Why yes, I have a brand-new grandchild! She lives far away, and it’s hard to say good-bye.
We were recently in Rhode Island, celebrating my son and his beautiful wife and their adorable baby girl. They live on Aquidneck Island (think: Newport) which is gorgeous, but also a very expensive place to find lodging in the summer months, due to tourism. (Example: the hotel room we booked when we were there in December tripled in cost for June.)
Soooo … we booked an Airbnb on the mainland, about 20 or so minutes away, in Bristol, which is a lovely town. Historic. Walking distance to everything. Nice.
The house we stayed in, as it turns out, is 144 years old. Photos were lovely, and we didn’t have a bad time there. But we don’t have that much experience with houses that old. (We do now.) Like the very steep stairs. Like the crooked, creaking floors. No, no, I get it—houses settle. But I can be a little unsteady and bumped into walls more than I’d like. And then …
Well, I think that old, crooked house may have … a presence. You know I’m not the type of person who gets too worked up about these sorts of things, so I don’t say this lightly.
I have had three of these type of experiences before this one. And by that I mean—it happened, I thought it was interesting, and then I went on with my life, you know?
First was at my post-divorce home (a duplex). When I moved in at age thirty-eight-ish, my neighbor, Joyce, was in her mid-fifties; she had a son, Trevor, in college. Joyce was an RN, and a cool old broad, if you get my meaning. Then she went into heart failure; the only thing that would save her was a heart/lung transplant, which she refused, knowing a little bit about it. So … she slowed down, and eventually after some months, she died in the house. Afterward, Trevor lived there for about a year, then moved to Nashville for work and put the house up for sale. A young man moved in (his parents bought it for him), and we had a friendly relationship.
One day when I got home from work, John was waiting in the front yard for me. “What did the previous owner look like?” he asked urgently. Before I could speak, he said, “No, wait, let me tell you,” and then proceeded to describe Joyce in great detail. The Joyce I’d known. For three nights running he’d been woken up by the light on his aquarium, which he kept in his bedroom (the bedroom Trevor had slept in), being flipped on. So he went to sleep with the light off, woke up with it on—and a woman who he described and was Joyce, standing next to it. She would approach his bed and lean over him. The most recent night John said the venetian blinds in that room started going crazy, getting banged around; he showed them to me and they were nearly ripped off the window. John also told me that in the last few days things on tables in other parts of the house had been moved. Now, I’d never discussed Joyce with John. There’s no way he could have described her as he did. So … I believed him. I suggested he speak to her. I suggested he tell her that Trevor had moved to Nashville, and that he was John. That Trevor was fine.
I believe he did that. We never discussed it again. And Joyce never crossed the firewall. I lived in that house for fourteen years without incident.
So that’s the first episode. Here’s the second:
I worked for a time for a man who had a thing for old houses and believed fervently in ghosts. He wanted a house with a presence, and felt he could sense them. He had bought and sold several of these houses, and lived in them. One day we had a staff meeting/team building get-together at his current home. We’d been given the tour; we’d talked about ghosts in particular rooms. I felt nothing; I don’t think I have the sensory perception for this particular thing.
Later, some of us were sitting around and one on the team came down from the upstairs bathroom, her eyes big as saucers. “Is there something strange about that bathroom?” she asked. She’d felt very weird. Well yes, our boss said. Their cat would sit at the doorway for hours, looking in, but would not cross the doorway. They would wake up in the middle of the night and the light would be on. A few in our group leaped up and ran upstairs to see (I have no idea what they thought they’d see or feel); I did not. I’m not particularly frightened but not really interested in it either.
What’s interesting to me in this story is the presence in the bathroom had not been mentioned on our tour of the house.
My only other experience that falls into this category involves a death, and my current home.
One of my oldest and dearest friends became ill with cancer and died about eighteen months later. I’d been out to see her—a four-hour plane ride away—over the holidays, and knew it would not be long. I spoke regularly with her on the phone, but often she did not make sense. Four months later my phone rang around midnight; it was her husband, telling me she’d gone, just an hour before. At that time, my husband was still in Ireland, so his half of our Tennessee bed was empty.
