Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chapter One: Growing Up With Ghosts (Book)

This is the first chapter of "Growing Up With Ghosts" which I am preparing to edit. This is unedited and as written the first go-round. I hope you enjoy the scenes from my childhood growing up in a very active haunted home. These stories are gathered by family members and myself to recreate a period in time that changed the course of my entire life.
(Mother at the side door of the newly purchased house, 1964)  

“The home and grounds were magical. Somehow, they remained as stately as they were hundreds of years ago. People were drawn to it over and over again. Some would take the driveway just to see the Confederate Gray house closer up. Others would sneak in and sketch the grounds with an art tablet on their laps. Children would play tag in the boxwoods or ride their sleds down the steep pasture out front in the wintertime. It got into one's blood and became the congregating place for generations of admirers.” (mother, Sue Day, 1982)

Mother awakened from her newly acquired sleep because one of her five children was climbing back up the steep unfamiliar staircase, the wood creaking from the weight of booted heels. She peeled back the blankets in the chilly night air and automatically slid her feet into her slippers to guide the lost sheep back to bed safely.

Halfway down the hallway and finally wide awake, mother realized none of her children had anything but rubber-heeled boots. She stopped nervously and looked back at the open bedroom door. My father was away on business and she and us children were alone in the estate, with nothing but chains on the doors and no locks on the knobs.

Taking her stance as guardian, mother plunged forward, tightening the belt of her robe and reached the top of the narrow enclosed stairwell. When she flicked on the light, there was no one in sight. She rushed down the stairs, her slippered feet making the ancient wood stairs creak appropriately, but none of the clicking sounds of hard heels that she heard earlier.

She went from room to room in the house flicking on lights, checking the doors, finding the chains still in place. She maneuvered around ill-placed boxes, unable to tell if anything in the disarray had been tampered with. Considering we had just moved into the house a week before, the sounds of the 200-year-old home were all foreign to her.

Deciding it had been a nightmare drifting into her waking state, mom went back to bed. Little did she know that she would reenact this scenario many times before father returned from his trip.

 *

One early winter morning, father awakened, groggy and not fully awake yet, but the smell of coffee beckoned him. He headed downstairs to the kitchen, brushing past my mother as she scrambled some eggs in a pan. My siblings were in various stages of awakening upstairs. Mother occasionally called up the echoing stairwell for them to awaken. As the toddler, I was curled up in a tight ball in the center of my parents' antique Lincoln bed, having found my way in there before sunrise.

“Hell of a night.” My father reported over his coffee cup.

My mother yawned in response.

“What was with the kids last night? I heard them climbing the stairs.”

My mother left the eggs scorching in the pan and walked over to him.

“You heard that?”

“I've heard it a few nights. Do you think it's being in a new home that has them all riled up?”

“It's not the children.” She shook her head briskly. “When you were gone, I checked it every time I heard it. The chains were still on the doors. The children were in bed.”

“Hmm.” My father swirled his coffee cup and gazed out the window over the sink. “Well, the place is old. Maybe we have ghosts.” He chuckled.

My mother rolled her eyes, but neither of them ever believed in such things. Their lives were much too practical, being raised in the Depression era and taking a very serious bend on the business of earning an income and raising a family.

Still, my mother's eyes lingered at the stairwell and the unsettling concept nagged at her mind. She hoped soon she'd get used to the sounds of the house and perhaps learn to sleep through the nightly footfalls. With our father being away so much, us living in the middle of what seemed like the countryside and her not driving a car; these were vulnerabilities that bothered her.

Mother wanted an historic old home and plenty of room for the children to play, but with old homes came strange sounds, drafty windowsills and odd odors. It was going to be the way of life henceforth. She loved the estate too much to ever leave. It was home. And so, she focused her thoughts on turning it into something a bit more cozy and authentic for its original time period. She still had the history of the place to research, as well, and five children to race after.  

She decided in that moment to never pursue the nightly sounds and let them just be unexplained quirks.

*
Mother sat down her paint brush in the art room and moved through the empty house towards the windows in the kitchen, hoping to catch a glimpse of my siblings returning from school.

Outside, I pumped my legs on my tire swing awaiting their noisy arrival with longing. Every day they climbed the chain-link fence to the suburban neighborhood and disappeared with books in their hands on some mysterious adventure. With me being only 4, I had a while before I would understand their daily pilgrimages.

