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June 24, 2011

The Ghost in the Garden

by Barbara O'Neal

Have you ever lived with a ghost?  I have.  In fact, I’m pretty sure she wanted me to save her house.


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.”

220695561_1c5e1b951b “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 2742500090_7065849782_z

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!)



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Ghost stories are always cool, and with a cat named 'Piwacket', how could you go wrong? Incredible story Barbara...:)

I often think I must haunt the house where I was born and grew up, I go there so often in dreams.

I could feel the love for your old house in that story. You made me want to move in, ghost and all!

What a great story! I think I'm in love with the house now, too.

My dad visited me once, although it was more as if he took me with him than him visiting me. I was with him and another man who seemed to be his guide. The peace and comfort I felt there were unlike anything I've ever felt before or after. It was so intense, it was like I was being held in joy.

My daughter is the ghost's friend in our family. She used to talk to people I couldn't see in a way that was different from playing with her imaginary friends. It used to creep me out, actually. "Who are you talking to, Kayleigh?" "That man right there." I was mystified. She could describe them, tell me what they talked about. It never lasted long. I always said she lived in another world, and she apparently knows how to get there, too.

Is it possible that you are the ghost, Barbara? That when you sleep and dream, your current self goes back in time to that garden and that house and your pets recognize you?

That sounds like a classic Victorian/Edwardian ghost story. M.R. James, or perhaps Mrs. Oliphant. The kind that's all the more effective for being understated, and a bit mysterious.

What a wonderful story. I haven't encountered any ghosts so far, but wouldn't mind doing so.

I love Margaret's suggestion - puts a whole new spin on things.

Barbara, I know what it is, to be obsessed with buying a house. Mine didn't haunt me, as in ghostly urging, but it did impel me to buy it. And slowly but surely, we have polished and spit-shined it to the pretty little place it is now. Why do our homes possess us this way? I guess it's even stronger when you spend most of your time there, as writers tend to do.

I've had the feeling of a presence with me after loved ones' deaths: my dad, my maternal grandmother, my brother. Briefly, but so strong and crystal clear. The strangest is my brother, who was five years younger than I. He committed suicide seven years ago, on February 16th. Three months later, my oldest daughter, who was married, but who had a condition that made her clinically sterile, announced she was pregnant. My darling grandson was born the next year, on February 16th, weighing exactly the same as my brother had, almost 50 years before.

The world is a strange place, isn't it? To presume to understand all is a bit arrogant, I think.

I recently played the part of Big Edith in Grey Gardens. If ever a house or story gets into you, that one did and still does.
I saw the audition notice but had not a clue about the characters. Google does not make us stoopid.
I was sucked in immediately. A mother daughter crazy relationship set in this once amazing house call Grey Gardens in the Hamptons.
The story all connected to the Bouvier family.
There was a documentary made about the women that is haunting. A reality show before reality shows.
Another HBO movie was made not too long ago with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. It really captured the relationship and the insanity that surrounded the house and family.
The songs for the play still drift into my mind. They were intriguing and sad and just take hold of you.
What an experience.

Barbara, I love this story so much.

The house that my children were born into still haunts me, a little, but I wrote a ghost story that used it and that seems to satisfy something nostalgic longing.

While I am quite fond of the house I'm in now, and feel peace and safety and happiness here, I believe there's a ghost house in my future, something bigger and more wild and more peculiarly mine. You've inspired me.

My niece claimed there was a ghost at the condo, possible though I never saw a sign of one. The original owner only lived there one month before dying in a motorcycle accident (I have never trusted motorcycles). He was a nice person, by all accounts, so he would have been a considerate ghost. The address, 666, gave others worries, but again, I only had the normal noisy, smoking neighbors problems.
I think I heard the ghost of Mary Becker Greene on the Delta Queen. She was also reputed to be nice and ran a tight ship, er, boat -- so not to be feared . . .

I love this story. Love, love, love it. And, of course, gardening would cross all dimensions.

It's a love story, not a ghost story. And it's beautiful.

Thank you!

OH I love this story too@ -- I am so pragmatic I find it impossible to believe in ghosts....until someone tells me a really good ghost story. Color my disbelief suspended.

Thanks so much for sharing such a lovely story with us.
Barbara your imagery is so beautiful. DH has a few ghost stories that took place in his childhood.

Hey! I'm posting from 35000 feet! This is cool!!!

Amy, I love that! Your daughter is a ghost-whisperer!

