Thursday, January 28, 2010
Growing up with Ghosts
From toddlerhood into teens, I grew up in a 250-year-old former Civil War field hospital used by both North and South during the war (as it straddled the boundaries of the Mason-Dixon line in Fairfax, Virginia).
The wooden floors were stained with blood in large black splotches. Some parts of it repaired during turmoil with metal plates and rivets. Us five kids spent our free time with the metal detector digging up relics and displaying them in the cases within the huge window-lined art room where my mother taut art classes. I’d wiggle around in the crawlspace in the basement where I could fit more easily than my siblings, shimmying past the black snakes who wintered there, and digging around in the dirt like an amateur archaeologist, delighting in being the first one to touch the item before others corrupted the information it held within. The ability to read objects was as normal as a kid digging up bones and relics and living with ghosts…
As a very young child, my concept of the house being haunted was nonexistent. Things moving on their own, dark shadows, sense of being watched, voices, and things going bump were part of the natural world to me. No one said things couldn’t do that, so it was in my infantile physics bank in my head as “normal house doing normal things.”
In first grade, NBC did a 2-hour special on the ghosts. My teacher had me announce it to the class. They all gasped with delight. A TV show about ghosts in my home! I was both celebrity and pariah. They feared me and were curious of me at the same time. This condition remained forever throughout my schooling. I remember thinking of it in terms of having a lot of pets. We were not haunted, more than we simply housed a lot of lost souls. I took pride in thinking they found us a livable family to coexist with. I never considered them fearsome or creepy or dark and spooky. If the Jones family could have 8 cats, a pony, 2 goats, and 4 dogs, we could have a few lost spirits...
My parents didn’t use the “G” word with me. They often talked of strange things that occurred the night before over the breakfast table. Other siblings chimed in. I was perhaps 8 before my family felt comfortable talking about them as ghosts. The wording of it never mattered to me. It was more or less a natural condition. Some people had a beautiful view out their window or a three-story house or a totally cool teenager’s bedroom in their converted basement, our ancient house in the middle of suburban new tract homes was the meeting place of unseen occupants. If one were to show it on a real estate sale, they might say “Besides these beautifully carved fireplaces and 2-1/2 foot thick walls, the house also comes with its own ghosts.” Just a feature of its construction.
My mother, an historian and artist, had a very romantic and motherly attitude about her spirits. They were soldiers that she respected, as a retired Navy woman from WWII. She was proud to let them coexist with us and could she have conversations with them, she would try. Hence, allowing mediums to visit for seances. Father was an boisterous man who was very successful and often times on the road to give speeches and do his work, but he took pleasure in the concept of the soldiers watching the place while he was gone like his Navy companions in WWII and the Korean War, at his right arm. My siblings had a mixture of delight and caution about it. Some didn’t want to talk about it, others got fearful. Sometimes, the things the ghosts did just made us laugh until we cried. We had one that left things in very weird places.
My siblings were older when we moved into the house, so looking back I realize they had ideas of ghosts before they moved into the house. I was in the house while I was forming ideas about ghosts…
We often had mediums come to the house. My parents would block off the living room with blankets and send the kids to be babysat by one of the residents in the slave cottages out back. I, however, being the baby was allowed to sleep upstairs. A few times, I woke up and came down looking for mommy and daddy to hear the murmuring voices and peek behind the blanket to see the glow of the candle light on the medium’s thickly lined face. Everyone seemed very respectful and quiet, like in our church, so I backed away and went upstairs to sleep as if every family had a chanting woman in a blanket-lined room with candles glowing, talking to the dead.
The soldier who climbed the stairs every evening when all were abed, clicking along in his boots, came down the hall to the middle bedroom where he sat at rest in front of the radiator as the floor board groaned. When I had the room in my tween years, I said “goodnight” each evening and turned over to sleep.
It wasn’t always rosy. I did go through a phase where I set my stuffed animals up along the edge of my canopied bed, each one staring outward to guard me as I slept. I don’t know if I thought the ghosts were going to hurt me, but as my concept of death and souls developed within the Methodist church that we attended vigorously, I began to see souls that weren’t going to their home in Heaven as perhaps something in purgatory. The religious connotations were unsettling and instead of feeling protected and guarded, I often times felt as if I were being stared down in my most intimate moments. I even began to change my clothing inside the closet.
One time, while watching TV in the music room and home alone, I turned to a spot in the room where I felt intensely someone was watching me. I looked up just about where I imagined his eye level was and said, “why don’t you move on? Go to heaven!”
I felt both shame and relief. The sense of someone being there dissolved immediately. I wondered for a long time if I had dispatched a soldier to his final resting place or if I had just pissed him off.