After I hung up—I have no idea what I said to my friend’s wonderful husband; I’m not particularly eloquent in the middle of the night—I lay back down, sad and restless, and eventually fell asleep again. During my sleep, all night, I had the sense that someone was sleeping beside me in the bed. In those long early-morning minutes when I was climbing out of sleep, especially, the feeling of a presence in the room, in the bed, was very strong, and I knew it was my friend. I wasn’t afraid; I was comforted. Just before I awoke completely, I “saw” her arise from the bed and walk out of the bedroom door. She turned around and smiled at me as she left.
Now, this house in Bristol: I’d had a dehydration episode of dizziness earlier in the afternoon, so wasn’t feeling great. Stumbling all over this crooked floored-house. Went to bed at 9pm. We both read, then G turned out his light (we were in tiny adjoining bedrooms) and I read a little more. After I turned out my light and settled, I heard what sounded like someone walking on the stairs (right outside my door, which was open, as was G’s). I thought it strange because we’d gone to a lot of trouble to find the lights before we went to bed, because the bathroom is downstairs. So wouldn’t G have turned on a light (or used his phone flashlight), rather than stumble down (very steep stairs) in the dark? That night I awoke at 2:28pm (I checked my phone) and went downstairs myself.
I didn’t think much about any of that until the next night when, as soon as our lights were out, the footsteps on the stairs started again! WTF, right? Also, I heard a light metallic tinkling like the hinged metal drawer pulls on my grandmother’s 1924ish bedroom furniture, which is in our bedroom at home. Odd, yes? Welp, when I got up that morning, guess what—there is a metal hook (half of a hook and eye, intended to keep the door closed, since the house is so akimbo) hanging on the doorframe. When I brushed it, curious, that was the metal sound I’d heard in the night.
Additionally, I awakened at 2:30am, right on the dot. It seems significant that this happened two nights in a row at the same time, because under normal circumstances, I rarely use the bathroom at night. Perhaps once every six weeks. (Thank you, CPAP machine.) So was something waking me up? I don’t know. I don’t really want to know, thankyouverymuch.
On the third night I was not awakened at 2:30am, nor did I hear the creaking on the stairs … but on the fourth night (and I slept downstairs because it was so hot upstairs) I was again awakened at 2:30am. That same night, the fan in G’s room fell over in the middle of the night. And—it seems odd to mention this, but it’s just another puzzling thing—I’d left my computer open with a browser window pulled up and in the morning it was for an Amazon Alexa, something neither of us had looked at. So there’s that …
I’ll be frank: the house is very conveniently located, but I can’t say I’d stay there again.
But Wait, There’s More! Explain This, Ghostbusters.
I bought a pair of earrings to go with the dress I’d planned to wear to the Rhode Island party. But I liked them so I’d worn them a lot before we ever got there. The party would be Saturday.
On Friday morning I got dressed (the upstairs bedrooms were very small and the stairs very steep, so luggage, dressing, bathroom—all of that stayed downstairs) wearing these earrings, and we drove from our place in Bristol to my son and daughter-in-law’s place, where my son’s in-laws were also staying. (On the way we stopped at a little pullout/scenic overlook so I could take some photos. Six or seven minutes tops.) We drove to a restaurant, Fieldstone’s, for breakfast. While driving back from breakfast, I put my hand up to my ear, and noticed one earring was missing.
We looked at at the kids’ place—we’d been there a half hour or so before the restaurant—I looked at our place, and I called the restaurant. Nothing. So … it was gone. I sadly put the one remaining earring into the little fabric bag, one of many I put in a zip bag for travel. And that was that.
I carry the zip bag in my purse for day-of travel purposes. We got home late on a Monday night and fell into bed. On Tuesday morning, the first thing I did was unload my travel purse and switch back to my day-to-day purse. I carried the zip bag into our bedroom and laid it on the bed. Next to it I lay clothes I pulled out of the suitcase that I would rehang, like a sweater. And there all of it lay until evening, when I went in to start hanging things up. Which I did.
