It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.
We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it. We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.
We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.
But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.
“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ― Dickens, A Christmas Carol
When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted. It was the right sort of house for that: imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.
I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.
But then nothing happened.
Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.
Still, nothing happened.
After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened. What a rip off! I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!? Not a fair trade off if you ask me.
But ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas. I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life. It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life. What was Christmas like for them? Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver? Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage? Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?
And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area? Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.
And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II. What about those Christmas dinners? Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark? Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe? Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me. I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.
And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided, like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.
Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either. I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.
It’s better not to know, I tell myself.
Still, I want a ghost for Christmas. I can’t shake that feeling. It’s part of the old house package.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” -William Faulkner
I had a ghost once, a few years ago.
I know, I know–just hear me out. This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances. The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening. For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point). And one more thing–the children aren’t around. If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.
I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).
So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days. That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined. It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.
Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.
I have no idea where this story starts– only Emily could tell you that, and she has been silent for years now. I can’t fill in all the details, but I can tell you when her shadow crossed over our doorstep.
It was a fine and cozy doorstep in Ripon, North Yorkshire, England, and it was our home for four fantastic years. We dove headlong into the spirit of British life and tried to pretend that we were Brits ourselves.
We fooled no one, but we had a good time. The kids attended British schools, my husband and I drove on the left side of the road (more often than not), and I learned how to make a mean steak and ale pie and sticky toffee pudding.
When we returned to the States in the summer of 2009, there was a posh lilt to my children’s speech, a cupboard full of treacle and hedgerow jam in my kitchen, and a ghost in our walnut chest of drawers.
These things happen when you live close to the Yorkshire Moors.
The chest that housed our shadowy friend came from an auction house twenty minutes north of our home. She is a beautiful old walnut piece–Queen Anne era, so roughly 300 years old– originally a chest on stand with longer, probably delicate, legs. But three centuries of life had, literally, brought her to her knees. Now she stands on stumps– ball feet that are likely over a hundred years old at this point.
I think the chest is beautiful. . . the hard knocks of a long life have made her quirky, but she still sings to me.
So I was overjoyed when we brought her home from the auction house and carried her into our dining room. We dusted her off, gently cleaned the insides of the drawers, and whooped and hollered when we found a secret compartment.
It was cobwebby, and James shuddered as he stuck his hand in there. We both hoped there would be old coins or letters, some relics of the lives lived in times beyond our reach. But there were only cobwebs.
Or so we thought.
While we moved furniture to settle the new piece into its spot in the dining room, my daughter (who was about 7 years old) was upstairs digging into her dress up box. She came down the stairs in a colonial era dress, saying that we must call her Emily. It was cute, and she kept up the charade, never breaking character, until it was finally time to march upstairs and take a bath.
Meanwhile, after dusting our chest and admiring her beauty in a tidy corner of the dining room, we continued on with our life. Dinner had to be made; children had to be bathed; bedtime stories were read, and, eventually, we all tucked in for the night. Unsuspecting.
In the wee hours, someone woke me up. My young children were standing at the edge of the bed. Without even fully opening my eyes–as this was an all too common pattern with my son, and it was a ritual I could very nearly perform while still asleep– I got up and cupped my arms around my two children to lead them back to bed. My left arm scooped my son, but my right arm came up empty. I opened my eyes and turned to find Kate, but she wasn’t there.
“William, where’s your sister?” I asked. “She isn’t here,” he said. I shrugged it off, just happy to have only one child to put back to bed.
But I woke up the next morning and sat bolt upright: two children, I thought, I saw two children. I saw two children–a boy and a girl. There were two, and then there was one. I asked my son again that morning where his sister had gone, but he told me that she was never there.
I don’t spook easily. I’m not particularly superstitious. And, oddly, I was fairly pragmatic about this. I told my husband about the incident and put it out of my mind.
For a few days.
Until I woke up in the middle of the night to find my husband standing up and running his hands all around the bed, looking for something. “What are you doing?” was my question, naturally. “One of the kids is in the bed,” he said. “No,” I said, “there’s no one in the bed but me.” But he wasn’t convinced. Something was in the bed; someone had come into the room.
There was really only one explanation. Only one new member of the family in the past week. And apparently she was more ambulatory than those ball feet let on. Could a piece of furniture harbor a ghost? We decided to call this maybe-ghost Emily. I suppose she had tried to announce herself the minute she came into the house.