Strange and poltergeist type events began to occur in my adolescence. I no longer had the romantic imaginary playmate feelings about the ghosts. I was moving on to more serious pursuit of boys—my real obsession. I had a lot of pent-up anger about the drama my older siblings had caused in the 60s and into the 70s, and so I resented being the youngest and everyone forgetting I existed. I felt the tension in the air like a wound up ball of hurt. I knew that those who got the most attention were those who were the loudest. And I was a very quiet adolescent. So, it seemed as if the house came alive with more and more strange occurrences and sometimes threatening, as if too wanted attention. Ceilings caved in, huge Waterford crystal chandeliers jingled when I walked into a room, objects cast themselves from the walls and crashed across the room. It was generally a cauldron of kinetic energy. I avoided the house more and more, staying out from early morning until late at night. I avoided it mostly because of the family dynamics and because quite honestly no one cared if I was gone all day or not.
The dynamics of a family really do affect the energy in the house and the types of haunting. As we packed to move in my mid teens, we had some amazing things happened that for the first time made me so scared, I rushed from the house and refused to stay in it until we moved. I slept on a cot in the yard and in one of the empty slave cottages, but I wouldn’t come back in the house again. Up until that moment, I felt annoyed with the ghosts as if they were embarrassing siblings, sometimes compassionate and concerned for them, other times bored with them and ignoring them. This time; however, I was terrified like I had never been in my life.
Lots of things had been unpacked the following morning after packing them, things were found off a shelf and across a room. It was all purely poltergeist-like activity. This particular time, however, my one sister was married and living away from us, my older brother too. My father and other brother went to Arizona to find us a home. My mother and other sister and I were home alone. We were taking a break from packing and sitting in the breakfast room at one end of the house. We were chatting about hoping that dad found a house with a swimming pool. We heard a huge crash.
What happened next changed my entire attitude about hauntings and my desire to ghost hunt in the future.
I ran first into the other end of the house where the music room was. I stared at the floor in horror. My mother and sister came up beside me and looked in shock. We couldn’t even form a word.
To prepare to move, we took a huge pickle jar (you know those 18” tall ones they have in delis that house gigantic pickles) filled with pennies and put it on the floor. We had a TV tray stand nearby where we were stacking pennies into stacks of 10 to put into paper rolls. Across the room about 12-15 feet away, was an oval picture of my mother’s uncle in a military uniform of WWI. It had a curved glass front over it and had hung there for a few months as my mother was showing the house for the sale. The picture had come off the wall over the fireplace, somehow knocked the TV tray stand so that the legs came out of their plastic clips and splayed open. But, wait—there’s more… The picture was underneath the tray, face down, the tray flat atop of it, legs from the clips and splayed out, and….every stack of pennies was perfectly standing. Not one penny had fallen and there were perhaps 20-30 stands of pennies on the tray. The picture wasn’t broken. None of it made sense and defied physics in any stretch of the imagination.
It is to me the most extraordinary moment in my life in which nothing I was every told about anything made sense.
I had grown up, you see, and so the “natural physics” of the house that I once took for granted as a child no longer existed. I knew the way the world was supposed to be. The way physics are supposed to work. I felt the anger and the coldness and the feeling of seething rage. I started to cry hysterically and pace back and forth. “This can’t be! This can’t happen!”
My mother and sister still couldn’t form words. My sister had the presence of mind and walked me outside. I yelled “I’m staying in a hotel. I won’t stay here!” I felt something turn in the haunting. It was no longer charming and protective. It was angry at the changes in the house and the sense of us leaving. I felt as if it were directed towards me because as the baby, I always felt somehow more doted over and protected by what was within the walls.
I spent my last night on a cot with my friend in the thicket area of the yard. My sister came wandering outside in search of us. She was home alone, as my parents were in a hotel room since the beds were broken down for moving. She begged us to come up and sleep in the house. She was on the sofa downstairs and could hear the “general” as we called him, talking upstairs. In my parents bedroom occasionally you could hear what sounded like men having a low discussion and one voice deeper than the others, there would be pacing and the sounds of chairs moving out from a table, the chandelier below jingling. I was not in the mood for his after the wall hanging incident. I did, however, realize she was really upset. We went and slept on the sofa. My friend fell asleep. My sister fell asleep. I lay there stiffly studying the ceiling when I heard it start up again. The chandelier jingled. I wondered if they knew this was the last time I’d hear them. The last time I’d be there. I wondered if they would follow me somehow to the west. Would they be angry I left?
It would be decades before I started to think about ghosts again. I wondered if what I experienced was unique. I sought out haunted places and touched the buildings and antique objects and found that it was exactly as I had left it. Yes, I wanted to prove that ghosts exist or at least find an explanation for them. I had no doubt the phenomenon existed. I couldn’t possibly forget what I’d experienced. Even more, however, I wanted to find out how and why that occurrence happened that scared me so very much. It was a statement, a blatant one. How had it happened so quickly? The crashing sound and me running to it—couldn’t have been more than 20 seconds! How? How had it done that?
Well, you can see that it takes just one truly unexplainable occurrence to make a person driven to hunt ghosts. Some people would have found the voices, the shadowy figures, the objects moving, and the footsteps at night as exciting finds that motivate hunting ghosts, but to me those were commonplace and acceptable phenomenon. I sought something rare and amazing that changes your life forever and which all logic does not apply.
So, that’s what it’s like growing up with ghosts. It haunts you forever…
at 4:59 PM