“Toscha, I think we have a child ghost,” my brother confided in me after a recent move to St. Charles, MO. I have the kind of family that has ghosts…
I’m not trying to convince anyone that ghosts do or do not exist. I don’t believe in God. Or angels. Or monsters. I do believe in ghosts. I was raised by a crazy Irish woman. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of idiocy, but I think there is enough evidence to the contrary. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of an overactive imagination and romanticism, but you don’t need a ghost story to know that about me. It seems a pretty harmless belief to have. No ideological agenda. No evangelizing, no political lobbying. Ghosts neither confirm nor undermine my worldview, no more than bunny rabbits or paintings hung on a wall. They are part of the deal. Bad teeth and ghosts.
Of course it is natural for you to want to challenge such beliefs and offer up alternative explanations for the events I am about to recount. In general I support the scientific method and rational, objective attempts to understand the world around us. But the following stories need not be true or untrue. The point is, I have them. Largely against my will.
Growing up, my mother and brother were quite fond of recounting stories of ghosts, esp, etc. and felt a combination of annoyance at my rigid intellect and pity that it limited my repertoire of experiences. Whole other worlds I was cut off from, out of sheer stubbornness. Apparently part of their special “gift” included the “knowledge” that I was secretly like them, just less self-aware. I was dragged to psychic readers who nodded in agreement. Oh I had it. It. I was just too busy hating the world and sticking my nose in books. This was all discussed in the way old women might sit around a bridge table mewing on about how Pearl’s granddaughter who works at the soup kitchen could be a real catch if she just put some effort into her looks. Full of unrealized potential, but too myopic to realize it. Well, I pitied them in my own way too. I spent my childhood agnostic and became a professed atheist at the age of 9. And they were still praying. As if that is how things got done. Pathetic.
One night, dark, a bit wet, I sat in the front seat of my father’s truck as he drove me home from a friend’s house. We came to a stoplight and sat chatting. It wasn’t a rural road. It wasn’t the city. It was one of those depressing arteries that run through what we might now call the exurbs, lined sometimes by undeveloped land, sometimes by fast food joints, the occasional mall or church. Not enough traffic to create lively atmosphere, but enough so that if a person walked out into the middle of the highway someone would notice. I turned my eyes away from our discussion and back to the intersection to find a man standing right in front of the truck. The moment I realized someone was standing in the street, looking me in the eyes, the light turned green, and before I could scream for my father to stop, he hit the gas and … we didn’t hit anyone. My father continued talking while I sat there in shock. What had just happened? Traffic had moved normally, no thud, no horns, no screams, no sirens. Maybe I’d imagined it. Obviously I’d imagined it! No one dresses like that nowadays. A floppy wide-brimmed hat. Overalls? Maybe it was just the traffic lights and rain playing tricks with my eyes. No. This was not a figure, not a a shape. I can still see the expression on his face, feel our eye contact. Soon my father noticed I’d stopped talking. “What’s wrong? Hey, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. [For real he said that.] What’s going on?” I began to cry inconsolably but couldn’t form any words. We got home and walked in the door. “Toscha’s upset about something and won’t talk to me about it. Maybe you can find out what’s going on with her. Cried the whole way home…” my father pronounced to my mother. For hours I could not speak. I could barely breathe. I could only nod “no” during the following interrogation. No, nothing happened at my friend’s. No, no one had done anything to me. No, it wasn’t school. No, it wasn’t a boy. Eventually I gathered myself. “But it’s stupid. … There was a man in the intersection. … And we drove through him. … I mean, you know, through him.” I sat on the ottoman opposite my mother’s chair, collapsed into her lap and resumed sobbing.
“Well, these things happen,” my mother consoled me.
Try as I might, I was unable get the image of the mysterious man out of my head. I believe the word “haunted” is appropriate here. So this professed atheist began to pray – to whom or what I cannot say. For him. Whoever, whatever he was, he’d seemed sad and scared and imploring. I prayed for peace for his soul. Again and again.
What else was there to do?
