In March, my 8-year-old daughter, Molly, asked me if I believed in ghosts. It wasn't the first time she'd asked, but it struck me as eerily coincidental since I was working at the time on an article about my grandfather and ghosts. Either I had been sending out supernatural, ghostly vibes or I'd been talking about the topic of the article without realizing it.
Or, more likely, Molly had just been thinking about ghosts and wondered what I thought about them.
Strangely, I found myself paralyzed by Molly's question and couldn't come up with a suitable answer.
Unlike my father's family, my mother's seldom told ghost stories. While my father's father built a career on writing about and telling stories of the supernatural, no one in my mother's family, the Richards, seemed particularly eager to swap spooky tales by the fireplace.
In fact, the Richards rarely spoke of the many ghosts that haunted the house on Delaware Street in Cooperstown, NY, and even then the subject had to be broached by someone else, usually a grandson.
In other words, the only time we talked about ghosts in the Richards' house was when we'd seen, heard, or otherwise experienced one.
Compared to the houses where the Joneses lived, the Richards' house was relatively new. Built by my great-grandfather at the turn of the twentieth century, the two-story, white clapboard house had housed five generations of Richardses before it was sold less than a decade ago.
My mother and aunt grew up there and the grandchildren—me, my brother, and my cousin—visited in the summers and during the Christmas holidays.
When we were young, the ghosts visited after nightfall—a distant noise, a subtle presence, a breeze through the hair in an otherwise still room, a hand on the ankle while sitting at a table, a rustling under the bed before sleep.
Even when we were touched by ghosts, we felt a distance between us and them. They were there, in the house, all around us, but a veil separated our world from theirs.
Each of these experiences and phenomena could be explained away as the house settling, or as the vibrations of a passing truck, or as the product of our overactive imaginations. The explanations lingered on the periphery, unwilling or unable to bring an end to the ghostly experiences.
The more we experienced strange sensations or heard inexplicable sounds, the more we told my mother and aunt about them. Reluctantly, they relayed similar experiences from their childhood, always in hushed tones but with the utmost sincerity. They clearly believed what they were telling us and, in turn, we, their dutiful sons, believed every word. With each new tale, the house on Delaware Street became more and more haunted and we became more scared to sleep or even visit there.
My grandmother, on the other hand, refused ever to talk about the ghosts. If she heard her daughters talking about ghosts, she'd sit quietly with her hands in her lap and listen until she could take no more. Then she'd warn them, "Don't scare the children."
Yet my grandmother clearly had the most complex relationship of all with the ghosts on Delaware Street. Her husband and her daughters had grown up there, and the ghosts treated her like an outsider. (Most notably there was a tendency for doors to swing shut as she walked through thresholds.)
As we grew older and bolder the intensity of our fear bubbled over into just about every conversation. My mother and aunt often shushed us and warned against speaking of the ghosts.
"Don't upset your grandmother," my mother would say. "She's worried you'll never come visit her."
My grandmother's fears weren't unfounded. We were always scared to be there, always aware that something or someone other than the living shared the house with us.
But still, we returned to the house on Delaware Street, year after year.
I've been told that children are more receptive to supernatural experiences, that they are more open to ghosts, that they have more of a sixth sense than the average adult. The opposite was true for me. I grew closer to the ghosts at Delaware Street; the veil between our two worlds became thinner as I aged.
The dreams started the summer I turned 15. Matt, Mike, and I shared a room on the second floor. They each had a bed, and I slept on a trundle beneath the windows that overlooked Delaware Street. Ordinarily, I would've wanted a wall at my back, not a window, but here I feared what lurked inside more than what might be outside.
I awoke one night to a presence entering the room. I could see and hear, but not speak or move. An old man wearing a brown serge suit marched across the room to my bedside. I tried to call out, but couldn't. The man shook a cane at me, grew increasingly agitated, seemed to give up, and then stormed back out of the room. It all happened very quickly and I saw it clearly.
When I woke up in the morning, I shook off what I thought had been a disturbing dream and went about my day.
The old man returned the next night wearing a blue suit of a similar rough and modest cut. He approached me so quickly that I thought he might attack me. Unlike the night before, I felt like I was in danger and tried to pull away from him, to scream, but I could do neither. Again, he shook his cane at me, gave up after a short while, and left the room in a bit of a huff.
In the morning, I had the dreadful thought that this just might be a recurring dream, and I felt certain the old man would visit again that night.
And he did. He wore the brown suit again and shook his cane. His face contorted with rage, red and slick. His eyes were foggy and unfocused but far from vacant.
I fought harder than ever to rise up out of my paralysis, to call out to my brother and cousin who slept half a dozen feet away. My hands responded, then my shoulders, and the muscles up and down my back released in a rush of heat. A lump rose in my throat and escaped.
"Gah!" I said.
The old man, still clutching his cane, threw up his hands, whirled around, and stomped out of the room, shoulders hunched, head bowed and shaking.
