The Couch Crew – that’s me and my husband, with occasional guests – have been discussing ghosts this week. My son sent me a picture of our grandson, wearing a little 4 yr old sized “Ghostbusters” uniform, watching “Ghostbusters,” the movie.
“Ghostbusters” was my son’s and my favorite movie for a long time, and it’s still high on my list. It came out when he was his own son’s age, happily oblivious to trouble of any kind. By the time he was 7 or 8 and we were watching it once a week or more, I was a widow and he was learning to live without a dad. So “Ghostbusters” was our happy place. It still cracks me up to imagine the “portal” to the other side being a refrigerator!
So fun ghosts.
Then, I was looking up some info on Sammy Hagar. My husband is a musician. The home studio doesn’t get used much these days, but he’s also an amateur historian, and that includes music history. We were watching another program about Van Halen — with Eddie dying recently, they’ve been scouring the vaults — and I came across a bit about Sammy Hagar being on “Celebrity Ghosthunters.” He had dreamed his drunken father had been banging on his door, demanding to see his new grandson. When the banging on the door continued for real, it was a bandmate telling him his dad had been found dead.
Sammy may have slipped some in my husband’s estimation at that moment. He doesn’t believe in ghosts. (Ghosts don’t care whether we “believe in them” or not.)
So I told my husband, once again, about the ghost that saved my life in Tuscany.
I always says I’ve never seen a ghost, just had “close encounters,” but that isn’t entirely true. I did see a ghost once, very clearly, and if I’d realized it wasn’t a real person, I would have paid a lot more attention.
Some friends of my dad, a young couple from Manhattan, had rented a farmhouse on the coast of Maine for a year, for the husband to write. A lot of writers dream of doing that. There’s something about the idea of a big old house, overlooking the rocky coast, with the fog rolling in. It’s atmospheric to start and you figure it will spark creativity, as it did for other writers.
So this couple — we’ll call them Mark and Amy, because they are real people, he’s a little famous, they are no longer married, and I don’t want to have to track them down to tell them they are in my little blog — had met my dad because of books.
My father “collected people,” and had a very interesting group of friends. These two came to dinner shortly after I’d returned from living in Europe and the Middle East. I was living in my parent’s basement apartment while I figured out what to do with the rest of my life. It was 1977. We had a lot of interesting talk around the table. Amy was from Germany, and I had spent some time in Bavaria….yada, yada, yada….and since I was closer in age than my parents with them, and we were all new to Maine, in a way, they invited me to “the farmhouse” for a meal the next week.
While there, I was directed to the bathroom down a long narrow hall, which continued on to connect to a closed-in “breezeway” that led to the barn. This is common in Maine farmhouses, because the weather can get vile, and you don’t want to have to dress for Antarctica just to get eggs.
As I left the bathroom, I looked down the hall and saw a blond woman cross the space at the other end. I noticed her, but didn’t think about it, because I thought it was Amy.
But when I returned to the kitchen, Amy was standing at the big wooden table, tossing a salad. There was no way she could have passed me. She also had her hair down and was wearing slacks. The other woman had her hair up and was in a long dress. (I’d just thought Amy had changed for dinner!)
I have no poker face whatsover, so they asked me what was wrong. I told them what I’d seen, trying not to sound like a crazy person. They were “cool” people, who lived in Greenwich Village, after all.
But they just looked at each other and both started talking at once. They were glad I’d seen something. Neither of them had. But they knew it was there, and it maybe had friends. They’d begun to question their own sanity.
Until I’d seen the “woman,” they just called it “the ghost.”Over dinner, they told me about the numerous instances of “the ghost” exerting its presence.
Lights came on and went off in random ways that the local electrician could not explain (wiring was only a few years old; the whole house had been refurbished for rental.) Doors would be carefully locked and found flung wide open. One night they’d returned home to discover every light in the house on, including rooms they never entered. Things like that. The ghost would hide things, like jewelry and small tools, which would then appear days later in odd places, like on a stump outside, or in the barn.
I was fascinated, but they were unnerved. They managed a little while longer, but it ramped up its annoyances, and it got so bad they finally went to the landlord — who to their surprise was not shocked. Their experiences wound up in an article in the Portland paper, but it still made them pause, even years later.
Growing up in New England had always included ghost stories. It’s an old place, as America goes, and the Indians were there for thousands of years before us. They don’t have any problems with the validity of ghosts.
Fast forward to the mid-80s. I had been living out west when my husband had died and I taken a job in Key West as an escape from reality. When that contract ran out, I asked my son where he wanted to live — he was 6 — and he told me he wanted to live where there was snow.
So we moved to North Conway NH, and I got a job as a waitress at the Scottish Lion Inn. We lived in a condo with a couple other wait staff, while I figured out what I could really do in a ski resort, besides wait tables.
