Monday, October 21, 2013
Our first house was a rental cottage in the town I live in now. It was an old place with a full walk-in attic that my father dreamed of turning into a study someday if we were ever able to buy the place. For the year that we lived there, before he got transferred to Florida, it was a place for me and my sister, Melissa, to steal away to and do whatever struck our fancy on any given day. The house also had an unfinished basement that reminded us of the one in our grandparents’ house. It was dank, dark and musky so we didn’t go down there that much unless during winter months we wanted to play with larger toys. My sister, Stacia, had a pink cardboard kitchen down there. The thing I remember most about that house was how much it creaked and moaned, and how the pipes would wail. You would always hear strange noises throughout the day and night. We would say to our mother, “What was that?!” She wouldn’t even look up from her crossword puzzle and reply, “The ghost.” Being impressionable, we would ask, “What ghost?” She would answer, matter-of-factly, ”The house ghost. All houses have them. Ours is named Gus.”
We moved a lot when I was young. We lived in seven different places before I was thirteen. Sometimes they were far from where we lived before and sometimes just across town. What I always found interesting was that wherever we moved, Gus always came with us. My mother told me when I was seven that ghosts attach themselves to families and that’s why Gus was still in whatever house we lived in. As we got older it became a family goof that whenever something unexplained happened, something got misplaced, or someone didn’t want to own up to breaking the lamp, that it must’ve been Gus. I remember one time when I was in college coming home very late after a couple of beers, and telling my mother that I couldn’t help it. “Gus was driving and you know how he is.”
One time on Halloween, when I was in junior high, Stacia was sick and very afraid that she wasn’t going to be able to go trick-or-treating. Melissa was off with her friends, so my mother asked me if I would take Stacia to a couple of houses on the block while she walked with my brother and his friends. I did and she didn’t get as much candy as she wanted but enough that she was satisfied with the endeavor. I could tell she was fading. I took her home and we went up to Melissa’s bed so that she could at least look out of the front window and watch the kids in their costumes as they paraded by. In those days they did not have the industrial street lights that we have today. Everyone had a lamppost on their parkway or in their yard. That night as Stacia and I stretched out together on Melissa’s bed, our lamppost started blinking on and off. I said, “Look, Stacy, Gus has come to wish you a Happy Halloween.” She became mesmerized watching the light randomly go on and off. “Do you really think it is a ghost, Tom?” she asked. I said, “I don’t know, let’s watch it for awhile.” We did and then she started getting scared. I said, “Honey, I don’t really think it’s a ghost. Do you want me to go check?” She nodded her feverish head, so I went downstairs and outside to the yard. I went to the light and gave it a shake. As I did the light came on and off. I looked up at her in the window and she was laughing. Nothing but a short.
I’m not completely sure that I do or don’t believe in ghosts or spirits. The reason that I am uncertain is because of a few things that happened in my life.
When my wife, Karen, and I lived in the city we bought a house that was about 120 years old. It creaked and moaned just like the house we lived in when I was a kid. During those days my brother-in-law, Michael, lived with us in the garden level apartment that many houses had from the days of immigration. Every week we made it a custom that we would all gather in the front room of the main house and watch the show “Northern Exposure” together. One night while we were there we heard very distinct footsteps upstairs where the bedrooms were. Sound traveled loudly through that house. Everyone looked up at the ceiling but no one said anything. We went back to looking at the show and then Michael subtly said, “OK, I’m here, Tom is here, and you’re here, Karen. So who the hell is upstairs?” I went to check and there was no one there. I checked all of the windows and then made sure all of the doors were locked. All secure. Karen said, “Well, apparently we have a ghost.” We decided it was a friendly and protective ghost when one night I physically felt someone shaking me in my sleep. I woke up and I could smell smoke. I ran down to the kitchen and saw that the cloth wiring in the wall above the sink had frayed and started the drywall on fire. It was not a big fire. I was able to put it out quickly and kill the power. When I went back to bed and told Karen about what happened, she sleepily said, “At least our ghost likes us.”
After we moved to the house we live in now, when I was still working on my master’s degree in business, I got the crazy notion that I should combine it with a law degree too. As such I had to take the LSAT. I prepped for months and on the morning when I went into the city to take the exam, Karen said to me, “You’re going to do great on this thing. I am 100% confident.” I did do pretty well and later when I got home I asked her why she was so emphatic about my chances of success; more so even than you would expect from your wife. “Your mom came to me last night. She sat on the edge of the bed. I could feel her rubbing my head. She told me not to worry; you were going to be alright.” My mother died when I was twenty-four, not six months after I got married. We were very close and for quite awhile it disturbed me that if my mom was to make her ethereal presence known, it was to my wife and not me. I was happy Karen had that experience but inside I was also angry.
Just after I got diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was struggling with adapting to a new normal, I built the garage studio that I now almost exclusively work in and where people come to visit me. It is a place of congeniality and peace. One night I painted an old lamp shade to look like a Jackson Pollock painting. I was happy how it turned out so I turned off the lights and took a photo of it with my cell phone. I did nothing special. The lamp was not on. When I looked at the picture this is what I saw:
I showed this picture to a friend of mine who is an engineer. He said, “It could be so many things. It could have been the flash in your phone’s camera. You use a lot of solvents and other things out there. It could just be particulate matter.” He may have been right. I showed it to another person, a woman named Sherry, who is a bartender at the local I go to. I told her what my friend told me. She said, “I think you captured something. What do you want it to be?” I never was able to recreate that photograph.
Thinking about ghosts tonight, maybe they are nothing other than memories. Ghosts might be nothing more than our mind trying to make a connection to the past. They might just be manifestations of what worries us, mistakes we made at some point in our life, or special times when we most felt safe and happy. Good or bad, everyone because, we are cursed with memory, is haunted to some degree. I think for me, and most everyone, ghosts exist as a desire to maintain a connection to the people we loved and lost throughout our lives. We want to believe they are still with us.
People associate ghosts with being scary. I don’t. I think ghosts give me hope that maybe someday in the far inevitable future we all face; I will still be around to take care of the people that mean so much to me. Ghosts also give me comfort in thinking that there is someone out there, who right now, is still watching over me. I accept the good ghosts and do my best to shoo the bad ones out.