Tearing Down the Past

Saturday-Sucked, part 2…

I moved a lot as a child. From Wisconsin to Texas and back, and quite a bit around Superior. By the time I got to high school, I had gone to five of the six elementary schools and knew 80% of the kids in our town of 36,000. As such, I didn’t really have any attachment to the places we lived. I don’t truly have a “childhood home”. Oh I have memories at this one and that one. But none of the memories are of the house itself.

Save one.

For the last half of fourth grade and the first half of fifth, I lived in a huge monster of a Victorian house. It was gorgeous. It had sliding glass doors, hand-carved cherry wood throughout, hidden passages, a dumbwaiter in my bedroom, strange rooms that no one liked, and an odd walkway through a section of the walls that may have been underground railroad. It was cool as hell.

And haunted.

My sister and mother and I all agree to this without any hesitation. We lived there with someone else. I’ve told friends about this house over the years and the woman that stood in the attic window. I’ve explained how one of us would stand on the street and watch, and the other would go to the attic room and stand in the window, waving their arms to the horror and dismay of the one on the street. She was there. You were standing right next to her! There were footsteps heard going up and down those stairs all night long. There was a basement room that none of us could stand in without wanting to run. Things happened that could not be explained. It was haunted. We know this. We don’t question it one bit… and the following residents must have agreed, because they boarded up that attic window in no time flat.

I’ve actually written quite a bit about the year I spent in this house. This was where we lived when I nailed my sister in the forehead from across the room with my hairbrush, because she was touching my books. This was the house I started writing short stories instead of just poetry. This was where we experienced the tent worm attack that has since turned into the novella Waiting Out Winter (and referenced in my short story “The Man Who Slept Through Tomorrow” in Shroud #6). This was the house of the moose skull that’s in my novel Six Days. The nearby graveyard we explored is in a novel I’ll be working on later. The ghost in the attic has a whole novel dedicated to her. Unfortunately, this is also a house filled with horrible memories, some of which have also been muse fodder—but I don’t dwell on those, and no, I won’t tell you which stories. Whenever I’m standing at the edge of a major decision, I have a reoccurring dream which includes the trap door in the attic of this old mansion. This house came with memories for the muse and cemented lifelong beliefs in the afterlife and paranormal experiences. This house, overall, was a major turning point in my childhood. In my life.

And I wanted to show Bob the famous haunted house of my childhood.

I had planned to do better than a drive-by—I was going to knock on the door and explain I lived there as a child and ask if I could walk through. I was going to see if I could stand in that basement room now. I planned to find out if I was even able to climb those attic steps. I was going to say good-bye to old ghosts—both the house’s and my own. I was going to get an adult visual of the rooms and passageways for the novel. And I was going to rescue the journal I forgot, above the 3rd tile from the left of the drop-ceiling in my old bedroom.

But the house is gone.

My sister told me they tore it down and I couldn’t believe it. I think I was actually in denial. They couldn’t have. It was one of the oldest houses in town. Of course, it was in a town that loves to tear down its history and replace it with concrete and glass. So after we went treasure hunting on Saturday, I had mom drive by. I had to see this for myself. And I found that it was true.

It was gone.

The massive porch, gone. The weird twisting back entry, gone. The huge windows and cool little gables, gone. Hell, even the sidewalk to the front street was gone. There’s nothing there but a dirt patch to hold my ghosts. I was shocked. I was saddened. About a decade beforehand, when I saw they had sold the lot across the way and my favorite reading tree was trashed to put up a garage, I was stung with loss. This went deeper. I had a hard time comprehending what was right in front of me—nothing.

The ride home included mom and I rehashing for Bob several of the ghostie’s tricks. She reminded me of the storm that scared the crap out of us. I recalled the shadows that seemed darker than they should have been and the sounds we could not explain. And I repeatedly droned, “I cannot believe they tore it down.”

And as we neared my parents’ house a thought dawned on me, “Where will the ghost go?”

My ghosts are buried in the soil. If you believe that events can haunt a location, I may actually be one of the ghosts in that ground. But I was referring to our mystery maid (the attic window was the servant quarters, so we had all agreed years ago that it was a servant’s ghost). Where will she go? How will she walk the stairs that are no longer there? How will she slam the door that has been dragged away to some salvage yard? What will she do? Where will she go?

And the more we thought about it, the more we questioned it. Where do ghosts go when you tear down their haunting grounds?

I got home and hopped on Google hoping to find pictures to use as reference for the novel. There was nothing. Mom laughed, “Well, no one can fact check. You can just make shit up now.” Yeah, I love turrets, but that house didn’t have any…and it won’t in the novel either. Realizing her snark was met with sadness, she told me that the woman that lived there before us probably had pictures and that she ran into her all the time at garage sales and such. I told her to ask next time and she agreed. Case closed.

I thought.

The universe is goofy. Just when you need something the most, it delivers. I had taken a one-two punch Saturday—between the teacher’s estate sale and my house being gone—and was feeling beaten. I was deep in thought, dredging through memories of both school and that house. And still in that funk when we returned to the estate sale Sunday.

And the universe provided.