When I turned to the zip bag, to unload it and put it up, I saw an earring laying on top of it, just as you see in the photo (which I have recreated).
That seemed strange. I immediately opened the zip bag and searched for the single earring. How had it gotten out of the bag? But it was still inside. So this is my missing earring. The pair is reunited.
I can come up with all sorts of reasons why I now have a pair again: it was stuck in the clothes I wore that day, for example. (Except I shook them out on that day. Also I folded them afresh when I packed to leave.) Or it fell off my ear as we were leaving the house that morning and fell into the suitcase, where it lay for the next three days. I just didn’t notice it was gone until later. (Except that’s just not the Earring Way. They lull you into complacence with their presence for hours, then fall off on your way home.)
But set that aside. What I really can’t explain is how I walked past the clothes and the zip bag lying on the bed several times during the day and never saw an earring lying on top of the zip bag. It wasn’t there. I have gone over and over my actions (hangers, clothing) trying to figure out how an earring could fall out and land so neatly. I just can’t explain this.
I don’t really think it’s a ghost, y’all. And I realize telling this whole, detailed story makes me sound a little silly or a little insane. But the earring was lost … and then it reappeared in an odd place, after a whole day of traveling. Also, Gerry had nothing to do with it. You tell me.
One is reminded (when looking at old family photos) that back in the day, you took a photo and couldn’t be sure what you had snapped until days or weeks later when the film was developed. Was the lighting OK? Was it fuzzy? You just didn’t know. And film wasn’t cheap, so you didn’t take three (or ten!) photos of the same thing to make sure you got a good one. Most of my father’s photos are in focus but he didn’t throw out the bad ones, either.
My parents kept a little 3×5 metal file box of addresses (for the Christmas card list) because their air force friends became family to them—and they kept in touch, year after year after year. They kept in touch if they moved away but they hung out if they were stationed together.
This couple appears in several of the family slides; I can’t remember their names but I know we were close to them. He was a pilot. I seem to recall a story of airplane hijinks (flying under bridges? flying under something, something the US Air Force frowns on). He met her while he was stationed in Italy and married her. That’s me* in his lap, Jill in hers (probably early 1957). What intrigues me about this photo, though, is that marvelous carved wooden partition. That sure wasn’t our house!
*Notice I’m wearing a dress. Until I got older, I was always in a dress. Ninety percent of these slides, I’m in a dress, a dress sewn by my mother.
Or at least Notre-Dame was. I’ve read that the Eiffel Tower is the single most-recognized landmark in the world but when we rented an apartment on Île Saint-Louis for six days in 2006, we walked by Notre-Dame every day on our way to explore Paris.
I had a friend who was leaving for Paris that very week, and the two of us watched the news obsessively. The loss to history, to humanity, is unfathomable. And I am so, so grateful that Gerry called me up that day fourteen years ago and said, “Hey, I found €25 tickets from Dublin to Paris—wanna go?”
UPDATE: Here’s a fascinating article from the New York Times with photos, videos, and graphics showing everything that happened that day.
I use my Merriam-Webster online dictionary every day, and sometimes I find interesting articles or interesting people wiriting them. In this case, both.
In an article called “An Oxford-Educated Southerner in Berlin,”*I was delighted to read about a journalist, Robert Lane Greene, who has lived lots of places—
Johnson City, Tennessee (birthplace)
Little Rock, Arkansas
New Orleans, Louisiana
Brooklyn, New York
(and now London, England)
—speaks lots of languages**—
and still sounds like the sort of person who doesn’t think he’s too cool for school (or me, with my one language), you know? I love this:
I use y’all freely, and will duel (pistols, dawn) anyone who tells me not to. My accent gets a little southern lilt when I go back to Georgia, where my father’s family all still live.