The Scottish Lion was well established, an historic old farm on the edge of town which served authentic Scottish fare in a picturesque setting overlooking a valley on whose other end was the stunning visage of Mt. Washington, a piece of real estate even the Indians had been wary of. The whole area is a postcard. And the inn had been one of the first buildings built, originally as a farm. In the 1980’s the barn was a tony shop selling jams and Scottish tartans.
We served lunch and then closed from 2 to 5. Often, if we were working the dinner shift too, some of us just stayed. My son would get dropped off by the schoolbus and he was welcome in the staff room in the basement. It was a small town, the inn was a family operation, and it was a simpler time.
One afternoon, one of the waiters, one of our housemates, was hungover from the night before and said he was going up to an empty room to take a nap. It wasn’t allowed, but he took a big tablecloth to cover the bed, vowed he’d smooth it all out so no one would know, and made us promise to wake him up at 4:30.
A couple hours later, my friend Leigh and I were sitting in the staff room talking, when David walked in, with a face as white as the table cloth he was holding.
“Very funny, guys,” he said. Though he didn’t sound like he really thought so. “Where’d you find the old-fashioned dress?”
When we shrugged and shook our heads and swore we had no idea what he was talking about, he sat down and told us.
He was sound asleep, on his back with his hands on his chest, and someone was pulling on his stocking’d toes, telling him to wake up. He resisted and the person pulled harder on his toes. When he opened his eyes, a woman in a Victorian dress was standing at the foot of the bed. He closed his eyes and opened them again and she was gone. He didn’t think much of it, because he thought it was one of us, playing a particularly good prank.
Until he saw both of us in the staff room only moments later.
We’d all heard the place was haunted. The family who’d built the farm had died in an avalanche and were buried in a plot nearby. But you don’t really take stories like that seriously, do you?
The ghost never came downstairs. Some guests had claimed to see it, but we just figured they were drunk. The inn had a dozen rooms and a bar that had a life of its own, so…
The public restrooms, however, were all on the second floor, and my 7 year old son never used them again.
In 1991 we moved to Charleston, SC and rented the bottom floor of an historic carriage house, half a block north of Broad Street in the French Quarter. The French Quarter is one of the oldest neighborhoods on the peninsula, which is itself one of the largest historic districts in the country. In the French Quarter, many of the window sills and frames, as well as the doorsteps are painted deep, dark blue — to keep out the spirits.
In the Gullah culture, in the rest of the Lowcountry, a lighter blue is called “Haint Blue” and is painted on porch ceilings. The Gullah believed haints were unable to cross water and would be confused by the color. Sherwin Willliams has a Haint Blue paint for this purpose, and it’s hard to find an historic house in Charleston without a haint blue porch ceiling.
I didn’t know any of that when I moved into the French Quarter, where we would live for 5 years. But I soon started hearing the stories. In those days, there were still “old Charlestonians,” people whose families had lived in the same house for 300 years.
Unfortunately, for all of us, most of them have given way to Yankees with million-dollar-pockets. I’m sure there’s an eccentric old woman holding on to a sagging single house somewhere south of Broad, but she won’t be much longer. Charleston has become a theme park version of itself. Celebrities live there, doing “resto-mods” on the insides of protected buildings. Daryl Hall, whose hobby is restoration, bless his heart; Bill Murray who owns the Riverdogs, and watches basketball in bars on Broad street. Many others, fleeing the cold and chaos of northeastern cities, for the steamy south…
…but I digress. When I lived there 30 years ago, Charleston was only beginning its recovery from Hurricane Hugo. There were still blocks of unrestored history that reeked of ghosts. There were ghost tours. Walking, riding and carriage. No one who’d lived in Charleston — old, peninsula Charleston, not the sprawling suburbs still, technically, Charleston — anyone who spent any time in old Charleston had a ghost story.
I knew they were all around. I’d seen glimpses of the past in the fog, but I’m an imaginative person. There’s no imagination involved in a pillar of cold air in an alley on a hot night in August, though. That alley didn’t have a duct or a grate in that spot; it wasn’t always cold, but it was often cold. Alleys between streets and between buildings, where the light shifts suddenly, and you feel something brush past you, something that feels like a person. Shadows in windows of empty buildings. Little ephemera, not to put too fine a point on it.
Charleston is younger than Venice and Istanbul, but it has a similar feel. You can almost hear and smell other times. History itself has an aura.
I had had no real encounters, though. My upstairs neighbors were two big people. I knew when they were home. It was a block of 4 rooms on each of the two floors, with an enclosed stairway to the second floor behind my kitchen wall, but opening onto the front step. There is a certain form of intimacy in knowing which rooms your neighbors are in.
So, when they moved out and the landlady did a nice remodel, I knew all the nuances of that, too, and I became very used to the silence while it was empty, waiting for my friend Jackson Brown to claim it. That was a period of several months, for which he gladly paid rent in order to secure the sweet little spot for the future. (He ended up living there for over 20 years.)
