When I was in seventh grade, I graduated to having my own room. This was a big deal. I was the oldest of five kids in a house in which we often had friends from the neighborhood tearing through the halls, or cousins visiting, or even strangers wandering in because….well why the hell not, right? Privacy was a foreign concept. It simply didn’t exist.
So when my parents finished a couple rooms in the basement so my sister and I could have rooms of our own, I felt like I was in one of those families on t.v. – when a young lady could shout at her parents and slam the door in disgust. If I slammed my door of my room upstairs, it would still contain about six or seven eight-year-olds emptying the contents of my underwear drawer, which really kinda defeated the purpose.
So I moved downstairs.
Into the basement.
With the ghosts.
Actually, that last part isn’t true. There was only one ghost. A tiny old lady that I started to call Bertha. Though before I called her Bertha, I called her nothing. I called her fear. But fear has no name, and I had no language in which to speak it. I could only live with it.
In retrospect, my sightings of Bertha ended shortly after my parents had to remove the ancient octopus furnace on the other side of the plywood wall – a beast that moaned and sang every time it kicked into action, and that was, most likely, kicking out small amounts of carbon monoxide. Which would explain the visions.
She wore a nubbly wool skirt that stopped demurely under her knees and a matching jacket and sensible shoes. She had thick stockings, blue gloves and a smart hat that framed her face.
And she was old. Impossibly old. Still she sat at the end of my bed night after night, her hands folded on her knees, her ankles crossed discretely, and a look of anticipation on her face. She watched me. All the time. She watched me when I crawled under the covers. She watched me while I went to the closet. She watched me when I got up to turn on another light. I slept with the lights on for three years. And for three years, Bertha watched.
And after a while, I came to anticipate her. Sometimes she would remove her gloves – tugging at one finger at a time – and lay them next to her as she sat on the bed. Her fingers were as gnarled as trees. Sometimes she would remove her hat, revealing her flour-white hair, braided tightly and wound like a snake around her small skull.
And after a while, I began to appreciate her.
And after a while, I began to love her.
Then the furnace died.
Then it was replaced.
And then Bertha went away. And my heart broke.
I didn’t see another ghost for a long time after that. The next time was well after high school and college when I lived in a rental house in Portland Oregon with my boyfriend and two other housemates. The house next door was owned by a guy who was a packrat – like the pathalogic kind. Every window was crammed with junk. The yard was an overgrown jungle of sapling trees and tangled shrubs. The mail man didn’t even venture up the narrow path that served as a walkway, so I assumed that no one lived there.
Then I saw a lady at the window. She was young – maybe twenty – in a floral dress. A different dress every day. I saw her every evening for two weeks, though never for very long. I just saw her standing by the back window, her hand on the glass and staring out. It was always dinner time, so I would notice her right when I started cooking, and notice that she was gone when it was time to put dinner on the table. I assumed she must be a relative. Maybe someone was finally getting the house back in order.
Then the ambulance came.
The house was so jammed with junk that they couldn’t make it through front door, and they certainly couldn’t get a stretcher to where the guy was. So they cut a hole through the wall.
The next day, a woman – about forty years old – was hauling junk out of the house. I introduced myself and asked how the guy was. She said it was a close call, but that he would be fine, and what a blessing it was that they had reconnected because she and her father had been estranged for many years.
“He had no one,” the lady said. “No one visited him.”
“Well, it seems like I saw someone in the window for the last few days. A young woman. One of your sisters, maybe?”
“I’m an only child,” the lady said, confused. “There’s no one else. And certainly no one has visited. They couldn’t. You can’t even get inside.”
“Well,” I said. “I saw someone. In the house. In the window of the back bedroom.”
She stared at me like I was crazy. “There’s no way that can be right,” she said. “The back bedroom is packed solid. Floor to ceiling. Not even a rat could get inside.”
She then went on to say that the only reason why she came by at all, and why she called the paramedics, was the fact that she had a strange message on her phone. “She left no name, no phone number, no contact information. Nothing. She just said, ‘He’ll die if you don’t see him. He’s dying right now.’ Thing is, that voice? It was my mother’s voice. It was exactly her voice. And she’s been dead since the Reagan administration.”
She showed me a picture of her parents on their wedding day.
Her mother wore a floral dress.
Years after that, we bought a HUD house in Minneapolis. It was in miserable shape – awful, chemical smells in the basement, nicotine stains on the walls and the windows, a kitchen giving way to rot, waterstains on the hardwood floors. I thought we were crazy for buying it, but my husband had a vision.
And he did a beautiful job. The basement became a comfortable family room with a fireplace, and the kitchen had hickory cabinets and reclaimed bowling alley lanes as countertops, and reclaimed wood replaced the stained sections on the floors and saturated paints covered the yellowed walls, and it was beautiful.
There was a young man in a plaid shirt that sometimes appeared in the corner of my eye. Only in the basement. He had dark brown hair and ripped jeans and a permanent scowl.
And he was sad.
When we first started removing the horrors in the basement, there was one place in the wall board where a section had caved in. It looked as though there had been a fight at one point and one person had shoved another person into the wall, leaving the imprint of their body – a cracked, broken sketch in a poisoned wall. I would touch the cracks and shiver. And the figure at the corner of my eye would flicker, hover, and vanish, leaving only an ache of sadness behind.
I thought that once we made the space beautiful, once we had cleared away the debris of the past, that maybe the ghost would go with it, but no such luck. He remained. And his sadness infected me like a virus.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“YOU,” I said, when the image returned. It gave a sullen flicker, but it didn’t go away. “You’re bringing us down, man. You’re acting as if you’ve been trapped here, like we’re keeping you here. But we’re not. The house has moved on. The people who lived here moved on. And you gotta move on too. There are better places than this basement. And this basement is going to be a better place without your sadness stinking it up. Go. Go on and be happy. Right now.”
And I never saw him again.
And I missed him.
And I wondered who was hanging on to his memory, who was lingering in the echo of his sadness, who substituted sadness for longing, and longing for love. And I wondered if that person forgave that boy. Or if the boy forgave that person. In any case, I have no doubt that the image I saw was real. Certainly, I never saw it again after I told it to take a hike. But now, after all this time, I wonder what ghosts I hang on to. I wonder who I have kept tethered to this plane of existence when they had every right to go on. And I wonder if they’re pissed.
There is, I am convinced, a veil. We cross the veil and we do not return. But on this side, both living and dead are charged to wander. Both living and dead bear the weight of memory and the burden of heartbreak and the pain of love. But the dead are supposed to move on. And when they don’t, it’s because the living cannot let go. Because we are frightened and lonely. Because we irrationally fear death. Because we suck on stories like junkies. Because we are bastards. And the dead deserve better.
And perhaps that is why these celebrations of the dead pervade cultures and countries and tribes. Perhaps this is our chance to celebrate the dead, to cast their memories before burning candles and melting sugar and dry leaves and scatter them to the wind, setting them free.
Free the dead. Perhaps that shall be my Halloween slogan. Perhaps it should be yours.