Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Phantom of the Living Room

The Phantom of the Living Room

I've never seen a ghost. I also don't believe that they exist. While I believe in the human soul, I don't think it manifests itself in repetitive reenactments of one's death. Though we have such stories from various cultures, that doesn't make ghosts any more real. They are real to the believer, and unreal to the non-believer. Believing is seeing.

My mother and I once rented the first floor of a house built in 1922. Much of the building was updated, as it had been split into apartments in modern times. We had a large living room/kitchen, dining room, master bedroom, and a basement with washer and dryer. We also had a small backyard, where my mother kept a garden. It's fairly typical of old houses in the Pittsburgh area that were built after WWI, and before WWII. I liked the old charm of the house, though it had largely renovated. Still, I had a sense of what it looked like back in its heyday. There was a small, non-working fireplace in my bedroom, with a large mantle above; which I believe was one of the last remainders of the original structure.

Prior to the move to the first floor, my mother rented an apartment on the second floor. This was a nice-sized apartment as well, which had more intact fixtures of the original building. For example, the bathroom door was authentically from 1922, complete with brass doorknob, and keyhole. It also had a transom above the door, which still worked. Outside of that, the rest of the second floor had been largely renovated, and looked very new for the 1990's.
My mother once told me of a strange experience she'd had in the living room.

It was a hot summer evening, and so she had the living room window open, as the apartment did not have central air. The glow of the TV bathed the room in gray light, as my mother gently drifted off to sleep. She dozed on the sofa, and woke up several hours later.

She told me the following.

“When I woke up, there was a man looking at me. He sat right there (pointing to the rocking chair next to me) and he was dressed in old time clothes. His shirt didn't have a collar, and he had on a vest. He had a mustache like my father had.”

This clearly wasn't her father, he was living in a different neighborhood, and still very much alive at time.

It was also around this time that my niece, Rachel, was reluctant to enter the apartment. She would scream any time my sister brought her for a visit. She an infant at the time, so I assumed it was because her baby carrier may have been jostled by the trip up the narrow staircase. Her mother thought it was odd. My mother sister, who didn't children yet have children, also thought it was odd. My mother took note of it, and tried to link to two together.

My personal theory is that Mom had a waking dream. This is when your body says, “I'm awake,” but your brain says to you, “I'm not done watching this program. Give me five more minutes!” You are sort of awake, but not entirely. Your brain clouds your perception, and creates a mild hallucination. You are still dreaming, and yet partly conscious. I've had a few of them myself, but usually they take on the form of me talking nonsensically (more so than usual). Though visual glitches of this sort are very common.

I don't believe my mother saw a real ghost. Instead, she saw a ghost of the mind. The gray glow of the TV screen probably didn't help either. It would have also been beneficial to know what she'd been watching before she fell asleep. Or, better still, what she'd been dreaming. At that time I was reading a fair bit of James Joyce, Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, and Edgar Allan Poe. It's more likely I would have hallucinated a ghoul in a waistcoat. Or, preferably, a comely specter in a bodice!

Alas, said specter has not materialized. What I wouldn't have given to be Ray Stantz in that dream sequence. The macabre fantasies of teenage youth! Anyway...ectoplasm emissions aside, I've not seen a single ghost, ever.

I revisited the house on what would have been my mother's seventieth birthday. I was sad to see that it had been boarded up, and disused. The windows had been smashed in, and replaced with plywood. What had once been my bedroom, with large front window, now received no sunlight. The light blue paint of the wooden siding had faded. The side porch where I used to read, and drink tea, was now rotted and vacant. However, my memories of the place were very much intact.

I remember watching the X-Files with my mother on Friday nights. I remembered watching reruns of Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of...when I'd visit her on the weekends. She'd nap in the back bedroom, while I would do up the dishes, and make tea. It was in that kitchen that I learned her secret pork chop recipe, as well as how to cook a good steak. I also experienced the delicacy of ginger snaps dunked in tea! Yes, that sounds strange, but it tastes amazing; especially in winter. The ginger warms you right up!

It was sad to see that house unloved, and empty. I hoped a family, or at least new tenants would have occupied it. The old landlord had sold it years ago, and whoever owned it now didn't seem to care. That to me is more haunting than any ghost, real or imagined.

Copyright Riley Joyce 2016

The photo at the top of this post is of the ceramic haunted house my mother made in the early 1980's. It's been with me ever since. 

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