Every house that has been lived in has a story to tell. I don't know exactly how it works, but I believe that the actions and emotions of past inhabitants—even their beliefs, hopes, and fears—linger in the places where people once lived. And sometimes, these dormant memories from the past come alive again.
I live in a house filled with stories, an old Victorian in a historic Mississippi River town. I like knowing that for over a hundred years, families have lived here, raising their kids, making meals in the now antique stove, looking out the same windows that I look out each day. There's something magical or sentimental or energetically powerful about this house. My family and I have had many spirit visitors, odd vivid dreams, and remarkable experiences since moving in. Old-fashioned spirit sisters from long ago, the ghost of the old man who lived here before me, the apparition of a grieving woman, these are some of the spirits who have come back to the place they once called home-my house now. My Irish family spirits have come by when their help is needed, with whispered messages of support, positive energy, and even a sit-down visit from my Irish great grandma's spirit. Some of the ghosts who have appeared here seem to be just passing through...
The first spirit we met was Leon Kuechenmeister, the old German guy who had owned the house before us. He was in the house when I bought it. I felt him watching us the first time my realtor and I walked through the house. Once grand, a sleepy shabbiness had descended on the old house. It had been converted to a duplex in the nineteen-thirties and then a triplex sometime later. I knew there was a male ghost in the back part of the house where the old man had lived, so I figured it was probably him. Leon had his reasons for sticking around, some involving important unfinished business and other reasons that were a little more surprising. Plain old stubbornness, too, might have had something to do with Leon's refusal to move on. According to the other ghosts, Leon's the boss. Before I got to know him, I was afraid of Leon. Now, I think of Leon as a protective spirit, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the nighttime house when most of the weird stuff happens. When a ghostbuster came to my house, Leon told her that "things had happened" that no one knew about in the back staircase attic landing, but he wouldn't elaborate. He said he was there to protect us.
Leon's story has been the most detailed and complete. I tell Leon's story in my book House of Spirits and Whispers. There are still people in the neighborhood and in town who knew Leon and his family when they lived here. Also, a bunch of Leon's stuff was still in the house and garage when we moved in, so I felt that I got to know something about Leon by seeing what things he cared enough to save. Leon makes his presence now by knocking on walls, turning on lights, closing doors, noisily walking around, and helping workmen. We often smell a cigar or chewing tobacco smell when Leon is nearby. Once, I heard Leon clear his throat and another time I heard him chuckle. I've actually seen Leon only twice, but both times he looked like a regular person—just a nice old guy. He wasn't transparent or all white or anything. I think it's because he was in a physical body not that long ago. The sad spirit woman apparition that I saw looked like a hologram. She looked like a real person but was transparent. Dressed in a maroon dress with a small print pattern, she had dark hair and looked like she was from the nineteen forties. The sad spirit woman was sitting at the foot of my bed, looking down. She was motionless and seemed completely unaware of me. I believe I was seeing a moment from the past when this woman had experienced overwhelming hopelessness and grief. My impression was that her sorrow was related to a young man, possibly her son. I have not yet found out who she is, although I am working on getting the stories of as many of the people who lived in my house as I can. I have the house deed with the names of all the people who owned my house before me. And I've been to the library and to the history room at city hall to do research on my house and the families who lived here.
I lucked out at the history room while researching the old-fashioned spirit sisters. The Hartnett family lived in my house at the turn of the last century. They had three daughters—Julia, Bettina, and Katrina—and two of the spirit sisters paid me a visit one night. Young women with pompadour hairdos and long dresses, they were up in the corner of a small sitting room, up in the air near the ceiling. I have seen one of the spirit sisters on a few other occasions since then. The old-fashioned spirit sisters were transparent and white, like traditional ghosts. I think that's because their spirit energy is from over one hundred years ago. When I was looking through historical photos, I found a graduation picture of one of the Hartnett sisters. Her hair was swept up in a pompadour and she was wearing a long white dress, just as I had seen in the sitting room. But I also found obituaries for all three Hartnett sisters, and two of them had lived to be old women who had died only a decade or so before I bought my house. That knowledge radically shifted my perspective. I had been thinking of the Hartnett sisters as young women lost in time, not as old women I might have seen at the grocery store if I had moved to town ten years earlier. It brought up an interesting question—why was I seeing their spirits as young women and not as they looked at the middle or end or their lives?
I am familiar with the theory of traumatic or emotionally charged events leaving an energetic imprint that can sometimes be felt or seen by others. I am also familiar with the shamanic concept of soul loss, which means losing spirit energy due to trauma or the threat of trauma when there is no way to escape. It's basically a dissociative state; a way of trying to stay safe in desperate situations. But the spirit sisters didn't seem particularly traumatized, so that didn't quite fit. That's when I started to wonder if some of their everyday happy energy remained in the house, and their spirits looked like young women because when they lived here, they were young women.
One of the Hartnett sisters, Julia, wrote her name on a seed poster when she was a young girl, and it was the night we found the poster that Julia and one of her sisters appeared in the upstairs sitting room. The cover of my book is a photograph of the seed poster from our house. If you look closely, you can make out Julia's initials on the seed poster girl's forehead and a bit of Julia's full name, written in loopy cursive handwriting, on the seed poster girl's chest.
A new ghost has been dropping by my house lately. It's a cigarette-smoking ghost, which is a first in the eleven years that I've lived here. I don't know if the smoking ghost is a male or female—sometimes you can guess gender by which rooms the ghost hangs out in or the things they do. One night, the ghost was right behind me while I was finishing up a short story on my laptop. I got up to move away from the smoke smell and then the realization hit me that there was no reason why I should smell fresh cigarettes. (Or any cigarettes, since no one smokes in my house.) My daughter Molly dreamt that she met the ghost—it was an old woman with bright red hair, wearing dark sunglasses. The woman had a lit cigarette in her mouth, and was taking boxes out of my house. When Molly asked her what she was doing, the woman turned around, took off her sunglasses and frowned at Molly, and said, 'I'm helping your mother sell books." As soon as Molly saw the old woman's eyes, she knew she was talking to a ghost.
My Irish great aunt Mary (Mimi to her nieces and nephews and all of us younger than that) had bright red hair and worked as a librarian her entire life. And Molly just spent a year living with another elderly great aunt in the Irish family homestead. Molly slept in Mimi's old room, so she probably does have an energetic connection to Mimi. I don't know the whole story yet, but that's what makes this all so interesting. Now I need to find out if my Great Aunt Mimi smoked, and see if Molly or I experience any more dreams, signs, or coincidences that confirm (or confound) Mimi as the smoking ghost.
I'm working on putting together a book of all the stories I can find about my house. It's going to include everything I can find about all of the people who lived here, the changing architecture and the changing fortunes of my house, and (if I can find any material on it) even what the land was like before any homes were built there. And I want to know what Leon was alluding to when he spoke of things that had happened that no one knew about in the house…
Since House of Spirits and Whispers came out, neighbors and long-time residents of Sibley have approached me with first-hand accounts of odd experiences, rumors, and memories about my house. I'm writing it all down and sorting through it to see if it leads me in new directions. Even my house seemed to know I was writing about it—when I was working on my first book, I started seeing fleeting visual images of my house from the past—the open staircase landing, a chicken house or shed in the backyard, a corner of the front porch. I believe my house wanted to share its stories and secrets, most of them hidden or forgotten for more than a hundred years, but couldn't until now. I think it had to wait until someone was listening.