Friday, August 08, 2008
I’d expected lonesome, but was surprised even so by how empty the old home place felt when I drove out late Tuesday --- as if the very life had been sucked out of it.
Truth be told, I hadn’t planned to go out there this week --- let it rest for a while, leave it to the Realtor. But my aunt, now safe in the suburbs a long day’s drive away with the old Buick in Linda’s and Randy’s driveway and all her belongings in storage awaiting the perfect apartment or condo, had started to worry: Where was the thermostat set? Had the phone really been disconnected? And where the heck was her pill-cutter? She wanted some photos of the old place, too.
There’s nothing spooky about the house. When my aunt and uncle started working there in the early 1970s, they gutted it, had it propped up and a new basement inserted, made a few additions and rearranged the interior space. They dropped a brand new house inside the shell of the old. And when the tiny louvers between layers of glass in those Pella windows are closed, you could be in the suburbs of any city .
Walking around outside is a little different, however, thinking about all the feet that had walked out here before, and those big old barns can be spooky --- especially when the owl family that calls the upper barn home is in residence, hooting unexpectedly from its depths.
I kept hearing a sound I couldn’t place out by the barns --- a humming. Someone operating equipment in the distance? A ghost? Then I batted away a few incoming rounds that had gotten tangled in my hair and looked up into the twin pines, remnant of a great windbreak that once had encircled the farmstead, and spotted the swarm of bees. A big one.
I could just see Granddad then in his bee-keeping gear, smoker in hand, headed up a ladder to soothe, then capture and hive that swarm. An orchardist, he always kept bees; and I remember the honey, still in combs, in a big cut-glass bowl in the middle of the kitchen table.
That got me to thinking in a fanciful sort of way about ghosts who might haunt this place now that the life had gone out of, who might have taken advantage of the vacuum and moved in for a while to reclaim it. It had to be people who had died here, I decided, on the larger farm that our home place and the older Miller farmstead with its 60 acres just down the road once formed.
It’s nice when you can pick your ghosts and set the parameters for them.
Understand that I don’t believe in ghosts --- spirits from beyond the grave. Such ghosts as do exist live in our heads I think; we create them --- sometimes to feel good, sometimes to feel bad and at other times just to scare ourselves to death. I’ve known people whose ghosts come to possess them. But I just think in ghostly terms sometimes.
The first to die here in our time, after 1880, was a baby boy, youngest child of my great-grandparents, who didn’t live long enough to be named although he was called Joseph Cyrus in the family Bible, named after his death for the father who had inadvertently killed him. Born 26 July 1895, he was a sickly infant and his mother, sicker. Mary Elizabeth was 40 at the time and probably should have stopped with Uncle Jerry, born three years before. Cyrus, with a houseful of other kids, a sick baby and a desperately sick wife, confused medication and gave the baby a dose of something powerful intended for its mother. The baby died as a result on 14 August 1895, less than a month old.
Cyrus brooded about that, Grandpa used to say, consumed by grief and guilt. Three months later, on 15 November 1895, he fell over backwards dead into a wagonload of hogs he was taking to market in Chariton. Neighbors noticed the team and wagon traveling on their own, stopped the horses and found him. He was 42, but his ghost for me always stands alongside the road out on Highway 14 south of the Williamson turnoff, just as it starts to angle southwest down the Little Whitebreast hill to cross the creek. That’s where he died or so Grandpa said.
The next to die was another baby, this one up the road at the new house, son of my grandparents, Will and Jessie Miller. Like his uncle, whose death was a tragic accident, this baby too was named after his death in the family Bible, William Ambrose Miller Jr., just so he’d have a name. Little Will died of the whooping cough, no less sorrowful an event but less tragic. Born 6 November 1912, he died on 23 December of the same year. Even though he had been given a name, Grandpa had just the worlds “Our Baby” inscribed on the big tombstone erected many years later on that little grave in the Columbia Cemetery.