There was Mrs. Farmer, chatting up my mom as I came around a corner. And yes, she has pictures. She also has my address now and will be sending me what she’s got. I have to wonder if the ghostie will show up in them or not.

They say “you can never go home again.” This time, they weren’t joking, but I’ve got pictures coming in the mail. And as mom says, I’m writing it all down and making my ghost immortal, even if the walls that held her are gone…


(updated to include titles and links to book mentioned pre-publication. ko 2/10/15)

Life’s half-off sale

Poll+Apple+for+TeacherWell, I’m back from Wisconsin. It was an emotional trip this time… because apparently, Murphy thought I needed blog material. So let start with Saturday-Sucked part 1: Life’s half-off sale.

I love finding treasures among the stacks—antique stores, strange little second-hand shops, estate sales, etc. I blame my mother for this. I grew up going to every little out of the way stop she could find, and still giggle knowing her habit of slamming on the breaks to check out a country garage sale or out of the way antique store.

And I blame her for this blog entry.

Saturday, mom said there was an estate sale. She was told it was for a photographer/professor. Bob and I looked at each other, imagining the books that may be there, and gleefully agreed to go check it out with her. We all hopped in the car and headed into town to find treasures.

Now, as I said, I love estate sales. Everything but the kitchen sink, and sometimes even those, are tagged for clearance. You can find books and dishes and furniture, antiques and games and even dice. But I generally run into a problem at them—because I’m a sentimental pansy. At some point during every estate sale, I see something with a price tag on it that just shouldn’t be for sale. Something that rings of history with personal value. Something that smells like a family heirloom an unknowing relative has put out for sale. Something that just should not be sold for any amount, because it has intrinsic value rather than commercial.

This maudlin moment generally comes with an overwhelming sadness, as I realize I’m walking through someone’s life. This person spent a lifetime collecting these items, and their family has put a price tag on everything important, trivial, hand picked, purchased on vacation, etc. It’s depressing and kills the treasure hunting bug in me. The feeling then twists into something morbid and I wonder what my estate sale will look like. What will they put a price tag on that they shouldn’t. What item should be passed along to my grandchild, but will instead be marked $3… half-off tomorrow?

That moment struck me when I saw the wedding veil for $15. Something in me twisted and cracked and the fun became sadness. I continued to walk through the house, but there was a cloud over me now. I went to the basement and saw tools and old jars and boxes of photographs and the dark room. I found Bob and we briefly discussed our belief that the deceased may have been a writer due to telltale items on his bookshelves, and questioned whether the family knew the value of the antique photography equipment or not.

And then I saw a table completely covered with photos of nature and still shots, in both color and black and white. Above the table was an 8×10 glossy “Photography of Richard Leighty.”


I froze. My stomach flipped. My mouth went dry. Tears threatened my mascara.

Bob asked if I was okay. I wasn’t. I was speechless. I think I may have shook my head and mumbled something to let him know that I thought this was my English teacher’s house. And I darted up the stairs to find the girl at the cash register.

Happy and bubbly, she talked to everyone as she took their cash and gave away her loved one’s memories. I stood in front of her for a moment unable to form words. My mom, at a nearby bookshelf, gave me a questioning look. I finally popped the shock-bubble in my voice box and asked the girl, “Is this Richard Leighty the high school English teacher?”

“Yes it is.”

A flush of emotion ran through me that I could not control and my eyes watered up.

“Is he…. gone?” I cringed, afraid of the answer. Afraid that one of the most amazing teachers in existence was no longer in existence.

“Oh no, he’s in assisted living.”

I may never be able to explain the cool spread of relief that met with a renewed anger at his memories being sold. I talked to the girl for a few moments about him. Mom and I rehashed classroom memories (she had him years before I did). Bob came up from the basement to tell us  another student of Leighty’s was talking to him downstairs and telling him how great this guy was.

And I looked at the book in my hand that I had pulled from a shelf before my discovery. A book of poetry from one of my favorite inspirational teachers suddenly had much more value than the $2 written on the inside cover. I looked around the house with different eyes. I handed it to Bob for checkout and talked to mom for a moment. Then I basically ran from the house for fresh air.

We talked about him all the way back to mom’s. We told Bob what kind of man he was, and what kind of teacher he was, and I relived some of my favorite high school moments. Mom talked about treasure hunting and how, while it may be morbid, she enjoys it more when she knows who it belonged to. I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.

I had two amazing English teachers—one that sharpened the pencil and one that beat me with a red pen. They are absolutely part of the reason that I do what I do. I’ve talked about them before and I’m sure I will for years to come. After much talk and consoling, I remembered that people get old. People die. But memories don’t. My closing comment on the thought was a very serious, “He needs to stay with us long enough to get a copy of my novel.” And we went back Sunday morning for the half-off sale—I needed to get his address, so I could send him a copy of the novel when it comes out.

We went back that morning, and with a bit of depression I looked through the house again. I got an 8×10 dragonfly photo he’d done, a coffee cup from his kitchen that says “those who can, teach”, and his copy of The Exorcist. Because it was his copy.

And I snagged his old wire-rim glasses.

After all, he had looked at me over their edge, repeatedly, as he beat me into what I am. They may not have enough value for the family, but they are full of memories for me. And they deserve a place on my bookshelf…

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