1962: A Ghost Story

1962: A Ghost Story

March 16, 2021 3 Comments

 

 

The stone on my mother’s hand is a beveled icy rectangle. It shatters the June sun all over my eyes. She is excited, and she wants me to be excited too. I’m the only person around for her to tell.

Half-awake, I mumble words of enthusiasm, and then I ask if he will be moving in with us. “Well, no,” she says, gently, but with a touch of surprise in her voice, as if she hadn’t been expecting the question. “We’ll be getting another house together.” I hear the unspoken of course.

Now I’m awake. 

This is my house. It has three bedrooms, and there are only two of us here, plus the dog. My father is dead, my brother’s at college. My mother dating has been embarrassing. A new father is awkward, confusing. But moving away has never crossed my mind. I start to implode, shock sending fracture lines through me. It makes no sense: Why can’t he just move in here?

  “Honey.” Her voice is still gentle. “A man can’t move into another man’s house.”

She says it like it’s an established law of nature. Something she’s surprised I don’t know. 

What know is that I have failed her. I am supposed to be happy along with her. I am supposed to be mature. But I’m lost in a storm inside my body.

I pull on shorts, shirt, tennis shoes, bang out the screen porch door, run headlong down the sloping back yard to the river. I hope she heard the door. I hope she’s watching. I hope she’s alarmed. 

In another month I will turn twelve. A few days ago sixth grade closed behind me. My period debuted a month earlier. At the end of this summer comes the great leap into junior high. So much must be left behind—ways of dressing, speaking, wearing your hair and face. Recess. Arithmetic. It means migrating to the land of the teenager, a place full of expectation and judgment. It means new ways of caring about things. New things to care about. This is the big move I’ve been

 readying for.

For a long time I have had a dream where I come home from school to find strangers in the house. My mother and brother have moved, leaving me behind. This real-life version flips it: I go with them, and home sinks from sight in our wake. All because of something between one man and another, and one of them isn’t even alive.


These days I often seem to stumble on truths known to everyone but me. Especially gender rules, which often seem random and senseless, like other rules learned a long time ago. Ladies wear gloves. Men carve turkey. 


Another man’s house. I look back up the hill to our screened porch, the living room picture window. I thought it was our house. 

The little stream winds and warbles, flashing light. 

I am in revolt, head to foot. A decision that yanks me out of my life has been made without me, regardless of me. It hasn’t even been made, this decision; it’s been assumed. A man can’t move into another man’s house. I’m a detail in this other reality, a troublesome detail.

I try to cry and I can’t. I’m clogged, frantic, caught in some adult story where what I want doesn’t count for anything. I’m flapping like a trapped bird. I need something. I need. 

I turn and wander back up the hill. But I veer to the left, down into the small depression separating our lawn from the Robertsons’. 

Then I am standing outside their screen porch. The stillness of the house reminds me how early it must be. This house doesn’t sleep in. I push the screen door open and step onto the porch. A heavy glass door on the left looks into the house. It will be locked, I think, but it isn’t. I step inside.

I am standing at the head of the long dinner table, where Mr. Robertson sits. He’s a quiet, gentle man with a soft smile and a gift for calm amid noise and motion. Every time I stay for dinner he thanks the Lord for all His gifts, including my presence. We don’t say grace at our house, except when Granddad does it at Thanksgiving. Mrs. R sits at the table’s other end, near the kitchen. She is slightly imperious, tall with regal features and an air of amused tolerance cut with exasperation. On each side of the table children sit, with an extra place made for me. The Robertsons absorb me like one more drop of water into a sponge.

The Robertsons’ house is different from ours. It’s one story, long and low. The dining and living rooms are one big room, broken by a sofa. The furniture is called Danish modern and it seems like someone reinvented furniture, getting rid of everything complicated. The carpet is shaggy, a kind of dark turquoise. I’m sure my mother doesn’t think it’s tasteful, though she’d never say it. 

I listen to the house. I realize I’ve never heard it silent. I cross the living room, past the picture window looking down toward the river, like ours does. When I was little, Mrs. R. sat here holding her sixth baby, John, so that the neighborhood kids could gather outside to get a look at him. The yard outside the window is longer than ours, with a steeper slope to the river, for perfect sledding and tobogganing. Near the top, suspended by long, thick ropes from two big maples, is a board swing. When you can get someone to pull you back and up and throw the seat forward, you can pump hard enough to get so high it feels like gravity drops away and your body is hanging weightless in the air. At that point you jump free, flying in a long arc, hitting the thick shadowy grass and rolling down the hill. 

I turn to the slate-tiled front hall, facing the back of a door I never come to except on Halloween. I stand still. I stop, wondering what I’m doing here. It’s like my body moves further into the house, independent of my brain. To the right is the room with the TV, floored in brown linoleum, cabinets full of board games and toys. Photos of the kids at different ages line the walls, photos from a photographer’s studio, with halos of light and blurry edges. Beyond it is the kitchen where we girls do dishes, harmonizing to popular songs Mary Jane passes on to us from the teenage world.

