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...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Ghost Story

Let me begin by asserting that I am not a nut. I assert this because today I'm going to talk about the ghost who resides in my home.

I grew up in a house teeming with spirits, something my sister and I understood well but never discussed until we were adults. We were "spook-sensitive" so to speak, and got used to the underlying tremble of homes that seemed empty but were (we knew) not. So when I walked into this house that first day with the realtor and experienced "the shiver" it was not particularly disturbing to me. I've felt the shiver many times, the sensation that air in a certain room or hallway is somehow thicker than it should be; a feeling of being watched, causing you to turn around to look at the nothing behind you; overall, the perception that you are not alone when in fact you are.

The house I now own, once a showplace I'm told, was worn out when I bought it, with sagging ceilings and battered woodwork. On closing day I found buckshot in the walls, leaking bathtubs, cracked linoleum, and one sleeping porch that looked like it would topple onto the driveway if a strong wind kicked up. Under the damage and abuse, though, I saw beauty, and as renovations over the next year progressed, its charm and splendor re-emerged. Still, the shiver remained.

My house, from what I can deduce from old papers, was built sometime in the mid-1800s and was occupied by a family named Storrs: the parents, Hiram E. and Eunice; and three children, Hiram H., Ida, and Mary. I've come across the names of family members Eunice, Ida, and Hiram H. only recently. Since 2003 when I bought the house, the only names I'd heard were Hiram E. (the father) and Mary Storrs, the latter of whom I assumed to be Hiram E.'s wife. And from Day One, I knew without question -- and without good reason -- that the ghost who occupied my upstairs hall was Mary Storrs.

In the beginning the sensation that some spirit was lurking around in the long second-floor hallway was only that: a sensation. I would sometimes stand at the top of the front stairs and suddenly feel a presence behind me. Then little things started to happen. My nephew Thad often spent the night and remarked several times that he'd caught sight of something passing by the bedroom doorway, something like the whisper and a glimpse of a long white dress. Twice in my first months here I felt the sigh of air against my cheek, once as I lay in bed, and again while sitting on the sofa in the upstairs study. These phenomena are easily explained away by the naysayers, of course. "Paranoia. Imagination. Breeze from a cracked-open window. The vapors." I don't bother to argue with naysayers because I know what I know. I know what I feel.

Upstairs hall
Also early on, I hosted a sort of "fun" and informal seance. There were several of us here, including both of my nephews. We were seancing in the dining room with all the doors closed, lights out, candles lit and so on to create the right ambience. At one point during the seance the room grew cold and my younger nephew Nick, then in his twenties, got very upset and said there was someone in the room wearing a Civil War uniform (more on this later). Shortly thereafter there was a loud bang on the doors that connected to the living room beyond, causing all of us to spin into hysterical frenzy. Since everybody in the house was in the dining room at the time (making all of us wonder just who [or what] banged on the opposite side of that door), we put a quick end to our seance and a permanent end to ghostbusting at my lovely though spooky address.

And here's a long story short: my friend Lucy from Long Island came to visit in 2005. I stationed her in one of the front bedrooms, the one I call "the blue room." Lucy was supposed to stay a couple of days, but the morning after she arrived she bolted out of the house to her car, calling after me, "I need to get out of here. That room in haunted!" I never did find out what happened.

The Blue Room
Fast forward to 2007, when a pipe burst in an upstairs bathroom and destroyed my recently renovated kitchen. A team of insurance people came in to gut what was left of the room and remove the water-soaked plasterboard. I left them to their work and spent the night elsewhere. When I returned the following morning the team, which had also returned, was sitting around eating lunch. One of the women asked me: "Do you have a ghost in this house?" Eyebrow raised, I asked what prompted the question. It seems one of the workers -- a young man of 19 -- had seen a full-body apparition in the upstairs hall late the night before. The phantom, as explained by the ashen-faced worker, was a woman dressed in white Victorian clothes. She was standing at the far end of the hall by the street window (and outside the blue room), gazing at the highly freaked out young fellow who, I might add, left the house never to return. I responded to this story and to the "do you have a ghost" inquiry with a sly smile, because by this time I'd grown used to my ghost, and in fact rather enjoyed the notion that other life, in whatever manifestation, shared my accommodations. "Yes," I said to the questioner. "I think her name is Mary."

Finally, a year or so ago a local woman came to call. Her grandparents had lived in the house from the late 1930s through the 1980s, and she had spent a great deal of time here. We got to chatting and I mentioned my spirit. "Oh!" she said brightly. "You mean Mary Storrs?"

