music crescendo. By the fourth house, which was rickety looking – the local gossip was that the older couple who lived there were a bit odd – an unearthly feeling fell. No one was home. Candy was left with a note on the porch, but everything was a mess like a creature had run riot. We surveyed the disarray and decided to leave without partaking, when we sensed that someone was watching us – that someone was home in the dark house staring. Even so, we shrugged it off and continued.

Next was a house we knew. A lovely restored barn owned by a glamorous couple who weren’t around much. Above the front door was a beautiful carved horse’s head – smooth and elegantly realistic. We were familiar with the aesthetic because the couple had a marvelous swing that went over a steep hill, and in the summer months we would play there. We rang the doorbell, there was no answer and the house was dark. All at once we looked up at the horse’s head which appeared to be looking at us and at something in the distance; the pale moonlight gave it an eerie cast. That was when we started to get jittery.

We set out to the next house which was far away. The back of the country club golf course was between us and our point of destination. We were walking on the side of the dark road where the soft hills of the golf course were and a fine mist was hovering. On the other side of the road was dense wood. Not a house in sight. We were walking, talking, goofing around. Simultaneously, it seemed, we all looked towards the golf course and saw a silvery tall and slender figure of a man in leather skins – in profile. I can still see the image – no color just the moiré effect of silver/grey that defined him. Andy yelled, “Run!” And we did. As we turned to look, the figure was running parallel to us with long strides and keeping up with ease. As this point we were frightened and we kept on running until we got to the next house (which was owned by a woman who locals claimed was a witch – I think that was because no one liked the family much and they had strange ways). When we approached the house, Eddie asked, “What was that?” No one answered him. As we reached the door it opened and spilled out a flood of light. We scrambled in and were greeted by the witch mom. She seemed to sense we were rattled and she had an slight smile at the corners of her mouth (did she know?). She made us welcome while Andy called their mom to come pick us up.

We never spoke of it. Ever. And we remained friends and in touch over many years, until our parents fell ill and passed. They moved away and started their adult lives. I often wonder what it was we saw. I am convinced it was not a person trying to mess with us, but what was it?

In the last couple of years, I have gone back to visit the town and other people I know there, and I hear from them and the local teenagers that there are still strange occurrences. One girl told me that due north, where the woods are even deeper and there are no houses at all, there is a “Suburban Legend” that has been around for a time. The land is owned by the state and there are reservoirs and nature preserves so it’s virtually uninhabited. Except for one abandoned house. The legend is that a family of “melon heads” lurk there. “What do you mean melon heads?” I asked. A head like a melon with no face, no eyes, nose, or mouth.

She was on the cheerleading squad and told me that they were heading to a game with one of the mothers driving a Suburban 10-seater on this stretch, and the car just stopped. Dead. For no apparent reason. Cell phone service there is spotty at best, but they survived unscathed. I can imagine the piercing screams and shrieks that were coming from the car as they were stuck there.

Now that would have scared off just about anything.

In respect to indigenous peoples, to the land they hold sacred, to the unknown, to the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Clare

Coming Soon – My True Ghost Story II – Housecleaning. And I don’t mean vacuuming!

Portable Magic – Part I

There’s a hash tag on Twitter entitled Shakespeare Sunday. Today, I tweeted a quote from The Tempest  – Prospero speaks wistfully of the worthiness of books: “Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.”  I come from a family of voracious readers, the house teemed with books: in the library – my father’s and the family’s, in everyone’s rooms, left on side tables, and of course huge piles next to one’s bed. I think my mother’s was the highest of all. Looking back, I am so grateful that I came from a family of readers – it’s a wonderful gift. I still read, but less than in past  years – I am busy with work, like most of us, in the nice weather I am outdoors, I started this blog – and I am drawn to the competing force of legion television/movie availability. We have Netflix and a fairly loaded cable package which needs to go. Our local provider raises their rates monthly, and we’ve reached the point of whether it’s a little luxury or a huge bill. Even at the risk of missing something EVERYONE will be talking about, and will eventually be aired somewhere, I think we shall reduce.

The startling revelation came to me that if I wasn’t doing so much viewing I would be doing more reading (duh!). I’ve started again – mostly catching up on past issues of The London Review of Books, The Guardian and The New Yorker which is still a standard of fine writing. In a past issue there’s an article on Julian Assange and Protest Theory – both deserve a look wherever you fall on these issues. I also love how once you delve in, the author leads you somewhere else. The Assange article mentioned Philip Dick’s book The Man in the High Castle which reminded me of Dick’s other prescient works that inspired blockbuster movies: Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Total RecallThe Minority Report et al.