Turning away from the window, something caught my mother's eye and she swung back around to see a person walking down the driveway between the boxwood maze and the house, perhaps 50 feet away. She squinted against the afternoon light, trying to fully make out the wispy figure, head bobbing, features ill-defined, wearing way too much clothing for a warm day. Then, the person headed past the wisteria arbor and towards the huge walnut tree where I dragged my feet in the dirt and studied the ground oblivious to the intruder.

Mother swung open the back door and rushed out towards the tree where I spun around now, unwinding the rope after winding it up.

“Sherry?” I looked up at her. “Did you see someone?”

I shook my head.

She stood puzzled, hands on her hips, studying the curve of the gravel driveway that went on down the hill to the creek and up the other hill to the roadway. It was silent, clear and sunny, but the figure looked as if had cut through fog. She shook her head and gathered me up, still unsettled by the eerie sight. With a few more backward glances, she ushered me quickly to the main house.

*

They came in groupings, my mother found out. The “drifters,” as she came to call them to herself. They headed along the driveway, sometimes along the boxwood maze out front. She didn't know when she'd run into them, but they would be gone for weeks at a time, sometimes months, and then a few days in a row, she'd see them repeatedly. Every time, they appeared rather transparent and strangely vague, as if parts of them were not visualized. She might note a piece of clothing or a hairstyle or hat, but the rest was unclear. Every time her mind ran wild with concern for intruders, she also knew deep inside that these weren't real. That worried her even more. She had enough in her immediate environment to distract her. She didn't need to be losing her mind, as well.

With five yelling children, ages 3, 8, 9, 10, and 16, Mother had her hands full enough. The huge house was a task to keep clean and she desperately sought to renovate with things in various stage of completion. The breakfast room, a new addition to the house, still had linoleum to be laid down before the family could finally have a casual dining spot instead of using the huge awkward formal dining room. The chaos was enough to keep her from looking for an answer about the drifters. But, then, my mother was a queen of denying that which she didn't want to face and the drifters were another nuisance in the recesses of her cluttered busy mind. Mother learned to avoid staring out the windows at the stately gardens and pondering if she would see yet another drifter.

One autumn afternoon, she picked up her broom to gently sweep up the living room floor, preparing to put down a huge oriental carpet that would cover the expanse. She furiously brushed over the dark black stains on the wood and studied what looked like some kind of past spillage that soaked into the boards. If she didn't know better, she would have thought it was bloodstains, but there was an awful lot of them. She wondered if wood could mold or discolor.

Our dog King, part German Shepherd/part Collie, let out a low growl behind her and my mother swung around. The silky dog went down on his front paws, rear in the air, tail down tightly against his body, and snarled.

Mother looked towards the fireplace where the dog stared up at something that seemed to be angering him. She stepped back instinctively, assuming there was yet another spider dangling from the huge ornate Waterford crystal chandelier.

The hairs on the dog's back stood on end in a uniform ridge. He turned his head, snapping at something.

“What is it, King? A fly?” She asked the dog, but the tone of his growl and the snap of his jaws at nothing but empty air, made mother step back, her hand to her chest, sensing a threat. The hairs on her arms stood on end, her neck tingled, and the dog growled low and snapped yet again.

With a loud yelp, King bunny hopped backwards as if he had been kicked. Then, he scrambled to get upright again, rushing from the house and knocking the screen door open on its hinges with a scream.

Mother chased after him, wondering if he was bit by a dreaded spider. The dog cowered under the breakfast room in the crawlspace outdoors. She called and coaxed him, but he wouldn't come out. Later that evening, she went to put his food under there, but he was gone. She wandered the yard to find him holed up in the shed beside the barn and refusing to come back no matter how much she waved the food in front of him. She left the bowl in there.

And every night for a few weeks until he was brave enough to come up to the house, but never inside it again.

*

It was 1:00 a.m. and a loud crash boomed as if the house had been hit by a wrecking ball. Us children scrambled to the hallway, blankets in tow and father, rumpled and confused, pushed us back and cautiously took the staircase, gesturing for us to remain. We huddled together and waited nervously for our father to figure out what hit our house.

Long minutes later, he climbed he stairs and shooed us back to bed.

