Ghost Stories

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Daughter invited three friends on the carriage ride to the haunted tunnel, followed by a sleepover. It was a birthday party that turned out even more excellent than expected. Afternoon thunderstorms threatened to cancel the ride, but they cleared up by evening. She hadn’t known that kids are allowed to sit on the horses for the whole ride, even on the return trip in the dark, illuminated by the lights of the carriage. We could just as well have been led by the bright full moon that rose over the trees. Most of the kids rode on a horse for a little while, then rotated back to sit next to the driver. Not Daughter. She was up there, on the back of an 18-hand Percheron, the entire time.

Being up front, she couldn’t hear the ghost stories. This area is renowned for being haunted–on campus, in the old mental hospital, in the local cemeteries, in this tunnel. The audience for the stories were the adults in the back of the carriage–me alone, two groups of local women, and a guy and his mom and grandma from out of town. The guy is a writer, researching popular views on the spiritual and supernatural. Throughout the ride, he talked to each of the groups. One of the women shared about her religious background. One of the women had some creepy stories about the old mental hospital. I’d remarked that, as a newcomer to the area, I am struck by the amount of local labor history, the use of natural resources, the development of the railroad, and the like that are bound up in these ghost stories. The local ghost stories are a means of transmission of culture. I’d said that before I knew he was a researcher, and I noted that it warranted a note in his little notebook. That’s when I asked him what he was up to. He explained his project and I told him it was too bad that he lingered behind with his mom and grandma when we’d disembarked from the carriage to hike through the muddy, slippery trails to the tunnel, because we met three guys out there who introduced themselves as “two writers and a wiccan.”

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The guy did a good job of drawing people out. There was so much I didn’t tell him, though. I did mention that local advocates for the mentally ill have been working hard to restore the dignity of the patients who died at the old asylum and to reduce the gawking and irreverence of “ghost hunters” who lurk around the hospital property. I didn’t tell him that I felt the same way about the stories we were hearing on the carriage ride. Workmen who lost their lives in unsafe working conditions, desperate people who took their lives–these are the ghosts that comprise our local lore. These are the human beings who lived here, who struggled, whose families suffered when they were gone. I don’t even wince anymore when I hear a tale told about people who took their own lives. I remove myself for a moment, honor them, remember that they were a person in pain, try to restore a little of their dignity to their legacy that exists now as sensational local legend.

The researcher asked me a little more about myself. I made it clear that I’m a newcomer, unlike the other groups of women in the carriage who had a deep history in the area. He asked me how I like it here, and I was surprised to hear myself say, “I love it here,” considering how down on this place I’ve been lately. But there in the carriage on a little country lane, under the full moon, feeling anonymous, my daughter accompanied by her charming, loyal, spunky friends, I remembered why I feel lucky to have landed here. My daughter was born here. My husband died here. I’ve given this place my blood, my heart. I am a part of this place, and this place will always be a part of me and my children. Maybe my husband’s story will be part of local lore someday. After all, we dropped off a kid one day and he informed us that, years ago, a philosophy professor shot himself in the garage. Another colleague lives in a farmhouse where the husband threw the wife down the stairs. No one is being so disrespectful now, but maybe, years from now, locals will piece together fragments of my husband’s experience and turn it into a lurid story. That doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s what comes of being part of a place. I think of how much would be lost to history–his gentleness, his quick wit, his daughter’s pluck and spirit, his son’s brilliance and struggle and droll wit. I would be partly to blame for the lapses; I haven’t really told people what happened. How could I? How much did they want to know? How much do I really know?

It’s just like any ghost story, because ghost stories are just fragments. How did that one worker fall into the furnace? Was he drunk? If that railman lost his arm, why is the ghost headless? Was that guy struck by the train because he was distracted, or did he let himself get hit on purpose? Our culture clings to the facts we know, we string them together past the gaps, try to tie it up into a story, but there’s always a mystery. And that’s the lingering spookiness at the end of the ghost story–we’ve faced what we don’t know, what we will never know.

