In This House that I Call Home
Of ghosts and old ladies and houses with names.
“Property is proper to man,” said Dorothy Day, and if home—its protection, its cultivation, and love thereof—is the cynosure of any healthy political movement, as well as half the title of this column, I may as well tell you about mine. About ours.
We bought this modest 1830s Greek Revival (which hadn’t indoor plumbing until the 1980s) in 1992 off Gabby, who, bless her heart, had rescued it from demolition. The divorced wife of a banker, she was European, sensual, a soi-disant “artist”—an exotic in these parts. We were told that she glided around the sheerly curtained house in the nude. I expect the men of our street were sad to see her go.
Gabby had painted the house in pinks and pastels and dubbed it La Maison des Fleur Printemps, making it the only abode in the county with its own name tag on a shingle.
The springtime lilacs, tulips, and dandelions are lovely, to be sure. (I hold with James Russell Lowell that those common golden flowers, the last-named of that trio, “art more dear to me/Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.”) But about 45 seconds after we moved in I ripped that damned sign out of the ground. I’m about as Franco-American as SpaghettiOs. A paint job in sunshine yellow soon followed.
The former chatelaine, a devout believer in the healing power of crystals, had lodged miniature glass talismans in every nook and cranny of the maison. She also told us that “pixies and fairies” frolicked in the flower beds out back. Okay, we’ve had our share of frolicking fairies, but of pixies I have seen none.
Nor have I espied the “beautiful white ghost” which Gabby claimed descended the stairs in the wee hours. The first night my wife and I spent in the house we slept on the living room floor. At about 3 a.m.—the soul’s midnight, as Ray Bradbury called it—Lucine shook me awake.
“I think I see it,” she whispered.
My first instinct, of course, was to feign deep slumber. Not for me this “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” bluster. But upon investigation the specter was revealed to be the headlights of a vehicle coming ’round the bend.
I felt none of the smug satisfaction of those annoying rationalist debunkers. A la Russell Kirk, I wish the ghosts were real. For visitants we have to make do with the chittering chipmunks who squeeze into the walls on cold rainy nights.
If any house in town is wraith-ridden, it ought to be ours. For perhaps half its life it was tenanted by the leading spiritualist family of Genesee County, which is near the western terminus of what the novelist-folklorist Carl Carmer called America’s “psychic highway.” True believer or humbug, credulous dupe or ectoplasmic evangelist, itinerant communers with the dead who passed through our county in the early 20th century usually boarded with the Slaters.
The last of the line, the Roderick Usher of Chapel Street, was a pursepoor grimalkin with long coarse white hair. The kids of the neighborhood called her a witch, though I suspect she was merely shy and odd, one of those love-cracked solitaries sketched with such sympathetic observation by the great forgotten portraitist of eldritch spinsters, Mary Wilkins Freeman.
Miss Slater committed that gravest sin of mean old ladies: she kept the baseballs, footballs, and whiffle balls that landed in her yard. To be fair, the urchins were not blameless in this war. “We used to throw dogshit at her door,” one grayhair confessed. Thankfully that practice died out with its victim.
As a rest-in-peace offering, I leave a token on the Slater gravestone in the cemetery through which I walk almost every day. It’s a safer way to communicate than a seance.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever sell this nameless place—hey, it’s home. So last year I relented in the decades-long argument with my wife over the paving of a driveway. “Why do our cars need a carpet?” I asked. Now they have one.
The looming battle is over a garage. “Why do our cars need a shrine?” I ask. We’ll see how long I can hold out.
In the meantime I sit in the twilight, looking out over fields of corn or cabbage. I don’t even mind the song that plays on the radio.
Don’t have much money, but boy if I did
I’d buy a big house where we both could live
It’s not that big, but you can’t beat the fleurs every printemps.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.