A couple of weeks ago my wife asked me if I would do a favor for a friend of hers. The woman owned a lakefront home and had recently decided to put it on the market. There were reasons beyond the need for money or the desire to retire to a warmer climate as many do in their older years around here, but I was not privy to them, nor was I particularly interested. I only knew that the woman had been recently widowed and that the place was an antique with Indian shutters and a commanding view of the harbor and the distant lights of the north shore. My wife has been helping some of the older residents with their organizing chores — she has a Martha Stewart-like penchant for making a place look nice and a pleasing personality that doesn’t come across as anything other than what it is — genuine and kind. One person tells another and so our phone rings with regularity, retirees inquiring if she is available for a couple of hours to help put things in order before its too late.
Not long after we had married my Grandfather passed away. My wife and my Grandmother had become close during his final months, she spent a great deal of time with her helping her with household chores and trips to the grocery store. At some point the two of them must have talked because it was my wife who approached me about moving in with my Grandmother and forming a multi-generational household. We convened a meeting of the entire family and everyone thought it would be for the best. My wife and I would tear off the roof of the bungalow and build a second floor for us and my Grandmother would stay right where she was as long as she lived in the home she and her husband had built and raised their children in. The women got along and there was always a second set of ears and eyes to keep track of our toddler. I was able to build the house out and maintain it the way my grandfather had taught me. Looking back from a vantage point of 15 years it was one of the wisest and most prescient moves of our adult lives and in the end my Grandmother was able to pass on in the same bedroom where her mother had died forty years earlier, surrounded by the people who loved and cared for her.
One night, several years afterwards, as we were preparing for bed, I decided to go downstairs for a drink of water. I had built a vestibule at the top of the stairs and a door to close off the floor below. As I opened it I was overwhelmed by a familiar scent, the bath powder my Grandmother had always used when she got ready to go out shopping or to Church. It struck me with a powerful flood of memories and I stood at the top of the stairs for a moment trying to rationalize what I was experiencing and after a moment I collected my thoughts and went down the stairs. At the bottom, under the pale light from the moon that fell across the floor I could see the entryway to her bedroom door — converted now into a playroom for our son — and I thought of all the times I had been in and out of that room in my lifetime, the sound of her voice, her laughter and that scent that defined her, at least in my memory. I remember feeling comforted by that reminder, glad that I could remember her so vividly after so much time had passed and I made my way to the kitchen and drank my water in the darkness. When I made my way back upstairs the scent was gone and so I climbed back into bed with my wife and drifted off to sleep. At some point, I couldn’t say when, my wife got out of bed and went downstairs, probably to check the locks on the doors, a habit she inherited from her mother. I was barely aware of her movement until she came back into the room and climbed into bed again.
“The strangest thing just happened.” she said “I could have sworn I smelled your Grandmother’s powder on the stairs…”
I went to the lake house with my tools and paint and I installed a new door to the garage and painted it. It was a cool day and overcast without a hint of a breeze. I had promised our youngest that I would come to school for the Halloween pageant at two O’clock and with that in mind I worked quietly as the last of the oak leaves fell, one by one into the woods around me. When I completed the work I took my paintbrush to the house to wash it. I had been told where to look for the key and found it, a tarnished old affair that was twice as old as I was, hanging on an even older hook made from a hand forged nail. I opened the door to the house and you could tell immediately that it had been empty for some time. There is a smell to old homes along the lake that is unique, the moisture swelled wood, the decay of a thousand insects, the dust and pollen of seasons past. It is not unpleasant, but at the same time it is strongly reminiscent of absence, of families and couples no longer there, whose voices and laughter have faded long ago like the fabric of the furniture facing the windows. The power had been turned off and so I made my way into a house I didn’t know, in a half darkness of woods and autumnal afternoon. I moved down a central hallway, rooms off to the left and the right of me towards the back, looking for the kitchen, laundry, a bathroom with a sink. At the end of the hall there was a small room with a door ajar and I saw a brief reflection in a mirror and the light reflecting off the lake sparkling across it. As I pushed on the door it made a quiet protest, its hinges touched with rust and I saw the old style sink mounted on the wall. I put the brush under the spigot and turned the porcelain knob but nothing came out, the water had also been shut off, I guessed, and so I turned it back to the closed position when the front door at the end of the hallway slammed shut with a bang. It closed with such force and a sound so loud I am not ashamed to say that I jumped. It had been deathly silent in that house and as I said before it was not a place I was familiar with and so I reacted differently than I would have had I been somewhere else. I walked back down the hall — darker now than it was before without the light coming in from the door — and I opened it up again. I examined the door, the swing of it, the fact that the storm door outside was firmly latched and looked back up the hallway towards the bathroom where I had just come from to see if perhaps a window had been left opened, anything to explain the cause of the door closing on its own, without success. After a moment in that hallway, my mind working on a puzzle without any clue, I closed the place up behind me and rehung the key in its place. I made it to the elementary school just in time to watch the children parade around the playground, dressed like ninjas and pirates and ghosts.
On Halloween night we take the younger children to the next town where our friends live. They have children the same age and the wives take them trick or treating through the neighborhood while my friend and I sit in lawn chairs with a bowl of candy and a small fire burning in a steel ring on the driveway. We nurse a beer or two and tell the kids how great their costumes look and exchange pleasantries with the mothers and fathers who tag along with the younger ones. My friend runs a property management service that caters to the lake homes and I shared the story about the door with him. When I got to the end, to the part about how I couldn’t quite figure out what caused the door to slam shut he fiddled with his beer bottle and squinted at me.
“Was that the place out by the lighthouse?” he asked. I said that it was and further described the place, the Indian shutters, the stone chimney facing the lake and the bull pine at the end of the point. He considered this, I could tell, before he spoke again.
“You know that’s the place where the guy killed himself, right?” he looked at me seriously, through the flickering glow of the firelight. “Shot himself in the bedroom downstairs.”
I took another drink of beer and nodded. “I didn’t know that.” I said
And from the shadows at the bottom of the driveway a group of children emerged into the firelight, dressed like fairies and dinosaurs.
“Trick or Treat!” they said. “Trick or Treat!”
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do know that world we live in is haunted. All around us, every day we are surrounded by the shades of the past, the failed chances we never took, the friendships and love we allowed to slip away from us. Our personal failures and our collective faults echo through time, like the sound of waves coming from a distance after the foam has disappeared on the sand. Sometimes our regrets about the things we’ve said and the people we’ve hurt stay with us, buried in our life, only to emerge in dreams or in those moments between sleep and waking to haunt us when we are alone. Other times, a scent or a sight can trigger a visitation from the past that is as real as anything we experience in our daily life and comfort us with a memory of someone we loved who is long gone. Every time I pick up an arrowhead from the field, or an old spoon sticking out of a long abandoned foundation there is a glimpse of some other time, a fleeting moment where past and present exist in the same instant and I feel it as if it were something tangible and real.
I wonder about that house by the lake — my wife told me about it when I asked her later. “Why didn’t you tell me before I went there?” I asked her.
She looked at me and smiled. “You don’t believe in ghosts.” she said.