I will be the first to admit it. My family has too many ghost stories. I think it is because we notice things.
Maybe it is inherent in families of farmers, fishermen, and nature lovers; one is taught to notice things. The ripeness of berries and when to net the strawberry plants. The chatter of birds in the Spring. The way leaves turn over on their branches before a summer rain. The ripple and patterns on the water that means rip current, or fish feeding. The sound of geese flying South for the winter. (The mustiness of old ashes on the hearth on a rainy autumn afternoon. The scent and crackle of a wood fire burning. The flicker of firelight along the base of a door.)
I am sure the noticing things was originally a matter of survival for my family and the habit never died out. Judging by the dates on the cemetery stones they were good at it, for my ancestors lived to ripe old ages. Even the Pre-Revolutionary War ancestors, and not just the Scandinavians.
All of this nature and nurture distilled into our genetic make up eventually trickled down to me, a clumsy, absentminded child with bangs perpetually in her eyes. A tow-head with seven freckles and piercing blue eyes. A child with an unfortunate habit of noticing things.
This story took place near my hometown, in a small community on a barrier island between the ocean and the bay. On the west side of the bay is one of the last great wildernesses; the Pine Barrens.When summer ended and the tourist and summer people went home they took with them the long soft glow of summer evenings and the bright gaudy light of boardwalks and amusement parks.
They took the noise, and the fun, and the warmth. We were left with Hurricane season and the fathomless ocean in front of us, a forest full of bears, the Jersey Devil, and men with guns (hunting season) behind us. Keep your eye on the ocean. Do you want a wave to take you, our mothers would yell. Stay outta the woods. Some elbow with an itchy trigger finger will mistake you for a deer.
It was enough to make one jumpy.
This story took place during the Fall. Now let me tell you something about Fall in that place at that time. I'm talking about the late mid century. The thing is, one was surrounded by a lot of grand and immense Nature and it was dark. Dark and creepy.
And there were old houses, and older cemeteries backed by woods. Animals lived in those woods and come dusk they looked to creep closer to the house and eat the freshly fallen mulberry leaves, and the corn left out for them by generous housewives, and the pumpkins lined up by the porch. And a person who had been quietly playing Barbie dolls or with her brothers trucks suddenly found herself outside in the quiet gloaming. She could sense the stillness of waiting, could feel eyes watching. A person who noticed things felt the tinge of their anxiety as they gather there in the darkening woods.
Knowing that it is only the same deer, or opossum you've seen all summer doesn't stop that frisson of fear that tingled a persons' spine. It was dark, and unseen eyes were watching. Time to go inside.
I had a personal best of 3.5 seconds from back yard to back door in such circumstances.
So here we had a family full of People Who Notice Things living on the fringe of a dark, creepy woodland where the trees moan and sing in the wind at night. Did I mention that? Pine trees sing! Look it up. They the sing in the cold dark night.
On a cold dark night with a nor'easter coming in and the wind singing in the pines and rain lashing the windows it is easy to be frightened by creaking boards and strange shadows. No one is telling ghost stories on a night like that. We tell our ghost stories in the daylight over the tea pot. Or, we tell them at Christmas when we are all together and good will and laughter and the high one gets from a 2,000 calorie dinner keeps the heebie-jeebies away.
This story took place on one of those ominous afternoons when darkness and storms seem to hover close by. My grandmother told this story and the part I played in it a few weeks after it happened, surround by family.
Thanksgiving Dinner at my grandmothers! Cousins playing tag. Foot races and obstacle courses outside the big craftsman style house. Piles of vividly colored leaves to jump in and burrow under. Skeins of geese doting the pewter sky. Uncles in the garden discussing manure and side dressing versus compost. My grandmother's sister, collectively known as the Grands, arriving in their B54 bomber size Buick. Aunts setting the table. Pie from our apples. Cranberry sauce from cranberries grown on the home farm. Mashed potatoes and turnips the Grands planted, and grew and dug. The titter of ladies in the kitchen. White tablecloths and Blue Willow dishes.
After, when we children were curled on blankets asleep, or watching TV like my brothers, or curled up with Bobbsey Twin books like myself and my two older cousins the adult settled down with coffee and to talk.
One of the Grands, Jannie, nudged my grandmother,"Oona, did you tell anyone about the happenings at the Paulison house? Did you tell them?"
My grandmother looked uneasy, "It wasn't worth going into. It was nothing."
"Nothing," crowed Jannie. "I liked to have fainted on the spot.Tell 'em the story Oona!"
