Our family home was for sale. The proud Victorian house with its gingerbread and fancy, eye-shaped windows was built high up on the mountainside and looked down over the mining town in the valley below. As I drove up the gravel road, I knew that this was to be my last visit.
I let myself in the back door that opened into the large kitchen. The door hinges creaked just as they always had. My footsteps echoed as I came into the room, and the fading sunlight made familiar patterns across the floor. The blue-tinged mountains, visible through the windows, were in shadow now. My hand automatically reached for the light switch. A dim bulb came on, but barely made a difference.
I wandered from room to room. For one hundred and twenty years, each generation of my family had left something of themselves behind in the house. Memories of noisy activity and a motherly sense of purpose could not be erased from the kitchen. A sense of brooding studiousness never quite left the library, even after it was converted into a guestroom with floral wallpaper. Faint echoes of children’s laughter were still buried behind the cobwebs in the parlor, the room we had claimed as a playroom.
The house was almost empty of furniture, something I had once thought impossible. At one time, stacks of antiques had filled the house and even the barn at the back of the property. Over the years, like a steady, eroding trickle, everything was sold or given away; from the gilded Victorian paintings of scantily clad ladies, to the crates of rock collections and pick axes, the stacks of penny, picture postcards and turn of the century, comic books, the ornate, heavy furniture, an old spinning wheel and even the brass gramophone, one of our favorite, childhood toys. All of our treasures made their way someplace else.
I had returned home to pack up a few last things but that wasn’t the only reason I’d traveled three thousand miles. I came back because of the ghosts. Even so, I’d almost forgotten about them until my childhood friend reminded me. “What are you going to do about the ghosts? You can’t leave them in the house after you move away,” she said.
I had to admit that she was right. The ghosts, after all, were ours and as much as we belonged in the house, so did they. Now it was time to convince them to leave.
When we were kids, we knew better than to disturb the ghosts. Nonetheless, we tried every possible way to communicate with them. When everything else failed, we wrote letters to them and left them on the mantelpiece. The letters went unopened and as far as we know, unread. We never saw or heard the ghosts, but in that solemn way that some children have, we knew that they were there.
The ghost that frightened us the most was Old Judge Rathmell. He died in the bedroom that didn’t have any windows except a tall, narrow one at the far end of the room. We tried to contact the Judge once but we felt such a terrifying chill come over the room, and we became so badly frightened that our teeth chattered, and even an hour outside in the hot sun couldn’t stop our shivering. We never tried to contact him again for we sensed that the Judge was brooding and bitter and would scare us even more if we didn’t leave him alone.
The ghost that frightened us the least was Milton Moore, the miner who made a fortune in a gold mine and who built our house in 1896. After less than two years, he sold the house to our family, traveled to California, invested in yet another gold mine, and promptly lost his entire fortune. The fact that his ghost was in our house at all indicated to us that he had simply returned to the place where he had been happiest.
Then there was Nettie Karns, the young schoolteacher, dressed in a simple Victorian dress with her hair piled high in a Gibson girl hairstyle. Nobody would tell us what happened to Nettie Karns. They only said that she had mysteriously disappeared. Her belongings were added to the stacks of things in our barn and her ghost moved into the house. She drifted from room to room, somehow young and innocent despite the horrible things that had happened to her.
Dashing Doc Rowan, with his large mustache, organized amateur theatricals in the basement of the local Opera House, and when he died without next of kin, his doctor’s bag and a trunk full of belongings had made their way to our barn too. His ghost sat in the library or the parlor, rooms he knew well. There were other ghosts in the parlor too, ones who had visited the house when they were alive and who came to stay after they died.
The one ghost I hoped wasn’t in the house was the ghost of the Judge’s wife, Minnie Rathmell. She wore black dresses buttoned high around the neck with long sleeves down to her thumbs and skirts that chafed her ankles. Her expression terrified several generations of children as she glared out of photographs, judging, harsh and unforgiving. According to all accounts, Minnie had been frightening when she was alive. So I couldn’t imagine coming upon her ghost in the darkened hallway or in the heavy shadows that lurked around every corner.
I quickly packed the few things I had come for into my car and got out the bag of salt I had brought with me. Spreading salt was the only thing that everyone agreed would rid a house of ghosts. I wandered from room to room, sprinkling salt in all the empty corners.
When I had finished the bedrooms and stood at the top of the stairs, a momentary panic came over me. I realized how fragile my own life was. A push, a shove, or one small slip on the uneven floor was all it would take. How easy it would be to fall here in the dark, to stay in the past and become one of them. I sat down in the middle of the darkened staircase and began to cry. I understood how the ghosts felt. I didn’t want to leave the house behind either.
Then I got up and went outside. I walked around the house, pouring a thin trail of salt behind me. Then I locked the back door and got in my car. As I drove away, I took one last look. The looming, old house was empty, peaceful and ready for a new family. I breathed a sigh of relief and for the last time, I left my childhood home and all of its ghosts behind me.