Ghost threads.

dark house on the hill

Jackie looked, by all accounts, like a female Johnny Cash. Dark-haired, dressed always in  black, face etched by nicotine and whiskey, she apparently made quite an impression. She was unconventional and wild in her youth, mellowing with age and kinder on the inside than many would have guessed from her appearance. At least this is what I’ve been told.

For 20-ish years before we first walked through the four-foot-wide door of the Money Pit, Jackie lived here with her longtime partner and all their cats. Before that it was just Jackie’s mother, and before that, I suppose, varying combinations of their little family: mother, father, daughter, tracing back to 1911 when Jackie’s father bought this then-five-year-old three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom, 4300 square-foot sprawler with the enormous front porch and, at the time, double lot.

I stumbled on the house one clear fall morning almost 12 years ago, driving slowly on my way to work and wondering how we were going to cram a fourth family member into our two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,000 square-foot house. I was surveying my favorite neighborhood, built around the turn of the 20th century, streets lined with grand homes in varying states of preservation, renovation or disrepair. The real estate market was hot, and even the fixer-uppers were out of our price range. But I weaved my way through, block by block, for the beauty of the view, if nothing else. As I drove the quiet streets I spotted a friend working in his garden, enjoying the cool of early fall.

“You playing hooky?” I hollered to him through the window.

“Ha! No, I’m off today; just working my other job,” he called back. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”

“Trolling for a house before this baby comes.”

“Well, you ought to buy that one across the street. It’s been on the market forever. Bet you could get it for a song, though it probably needs as much put in it as you’d pay to buy it; but it’s one hell of a house.”

I looked over to where he was pointing, to the lot covered with ivy and monkey grass and weeds, a dark house made even darker by the shade of three imposing oak trees planted in the median between the sidewalk and street. The porch was fully screened, the screens black with age, rimmed with trim that was also painted black.

Never one to walk away from the idea of a bargain, I said, “Ok; I’ll call the agent,” dialing the number on my cell phone as I drove on to my office,

Two days later, the agent returned my call. The house had been under contract,  a long, tense negotiation that had, ironically, fallen through the morning I’d left the message. She was heading out of town, the agent, to tend to some family business of her own, but if I really wanted to see the house she thought she could probably arrange it.

It was humid and rainy that afternoon, the sky an even, dull gray. I drove up the alley to the rear entrance of the house to meet Mary, Jackie’s caretaker who had also once been Jackie’s mother’s caretaker and who knew the house as well as anyone. This is what the realtor had told me. The front door had a series of complicated locks, she explained, one of which had no key, so the back door was the best way in. Also, it was raining, and the carport would provide covered parking and keep us dry.

Mary had a warm, gentle personality. She was an old-school Southern housekeeper, neatly dressed and wearing orthotic shoes, her silver hair beauty shop fresh. She drove a Cadillac sedan that had a church sticker on the back window and, I noticed walking by it, an immaculate interior with a tidy black umbrella on the front passenger seat.

“Jackie was born in this house; lots of memories in here,” Mary said as she unlocked the door.

An overwhelming smell of mildew, dust, cats, cigarettes and age greeted me. The small, disjointed rear rooms that led to the small, awful kitchen were clearly products of 1970s remodeling. The appliances were all the color of Perkins coffee pots and looked extra dingy thanks to the dropped acoustic tile ceiling and peeling linoleum floor. I had made a mistake, I realized, and needed a quick excuse to get out.

Then we walked through the swinging door into the breakfast room and back 100 years in time. Light and airy, this room was covered in a delicate wallpaper and framed with built-in cabinets that once, it was easy to imagine, glittered with silver and crystal and china.

On the other side of the breakfast room was the dining room, fireplace on one side and pocket doors on the other, open to the front hall, living room, massive front door and grand staircase covered in red velvet carpet. Even with the horrific smell and the pile of leftover clothes (so dirty and worn that even Goodwill wouldn’t take them), standing in that hallway was like opening a storybook.

I don’t know if it was the look on my face or something I said, some sound that escaped, but I remember Mary smiling at me and starting to talk about Jackie.

“They had a farm out in Somerville, though it was mostly Mr. Jones who went there,” Mary began, “and when Jackie turned six her daddy brought her a pony all the way from the farm, through that big front door and up these stairs to her bedroom to surprise her.”