Those of you who know me well, though, will understand why this delights me so:
Being a rootless cosmopolitan has its upsides (never boring) and its downsides (the mind-numbing stress of moving itself). But I never quite imagined that a major downside would be the inability to speak without self-consciousness. In a given day, I speak baby-talk Danish and English with my 14-month-old, grown-up Danish and English with my wife, English with my 12-year-old, and both German and careful Euro-English with assorted foreigners at work. My old normal English—very fast, slangy, moderately profane, slightly mumbled General American, lightly influenced by decades in the South—is limited to my few intimates in Berlin.
I’m not rootless, but have traveled some and have a few friends whose first language is not my first langage, and others whose English is spoken with an accent definitely not mine. And still we manage to communicate.
*This article is no longer available, so you’ll have to take my word for it about the title and excerpts.
**I got this list from Greene’s personal website, which also no longer exists, though it was there in late September 2016, when I originally published this article on my other website.
While I was out and about today two separate people remarked on how beautiful my key ring is. It does regularly get that kind of attention, because it’s a little unusual.
Back in 1990 I divorced, moved back to Middle Tennessee, and got a job in the corporate office of a company I’d done good work for over the previous three or four years. It was located in a small town near here, and there was (ahem) a little bit of sour grapes related to the fact that I got the job and not one of the four younger-than-me local women who were then working in the office.
But one soldiers on, yeah? One does because one needs the job and has a child to feed and some time to spend in one’s head, getting clear after a divorce.
A few months later, after I’d returned from lunch and laid my car keys on the corner of my desk—where I always put them; because you know I am a creature of habit, and even now have a place to put keys—those keys just up and disappeared. They disappeared right as I needed to begin my thirty-five–minute commute back to the town I lived in to pick up my six-year-old from school daycare. During the flurry of searching EVERYWHERE for the keys, plus calling a friend to pick up my son and calling the school to let them know that and later asking the friend to keep my son overnight because the keys simply. did. not. turn. up (not even months later after my desk was moved out of the cubicles into an office) and calling my ex-husband to Fedex the other set of keys (cheaper than a locksmith) and calling the storage company to let them know I would miss my appointment to pay my deposit (but I still want the 10×10 and I’ll come tomorrow, please, please, please hold it for me) … after/during all that, I also broke down and sobbed right in the middle of the office and could not stop for a long time. I’d been divorced about six months and was just, you know, fragile.
I think these days you call it an Ugly Cry.
I believe those missing keys were meant to be a little poke, a little mean joke haha by those four girls who reported to me but resented it. But once I’d cried, there was no way on God’s beautiful blue-green earth the keys were going to come back to me. They’re rusting at the bottom of some creek in DeKalb County, Tennessee. No, ladies: I know one of you said I probably just lost them myself and they’ll turn up. But they never did.
They never did.
The next month I was at a crafts fair in Centennial Park in Nashville and I bought this handmade key ring for twenty dollars, the one I still get compliments on twenty-eight years later. (Twenty-eight! So what’s that you say about my losing my keys?) And every time I do, I remind myself that I am a strong person, even if I have to cry sometimes.
“Skip the fancy travel gadgets,” the New York Times says. “Here are five simple things that will save you stress, money and hassle so you just enjoy your much-deserved getaway.”
And the first thing on the list? A pen. Wow.
I’m a writer and an organizational devotee, so I never go anywhere without a pen.* Like, ever. Since I was a tween, anyway. (Maybe because I was raised by a man who always had one in his breast pocket?) So it’s hard for me to imagine ever leaving the house without one. But … people do. No judgment here.
Sure made me curious about the rest of the list, though. And it’s a good one, so check it out.
For example, you know how I feel about my maps, and the suggestion here is so simple, so elementary, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t thought of it. I often custom-make maps when we travel—but on my laptop. Then I print and fold up into my purse. But I’m of the pre-smartphone generation and some old habits die hard.
Again, it’s a good list. We’ve already made accomodations for everything on it, but it’s a good reminder. Bon voyage!
* To that I would add: take some paper. Even a little 2×3 pad that you can slip in a pocket will do. That paper map I print off has plenty of room for scribbling notes too.