At night when the murmur of beloved voices has whispered to silence, I sometimes sit musing in the near dark by a fire quieted to embers glowing red. Uneven floorboards, oak and chestnut, smoothed by centuries’ footfalls, speak to generations of living in our old house. As I read David McCullough’s book, John Adams, immersed in the founder’s life and ideals, I can’t help but wonder who slept here. Not in terms of celebrity, necessarily, but as I contemplate the span of American history witnessed and celebrated in these familiar rooms, I long to know the stories. I find comfort, for some reason, in thinking about those who lived before us. They weathered their own storms of personal or global making. Now on the other side, they know all the answers.
Intent on conjuring the shadows of the mothers who’ve gone before me, I imagine an aproned woman, flushed and awkward as she leans to tend a pot on the fire, striving to keep her heavy skirts from the flames. With an exhausted smile, she ladles hot stew for a pale young man after his day of labor. Where did she find the energy to enjoy that food herself after tending to family, chores and animals?
Why do we never see her?
The young man has made himself known. He is thin and bearded and has set the hair on Dave’s neck up straight when glimpsed by the fire. Our neighbor, Jim, sheds inexplicable tears while sitting in this room. His mother is a psychic, and when he sought an explanation, she said she'd “seen” a family in mourning when last she visited us. A young man, thin and bearded, was laid out for a wake. He bore a resemblance to Jim himself, as a matter of fact. Maybe there is a connection.
When our daughter, Casey, was little, she reported sightings of this spectral visitor peering at her from the doorway when she lay in her bed. For years we dismissed these tales as childish fantasy.
While the previous residents remain here, I have yet to perceive them. Friends who are more sensitive than I marvel at the ghostly stirrings. “You don’t feel anything? My god, there’s all kinds of activity!”
We tenants, past and present, have disagreed, periodically, as to whether lights should be on or off. More than once, Dave has returned upstairs in the morning, a bit wild-eyed, with the news that our ghostly friends had been about during the night. Lights absolutely extinguished at bedtime have been on when he went down for breakfast. There’s no pattern to the lamps chosen, so it’s not faulty wiring.
One day, after Dave seemed particularly agitated by this feisty fiddling with switches, I waited until the kids left for school and Dave headed to work. Standing in the front hallway, I respectfully called to those within hearing. I thanked them for passing the house on to us. I told them how much we loved it. And I requested that they leave the switches be, and restrict appearances around my little ones and their anxious father.
It appears they listened, these eternal homeowners, and for the most part, they keep a low profile.
I let them know that there are times I’m not ready to meet them, when even the thought of a filmy form at the foyer window leaves me gasping. But on other occasions at the flickering fireside, my stool pulled as close to the dancing light as I dare, I long for a visit. I close my eyes and wrap about me the beeswax-scented, pewtered past, and seek the woman who once worked at this hearth.