That was the first of many Jackie tales, some from Mary, some from neighbors, some that we would discover while renovating the house:

Jackie’s mother, imperious in her silk Dior dressing gowns, retrieving the morning paper. The Steinway grand in which they stashed money and, rumor had it, a pistol or two. The art studio in the attic, the darkroom in the basement. A secret liquor pass-through for parties during Prohibition. The wild lesbian Christmas parties on the front porch, in the years after Jackie’s mother died. The Doberman Pinschers.  Goldcrest cans. A christening gown, packed next to handwritten letters with New York postmarks. The legend of a Confederate flag, given to Jackie’s mother by her mother’s father, Captain Edmondson, for safekeeping.

I never got to meet Jackie in person, but Bernard did, once. We had completed the kitchen remodel and were just about to move in. Bernard was out back sanding or painting, when Mary and Jackie drove up.

It was Mary, I think, who convinced Jackie to sell the house to us. We made an offer shortly after that day I first walked in, and on that same day another family did the same, even though they had never seen the house. Their offer was higher, we learned; but Jackie, it seemed, had picked us. We negotiated the final contract from my hospital delivery room, and the house was ours. We expected a mostly spit-and-polish renovation to begin; we would remodel the kitchen and then do the rest room-by-room while we lived there. This was never a realistic plan, but we believed we could do it anyway, right up to the minute we discovered that the structure between the first and second floors had to be re-built in its entirety.

By the time Jackie met Bernard that day, almost two years later, we had fully excavated her history. She did look, he told me later, just like a female Johnny Cash, although smaller, frail and jittery.

“She’s been like this all day,” Mary said to Bernard, “she won’t sit down or rest – keeps saying she wants to go home. I thought maybe bringing her here would help her calm down.”

Alzheimer’s had a full hold on Jackie, Mary explained. It was mostly manageable, but not always. Not today. Jackie wanted to go inside, to go to her room, but Bernard and Mary agreed that seeing an unrecognizable kitchen might do more harm than good. They walked around front instead, past the camellias and gardenias and up to the front porch for a minute. After a short visit, Jackie calm, Mary walked her back to the car.

“I’m glad it’s you, glad your family is in this house,” Mary said to Bernard before she left, “and Jackie is, too. She knows you all will take care of it.”

A month or so after we closed on the house, before we began construction but well after we started feeling all the ghosts, we invited a priest friend and handful of neighbors to a house blessing. It was a feeling, more than anything, that in the rich history of our home not all the stories had been happy. Before we moved in we wanted a fresh start. We painted Kilz on all the walls, stripped the brocade draperies and red stair carpet, Shop Vac’d from corner to corner, even in the fireplaces, and decided a bit of holy water wouldn’t hurt. We wanted it to be our house, our story, starting on a clean new page.

But we didn’t actually erase what’s still here, latent but here, despite the cleaning and painting, despite the prayers and blessing and candles. They have faded and blurred, the old people and their stories, but you can feel them in the walls, waiting to be extracted and, perhaps, reshaped just a little, mostly for their own comfort. You can start to see them, too, can’t you? The pony on the stairs, the parties, the madness and creativity. It’s all still here, waiting.

And that’s the answer to your question, the one a few of you have asked, about what I #amwriting.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    Just lovely. (Sorry nothing more clever. I’m in the back seat of a gas-guzzling SUV, headed for the beach!)

  2. angie keesee says:

    Wow.
    And the attic painted silver.

  3. jgroeber says:

    Oh, I love this. It brought to mind the mansion we “house-sat” for our first three years in Philadelphia, the first two years of our marriage. The ghosts were so thick that my sister’s Guiding Eye Dog would stop, seemingly at nothing, and wait for the spirit to get out of the way before proceeding. When I left our area in the servant’s quarters to quickly clean the main house I’d blare Bruce Springsteen to muddle any angry spirits and then race through the house with a feather duster.
    It was those three rent-free years that bought us our dream getaway in Maine. Sometimes I think the ghosts really just want us to bring some joy. Sounds like your bunch is doing it tenfold.
    (Can’t wait to see what you’re writing!!)

  4. Barbara Viser says:

    Don’t stop now!

  5. Can not wait to read #whatyouwrite! Your words always grab me and pull me in, and even this strangely weird house comes out sounding beautiful. Can not. wait! xox

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