Margaret, I never thought of me being the one who haunted it before. I am sure I haunt it now.

Karen, the story of your brother and daughter gave me shivers. I love ghosts and unexplainable presences.

Harley, which book features your old house?

Josh, I am *blazing* through Gods of Alabama on this flight. Ghosts come in a lot of forms.

I loved your story because houses live, you know, and breathe. I owned a house once with a cottage on the property that had a ghost. Supposedly, he was an old fisherman who sold eggs in the own where we lived. I never saw him, but I always said hi to him when I went into cottage. Because you never know. People wrote articles and wanted to walk through. I drew the line at that. My space wasn't going to be trivialized. You made magic with your house. Lovely story.

Lil, this was a stopper: an old fisherman who sold eggs. Love that you said hello to him, even without seeing him.

Mary, of course you heard the ghost on the Delta Queen. She was greeting another Mary!

Sarah, you nailed it: it truly is a love story, and a very sweet one, at that.

Oh yes, Lil. Houses live.

This is a wonderful story, Barbara. I can see how both the house and ghost spoke to you. I believe in ghosts and have seen at least one. One of my two sisters can anticipate bad things happening in our family and knows when someone close has died.

Once I visited some friends who were renting a Georgian residence situated in the middle of an office park. I walked into an upstairs bedroom and felt like a swarm of bees were buzzing all around me. Then I was hit by a thick wall of energy that seemed to push me from the room. Very strange!

The house I grew up in was haunted, but mainly by a trickster, and none of us ever feared it. I encountered some ghosts outside Cambridge, England, and reckoned I'd invaded their space, so they had every right to go about their routines (one mourning, some in a different location dancing!). My current apartment welcomed me with bizarre dreams the first few nights, which a friend told me later were the opium-haze of someone who had had a long last illness in the apartment. The downstairs apartment, though, is the only place where a ghost has made trouble--scaring the bejeebers out of the Marine who lived there by appearing behind him in the middle of the night when he was washing his hands in the bathroom sink and happened to look up and see her in the mirror.
Barbara, how lovely of you to check in amidst your travels!!

What a beautiful post! I love your story of reclaiming a house and garden as well as a benevolent presence. I also live in a semi-arid place, and after we moved here, loved seeing old, dry grass grow green again after applying love and water!

I wish my parents' ghosts had haunted their house, and said BOOOH at the tasteless jerk who ruined the prettiest house in Charlotte with his efforts to upscale it.

Barbara, I'm coming in so late, and I don't know if you'll ever see this, but this is one of my favorite blogs ever. Just wonderful.

I used to hear someone typing in the house where I lived when I was married.

Laraine, that is the spookiest story! My hair stood up to imagine him looking into the mirror and seeing her behind him. I just got goosebumps again typing that sentence.

I may or may not sleep well tonight after those stories. Good point on the Mary to Mary connection. I know I did feel safe with her on duty.
I never saw Mary Sibley in Sibley Hall at Lindenwood, but one of the residents did invite me to a knitting party and introduced me by saying, "her name is Mary, and this is Mary Sibley Hall, and besides, she's awesome!" A few of the young women did say they had heard footsteps from the unoccupied top floor, and piano playing at odd hours . . .

Sleep well .. . . .

An old friend of mine took a photo of another cast member in the theater where they were working. When it was developed there was another person (who wasn't there) beside the friend in the photo. He was wearing a period costume, something like a musketeer, completely different from the style of the present play. I still feel queasy when I think about it.

Myself? I have a ghost kitty who visits me at night when the house is quiet. I used to think she was one of my kitties when she would jump up on my bed walk across my legs, and curl up. Then one night, as she was curled up behind my knees, I reached over to pet her, and she wasn't there.

My favorite ghost encounter is the sound of dog toenails trotting back and forth in an upstairs hallway. Can't get too worried about a haunting when it's two long-passed Schnauzers named Teddy and Gretchen.

Our first house in southern Wisconsin was occupied by ghosts. It was an estate sale where the owners had passed. We bought it with an FHA loan and they really made us work for the loan! We spent our vacation sanding the old lead paint from the garage before repainting it.
It was a graceful sunny colonial with all the amenities: fireplace, three season porch with a gas fireplace for chilly days, and lovely old gardens throughout the grounds, formal dining room, lots of nooks and crannies finished. The owners built the house after their marriage in the 30's and the love they had was evident in the home. We could feel them there. I used to talk to them when alone there.

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