As a person who enjoys the idea of having those from the great beyond still hanging around their former domicile, one might think I would have pursued information about Mary Storrs sooner. However, it was just a month or so ago when I wandered into the historic society in my town and discovered a box full of diaries written by Ida Storrs Dietz, the daughter of Hiram E. and Eunice, and the sister of Mary Storrs and young Hiram H. The diaries date from 1864-1919, and are a treasure trove of information about the house, the people who lived here, and the times of their life more than a century ago: there is talk of the weather, the gardens out back, the first house downtown to be illuminated by gaslight. There is much talk of disease: consumption and small pox, and the most prevalent it seems, the "grippe" (aka, influenza). In fact, in 1893, the entire family was sick with the flu. Father Hiram, Mother Eunice, and Aunt Mary Crary, the latter of whom also lived here, all died within a three week period in December. The heartfelt diary entry by Ida on December 25, 1893, said this:

"Sad Christmas. Warm, just like spring. Doesn't seem like Christmas. Mother died two weeks ago, Aunty a corpse upstairs, and Father dying...Frank brought a diagram of West Hill Cemetery for us to look at. I combed Aunty's hair. Father weaker and did not seem as if he would live through the night."

Then, on December 27:

"Pleasant I think, only rough traveling, no snow. Father seemed to be weaker this morning, he died at eleven forenoon, did not seem conscious after about this morning. He seemed to suffer pain after that but was so weak could not groan out loud and finally died very easy. This makes three that have died in this house in less than three weeks. Who next?"

Hiram H. Storrs, Mary Storrs, Ida Storrs, 1855
I'm sorting through these rich, wonderful, and sometimes tragic writings, learning about the Storrs family and, in particular, about Ida, who married Malcolm Dietz and had a baby, Grace. Grace died at age 3, followed by Malcolm himself just 9 years later, when Ida was 36. After the Storrs parents and Aunt Mary Crary died, Ida and her sister Mary Storrs lived here together for almost 30 years. The ladies hosted visitors and visited others on a daily basis, cooked and baked, delivered breads to ailing neighbors, attended functions at the Opera House, tended the rooms -- one still called "the nursery" years after Baby Grace was gone -- collected antiques (to which Ida referred as her "relics"), and often rode the train to Binghamton to visit the orphanage to be sure the children there were being well cared for. They were generous, sending donations of clothes and money to an organization in New York City called The Home for the Friendless. Ida had hoped to donate the house to the village as a museum, and left money in her will for the indigent of town, asking trustees to buy Christmas gifts and host a holiday dinner for those less fortunate. I can see from the small number of entries I've read so far that Ida and Mary were kind, charitable women from a well-to-do, kind, and charitable family.

Ida Storrs Dietz died in 1921, at age 74. Mary Storrs, Ida's sister and my ghost, never married and lived here alone another 18 years until she died in 1938. She was 87.

L-R: Mary Storrs, Ida Storrs Dietz, with friends and frequent visitors Carrie Davis, Helen Wilcox, and Emma Walker, 1914 
I am not haunted by the spirit of Mary Storrs. Rather, I am humbled to take care of this place, the Storrs home that, after several inhabitants in between, I now call my home. I don't really know, of course, if Mary Storrs wanders my hall upstairs, drifting about in some alternate time in her white Victorian dress, gliding a pale hand across my "relics." I do know, however, that if she is here, I am honored at her presence. I think of the puff of air against my cheek when I first moved in and wonder if she was showing me gratitude, in the only way she could, for fixing crumbling plaster and planting flowers in the back garden. I like to think she watches me now, that she watches Harry prancing and my family gatherings and my visitors, who don't come and go on a daily basis like hers and Ida's did, but who are certainly here every week, socializing and appreciating a shiver of flesh that suggests others have been here before. I also like to think that the puff of air I felt nearly a decade ago, when whistling workmen with saws and paint were freshening rooms where corpses once lay on a sad Christmas in 1893, was a spirit kiss thanking me for breathing life back into these walls.

Oh yes. About the long-ago seance and my nephew Nick upset that someone wearing a military uniform was in the room with us? I discovered in my research weeks ago that Hiram H., the only brother of Ida and Mary, died in Louisiana at age 23. He died as a soldier. In the Civil War.

(In keeping with the mood of this post, I include here the link to a movie trailer that features a local aspiring actress, Anna Fagan. Good luck Anna. May the spirits be with you. http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Visitation )


Ghost of Christmas Present said...

I do believe your kitchen "exploded" in 2008.

Hdaddy said...

Perhaps when Harry has an "off" day, it's because Mary has given him a proper scolding. Great post.

Suporna Sarkar said...

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Anonymous said...

You are a nut!

CH said...

I'll never forget telling a realtor once that I couldn't stay in the house she was showing me because there was too much pain, especially eminating from one particular room. Only later did she find out that the family was selling because the Mom had died a slow painful death in that room.

Bob said...

That was great. I always like it when people can deal with this kind of unexplained situation with grace and not freak out.

Rick Crowell said...

Awesome Kathy, you will have to let us interview you and film sometime for our web series.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum