Monday, January 12, 2009
Growing up in a Haunted House
Growing up at Aspen Grove in Fairfax, Virginia, I had no idea the house was haunted. Really. It's hard to believe, but when you move in as a toddler, nothing seems strange to you. Everything is possible, including a dark shadow pacing in the bedroom and booted footsteps without a body to create them, and things flying across the room without a person to launch them. I didn't know my house was "haunted" until I was in first grade. NBC did a two-hour special on the ghosts. I think my mom set me aside and told me the house may have ghosts, but at the time I thought it was ridiculous to call it ghosts. After all, to me it was alive. The house itself seemed alive. The very walls seemed to watch you, the sense of being tagged along or even protected emanated from every open area of the house. To call it "ghosts" seemed to cheapen it. Of course, at the age of 6, I think the only ghosts I knew of were "Casper" and I could attest to it, there was nothing like that in my home!
It was certainly no surprise to me that our house had something a little unusual going on. If you didn't smell it in the musty basement or while peering into the crawlspace down there were we uncovered loads of relics, you heard it every night in the booted footsteps heading up the stairs and down the hall to the middle bedroom. You caught a whiff occasionally of a fragrance that smelled old and delicate and feminine in places it shouldn't have been, like the library room where no one rarely went. Objects moving on their own? Things missing? Something in the periphery darting away...were all manifestations that seemed very common place.
I don't know about other kids growing up in haunted homes, but to me it was a very comforting thing. It was as if I had my own soldier body guards. They were separated from family and loved ones and continued to walk the halls every night like invisible sentinels protecting a family that they had adopted. In moments in childhood when things would be miserable, I'd sit on my bed and cry. Sometimes, I felt the strange stroke of a hand on my hair and suddenly feel a weight lifted from my soul and a relief as if I weren't going through it alone. Admittedly, even a few times I spoke out loud to the invisible tenants and I felt like we struck a strange alliance.
When I was sick with the Hong Kong flu in the late 60s, I felt someone pull the blanket off me every time I tried to tug it back on. Eventually, my mother heard me yell at the invisible nurse and came in to find my fever was ridiculously high. She carried me into the bathroom and put me in a tub of ice water (I never said my mother was a nurse). Still, I have to wonder if someone was watching out for me when no one else was around to keep me from making my fever worse with my blanket.
In a lot of ways, having ghosts was like having more pets. The house is crowded, you feel like you can never be alone, but at the same time, you know they'd wrestle any intruder to the ground (at least you'd like to think they could). All my friends in the suburbs surrounding our property lived in modern cookie-cutter homes and I lived in an antique gargoyle of a mansion, but I learned to see that as not so much something different as something richer. They had houses with no history. Furnishings with no history. It seemed rather hollow to me. Staying the night at a friend's house was uneventful. If they braved staying at mine, they might not get much sleep.
It's funny how, all these years later I'm not only trying to find the answer to ghosts and hauntings, but I actually feel incredibly at home when I step into some dusty old B&B and get a room. The creaking floors, the musty smell, the fussy dolls and doilies and old furnishings make me feel strangely comforted. There really isn't a single place I've ever been that genuinely scared me and I can thank the basement at Aspen Grove for that. Perhaps it made me what I am, a lover of history, a seeker of the truth, a person with a healthy explanatory style, and a romantic streak for the atmospheric mood of Halloween.
I wouldn't trade my haunted house for a clean and sterile tract house ever. The depth of my character is a direct result of the influences I had as a child, including the influences of the unseen forces in that 250+ year old house.
at 11:24:00 AM