My grandmother shrugged one shoulder. From the corner of my eye I saw my grandmother glance my way. I turned a page, feigning total immersion in my book.
"Well," she said. "You know the Paulison House. The big white house, blue shutters that I do." My grandmother and her sisters and been in service at the house in the 1920s and had cleaned for the family off and on since then.
"Windswept Cottage, they call it. Same family forever," Jannie added. "Oona and I worked there as teenagers. Straight laced. Thought Oona and I were wild, headed for Hell in a hand basket," She snorted.
"They must have been straight laced if they thought plain living Baptist farm girls were wild." An uncle said.
"We had beaux," Jannie explained. "Go on. Tell the story."
If you knew the house, my grandmother explained, you knew that it sat between protective sand dunes, there were beautiful flower gardens on the north and south sides, a large sand and gravel parking area on the west, as well as a wind break of trees and bushes by the road. The east side windows offered egress to a wide veranda and unobstructed ocean views. Anyone who stepped out of the house would be observable until they rounded a corner. The drive was long, the view un-obscured. "And you know anyone walking up or down the dunes leaves footprints. It takes at least a few minutes for the wind to wipe them away."
"But there were no foot prints." Jannie explained. "And the doors to the veranda were locked. There should have been sand inside, or foot prints out. There should have been something."
My parents, aunts and uncles looked perplexed.
"If he were real. There should have been something." Jannie insisted. She rapped the dining room table with her finger.
"If who was real?" My dad asked.
"The man in the library," Jannie sputtered. "Aren't you listening? The ghost!"
It was that first real cold day in October. Mrs. Paulison had called my grandmother. Can you open the house? We're coming down from the City for the weekend. She asked.
My grandmother agreed and since I was home from school and I went with her and Jannie. I played on the beach for awhile but the weather grew threatening so I came inside by the kitchen door as Jannie was pouring hot water into a Brown Betty tea pot. My grandmother walked into the kitchen carrying a box of soft cloths and a tin of silver cleaner.
"Just in time," she said. "After tea we can polish the silver, and you, Miss Susie, can pick some flowers for us to arrange. The only thing left then is the library. I wanted to give it a vacuum but the old gentleman is in there."
A frown creased Jannie's brow,"What old gentleman? I thought the house was empty. I didn't see anyone. I dusted in there first thing. "
My grandmother shrugged. "I did the upstairs first, then went to do the library. I opened the door, saw the old gentleman sitting in the chair by the fire. I excused myself, and backed out of the room."
"What did he say, "Jannie asked.
Jannie frowned. "I didn't see any sign of someone living here when I was upstairs. None of the bedrooms are in use. There were no dishes in the sink or in the drain. No car in the drive."
My grandmother twisted her hands, "Let's take a look around. Miss Susie, you stay close."
Together we walked through the house, checking door and window locks, looking in closets, and out windows. The library was as chilly as the rest of the house. The lights were off. There were no ashes in the hearth. The room smelled cold, unused, empty. Jannie examined the carpet, and rattled the french doors to the veranda. Outside the wind was picking up and clouds were piling up. Out by the road the tall pine snags were beginning to vibrate, producing a sound like high pitched moaning. With a last uneasy look around Jannie said, "Let's go do that silver."
The silver polished in record time, we picked an armful of late blooming roses, some dusty miller, and some greens which my grandmother arranged in china vases. I carried the smallest vase, which we sat on the table in the entry way, the largest went on the mantle in the main parlor. Jannie carried the last vase, which would be placed in the library.
My grandmother switched on a lamp, talking nervously as Jannie carried the heavy vase into the room. I stepped inside and looked around with interest. It was a masculine room, full of bookshelves, paneling and heavy furniture. Oil paintings, mostly portraits, hung on the walls, and some mirrors hung at odd intervals. I noticed that from certain vantage points images were reflected, or appeared to float in the air. I studied the effect while My grandmother and Grandaunt Jannie adjusted the vase on the round table in the center of the room.
"That's funny," I laughed. I pointed at the wall. "There are one too many shadows. There are three of us, and there are four shadows."
There was silence around the table as the grown ups digested the story. Several pairs of eyes looked at me. I looked up from my book and smiled.
I had tried to explain about the shadow and the mirrors on the way home but Grandmother and Jannie had said we were not speak of that day. Ever. I thought maybe I should try again, but noted Grandmother's expression was pained and frankly, with only four weeks until Christmas I wasn't going to press my luck. *
*Story based on a mostly real event that happened almost but not entirely unlike this.
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