The Farmhouse Fire
My father’s German ancestors had come to America in the 19th Century and set up shop on some land outside of St. Louis. I wasn’t too close to his family. An aunt and uncle lived about 30 minutes away on this ancestral land, but we visited them maybe 7 times in 18 years. The farm was still operational and, I suspect, still a significant source of income, despite the occasional flooding from the Mississippi River. In fact, several of those 7 trips involved all night sandbagging operations. To this day I remember my aunt and uncle as incredibly charming, polite, educated and cosmopolitan – uncommon traits in his family. They lived in a tasteful modern home. Not much of what you’d think of when you think of farms, apart from the surrounding swaths of soybeans and corn, and my great grandmother Hildegard’s house.
My great grandmother lived on the farm, within view of my aunt and uncle’s home, and we would walk over to see her during our visits. I never knew her well as she’d become senile even before I was born. She must have been nearly 100, and everything in the farmhouse seemed to out date even her. Both she and the house were tiny, so with the decor, it was like a doll house. A musty dollhouse. A musty dark dollhouse. There was electricity, but I never saw it used. Between the claustrophobia-inducing scale, the heavy fabrics laden with a century of smells and the struggle to converse with someone who has no concept of what decade it is, our visits sucked the air out of me, making me lightheaded and gasping for oxygen when we left. I never understood how anyone could live there. The tasteful modern home of my aunt and uncle was only a few yards away, and I secretly imagined my great grandmother normally lived there, with them, and just sat in this dollhouse-farmhouse when we visited. Like for historical reenactment. But I knew that wasn’t true.
After my great grandmother died, my uncle, who ran the volunteer fire department, offered up her house to trainees. I guess I wasn’t the only one unnerved by the place. We came over that day to ooh and awe, but also I suspect for moral support. We were after all, destroying a bit of family history. I don’t know if it was the German immigrants who built the tiny farmhouse, but if not, it had to have been their children.
It was an overcast autumn day and the orange flames against the steel sky were captivating and somber. The women sat in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen watching the blaze across the way and drinking coffee while the men supervised outside. The volunteer firefighters seemed not terribly concerned about putting out the fire in a swift manner and the dollhouse-farmhouse was quickly engulfed. My uncle took Polaroids and came inside and handed them to us. We politely thumbed through them. Dollhouse-farmhouse being prepped for fire. Dollhouse-farmhouse set on fire. Dollhouse-farmhouse on fire. Young woman in a turn of the century dress coming out of the front door of the burning dollhouse-farmhouse. Dollhouse-farmhouse burnt down… Wait. What? “Hey, hand me back that picture,” my mother requested. Apparently she had been the only one looking at them with interest, not just politely shuffling them and passing them on. “Who is that?” she asked my aunt. “What?” I demanded. She handed me the photo and cocked her head in that, “Can you believe that shit?” way she always did.
A young woman, maybe 20, stood in the frame of the front door of the burning house. She was transparent and her face was a blur, but otherwise, it was clearly a fucking woman on the fucking porch where no women were, let alone a woman with a mass of curly hair and a full length, high neck dress cinched at the waist. There was a collective gulp, a shooting about of looks, a raising of eyebrows. And then, as if the person in the picture were, you know, a normal person, not a “person who can’t be seen with the naked eye and has probably been dead for a century while this here photo was taken an hour ago” person, a discussion commenced in which attempts were made to identify this beautiful creature who may have occupied the house we just destroyed. If anyone questioned the idea that it was a ghost, they kept the fact to themselves. Perhaps they were too polite. Perhaps you’d need to be mad to look at a photograph of a woman and declare it to be anything otherwise. We poured more coffee. The charred remains of the dollhouse-farmhouse stood ominous in the cold autumn evening.
They gave my mother the Polaroid. At some point I got it, after she died, probably, when I went through her belongings. My brother recently asked me for it. I don’t know where it is and I am sure as hell not going to look for it. I can go the rest of my life never seeing a photo of a god damned (possibly literally) ghost again. I don’t even want it in my home. I may have destroyed it. How awful. Imagine, you are just sitting at home, already existentially cut off from the world by death, and then someone sets fire to your home. No one you know is alive. You have nowhere to go now.
Where did she go?
The Seated Woman
“How did you like it?”