This was no recurring dream.
At breakfast, I waited until my father had left for my other grandparents' house, and my grandfather Richards, my brother, and my cousin had disappeared into the TV room, before I told my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother about the old man.
When I finished, my grandmother stood up and politely excused herself, leaving her coffee mug at the table. My aunt held her mug in two hands and blew on the steaming coffee inside. My mother put her hands in her lap and stared off into the corner of the dining room, as though looking for cobwebs.
"That was your great-grandfather," she said.
The suddenness startled me.
"He was blind," said my aunt.
"Whenever he got frustrated with us kids for being loud," my mother said, "he'd shake his cane at us."
"He owned two suits," said my aunt.
"A blue one and a brown one."
"He always wanted a grandson," my aunt said. "He probably just wanted to get to know you."
At that precise moment the mug my grandmother had left behind slid across the table toward me.
Somehow, knowing that the old man who visited me while I slept was a relative made all the difference. Sleep came easily for the next few nights. I did not lie awake cataloguing every creak or startle awake at sudden noises, just beyond my consciousness. Instead, I slept deeply and soundly. I lost the crispy, nervous edge that I'd been living with.
And then I dreamed of an old lady in a wheelchair on the landing halfway up the stairs.
At first, I thought she was napping, but the utter stillness, the profound quietness suggested otherwise. I awoke, certain that I had dreamed about a dead person—not a dead body or a corpse, but someone who had passed gently into the arms of death. When I went downstairs in the morning, I carefully avoided the spot on the landing where she'd been, not out of fear but out of respect for her resting place.
She never moved, but each night that I saw her, I approached her from a different direction or saw her from a different angle—as I ascended or descended the stair, as I looked from above or beside her.
Almost as an afterthought, I told my mother and aunt about her. We were alone in the kitchen. In fact, we had the house to ourselves. My grandfather and brother were driving my grandmother to work at the museum. Cousin Mike was back at his home near Utica. My father was across the village with his parents.
"I've been dreaming about this old lady," I said.
Across the table from me, they looked at each other—the air drew taut between them—and then back at me.
"Really?" my mother said.
My aunt made a noise somewhere to left of "Hmm" and to the right of "Uh-oh, here we go again!"
"She was in an old-fashioned wheelchair," I said, "up on the landing. With a blue blanket over her knees and her hands folded in her lap. I think she was dead."
"Oh," my mother said.
"That was your great-grandmother," my aunt said. "She died in her chair. On the landing."
I got chills, a feeling like falling backwards into ice-cold cobwebs. I'd never heard stories about or seen photos of my great-grandmother. I didn't even know her name.
My mother or my aunt—I wasn't sure which—started to say something more, but the thunk-thunk of heavy boots on the cellar stairs interrupted her. I turned toward the pantry door, curious to see who was coming up from the cellar.
When my mother and my aunt quietly stood up, gathered their breakfast plates and coffee mugs and motioned for me to follow them, I remembered that we three were the only ones in the house.
When Molly asked me if I believed in ghosts, I froze.
"I don't know for sure," I said, finally.
"But what do you think?" she said.
"Sweetie, I really don't know."
Molly has never been short on curiosity. She shares her mother's relentless inquisitiveness and intellectual clarity coupled with my stubbornness. The result is a child who won't let things go until she fully understands.
This was one of those times.
"If you had to say, one way or another, whether ghosts are real," she said, "which would you say?"
I thought of those nights my great-grandparents had visited me in the house on Delaware Street. I felt again the terror of sleep paralysis and the strange comfort I took in the fact that these ghosts—if that was what they were—had been relatives.
Mostly, I just wanted to pick up my coffee mug and quietly leave the room.
"I believe in . . . something," I said.
"Hmm," she said. "And what exactly do you mean by 'something?' "
"I'm not sure," I said.
Why didn't I just say "yes" or "no," that I believed or did not believe in ghosts? I don't know. I did know from experience that Molly was never all that willing to take a "maybe"—or in this case a "something"—for an answer.
I could've told her about Delaware Street, about my great-grandparents. I could've fallen easily into my role as storyteller and spun some wondrous story of the dead returning to visit the living. I could've said "yes" or "no."
Perhaps I didn't want to scare her, to keep her up nights fretting over every sound and shift of air pressure as I had done throughout my own childhood. Was my hesitation—or inability—to directly answer her question just a father's simple desire to shield his child from fear?
Who am I to bring my ghosts to her? Who am I to introduce her to the dead who visit me in my sleep? Who am I to answer the question of belief for her?
"Well," she said, in a tone like a stomping foot. "Have you ever seen a ghost?"
"I've seen . . . something," I said, swallowing hard. Someday, maybe she'll read this and understand. Maybe she can explain it all to me.
"Gah!" she said, throwing up her hands and marching out of the room.
I smiled, but I also wondered if I should've told her a little bit more about my ghosts after all.
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