Happily haunted house

The longer I am in my four-bedroom 1910 Victorian home, the more it seems wrong to know so little about the people who constructed it – the builders, and the McGraths, the family who farmed the land for decades before selling it off to become my neighborhood.

Before lockdown I rarely thought of these folks. I reckon that’s because I was in and out, driving hither and yon, traveling, inhabiting other spaces, like schools, theaters, bars, airports, train stations; I was living the typical mobile life of a modern citizen with a car, privileged with the means to move about the world, from Kingston to New York City to Paris to Cuzco and back again; to Rhinebeck to catch a movie, to Hudson to see a performance, to Albany to attend a seminar. The notion of being “barred” from any of that, for any reason, never occurred to me. If I wasn’t doing the things, I was thinking of doing them, my mind cast into the future, elsewhere.

I now believe I wasn’t actually in my home for long enough stretches to feel the lingering presences of those who came before. But now, having spent so many days, nights, and weeks within and around these walls – much more concentrated time and enforced stillness than ever before – I sense them.

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This new pandemic-induced version of myself has much more in common with my forebears than the old me. Of course they did not stay up all hours watching movies via cable television in what was once the dining room. No, they probably slept at sunset and awoke as dawn lit up these same bay windows. Even so, we lately share significantly more common ground.

I walk the halls, sit in the rooms, and feel ghosts, hear echoes. Or maybe it’s my own DNA, sending messages of recognition from way down my own line. But especially when our son is here, as he has been, and our Brooklyn friends (Covid-negative, antibody-positive, by the way) visit and fill up two more bedrooms, I can almost feel the house sigh with pleasure. She was built exactly for this. Not as a place for one couple to roost between flights, but a home in which at least four people dwell at a time.

Did those who dug the basement and erected the oaken frame, laid the fir floors, and hung the chestnut doors know their work would serve well this house’s residents 110 years on?

When, in 1910, they laid the still-standing dry stone wall, removed hemlock stumps, and planted the spruce and the Norway and sugar maple saplings, did they even try to envision us in the shade of these trees, tending to them, freeing them from invasive weeds, crying, celebrating, raging, raising a child, entertaining guests, making love beneath them in 2020?

I would say yes. Everything else – the Internet, the television, the Mac, the iPhone, the pharmaceuticals, the little everyday miracles – they couldn’t conceive in the same way we cannot conceive 2130 normalcy. But the most important stuff was well within their grasp of understanding. At least that’s the message, the sense of nodding, of approval and understanding I get from the ghosts. Now that I know how to listen.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.