My friend Ruth sent me a snapshot of my old house in Illinois today. It was like seeing an old friend, catching up. I mean the house. I miss Ruth and her partner Tana, too. Ah, but the house! There are children’s toys scattered outside and the neighbors must have cut down the enormous maple tree that encroached on my backyard property line, shading the entire back yard. It brought back memories of things that almost worked out.
The house had been built in 1896 or 1897, a gap in recordkeeping making it uncertain. It was built by a single man who later married. By the time I came on the scene, all the cute Queen Anne gingerbread was replaced by “sensible” aluminum siding, all the leaded glass windows had been replaced by “sensible” plain glass and all the lovely hardwood floors had been covered in various hideous carpets and linoleum. And it was worse than that. The house had been divided into two apartments, an upper and a lower. In order to fit a bathroom where no bathroom had ever been intended, some handyman had sawed through a supporting beam to make way for the toilet plumbing. This resulted in the awful suspicion that each time you sat upon the throne, you were headed through the second floor all the way to that dry basement. But it had high ceilings, separate furnaces for a sort of “zone heating” option, lots of space, and a mature although neglected yard. It was very easy to convert back to a single family home by the removal of one door. It was a Victorian monstrosity in my price range. It was, in short, perfect!
Buying an old house is a lot like a second marriage. You realize your sweetie has been around the block, but you don’t always know which blocks until you really get to know them. You’re prepared to ignore or work around the past as long the present and future are headed in the right direction. But there are surprises.
For one thing, I found out rather quickly what will and will not grow under maples, mulberries and chestnuts. Violets, yes. My whole front yard was full of violets. Some poor fool came by one day and offered to take out all those violets and replace them with grass; he left quickly with the verbal equivalent of cat scratches. Spring bulbs, yes! I filled the back yard up with spring bulbs, taking advantage of the early spring sunshine when trees are bare. I had jonquils, scilla, tulips in every color, hyacinth, snow drops and grape hyacinth completely covering the back yard. What a show! By the time the mulberries and maples leafed out, the show was over and what meager grass grew in near-total darkness shared its space with several varieties of hosta for a jungle-y feel. The Breck’s catalogue was my candy store. I found out you work around maple trees, especially ones that are too big around to hug and have foliage so dense you needed a flashlight on a summer day. So that meant, tomatoes, no. But wait! There was one little patch in the back yard, my sunbeam, capable of sustaining tomato life. But it moved. I planted my tomatoes in pots and put them in a little red wagon. When the sunbeam moved, I moved the wagon. Perfect!
And I found myself in the curious and possibly never to be repeated position of actually having too much space. There were rooms I didn’t go into for a week at a time because, well, because I didn’t. Even when my father shipped me a vanload of antique shop leftovers, I still had the downstairs turret room with nothing in it but the stereo, a drop-leaf table and a couple of chairs. It was in this room I had my most startling paranormal experience. But it wasn’t the first one in that house.
I was in the downstairs kitchen (remember, two apartments, two kitchens) which I considered THE kitchen one early evening. I was happily sautéing some liver and onions, a private indulgence I can share with few others, and playing with my then-new puppy Rusty. Rusty was a bouncy Cardigan Welsh corgi and he loved playing with a tennis ball. All was quiet besides sauté and happy dog noises when I turned around to find a puddle of liquid in the middle of the kitchen floor. “Naughty Rusty!” I thought, putting him in his crate to keep from making a small problem worse.
I wiped up the puddle and could not help noticing that it actually wasn’t a “Rusty puddle.” It was just water. I looked everywhere for a leak, including going upstairs to the balancing act bathroom, turned things on and off, checked the ceiling for dampness, with no result. There was no dried trail from under the sink, no drip, no splash. It had just been a puddle. Shrugging it off and with Rusty safely snoozing in his crate, I resumed my work at the counter to fix dinner. Only a few minutes had passed when I turned around and, you guessed it, there was the puddle again. I checked everything again, my L&O growing cool and unappetizing by the minute. Finally, after wiping up the puddle again with no apparent origin, I said loudly in a verbal To Whom It May Concern, “OK, you guys, stop scaring people!” It never happened again.
Later that year, my father, with all good intentions of clearing out his own house, made me take home my golf clubs and bag. I say “made” because in truth I don’t golf. Good walk spoiled, the whole shebang. After the 6 hour drive home from Dad’s house, I dragged the bag and clubs into the house and leaned them against the wall next to the front door, dashed upstairs to see what havoc the cats had wreaked in my absence and settled in front of the TV. All of a sudden, I heard a crash, like glass breaking, like someone driving into the house, something bad. I dashed downstairs to find my bag and clubs lying on the floor against the far wall of the living room, some 20 feet away from where I had left them, doors still locked, windows still closed, but strewn at the end of the living room.
To Whom It May Concern, “OK, I’m putting the golf clubs away now!” And I put them in the closet. No further flinging of objects occurred after that. Crud, I thought. Just my luck to get some neat-freak ghost.
My last experience, as I mentioned, was the most startling and was in the downstairs turret room. It was winter, one of the bright white days after a snowfall. The afternoon sun streamed into the tall turret windows and warmed the room. I was standing in the closet doorway realizing that some well-intentioned person had first filled the archway in the wall at the back of the closet once connecting the turret room to the dining room with a simple painted bookcase. I was happy with the bookcase since I always have too many books. But later someone had built a very flimsy wall out of chipwood paneling, installed two sets of sliding doors and a rod across the length of it to make a closet. I hated that closet and that awful paneling. I stood there in mental renovation and determined that the result of taking out that paneling had a cascade effect that would result in…tearing out the ceiling in the living room. Ack!
“Because I can stretch out my arms and not touch anything,” I told them. “Because I can make ‘rug angels’ in the awful shag carpet downstairs and no one will care but me.” But mostly, like the 9 of Pentacles, the Lady in Her Garden, having built my funny little world around me, it was mine.