During those months there was no sound in the building unless me or my son had made it. There was no office building in front, like there is now. The actual stables were still there, and were rented out as “covered parking,” though the “cover” was dubious protection, over a hundred years old.
So, one morning, when I heard footsteps go up the stairs and walk across the floor and stop above my head – I wondered who was up there. I hadn’t heard the front door open, or seen anyone pass my windows. This is cottage small. Everything is measureable. I knew who walked in the yard. Stone courtyards.
So I called the gallery and asked if there was a workman up there. There wasn’t. Why? Oh, just some noises. Old building. Nothing. Don’t want to be the crazy woman in Apartment A…
I never heard the footsteps leave.
But I heard them again, many times over the next few years. It was always the same: they ran up the stairs walked across to the front room, above my living room, and stopped. Nothing else.
Jackson never ran up the stairs, ever. So, I knew when it wasn’t him.
(These are benevolent spirits, not haints, by the way. Haints are malicious, like the woman in the farmhouse in Maine. That sort of delineation requires its own discussion.)
The funny thing about the carriage house ghost was that the man who took over our little apartment, when my son went away to school and I moved to Italy – gave ghost tours. He heard “our ghost” often, he said, but he never saw it either. Nor did he ever see any of the ghosts he told tourists about. But he said he “felt them around, especially in the Unitarian cemetery.” Again, worth a few paragraphs on its own.
The best ghost I didn’t see, was the little girl ghost who saved our lives in Tuscany.
My friends had bought a 50 acre farm with a shell of a 600 year old main house that had once been a monastery. It had an old stone barn, built into the side of a very steep mountainside. Everything on that farm was nearly vertical. We picked olives lying down. Gorgeous though. You could look across the valley, across the Tiber River and see more sheep and more history on the other side. As clear as crystal, in that special Tuscan light.
At that time there were a handful of guestrooms in the restored, but still rustic, main house, and the barn still held livestock, which we tended as well, along with the guests, who came for the agritourisma experience. In the winter, there were rarely guests. The driveway was a challenging series of gravel switchbacks, with steep drops on one side and rocky promontories on the other, accomplishing a thousand feet of elevation in less than a mile.
No one could sneak up on you, though.
Brent and I were alone. His husband was working in Milan, and so, wrapped in quilts in the old, cold stone building we had finished another vicious game of multilingual Scrabble in front of the fireplace, and retired for the night.
I was enjoying the temporary luxury of one of the 2nd floor guestooms, while Brent was asleep in the room at the foot of the stairs that doubled as his office. He liked to be close to the ground, where he could hear the animals. I knew what he meant, because sometimes I slept in the cheese kitchen, when the house was full of guests. The barn cat could just walk in the window, and I could hear the chickens cooing across the driveway.
I had vivid dreams in that house. The whole farm was so ancient. The very land. I could sit in the fields in broad daylight and be transported back to the times of the Etruscans, who tended sheep in the same manner I was doing, on the same bits of land. Tuscany does have a magic to it.
So the dream of the little girl sitting on my chest pounding her fists against it, saying “alzati! favore! alzati!” wake up! wasn’t so unusual. I had big story dreams here. I was waiting to see where this would go.
But she didn’t stop.
So, I woke up.
And when I did, I could smell smoke. The room wasn’t smoky because I slept with the window wide open to the wonderful mountain air, yes, even in the winter. We had huge, goose down duvets. But when I opened the door to the hall, it was stronger, and when I went down the stairs, the first floor was filling up.
We opened all the windows and doors and then solved the mystery: a fierce cold front had swept in and blown the flue shut. We would have, could have, died from smoke inhalation.
When things had settled down and we were resting on the sofas, waiting for the rest of the smoke to dissipate through the still open windows, Brent asked me what woke me up.
When I told him, he said, “The little girl! Wow. That’s so amazing.”
When he’d been rebuilding the place, mostly alone, sleeping on the floor in front of the fireplace, she’d made herself known. She’d helped him, then, too. I forget the details. He had been wary of sharing that experience, but then some guests had heard her playing outside their window. When they looked out she’d been “gone” so they’d asked him whose child they’d heard.
(After you’ve shared a ghost story and your listener doesn’t dismiss you as a lunatic, it becomes easier to share them again, when the situation warrants.)
So, the little girl waking me up was like the dream waking up Sammy Hagar. Both started out as dreams that intersected with reality.
My guardian angel may have something to say about some of the “ghost” designations, and pragmatists like my husband will always have a scientific explanation.
Until they see an anomaly in the dark, on a foggy lawn, under the swamp moss……
Carol Joy Shannon is an award-winning artist who thinks about stuff. And reads too much.
Next time we’ll talk about angels.
Why not? It’s 2020. Anything is possible.