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It was the week after Christmas, not the night before, and I was the mother of grown children, not a child. Still, I lay awake in the second floor bedroom of my childhood home listening to the noises an old house will make in the dark. My father had died earlier in the day. Yet I heard his hand on the back-porch door, his footstep on the basement stairs, his movement in the kitchen. Rain gusted against the dormer windows and sleep would not come. Ghosts live only in stories I told myself.
The wind blows in cities. But the close buildings divert it, tunneling it down one-way streets and dead-end alleys with scraps of trash and the occasional hat. A careful man like Norman could escape the slap of a north wind’s hand and ignore most of its noise in a tight Cincinnati apartment.
In Kentucky, though, on an Owen County farm, when your house sits on a high hill, the wind comes right on in and joins you at the supper table. And so on that long ago Christmas Eve when the familiar wailing began to blare from the second-floor bedrooms where I’d slept every night of my life, none of us gave it a second thought. Except for Norman.
“What’s that?” he asked. The question startled me coming as it did in the middle of his slide presentation — a documentary of the graves of all U.S. presidents up through FDR. Norman was a man who traveled. Once he’d even gone to Europe and brought me back a blue nylon scarf. But mostly he visited the tombs of presidents.
“Is this house haunted?” he asked. He spoke in a fast, staccato rhythm that I took to be an educated Midwestern accent since he’d studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. At first I thought he was kidding, but then he asked again, “Dexter, have you heard ghosts before?” The look on his face told me he was not joking. His thumbs fidgeted with his leather suspenders as he waited for my father to answer.
Now Daddy was the only man I ever knew who used algebra in real life to figure up things like how much hayseed he needed to buy. Suffice it to say, he didn’t believe in ghosts. But ever kind, he hesitated, considering how to answer his guest. And so Great-Uncle Murphy jumped in to rescue him.
“Ghosts?” Uncle Murphy asked. His voice cradled the grin spreading across his face. He crossed one thin leg over the other and ran a boney hand through his still-red hair. “You mean like haints?” and then he chuckled.
Uncle Murphy had been gassed on the battlefields of Europe in World War I, and the Army had sent him home to die on a military disability pension. A stubborn man, he decided to refuse death’s invitation. Instead, he went back to work on his Kentucky farm and would work every day for the rest of his life until he toppled over at the age of 97. On this Christmas Eve, he had about 30 more years of labor ahead of him. He wasn’t the sort of man who took stock in ghosts.
Then Aunt Bessie chimed in. “Ghosts! Norman, all that education has touched you in the head.”
She finished up with her signature aw-ee that was a cross between a pig farmer calling shoats and an Irish washerwoman keening at her first-born’s wake. She punctuated all her conversations with aw-ee to emphasize whatever point she might be making. In this case her point was that she didn’t hold with anything Uncle Murphy didn’t believe in.
“aaAW-EE” she let loose, soaring to her highest register. More than once she had made Mother’s crystal ring at the table. Though showing her age by the time I can remember her, Aunt Bessie was still a pretty pudding of a woman, soft and round and rouged. Perhaps that was why her aw-ee was considered charming as opposed to alarming.
Right on cue, the upstairs windows answered her. “WWOOoooWWOOooo —”
Norman began gathering his slides and shoving them back into the slotted carrier. He did this without looking, and I wondered if that explained why it always took him four attempts to get a slide positioned right side up in his manual projector.
“I need to be off now. It’s getting late — ”
Mother interrupted him. “Oh, Norman — don’t go — we haven’t cut the jam cake yet.” I understood that Mother was changing the subject to help Norman save face. A science teacher, she was a non-ghost-believer for certain, but she would never embarrass anyone.
All the aunts and uncles and cousins were smiling now, but I was choking on giggles. I was going on 13 and considered myself an intellectual. I had, after all, plodded through Daddy’s bookshelf of classic novels when I had the flu the winter before. A girl who’d read Henry Fielding sure didn’t believe in ghosts.
In fact, nobody in my family believed in ghosts. Except now, apparently, for Norman though he technically wasn’t a relative but a cousin of cousins. A bachelor with no siblings, Norman became a regular at our holiday tables when he found himself orphaned in middle age.
For his part, Norman brought a bit of the exotic to our parties. He was a Republican — a capitalist living on income from an inheritance — thrown into a lions’ den of working class FDR Democrats. He defended his political positions with passion in the debates that dominated our family get-togethers. He was also a non-pork eating Seventh Day Adventist set adrift in a sea of Methodists who worshiped old country ham.
And I thought he had the look of a senator though I’d never seen one in the flesh. He was distinguished in that way, always wearing a tie and his navy serge suit with his dark, thinning hair combed straight back. Let’s put it this way. He was good enough looking that Aunt Bessie never gave up hope that he would marry. And from time to time, he would bring a lady-friend to dinner. The romances never lasted long — but they encouraged Aunt Bessie and gave us conversational fodder.
“Norman, don’t go. Let me tell you about the windows,” Daddy said.
“We built this house on the cheap in ’49 when the old one burned. You know how it was after the war — everybody gone off to work in factories — and I don’t know if the contractor was ignorant or trying to save a dime, but those jackleg carpenters hung the dormer windows wrong and the seals never closed right. Whenever the wind comes certain ways, the windows set in making that noise.”
Then he said, “Come on, walk upstairs with me, I’ll show you what I’m talking about.”
To prove to Norman that our house was not haunted, I jumped up and offered to go with them. If a 13-year-old girl wasn’t scared of the noises our windows made, surely Norman would be convinced. Put on the spot, he had to go.
I started up the stairs first to make the point. Norman followed, and Daddy brought up the rear. As we made our way up the narrow stairs, the windows let loose with an orchestration of woo-hoos that made the 1812 Overture sound like a lullaby. Even I began to feel nervous. Norman turned white. But Daddy, blocking our escape route, wouldn’t let us turn around.
When we reached the dormer room, Daddy flipped on all the lights, then he insisted that Norman and I stand next to the windows. Woo-woo, the windows screamed, over and over, until goose bumps were standing on my skin.
But none of us saw any ghosts. When beads of perspiration began to run down Norman’s face, Daddy took pity, and suggested we go back downstairs and have jam cake with the others.
Decades later, hours after my father’s death, I lay awake in a second floor bedroom of my childhood home. The wind blew, and once again I heard the old windows talking. I thought of Norman and Daddy and all the other ghosts of Christmases past, and smiled. Sweet sleep, sweet peace, came at last.
In memory of my father, Delmer Dexter Green, who died Jan. 5, 1991