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7 thoughts on “Ghost Stories

  1. What an interesting blog entry! We are quit opposite in one respect regarding telling our husband’s story. In the last part of my first year of widowhood I felt driven to tell the world about his personality, the qualities that made him unique and loveable. I also didn’t want him/us to drift into family lure…we were a committed couple for 42 years but only married 12 of those years and few people really understood why we marched to the beat of a different drummer. But there is a secret—his secret by choice—I still haven’t shared with friends and family because, really, on the full spectrum of his life it wasn’t a defining thing that he once came VERY close to committing suicide. But thanks to therapy he worked his way through it—this was way back in his 30s. I share this with you because I think its sad that your husband is being defined by one traumatic event and until this blog entry I haven’t really gotten much of a feel for the man you fell in love with, the father of your kids. He was more than just the final days that brought so much pain and someday I really believe you’ll be able to look past that time, bring forth the good memories and share them.

  2. My goodness, Jean, thank you for sharing that. (I also didn’t realize that you were only married 12 years! All those stories about the 70s. You were together for so long!) I’m so glad your husband was able to overcome his own inclinations and share so many years with you. I’m heartened to hear a success story. So much of the reading I’ve done has been about people driven to do this, fighting it until they lost the fight.

    That’s interesting that this is the first you’ve seen of my husband’s kinder side. (I thought I said some favorable things? Maybe I only felt them as I wrote.) One explanation is that he had bad YEARS at the end. The last 6 years were so increasingly dreadful. One of my children and I are still reeling from the damage. I don’t say many nice things here, but I haven’t spilled details on the horrors he wrought, either. We completely understand that he had an illness, the way someone has cancer, but that’s not what it felt like to be on the receiving end of his illness. Here in this blog, I emphasize the things that are helping us heal and rebuild. (It occurs to me that I did not reveal his suicide on this blog until a few months into it. I didn’t want him to be defined by it. It was only when I needed to address it in my own healing that I discussed it here. I only reveal as much as I need to. Maybe someday I’ll start sharing the happier stuff if that helps me heal/mourn.)

    In town, a lot of people remember him fondly and I’ve kept quiet about the depth of his illness so that people can remember the man they knew, rather than the man we knew. We have one friend who brings things over once in a while (awards, newspaper clippings about their projects, etc). We let her make a fuss. It’s good for her, good for us. When she leaves we gather the memories and put them away. Having them around is like a slap in the face. We are still so hurt. He is publicly memorialized–as an organ donor, at the nonprofit where he volunteered, in a local park. We have been unable to participate in any of those ceremonies. But the memorials are there, when we’re ready, to remember him the way so many friends do. He really was adored and he is missed. It’s when these folk pass on that my husband may only be known for his final act, as some lurid story about way-back-when. For now, his memory is kept alive by the many people who loved him, who carry him in their hearts, and I’m grateful for that.

    It may be years before the kids and I can recover the happy days. When we’re ready, we’ll unpack the boxes of memorabilia–his art, his awards, letters people wrote to us, a picture of the mayor with a memorial brick, so many signs of love and creativity. It could be another 10 years until we do that.

    I lost my father when I was 15, and he was remembered as a saint, so I know how peculiar this is. But this situation is peculiar. My children are survivors. This is what surviving looks like. I’ve periodically checked with professionals, and they assure me this is perfectly healthy, sadly.

    Thank you so much for your comment. Reading it and writing this has make me think about our path, which is odd but probably the one we need to take.

  3. It’s kind of ______ (fill in the blank) that my husband’s depression came at the beginning of our relationship and your husband’s came at the end of yours. He stayed in therapy for several years which really fed into why we didn’t get married in the normal range of a relationship/romance and by the time he was on solid ground, marriage didn’t matter anymore if that makes sense. He had worked very hard at therapy and never had a significant relapse. I suspect from your writing that you’re also doing the required work to make it count. Thank you for sharing so many details in this reply. It all makes perfect sense. Our friend who took his life and left his three children both motherless and fatherless left lasting scares but it also helped to shape those kids’ career choices in a positive way. We never know the legacy we each leave behind and that is one of the best parts about getting old…we start to see where all this weaving together of people and life events has panned out.

  4. ha, ha, I didn’t notice any spelling errors. I’m riveted by the conversation. Besides, my writing here is awful! I blame the text boxes.

    I’m so sorry about the friend who committed suicide and glad to hear the positive choices the kids made as adults. In the early days, I was terrified that my children’s lives were irreparably damaged and was assured that that was not necessarily so. I am just starting to see for myself that children who go through this can develop resilience, compassion, self-regard, and who knows what else. Gotta trust the process.

  5. Pingback: Run, Drive, Paddle, Read, Laugh, Cook, Drive, Repeat | somenewnormal

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