The Ghost in the Garden
My eldest son was in kindergarten when I first saw this house. It was a narrow, two story brick, with a bay window on the top floor, and deep porch. It was well over a hundred years old, and looked it—the yard was bare dirt, baked by the southwestern sun to absolute sterility, the paint on the old wood was peeling. There was a crack in the brick over one window. It was empty. Abandoned.
But every day, as I passed by with my son’s five-year-old hand in mine, the house caught my eye. A pair of windows faced east, illuminating a staircase with a beautiful old banister, and spilling sunshine into the open front rooms. The light was so inviting, so peaceful, that often I would pause on the way back home and peer in the windows to see what else I could see. That inviting upstairs bedroom with the bay window. The enormous front windows overlooking the street, arched and ancient, the glass thin and wavery. One of them had a tiny bb hole in it. The kitchen was horrific—a single bank of cupboards made of tin, covered with wood-grain contact paper.
It had been condemned for the wiring.
I could not bear it. I dreamed of the house at night, feverishly imagining the yard filled with flowers, and lace curtains hanging in every window (a genetic Irish trait, I’m afraid).
A relative of my husband told me to “claim it,” tell God that I wanted it, that it was mine and I would take good care of it. What did I have to lose? I tried it. As Ian and I walked by the next month, I claimed it.
Then, because it never hurts to be practical, I set about tracking down the owner. After a lot of dead ends, I finally found him, an old man in Arizona who just wanted to get rid of it. He wanted a mere $20,000 for it—which might as well have been $10 million for our small, poor, young family. He was so eager to sell it, however, that he carried the loan and let us have it for the sweat equity it would require to become livable.
It was a long haul. For the whole first winter, we lived with an exposed brick wall in the living room and bare pine floors through the house. I put up with the impractical, horrible kitchen for seven years.
It was worth it. The terrible, tiny bathroom had a giant window and a claw-foot bathtub. The bay window looked over treetops and the roofs of other houses. The dining room had long windows (though no two windows in the house were the same size) where we ate supper every evening and my husband's Sunday breakfasts complete with homemade biscuits. My boys grew up there.
The first time I felt the ghost, my white cat Piwacket and I were out in the side yard trying to see if there were any old plants that might be planted there. It was overgrown with weeds, and Pi leapt on flies and grasshoppers, then suddenly stopped and dashed over to an empty spot in the yard and started winding around somebody’s ankles. For a minute, I just gaped, but the feeling of approval and benevolence was so powerful that there was no reason to be afraid.
An old woman lived in the house across the alley, Electra McKinney (a name I have saved for the right book, and will use one day) and when I started watering the dry dead dirt of the yard to see what might grow, she leaned over the fence and said with approval. “She had a beautiful garden here once. I hope you can save some of it.”
“She” had died in the house a couple of decades before. I never learned her name. The owner’s mother, it turned out, who had lived there since 1932. When I watered her yard, the long-dormant plants she had loved began to sprout—ancient roses and Naked Lady lilies and honeysuckle in the backyard, a rose of Sharon and mulberry bushes in the front. It became a lush background for my nascent gardening skills. I added more roses and perennials and herbs. I planted baby’s breath and day lilies and a thick lawn beneath the trees in back. Electra McKinney gave me things from her old garden, too, irises and lamb’s ear and asparagus starts.
The cats liked playing in the side garden with the ghost. Sometimes a dog would dance with her in the back yard—perhaps she was throwing ghost sticks for them. My husband was not as fond of her when she appeared at the side of the bed in the middle of the night. (He actually made me move the bed to another part of the room and that did the trick. When we divorced, I moved it back and she
seemed to approve. I slept like a baby between the two long windows.) As the animals passed away, I buried them where she seemed to like to sit, and I liked imagining that they would be wandering through the yard, too--many friendly presences to keep a gardener company.
I lived in that house for almost twenty years, when my life took a turn and I fell in love with a man in my old home town of Colorado Springs. I left the ghost and the house to someone else, who did not care as well for it. The yard has gone dry, again, and some unfeeling soul cut the Rose of Sharon down to the ground, though the peach tree still produces. At night, in my dreams, I sometimes wander through the rooms, and stand at the window of the study where I wrote so many, many words, a window that overlooks the side garden with the ghosts of woman and cats. We wonder, all of us, who will next save our house. When a young mother will wander by, and catch sight of the light pouring through the windows, and see the flowers on the peach tree, and wonder if there is something else that could be coaxed to grow in that barren soil...
Have you ever known a ghost? Do you haunt a place you once lived?
(I will be checking in from airports today, as it's a travel day for me...but I will check in, promise!)