We spent the next few days sipping a strange cocktail of emotions–a shot of intrigue, a splash of fear, a dash of dread, and a big old chaser of humor. Honestly, who buys a ghost with their furniture? And a ghost that tries to climb in bed with you at that? There is a whole lot of creepy to that–but, as much as I squeezed my eyes tight the next few nights and swore to open them for nothing until the morning came, my motherly instincts kept asking why? I mean, assuming there was a ghost and we weren’t just nuts whose imaginations had run away with them (not a sure bet, I know), why would a child keep just showing up in our room? Loneliness, I suppose.
I wanted to know the story–this ghost was going to kill me with curiosity, if nothing else. So my husband and I drove back to the auction house and asked the owner, Rodney, if he could shed any light on the piece of furniture we’d bought. He disappeared in the back office and quickly reappeared with the only paperwork he had on that piece of furniture–paperwork indicating that the chest had been removed from The Old School House in Thoresway, Lincolnshire.
This told us absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the chest, but it also did nothing to quell our interest. A School House? A building with a long history of children, children, and more children? Our heads were spinning.
But what can you do? We didn’t have an answer at hand, we didn’t even have a problem on our hands, we just had a curiosity. A couple of incidents in a couple of weeks’ time. And plenty of friends to add in their two cents: antiques have bad feng shui, and did we know that young children used to sleep in dresser drawers (pulled out) before there were cribs? My favorite reaction came from the wife of the local cathedral’s canon: Oh how wonderful! I’ve always wanted to see a ghost!
Within the next week or two, I purchased an old painting from an antique market: a portrait of a child with her dog. We named her Emily and hung her on the wall by the chest. If you can’t beat them, join them, right?
I’m not sure how to tell you the next part of the story. To be honest, I usually tell it to friends around a table where the wine is flowing freely. Somehow that puts people in a better mindset to hear it . . . and also makes them more understanding of this next twist.
I’m a softy, and I’m sometimes a kook, and when something lies heavy on my heart and I drink wine–you know. Emily didn’t show up much in the next year, but this is no surprise because she and I had a heart to heart late one night, and I think this put her at rest.
James and I had been out to a friend’s party–homebodies that we are–and we’d had a very good time. I had an especially good time, and came home feeling very generous and earnest and just a bit wobbly. When we got home, I pulled a chair up to the chest and proceeded to tell Emily, at great length, that we just wanted her to be happy, and that we were terribly sorry if we acted terrified of her, but we’d be honored to have her in our home.
Because that’s how everyone talks to their ghost-furniture, right?
Well, you know, I meant it. And it worked. Peaceful nights from then on.
And then we moved Emily over the ocean on a slow boat and resettled her in Georgia. We laughed a slightly nervous laugh and joked that she’d be really angry about that–brace for chaos. But no chaos came.
We moved into a new house, re-floored, painted, and set Emily up in the formal living room. The house looked good; the chest looked good; the feng shui felt right.
And then my husband threw a curve ball. He saw a wierd, shadowy something in the corner of the front hall–right by the living room. He didn’t know . . .he was just saying . . .it was strange and his first thought was Emily.
But I didn’t believe a word of it. James likes to play pranks, and as much as he insisted, I laughed and said right, like I would believe that. End of conversation.
Until a few weeks later, when I was scrolling through messages and pictures on my new flip phone (it was 2009). My daughter, then a 4th grader, had been having fun with the camera phone–catching her grandmother in her pj’s, photographing her brother with a cabbage on his head, taking a photo she entitled Haunted Hallway. . . . This stopped me cold. She had photographed the same spot in the house James had described and she gave it that caption.
I very nonchalantly asked her about the photo. She said, “Oh, it just looked wierd, so I took it.” No more reason, no more thought. It was haunted seeming, so she took the picture. The photo didn’t look that strange to me, but then how photogenic are ghosts?
And what a strange, strange coincidence.
You can be a skeptic, and I won’t blame you. But me, I’m a big fan of Emily. At least for now.
When we moved to Germany, we left her in a storage facility until we return next year. That could make for one mad ghost. Check back with me in a year, and see how she took it. Or, better yet, come over and drink wine with me next year–we’ll have a heart to heart with Emily and smooth things over.
“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.”