“What was it?” My brother Scott asked.

“Don't know. Old houses make noises.” Dad shrugged.

“Not like that!” Scott was old enough to realize that anything that sent people jumping from their beds was not an old floorboard or rattling pipe.

“I'll look tomorrow morning. No doubt, it's just something that fell in the basement.”

“Sure, you're right.” Scott happily agreed, wanting to support our father's opinions in all matters of importance, as well as sincerely hoping for a logical explanation to ease his fear.  

We were awakened random nights by the same boom, always around 1 a.m. It was rare, but when it happened, we did the same drill we did every other time, met in the hallway and waited for Father to inspect.

*

Father chased the sound down yet again, perhaps the third time in as many months. He flicked on the basement light and descended, knowing that the sound came from there, but having never found anything to explain it. He felt obligated to make a show of trying to find the culprit.

As he turned the corner, father was met under the bare light bulb by the sight of a slight teenaged boy who stared at the wall with a puzzled look upon his malformed face.

Father remained in place, frozen by the sight of this slender boy and his pained expression. Just as he took in the details of the boy's asymmetric eyes, the down-turned corner on one side of his mouth, the very wide-set space in the center of his face and flat nose, the boy disappeared as if he evaporated in the dry cool basement air.

Father remained there long enough that he convinced himself it was a trick of his eyes. Adrenalin still rushed through his body and his legs quivered, his heart raced, and he fell back on the stool he used when he was tinkering at his work bench. He rubbed his moist palms on his pajama bottoms and took a few breaths before he realized the family would be waiting upstairs for an answer. It was an answer he didn't have.

Just as he made his way through the basement in the off chance someone was hiding there, he stopped and realized the place where the young man had stood, right in front of a spot on the wall that vexed father. He had performed the search for the sound every time it happened, leading him to the basement which he knew was the site of the boom. That one wall in particular. The wall the youth stood in front of with his misshapen face and bewildered expression.

Father reached up and touched the wall, his hand running over a perpetual drip. He fingered the surface to find a strange round bulge. He picked up a nearby screwdriver and clinked the object in the wall to hear a distinct clank of metal.

If his mind wasn't so weary, father would have dismissed an idea that caught hold. He climbed the stairs to once again send us off to bed with talk of poorly strapped pipes in the basement rattling. He hoped it would never happen again and he wouldn't be forced to form a theory on such an illogical conclusion. Unfortunately, a few months later, it sounded again.

*

Dad came back up the stairs and us kids weren't taking his explanations so easily anymore. Even my 5-year-old mind was questioning my father's ability to protect us from that “booming thing.”

He sighed. “I tell you what,” he crouched down and whispered to us huddling children, “it would appear to be the cannonball.”

“What cannonball?” My sister Kathy asked. The middle child always had to be contrary and question authority.

“The one in the wall in the basement. If you get to bed, I'll show you in the morning.” He pushed us back towards the doors in the hall and rejoined my mother who somehow managed to sleep through the “bombing” of the house.

The next morning, father was in the basement before us kids even recalled the crazy night. We rushed down into the musty old unfinished hollow. Normally, we avoided it unless an adult was there. The crawlspace opened up like a black earthy void housing unseen eyes studying us. The strange furnace and dangling pipes all created the belly of a beast scenario for our young minds.

Father stood near the wall, reaching up with his trowel and plastering over something protruding. We came up closer and asked about it.

“It's a cannonball.” He thumbed the round smooth object and then clinked it with the handle of the trowel until it clanged.

“How'd it get there?” My brother asked. “Did someone hit us with a cannonball, dad?”

Father chuckled. “It happened during the Civil War a hundred years ago, someone struck the house.”

Kathy tilted her head and studied it. “How did they shoot through the front porch?”

My father smiled. “Well, the porch wasn't added on until the 1900s. Long after the Civil War.”

My sister considered his words.

We watched him working to ease the mortar around the ball.

“How did it make a boom blast last night if it was shot a hundred years ago?” Kathy questioned. As always, us siblings all turned to stare her down for ruining the fun with her questioning nature.

My father squatted down and brushed the trowel across the mortar in the pan. “I'm thinking the house remembers that hit.”

Kathy frowned and couldn't seem to come up with a reply to that.