“I really prefer Moscow. I could never live in St. Petersburg.”
“Moscow is a city of the living. Petersburg is a mausoleum.”
“You have no idea.”
St. Petersburg, Russia. Halloween. We’d raided the Maly Theatre’s costume shop and went gallivanting around nightclubs dressed like Pushkin characters.
For our excursion, we’d been set up in a hotel/dormitory steps from a magical little bridge guarded by golden griffins. Late one night I left my chaperon-approved lodging and skittered through the dark, winding snow-filled side-streets, passing countless cats lurking in door- and alleyways and the occasional drunk falling out of a dimly lit cafe, to my friend’s apartment by the Fontanka. I felt like a Dickens character. The city, cleaner, safer, more civilized and attractive than Moscow by miles, gave me the creeps. I’d wanted to leave from the moment I arrived. I was thankful to at least have someone to stay with. A home with a family and a heavily occupied kitchen table. Because I had to get out of that hotel.
My first night in town, during a fitful sleep, I sensed someone enter our room of the hotel/dormitory. Having had my share of experiences fending off the thieves who preyed upon American travelers in Russian dormitories, I sat up ready to pummel my unwelcome guest with the first object I could grab. There was no one there to pummel when I opened my eyes. I returned to a not-quite sleep/not-quite awake state. I thought my roommate opened the door, left, and came back in. She did this several times throughout the night. She wasn’t having much luck sleeping either, judging by the frequency with which the door opened and closed, each time letting in a blade of the light from the hall … though each time I’d look, she was back in bed. Trying to combat disorientation and exhaustion, I closed my eyes tightly and begged sleep to come. Each time I did this I saw the same image: a woman was sitting on the chair by the dressing table at the foot of our beds. What horrible dreams now, I muttered, pulled the covers over my head and waited for the long night to end. Dawn could not come soon enough. 4am. 5am. 6am. … 7am. … 8am … That’s when I truly began to appreciate how far north of the equator we were.
Sometime around 9am we both sat up and discussed the possibility of just getting on with our day. The sun had not come up, per se, but the sky had lightened to a dreary overcast grey.
“You had trouble sleeping too?” I grumbled.
“Yeah, I finally gave up trying,” my roommate lamented.
“Where were you going all night? The lounge? Anything exciting happen?”
“I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Oh? I must have dreamt it…”
We both looked at that chair by the dresser at the foot of our beds, and back at each other.
“Look. Can we get that fucking chair out of here?” she said. We couldn’t haul it into the hallway fast enough, even knowing we’d risk the wrath of the stern, potoatoesque woman whose singular purpose in life was to make certain all house rules were obeyed at all times. We got a lecture.
The following day the chair reappeared in the room
The following night I began my trek to the apartment on the Fontanka.
The House on State Street
Many of the residents of my hometown of Alton, Illinois will tell you that they live in the most haunted small town in America. Even as a believer in ghosts, I find this difficult to digest. What about, oh, all of New England? Still, more often than not, you can find an out-of-towner trolling our streets in search of paranormal activity. Underground railroad, Civil War cemetery, birthplace of assassins and jazzmen … we’ve had our share of difficult history. Throw in the Victorian mansions, steep cobblestone streets, antique shops and riverboats and if ghosts didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.
When my mother remarried, she moved into a large old brick house on State Street, one of the main avenues in the historical district which begins up near the old orphanage, winds its way down the bluffs past Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church and ends at the Mississippi River. I came to stay with them for a bit during a hiatus from college. For some reason, I was given a room on the first floor, despite a number of unoccupied bedrooms on the second floor, as well as a converted attic. “So is this place haunted?” I flippantly asked my mother as I unpacked. Seemed to fit the bill. “Nope.” I was kind of bummed. Living in the most haunted place in America and I never get a ghost? I felt reassured though. The idea of a ghost was exciting, but the possibility of having a whole floor to myself at night with undead roaming about was not.
