There were no ghosts at the top of the stairs. But the people coming for the estate sale had to know if the tales of their youth were true. Some claimed The Tower Room had been the Witches’ Room when the house stood vacant for years. In thirty-three years of vacations, holidays, birthdays and even Halloweens, I had not met a ghost, yet. But, I had never volunteered to go up to The Tower Room when it was dark and the rest of the folks were two stories below.
In the house’s great century, my family had used up thirty-three years, running around the porch, walking through seventeen doors, looking out of thirty plus windows, sweeping ten rooms, not tripping down two stairways, and bathing in one cast iron footed tub. The kitchen resonated with the ghost of Pa’s chicken frying in hot grease, the newspaper being discussed, someone running overhead, the Elk Hotel grandfather clock striking the hour and the whirl of the lazy-Susan on the old quarter sawn oak table. As the sun set, a kitchen entry wall of windows and shelves, holding antique crystal and colored glass, painted the walls with color.
The living room was well-lived in from celebrating. Eightieth and ninetieth birthdays or playing the Question Game with a circle from age four to eighty-five. Toddlers sitting on the bench playing at the Steinway. Deep seated chairs after hours listening to jazz on the hi-fi. A soft but constant admonition to watch your step as you came down the stairs, so as not to fall into the glass displayed on a nearby cabinet.
A red wool rug under the mahogany dining table caught errant olives and breadcrumbs from family diners using the sterling, crystal and British Castles for holidays. A couple beamed proudly at the 50th year of their love story as the pure cold finally cooled the July air.
The front room smelled like a library.Three large window seats and an entire wall held every book owned by the two previous generations. Thousands of conversations hung like spider webs on the thirty-seven plates leaning against the plate rail, at the top of the ten foot ceiling. The braided rug made by Grannie, using wool suits and skirts, to waste not, want not, covered the painted floor. Ice cubes hitting the floor from a purple glass full of Dr. Pepper, spilling on the floor as cousins fought over who got the rocker. The quiet Color TV with Remote kept the world spinning, delivered Walter Cronkite and the Noon Day Report for 60 Minutes at the advice of Marcus Welby in deep, dark depression, excessive misery.
The ghosts of thousands of friendly waves lingered over the wrap-around porch, stirring the air just enough to give Grandmama’s wicker swing a push. The same evening sky appearing, night after night, but finding emptiness where there had once been children, anticipating the ascent of the evening star or the acrid clouds from the mosquito truck rising above the trees and rooftops. In spots, the porch almost sagged, full of phantom footsteps after years of family photos.
Upstairs, life was slower. Two duplicate bedrooms made up half of the second floor. Large doors in the middle of the shared wall were never closed, making one large room with two separate bedroom suites. Each room had a small balcony, absolutely off limits to grandchildren, With excellent cross-ventilation, the house lived and breathed with the seasons. In the spring, summer and fall, the house was kept open as much as possible, even during rainstorms. Four large gas stoves kept the house toasty during the winter.
The big room was filled to capacity with the words of hundreds of late-night conversations between grandchildren and grandparents carried on long after the pretense of going to sleep. A first White Christmas still glimmered in a child’s memory after waking in the bed next to the big window. Grey shadows lingered against the wall, where they had danced so lively in the hot lights of the winter stove. A shadowy bat carried the memory of scaring an old black lady and an older white lady to death as they moved like young girls, jumping into the bed and throwing the sheet over their heads. They survived but soon were parted by the cobwebs of the mind. Inspiration and perseverance had worn out the fingers of a budding writer, as she learned at the keyboard where her own patriot grandfather composed his letters to make a difference for the ones who would follow.
In the corner of the big room, a closet tunneled through to the bathroom where the large footed tub was tucked in under the eaves. A spot next to the tub was forever clean, where a small, dented saucepan was dropped over the edge of the tub, bath after bath. A bathroom light would forever cast a glow, after thirty-three years of being the sole light in the big house at bedtime. Another door opened to a large hall and the top of the stairs.
The guest room was a large bedroom full of girlhood furniture. A vanity mirrored the secret admirations of girls of all ages for over eighty years. Summer after summer, the gardenia bush climbed higher, orchestrating dreams of those sleeping near the opened window. Over the peace and quiet of the middle night, trains could be heard jostling at the rail yard, as if just around the corner. A large, added on closet held bags of beautiful clothes, old movie magazines, wedding shoes, and hats in boxes. A grandchild could find simple pleasure in flinging the closet doors open and then shutting them suddenly, creating a heady rush of mothballed air.
An unbanistered stairway went up the wall to the third floor Tower Room, originally built by a very protective father, according to local legend. The octagonal shaped room was more windows than walls, with large windows on five walls. An original aged banister still stood across the portion of the room open to the stairs. At one time, this room had been the highest real estate in town.
In the last years, it had slowly become the keeper of aging luggage and tax papers, in an old house with few closets. But years before, The Tower Room had been the domain of grandchildren with few toys but creative imagination for paper, pencils, connecting Popsicle sticks and oatmeal boxes. Playing house, office and store had given way to day dreams, reading and writing, in the magic of the gold dome, but not before leaping and running down the stairs had permanently jarred the bedroom floor below and given adults in the library pause to look up and wonder if this would be the jump through the ceiling as the light fixture rattled on the first floor.
Over and over, these curious people wandered through, asking if they could go upstairs. There was something about The Tower Room which fascinated people. I chuckled to myself, but inside I knew. As children, we played there happily, unaffected.
As the crowd began to lull and my precious grandparents' beautiful possessions were carried out the door, I knew I must say goodbye to what had been my second home. As I paused, looking out the kitchen window or standing beside the desk where the typewriter had stood, the memories were so real it physically hurt.
Going up the stairs to The Tower Room, I knew this was the last time. I sat down on the sofa, crying, grieving for this leaving but also bursting with thankfulness for all of my grandparents and the difference they made in their homes and in this town. I quit crying and felt peace in the rightness of the moment. I looked down at the green sofa, for the first time realizing there had been something about this room after all. And it had always been here.
For all of my life, I had heard the story about my great-grandmother. My young grandmother had been sitting on the green sofa with her visiting mother, a few days before Christmas, looking at cards. A card fell from Meme’s hand and her life was over. My grandmother would grieve the rest of her life, especially at Christmas, while the young grandchildren would quietly celebrate the holidays for years to come.
I don't believe in ghosts, mostly. Sometimes you never know. We grew up with the story and played around the sofa for years. For the first time, I stopped and wondered if maybe this room didn't hold a piece of her guardian spirit. Four kids playing on the third floor in a room surrounded by five windows. Wouldn't all of those people wonder if they knew? We had a loving, protective great-grandmother looking after us.