But surely two babies are unlikely to haunt much of anything 100 years or so later, long after all who remembered them are in their graves as well.
Two years after the second baby died, Jessie’s mother, Chloe Brown, died at the new house on 15 June 1914. She was 80 and had outlived two husbands, Moses W. Prentiss and Joseph Brown, and had come up from Columbia to live with Jessie and Will when they were married in 1905. This gentle and gracious lady, who had come west as a young woman with her family from Mason County, (West) Virginia, died more or less of old age, it was said, and 80 at that time was very old. My Uncle Joe, about 8 at the time, used to say he could just barely remember her at rest in her coffin in the living room.
I doubt Chloe would have much interest in haunting or inclination to haunt in these parts. Maybe a stroll down the street in old Columbia, or out north of Corydon; Point Pleasant on the Ohio perhaps. But not here.
Great-grandmother Miller, nee Mary Elizabeth Clair, was the next --- on 11 October 1933 down at the old house. She was 78 at the time, a strong woman who had raised a big family mostly on her own after Cyrus died, built the house she died in, pulled the farm out of debt on her own. She accomplished a lot in a fairly long life and I can‘t think of a reason she‘d look back regretfully enough to haunt her descendants --- hundreds if not a thousand of them by now.
Grandmother Jessie died 12 years later in the new house on 7 January 1945 at age 70 after a long and meticulous battle with diabetes conducted when treatment for that disease was in its infancy. Seventy is not especially old now, but it was a miracle some say that Jessie lived as long as she did. That was before I was born, but my folks talked sometimes of her funeral down at Belinda Christian Church on a day so cold and snowy it took a road grader running in advance to get the funeral party from the church to Columbia Cemetery and out again. This was the last time the whole process --- from embalming to visitation --- took place on the farm.
Jessie was a lot like her mother, and my mother (her daughter), I’ve been told, kind, gentle and gracious --- but strong enough to keep my rambunctious grandfather firmly in control. She also talked a lot --- maybe I inherited that since my mother didn’t. But a ghost? I don’t think so.
And finally Warren, who was my Uncle Jerry’s youngest son. Warren sometimes took on almost mythic proportions for us grandkids, his much younger cousins just up the road --- because we never saw him even though he was there all along less than a quarter mile away.
He’d come home after the Korean War to live with his dad and just got shyer and shyer as the years passed, or so it seemed. When any of us, or other strangers, showed a sign of getting close he headed in the other direction as fast as he could --- into the barns, out across the fields or upstairs if caught in the house. I saw his back one time from an upstairs window at Granddad’s house as he walked north through the orchard --- moving away from a houseful of his Miller cousins. And that was it.
Warren rented Granddad’s farm for a while, even lived in the new house off and on in a camp-out sort of way after Grandpa moved to town. But we never saw him.
“It’s just too bad,” my dad said one time. “He was a fine looking man and a smart and well-spoken one, too.” We never figured out what the problem was --- of if there was a problem at all. Sometimes when people don’t behave the way we think they should we conclude something’s wrong. But this could have just been Warren being Warren and there was nothing wrong with that. Or maybe he'd allowed his own ghosts a little too much latitude. I just don't know. I do know his sisters and brother, nieces and nephews, loved him a lot.
Warren died of a heart attack on 13 August 1980, when he was 55, in his shop down at the old farmstead. My dad was one of the pall bearers.
Warren was the last of us to die out there on the farm but I doubt he‘d haunt us. Not very sociable in life, death would be unlikely to change that.
The uncomfortable thing about all this ghostly speculation was how clearly it brought into focus my own ghost story --- the one I know is true. I’ve never told it and am unlikely to, not because it frightens but because it makes me sad. And there’s no point in dwelling on such things and I don’t think much about it anymore. Like I said, our ghosts live in our heads.
But it seemed odd out at the farm then, as evening settled it; so I got into the truck and went home.
I’m anxious for the old place to sell now, for new life to take possession and send those old ghosts, whoever they may be, on their way.