Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Haunting House

No one has ever loved me more than my father or his mother--my grandmother. There are people in my life who might love me as much, but certainly not more.

My grandmother--and her house--were magical. She and I were kindred spirits: writers, imaginary gypsies, travelers. When she called me on the phone, she would say, "Hello Rat," and I would say, "Hello Mole," and she would laugh and tell me that she knew of very few people with whom she could have such a relationship. On my last visit to see her I was just starting to become a decent reader, having finally made it into Bronte territory. I was aware that this might be my last visit to her home filled with objects from around the world. Widowed at a young age, she nevertheless decided to see everything that her husband had promised her they would. Postcards arrived from Malta, from London, from Asia. She was always planning her next trip. The older I get, the more I feel her DNA running in me. "I won't be around to see you publish," she said to me, not long before she died, "but I already know you will."

The house, as I have said, was unusually beautiful. The hallway had a large copper chandelier from Morocco, a cherry wood screen from China, a Turkish rug. A boy once came and rang the doorbell declaring, "I come to see the things from far away." I was probably twelve and enchanted and wanted to let him into our world.

"If he comes back with his mother, then maybe," my grandmother replied coolly. I was confused. She was never cool with me.

I wonder, now, what it must have been like to be her, widowed in her 60s, and unexpectedly brittle with grief, only to find an unexpected soul mate of sorts in her grandchild. You can never count on finding special friends among children if you are an adult, and yet it happens; I realize now that we were very special friends.

She let me dangle bedsheets through the laundry chute--I pretended these were ghosts--while I played "sinister" music on a portable keyboard in an effort to keep potential buyers from taking her home; I hoped they would fear it was haunted. She let me reenact Pilgrim's Progress (I had no idea what it was, just that Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth liked to play it a lot), starting from the basement and ending up in her attic. The house had a secret room and many closets I was convinced could transport me to another world. She let me pull out her rhinestone hat pins and try to arrange them on my head. She laughed when I played her Christmas music collection in the middle of July, or when I practiced walking down her glossy wood staircase in a bathrobe, pretending I was an English princess. She liked to tell me whom she had met on each of her trips and how she'd managed to bring home a rug in her suitcase. She collected art and people and stories and never thought I was too young to appreciate them.

After she died, I dreamt about her and her house in earnest. There were papers hidden in her office and I had to rescue them. There were important letters she had left me; I had to find these. Sometimes she was still alive in the house and wondering what I was doing there. It got to the point that I was convinced my father had forgotten something important inside the house when he finally moved his mother to a rest home. "Everything important," he reassured me, "has been removed."

Over time, the dreams have taken on a definite narrative arc. The house--and its surroundings--become more and more decayed. My grandmother is never there any more. When I arrive, I ask my guide--because there always is one--"Is the house still here?" "Yes," they always say, "but we don't know for how much longer." I'm always relieved but sad--amazed that I can trespass in nostalgia just one more time.

Recently, the house has started to fade even more. Last night I had to climb underground to reach it. The heating had been off and certain rooms hadn't been used in years. There was mold and I woke up incredibly sad by my trip to the underworld.

In reality, the house is up for sale. The yard, once immaculate, is filled with weeds. The interior, judging from these real estate photos, is still fairly well kept; there are the stairs, the fireplace and the buffet. It is almost her house. I have a terrible longing to reclaim it and to restore it. The lure of the past is painful. One day, I fear, I'll visit her house in my dreams and will be told that it has simply vanished.

Great post! I was very close to my Mother's parents and their house in Detroit (an interesting 1920s house with a spooky basement and root cellar) is still constantly in my dreams and day dreams. My parents' own 1970s subdivision colonial (where they still live) never was or is - it just doesn't have the magic. I recently dreamed that I was back at the house in Detroit with my grandparents (dead 20 and 7 years, respectively). We were packing up things and moving things out - happily. It was a positive visit, they were doing well and all was well. My very much alive cat Angus was with me (spirit guide perhaps?).

I'm still a little shaken up by the dream, and a bit emotional about it. They had not been in my dreams in a long time, but then there they were. I wonder if they wanted to reassure me that letting go of all of my overachiever only child baggage and worries and family neuroses was good and right and to go and be happy (I've sure been trying to let it all go hard enough, and very recently it has all lifted). I'm very grateful to them for the visit.
Sounds like a good dream, Marla! And I'm glad Angus was there to keep you safe and give you company. Very thoughtful of him.
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