I am delighted for the return of that gemutlich feeling reading elicits. There’s more I could mention from these three issues – but I’ll end here. With a little bit of time management (ha!), I will post Part II in a few days which starts with a memory, a book in the overall, and includes a recipe! Imagine that!

Happy Exploring

Clare Irwin

N.B. The title of this post is taken from Stephen King’s widely well-known book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

Proms and Debs – Or, Who Let the Dog Out?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time. The idea for it came in May of last year when high school students were getting ready for prom. Now it’s a year later, yet another prom, and I am watching 13 Reasons Why so I’m fully immersed in teen life. It’s time.

For the girls, the preoccupation with prom preparation is overwhelming. At least three days dedication is required. About a week ago I was talking to a 16 year old I know, and right in the middle of the conversation she just drifted off — into some fugue state. I said to her, “You know, there’s just no competing with prom. There just isn’t.” She wholeheartedly agreed. The getting ready part: eyebrows, hair, eyelashes, manicures, pedicures, dress fittings – it’s like a wedding. For the boys, of course, it’s much simpler; their moms get them a tux and they show up.

I was recounting this to someone at a dinner party who found it rather alien and amusing. He asked me if I went to prom. The school I went to was an all girls “fancy” prep school, so they weren’t called proms, there were balls and whatnot. A few of my classmates did something that, at least for some of them, was of greater import – making one’s debut. I know it sounds perfectly antiquated – though apparently the custom is still observed – but for girls who were going to make a career as socialites, this was the first step. It’s like being prom queen to the nth power.

Recalling this to my dinner partner led to the abandonment of the whole prom/ball chatter to a story of my best friend from that private school. She was the “bad girl”: defiant, disrespectful, a breaker of rules – in other words someone I would hang around with and get into trouble.

One summer she came up to see me at our place in the country, and both bored and unsupervised we started down the trouble road. Our nearest neighbors were this glamorous Magnificent Ambersons kind of family, chic, cold, blond, and talented. They had a German Shepard who had a large dog run on the side of the house. He had the dog run because the year before he had been hit or swiped by a car, and it was too dangerous to leave him out even though it was a quiet country road. My friend, let’s call her Maggie, decided that it was unfair to keep the dog enclosed all day in the hot shadeless run, and we should let him out so he could sit under a tree and have his freedom. I don’t know, but at the time it seemed like a sensible idea. So we let him out, played with him a little, lost interest and went on to other amusements.

Later in the day, my mother came home and picked up the scent that something was up, so she gave us the assignment of cleaning the garage. While we were sweeping the floor, like two little angels (right!), the son of the family who owned the dog came walking down the drive. Maggie whispered to me, “Remember you know nothing!” Now Tristan, yup that was his name, was handsome, confident, he drove a red convertible sports car at high speeds – he seemed ages older though he was probably 19 or 20. And, despite his crown of lovely curly blond hair, he was a bad boy, much worse than we, I am sure. At the same time, he could spot his own kind no problem. He reached the garage took in the whole “innocent” appearance and asked, “Did you girls let Brandy out?” “What? Who’s Brandy? Oh, you mean the dog, no we’ve been here all day…..” Complete stonewall. He didn’t believe us at all, but he had no proof, so what could he do? He chided us with the reminder that Brandy could have been hurt and went on his way.

Not much of a story, I know. However, the interesting coda is what happened to my friend. She was expelled from school under cloudy circumstances, and was sent to yet another toney boarding school. We lost touch, but some years later I ran into another classmate who asked me if I had heard about Maggie. No, what about Maggie? Well, Maggie must have changed course at boarding school, from excelling in juvenile delinquency to making the complete turn around and becoming not only a debutante, but the toast of the social season, and ensuring her family’s position, for another generation, in the exclusive Social Register. Hmmm…

Sounds like a lot of pressure. A prom in a high school gym seems simpler and more fun. At least there’s room for fashion violations, smeared mascara and goofy T-shirts under tuxedo jackets. And, let’s face it, the only thing that hasn’t changed and runs right across the board from overdone to casual: there’s always crying in the girl’s bathroom.

Have a great prom!

Clare Irwin