“I think we should keep it there where we can show it to our friends!” Scott chirped.

Father went back to troweling the cannonball over. “Nope. I don't want any rain to leak through here.”

Kathy shook her head and crossed her arms stubbornly, her blonde hair shining in the light of the bare bulb. “How's rain gonna get in there? The porch is deep.”

My father sighed and shook his head, refusing to answer that. We all sensed that he had run out of explanations for a crowd of growing skeptics.

As we left the basement, my father studied the last bit of the round surface as he covered it over, hoping that somehow he found a magical solution to the 1 a.m. booming. He didn't believe in ghosts. didn't believe in haunted houses. Nothing in his upbringing explained what he knew deep inside, that at 1 a.m. on some special nights, that exact spot in the house went “boom!” and the windows rattled in his bedroom up above on the second story.

If he were a better handyman, he would have found an explanation, and several furnace workers and a plumber later, no explanations were ever found. In fact, following the troweling of the cannonball, the booming stopped all together. And, that paranormal conclusion unsettled my father even more.

Hot Spot #1: The Basement  

The basement had a creaky old door closing it off from the pantry room. The boards were thick, very dried and aged. They groaned and stressed under each foot fall. There were no face boards, so drafts from the dirt crawlspace gathered around your ankles as you climbed the stairs. 

Every time one of us children had to descend or ascend, the imagery of something in the crawlspace reaching between the board slats to grab our ankles came to mind. Thus, every single one of us had a habit of racing up and down and never taking the steps slowly. 

As you came down the stairs, about halfway down, it opened up on the left to show a crawlspace under the kitchen. This powdery very dry dirt housed black snakes who liked to winter there and some of the best artifacts we ever found. Us kids would stake a floodlight into the dirt, turn it on and crawl back in there with the metal detector. It was only about 3 high, so as the youngest, I was the best at manipulating this terrain and had no fear of black snakes, so I was often the one to run reconnaissance under the kitchen and my siblings would stick to under the stairs where there was some height. 

At the bottom of the basement stairs there was a door with glass panes leading straight ahead and out those infamous slanted root cellar doors that old homes always possessed. Rain came easily through there and cascaded like a waterfall, flooding the basement with water. We would have to run the pump and sweep it up, so the bare concrete floor would often smell of silt and be covered in a layer of grit. 

To the right as you went down the stairs was another door that led into the main original basement. The basement stretched out under the dining room, music room and living room, a giant square. This square had in its center the fireplace that ran up the center of the house's base, furnace for hot oil that ran though the radiators, and electrical. There was also an opening from the crawlspace under the stairs. This huge window-like hole carried pipes alongthe ceiling. The feeling of being watched from that “portal into the dirt” was intense. 

My father reported in his little workshop corner of it (happened to be directly under that depressing place in the living room), that items moved around and voices whispered like mosquito sounds in one's ear. 

 I, admittedly, despised having to go to the basement, but with father being away a lot, mother not driving, and five children in the house, we would go to the commissary and load up on food supplies and store the canned things below on a shelving unit deep in the basement where it was cool and dry. I hated when my mother requested me retrieve something. I would look straight ahead, grab it and literally run like hell up the stairs, feeling like something was chasing me the entire way. I would shut the door against it and take a breath, having survived another encounter. 

That sprinting ritual continued even into my teens. That sense of being chased from the dark and dank domain never abated, even for the toughest of tomboys.

6 comments:

  1. Oooooh....

    I had this with my childhood house too! I would turn on a light in the next room, before turning off the light in the room I was in.
    And, I would repeat this until I made it to my room....

    The darkness just seemed to chase me.

    (Cool chapter)

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  2. I wish my childhood home was a cool as that. Sadly it was just a normal track home... :/

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  3. Damn, that story is so good and chilling!!!

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  4. T remeber that old dirty basement it was creepy and i remember you showing us where the cannon ball was.

    Whats always fascinated me is the hidden room so i cant wait for the book - Donnie

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  5. Donnie--Everyone, this is my childhood chum and my first boyfriend. Wouldn't you just love to hear the stories he could tell. Hey, Donnie! I'm glad you enjoyed it. The hidden room--yes, it is in the book.

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  6. Lucky you! I wish my childhood home had more character than suburban America and tract houseing. I can't wait to read the rest.

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