To the left, a long, carpeted hallway ends in the master bedroom. I turn left.

More kids’ photos line the hall. I have studied them many times, watching the kids turn into themselves. On the right is the bathroom where we watch Mary Jane rolling or unrolling hair, ratting and spraying, applying lipstick, while she answers our questions about high school, its songs and boys and styles. The world of this bathroom, “the girls’ bathroom” it’s called, seems like a foreign country to me. It’s intriguing, though I can’t imagine living there. I’m sure all three Robertson girls will move easily into that world. They seem content being girls. I have some boy in me, or something that doesn’t answer to boy or girl. I am like a mongrel adopted by a family of purebred collies. 

I walk past what we call “the little boys’ room.” We treat tow-headed John like a baby, but David is funny and interesting and sometimes hangs around with the girls and me. I’d like a brother like David. He makes me wonder what it would be like to be in the middle of other kids. I operate like an only child. A solo. No buffer. The Robertson tribe surrounds me in another whole life. 

I’m nearing the end of the hall. The door could fly open any minute. I don’t know what Mrs. R would do if she saw me here. I have no idea of what I might say to explain myself. Yet my body moves forward, to the last door on the left. I turn the knob very slowly, bracing the door with the other hand so it opens silently. 

Twin beds, dark heads on white pillowcases. The darkest is Martha. She is a year older than me but always seems like an adult in a small body. She is a font of common sense and sardonic but kind advice. It was Martha who said, a year or so ago, “Listen: tell your mother you need a bra.” 

Nine years ago, shortly after we moved in next door, Martha and her little sister showed up at the door, clearly sent by their mother, to ask if I could come over and play. I don’t remember this, but my mother does. 

On the far pillow, Julia’s chestnut hair. 

She was born three weeks before me. We have spent countless nights in each other’s rooms. When we come home from camp or vacation, we run across the lawns to each other’s houses to anchor ourselves. We have concocted mutual projects and nicknames. We have sung songs upon songs and performed together in the school talent show. She always tells me how smart I am. I clutch the A’s I get so easily, believing in their currency. But there is something in Julie that I don’t have, like I don’t have her large brown eyes. It’s something warm, tender, accepting. My mother adores her. Julie makes her laugh. I know she would have loved a daughter like her. She’s a perfect June day and I’m all thunderheads and March wind. Her burbling stream makes me feel like deep, dark water. Yet none of it seems to come between us. We have been blood sisters since we picked mosquito-bite scabs and rubbed our arms together one summer day. Crossing the great divide into junior high was imaginable because we would do it together. 

None of them, no one in this house, knows how the planet has shifted on its axis. I feel like I’m hovering outside of time, in some kind of gap between chapters. I want them to wake and be stricken by the news and join me in this new world. Watching Julie sleep I feel my solitariness. I am a renegade moon moving wildly out of orbit, away from the gravity of this house. I have no business here. In this house where I have spent many days and nights, I am only a ghost. 

Very quietly I shut the bedroom door and rapidly retrace my steps down the hall, through the living room. If someone caught me now I’d have to explain why I’m there and also why I must get out as quickly as possible. I pull the heavy porch door carefully behind me, and make sure the screen door doesn’t slam. 

Outside, the day is still beginning. I’m where I was, standing on the brink of everything that will happen. Crossing the grass, I re-enter the world of time, moving into the life that is turning into my own. 

 

 

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Gail Griffin 
is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces 
(Michigan Notable Book 2020). Her essays and poetry have appeared widely in places including The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, New Ohio Review, and Fourth Genre, and have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and honored as Notables in Best American Essays. She lives in southwestern Michigan, where she is at work on a collection of memoir essays on whiteness.
 
Photo Cred: Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash


3 Responses

Sue Sambrano
Sue Sambrano

April 15, 2021

Wow. Your story resonated with me. Sixteen, loving my house, having to leave and running to my friends in tears trying to share with them my crisis. Thank you.

Janet Ruth Heller
Janet Ruth Heller

April 03, 2021

Gail, I enjoyed this essay very much! You capture a moment of disruption in a child’s life and her sense of everything that she will lose when she leaves her neighborhood. Good work! Best wishes!

Lucy Alix Koviak
Lucy Alix Koviak

March 23, 2021

Oh, Gail – how I love this piece!! Martha shared it with us. I so remember you, and your description of the Robertsons and their house, is priceless. I am one of those cousins who spent most holidays and many overnights in the same space. To read of your heartache, and a safe place for you, is powerful. I am also happy to see references to your writing, and hope you are doing and feeling well. Thank you for these beautiful memories.

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