Sometimes They Come Back. . .and Walk Around. . .
. . .and wake you up in the middle of the night. At least, they do if you live in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. Now, technically, houses are much more likely to be 'haunted' if they're old, right? And my grandparents' house wasn't that old. My dad helped my grandfather put that house up after he (my dad) got back from World War II, and that was in 1946. But of course, not much in the house was exactly new. Following time-honoured local custom, my grandparents' 'new' house was built from parts of several old houses left abandoned somewhere in fields: a window frame here, a chimneyful of bricks there…you get the idea. Okay, the wallpaper was new, and quite interesting, especially in the mansard attic rooms, which were decorated with whatever was left on the ends of the rolls. The result was eclectic. Still, it was a tidy and charming house, and well-built, because my dad had the building gene, big-time. I would happily have lived there myself as a kid, if it hadn't been for the ghosts all night. It was hard to sleep.
Now, my mother slept just fine. My mother was tone-deaf when it came to the supernatural. Nothing disturbed her slumber. My dad's family, on the other hand, was prone to sense, see, or hear 'boogers'. It tended to make them jumpy at night. They were fairly open about this, and my grandmother shared a lot of true ghost stories with us when we were kids. My mother didn't like this: one, she didn't want her mother-in-law making the kids even more skittish than usual, and two, as a staunch Baptist, she hadn't quite made up her mind whether paranormal phenomena were genuine or examples of godless supernaturalism. So she gritted her teeth and smiled vaguely when Grandmother started, 'This weather reminds me of the day Uncle Charlie died…Ethel said she saw him later, a-sittin' in that old rockin' chair of his, cuttin' a plug of t'bacca. . . ' Apparently, even death would not part my ancestors from their Red Ox.
Seeing ghosts was commonplace enough, as were the noises I heard in the house all night. But before I tell you what happened to my 15-year-old uncle, let me give you a bit of background on my great-grandfather's funeral.
It was 1960 when my great-grandfather died. They found the 85-year-old sitting on his tractor, dead, in hat and overalls, like a statue titled 'Farmer at Work'. He'd had a stroke while climbing up to plough a field, completed the action, and then died, leaving his remains to be discovered by his grandsons. Great-grandfather Isaac was a hard-working man, and it somehow seemed a fitting end. It was what Grandmother'n'them did later that struck my eight-year-old self as, well, odd.
It was strange enough to be met after piano lesson at school by a family already packed and ready to leave on a trip. Back in those pre-Interstate days, going to the farm meant an eight-hour drive through countryside and many, many small towns. It was extremely late when we got there. You could hear my grandmother and the other women keening before you opened the door. The house was packed with people of all ages and descriptions, more relatives than I'd known I had. But that wasn't the odd thing.
The odd thing was what was in the parlour. Yes, there was the usual heavy furniture, well polished. There was the old upright piano. There were the formal photograph portraits of family members from the 19th Century, including the big one of my great-grandfather in his prime. In that one, he was looking magnificent in his best Sunday suit, with his mane of red hair (sepia in the photo) and elegant, bushy moustache. None of that was odd, that was there the last time I'd looked. It was what was under that photograph – the one that was looking directly at me – that stopped me in my tracks and made the sound of my grandmother's wailing fade away into the distant background.
|This is not the portrait of my grandfather. That was larger, and much more formal. This photograph of a Southern mountaineer shows a man from my neck of the woods in everyday garb, circa 1928. It was taken by Doris Ulmann, who was part of the Clarence H. White School of Photography. The photo is in the Library of Congress' Warren and Margot Coville Collection.|
In the middle of the parlour, under the portrait, was a coffin. The coffin was open. And in that coffin lay my great-grandfather.
I can't remember too much about the rest of the visit – kids' memories are like that, full of vivid patches surrounded by murky impressions. We didn't stay for the funeral for some reason, probably connected to my dad's job obligations. We didn't sleep at the house, either: we must have gone over to my great-aunt's, or else a motel, there being so many relatives in town. Time passed, and I only thought of my great-grandfather every single time I was in the parlour at my grandparents' house. I couldn't look that portrait in the eye anymore. And I had to add that room to the list of places I didn't like to be in alone. The farmhouse was a little noisier at night for those of us who woke up and listened. But that was nothing to what happened to my uncle.
My youngest uncle, Laren, was only 15 when his maternal grandfather died. Laren slept in the mansard attic – alone, now that his older siblings were all grown up and married. One night, a couple of weeks after the funeral, he woke with a start because somebody was shaking him.
It turned out to be Grandfather Isaac. Laren, even half-asleep, was alarmed. But his grandfather seemed to want to tell him something, gripping the boy's hand tightly. This is how we know Grandfather Isaac was a revenant, and not a mere ghost. Pay attention: it's important to know your boogers by classification.
'Granddaddy, you're not supposed to be here,' Laren expostulated with the unwelcome apparition. 'You're dead, and you're supposed to move on.'
This statement seemed to startle the revenant, who paused for reflection, somewhat like a challenged sleepwalker. Laren's assertion must have made sense, because his grandfather abruptly vanished. I imagine it took my uncle a fair while to get back to sleep, but in the morning, he told my grandmother all about it. And that lady had evidence that it wasn't a dream. It all really happened.
'Laren showed me the palm of his hand,' she said firmly. 'An' there was deep dents in it, from where his granddaddy had dug his nails into it. My daddy was really there!'
I did not doubt this, not one little bit. And the fact that for the next decade or so, every time I visited my grandparents, I slept in that same mansard attic, made me as hypervigilant as did finding myself in the parlour alone with the portrait photo. Don't get me wrong: I had nothing against my great-grandfather, who by all accounts was a colourful but charming character. If I had been older when he was around, I'd have desperately wanted to ask him about the time when robbers tried to take the sawmill's payroll from him, and all of them on horseback. The way I heard it, he'd shot one of the robbers dead. I'd have wanted to ask him what his grandfather had told him about the Civil War, etc. It wasn't the personality of the vital human that I was worried about.
All that moving around at night was somehow wrong. I was never convinced that these ghosts and revenants were the actual people they represented, who, as I well knew, weren't here but in another world now. Instead, I thought these boogers were imposters, empty poseurs left hanging around by an untidy universe, and I wanted nothing to do with them. So I remained vigilant as they lurked around the corner of my nighttime attention, and prayed they'd leave me alone.
The moral of this story may be: avoid home funerals. Or it may be: don't be so nervous. So what if you see a ghost or two in your time? Every person I've talked about in this story has passed away. I loved them dearly, and I miss them. They have no need to appear in the night, because they're locked in my memory. But I am also glad to know that they, themselves, aren't marching around in the darkness. They had somewhere better to go.