Too Close to Home

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This material is not for the faint-hearted. You have been warned.

Too Close to Home

A ghost and a boy in bed

My family on my dad's side are psychically sensitive. That is not, however, how they tell it.

They say they are prone to 'seeing boogers'.

'Booger' is the Appalachian version of the Scots 'bogle'. In short, what those nitwits with the electronic equipment are trying like mad to encounter in every termite-ridden tourist trap on two continents. Go for it, bubba. Me, I spent most of my childhood hoping not to encounter any boogers. Especially ones I was related to.

My mother was of the opposite persuasion from her in-laws. No ghosts need apply. I have known her to lie down in the most psychically charged atmosphere imaginable and sleep like a baby. Which is why she dreaded her mother-in-law's reminiscences. The worst moments were right after my grandmother looked out the window and said something like, 'This weather reminds me of the day Uncle Charlie died…'

At this point, my mother would look at us kids and try to indicate silently that we should leave the room. We, of course, would pretend we hadn't seen her. We wanted to hear the stories she was afraid would give us nightmares and cause us to interrupt her beauty sleep.

'I remember when Aint Lydie said she woke up in the mornin' and saw Uncle John through the winder sittin' on the front porch, just a-rockin' away in that old rockin' chair. Problem was, Uncle John had been dead for years. He turned his head and looked straight at her… She woke up Uncle Charlie to tell him about it, but when they looked again, Uncle John was gone. The rocker was still a-rockin' away.'

This sort of thing went on all the time in the mountains. There was nothing 'satanic' about it, either. It was just that people who had lived all their lives in the same small area, doing the same familiar things, tended to get stuck that way, we supposed. Apparently, they sometimes didn't realise they were dead until somebody told them. Then they went on to heaven, where they belonged.

Like my great-grandfather.

It was 1960. A Friday afternoon. I had just finished my class piano lesson at the elementary school and was about to walk home. To my surprise, my family met me at the door. The car was packed for a road trip, and my sister was there, too.

'Get in,' my dad said. 'We're going to the mountains.' My great-grandfather, a farmer in his 80s, had died. It was very sudden: one of his grandsons had seen him in the morning. Apparently, after the grandson left, my great-grandfather had climbed aboard his tractor. Somewhere between the ground and the tractor's seat, he'd had a fatal stroke. That's how they found him later, sitting peacefully on his tractor. He'd died with his work boots on and his straw hat on his head.

By the time we got to my grandmother's house, the place was full of relatives. What? Didn't we go right to the funeral home, you ask?

You're not from around here, I take it? The funeral home was not where the viewing was taking place.

The viewing was taking place in my grandparents' parlour. The coffin lay in state directly under the large (about life-size) head-and-shoulders photograph of my great-grandfather in his prime. His magnificent bushy moustache was an impressive sight. He'd had a full head of hair back then, too. Unfortunately, the ancient sepia portrait didn't do justice to the colour of that hair and moustache, which were red.

In front of the coffin, my grandmother, as chief mourner, cried and was comforted. If you know any Irish people, ask them what 'keening' means. That went on, even though the local dialect doesn't know the word. Still, those people were very Irish and they did it even if they didn't know the word for it. Since the grownups were busy, we kids just milled around.

I heard snatches of conversation about my great-grandfather. He was sort of a character. In fact, he'd shot a man once. It was considered justifiable homicide, because the man was attempting to force my great-grandfather to hand over the payroll for the sawmill, a sum of money my great-grandfather was lawfully conveying on horseback to the sawmill. Which was probably why he had the gun in the first place.

My great-grandfather's grandfather made moonshine. I gathered that my great-grandfather was fond of a drink on a Saturday night. This may not shock you, but it shocked people where we came from. It wasn't something my great-grandmother appreciated, or so I heard.

Still, everyone present regarded my great-grandfather with affection. They would miss him. Especially his favourite grandson, the one who was named after him. That uncle had found him there, on his tractor.

That night was the first time I remember going to the mountains and not staying at my grandparents' farm. The house was too full, not to mention the fact that there was a body in the parlour. We stayed at a motel. We couldn't remain for the funeral because my dad had to be back at work on Monday. So we visited everyone and drove back on Sunday afternoon. It used to take a lot longer to get around in Tennessee: no interstate.

Apparently, the trouble came a few weeks later. My youngest uncle, still a teenager who lived at home, slept in one of the attic bedrooms. He woke in the middle of a warm night to find his grandfather standing in the room, studying him intently.

The boy jumped out of bed. 'Granddaddy,' he said firmly. 'You aren't supposed to be here, you know that.'

In reply, his grandfather grabbed him by the wrist, as if to pull him closer. When he did, his fingernails dug into his grandson's palm. The nails were long and sharp, and they hurt.

Then the old man seemed to realise what his grandson had said. He looked surprised. And then he vanished.

When my grandmother told this story, I was not too surprised. In the Appalachians, we don’t just have phantoms. We have revenants, and they can be quite corporeal. Obviously, my great-grandfather had got confused and shown up where his body last was.

It was also obvious that my mother was skeptical and thought my grandmother was exaggerating something my uncle had imagined. My grandmother insisted that her father had really been there.

'In the morning, the boy still had the prints of those fingernails in the palm of his hand!'

I could never look at the portrait over the sofa in grandmother's parlour the same way again.

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