That night I awoke several times to the sound of someone moving up and down the back stairwell which led from the attic to the basement. (The front stairs led from the foyer to the upstairs rooms.) The head of my bed abutted the stairwell wall, and the rhythmic creaking was impossible to ignore. I waited for a glimpse of kitchen light to appear under my bedroom door, for the sound of running water, for the tv in the living room to come softly on. And waited. Maybe it was the dog or one of the cats. Maybe it was just the house settling. Maybe it wasn’t. The procession up and down the stairs continued like clockwork every night. Too slow, heavy and deliberate to be a pet. Too pointless to be human. “Mom, are you sure this house isn’t haunted.” “These old houses make noises, Toscha.”
I’d been there a few weeks before my wide-eyed and mischievous step-sister pounced. “So have you heard her yet?! You know this place has ghosts? Oh yeah, we went to the historical society and did the research and everything. It’s a Judge, he’s the mean one, and his sister, who never married. She’s harmless. Surprised you haven’t noticed them yet. She’s in the attic and walks down the back stairs at night. He’s in the front stairway. It’s why no one uses the front one.”
“I didn’t want to unnecessarily upset you.”
Unlike my previous experiences, I never actually saw our supernatural housemates on State Street. The front staircase was the type you wanted to run up or down without looking behind you. As for the spinster, once I accepted her presence as a fact, life went on as normal. A door would open and you’d say, “Please close the door,” and the door would close. Same with the lights. It was quite something. Often, when standing at the kitchen sink, a window in front of me and the stairwell behind me, I’d sense someone at my back. I could not look up for fear of seeing a second party in the window’s reflection. ” Please go,” I’d whisper, and the feeling would pass. The attic noises were difficult to ignore, even for my step-father, who vehemently does not believe in ghosts. He would routinely awake to the sounds above him, get his shotgun (yes, shotgun) and take it up to the attic, ready to assail a thuggish intruder. “Get ‘em?” we’d tease. “Shut up.”
On holiday break one year, a group of us students piled into a car and drove home from Northwestern. According to the plan, I was the first to be dropped off, and the others would stay with me for the night before continuing their cross-country trek back to their respective parents. With five visitors in the house, someone had to sleep in the attic. “There’s a whole bedroom up there, you’ll have the space to yourself,” my mother assured a young man travelling with us. “Or you can sleep on the couch if you want,” I said, flashing a look at my mom. The young man opted for the attic. The next morning we all wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen for coffee and home-made breakfast. “Sleep well?” I asked, nervously, doing my best fake nonchalance act. The responses ranged from exuberant exclamations of gratitude to the polite nods of people unable to converse before coffee. The young man remained silent. “You don’t look like you slept well…” I fished. His voice cracked, “No.” He was a solid shade paler than the previous night and visibly shaken. I sat up and proclaimed, “The attic’s haunted! Oh yes, there’s a ghost and…” As I eagerly explained the whole story to my captive breakfast audience, the young man shot me a harsh accusatory look, as if to suggest he’d been subjected to an evil experiment against his will. I apologized. Sincerely. I never asked what happened to him that night. The look on his face alone was enough to sate my curiosity.
Years later the old house was sold. It became unreasonable to maintain a 6 bedroom home with ancient wiring and incurable drafts once all the children had grown and left. On moving day, the last thing to be removed from the home were the pets, who’d gone missing. We called, we searched, we offered treats and made threats. I knew the one place I hadn’t looked yet. I gathered all my nerve, and walked up the back stairs all the way to the attic to find the most remarkable of scenes: The pets, gathered round in a semi-circle, sitting at attention, eyes fixated on the same point in space. They looked at me, and then back at … well … It broke my heart. “I’m sorry. They can’t stay. They have to go now. A new family is going to move in, with children, and pets. You will not be alone. Say goodbye, you guys, we have to go.” I scooped up the cats. One made a break for it and headed back up the stairs, as if some force were drawing them to that room. I went back for her. Pets in tow, everyone waved goodbye to the old house on State Street as we all drove away for the last time.
Well. Not everyone.
Who knows if ghosts are real or not. Like love and inspiration and art and dreams, they fall into a category of phenomena that need not be explained to send our hearts racing and heads spinning, to make us reassess the nature and limitations of our own existence, to encourage humility and wonderment and courage. Which is pretty cool. For all my intellectual rigidity and stubbornness, I can get behind all that.
All that and a good story.