(A novel by Susan Overturf)
When I awoke the next morning, I had a strong urge to knock on Mark’s door and ask him to tell me more about the little-girl ghost, but the need to get my apartment organized compelled me to ignore that urge. Two days of disorder was all that I could stand.
I set up my bookcases and shelved my books. I arranged the living room furniture, my bedroom and utility closets, and the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. I placed my favourite photographs of my late husband, Jake, and the boys, Michael and Peter, on the mantel. I am not a person for a lot of knickknacks, but I put out a few cherished mementoes: three gifts from special students and the large school bell I had received from my school district when I retired. Limited wall space made it difficult to find places for all of my art prints and photographs, but I got most of them up. The others I would have to stow in my storage locker in the basement. I cleaned windows and hung curtains, and made a list of purchases that would complete my decor: some plants, more hooks for the bathroom, and an umbrella stand for the foyer.
One of my post-retirement goals was to rediscover and understand my troubled childhood, maybe even unlock some mysteries. Thus, I placed considerable attention on the arrangement of my second-bedroom-now-study. It didn’t occur to me that this might have been the bedroom where the little girl had slept, and maybe that’s a good thing because I did not think of her while I was working. I wanted to isolate tasks so that, no matter which one I was working on, I would not be distracted by the other. In one corner, I set up my desk and computer where I planned to do some writing and also keep track of my personal business. In the opposite corner, I set-up a sturdy card table for what I liked to call “My Childhood Mystery” project. Below the table I placed two large boxes which I had inherited from my mother nearly five years before when she had passed away at the age of ninety. My career, friends and family had kept me busy, and I had never looked inside those boxes. No one else in the family had wanted them, so I had been their guardian. Now, I planned to empty them, item by item, hoping I could glean as much information as I could about my mother, my father, and my family. I might even write some family history, I thought.
As it happened, I never left my apartment that day and thoughts of the ghost drifted from my memory. A second day passed in quiet solitude as I worked at my projects on my own time and at my own speed. Piecing together my family’s history was not going to be easy. I had few family members to ask. Both of my parents were dead. My brother, Peter, had died in a car accident a few years before, and I had been out of touch with my two sisters and other brother for years. My next-best source were the family photographs I had inherited from my mother, any documents and letters I could find in those boxes, and my own shaky memories.
I had been born during the Second World War, and my father had been away, fighting in Europe, for the first three and a half years of my life. My mother had had her hands full, as I was the fifth child, the youngest. There had been three girls and two boys, alternating back and forth — Mary, Jacob, Natalie, Peter, and me. I knew, from what my siblings and my mother had told me, that the family was understandably always strapped for cash. My mother worked long hours at a factory; as an infant, I was taken care of by my older siblings and numerous babysitters, often next-door neighbours. My earliest memories included a feeling of being unwanted; when I was older, I even wondered how my mother could have been sure that her husband was my father. I had been conceived very close to the time when he had left. Although I had no evidence to suggest that my mother had had an affair, I wondered now if my father had ever doubted his youngest daughter’s parentage.
Before I was three years old, there had not been many family photographs taken, no doubt little money for a camera or film. However, as I opened the first box of my mother’s inheritance, I found about seventy-five faded black and white photographs at the top of the box. They looked as though some of them might once have been mounted in a scrapbook as there was paper and glue stuck to the back of several. On the back of each one, my mother had printed in her neat handwriting who was in the photograph and when and where it was taken. Silently thanking my mother for her foresight in labelling the photographs, I sorted them, placing them in piles by year. I was quite certain I had never seen any of these photographs before, apparently hidden away by my mother, memories of a time which perhaps she did not wish to recall.
The earliest photograph, taken in 1937, was of my parents. Mother had written on the back: “Our Wedding Day — May 20, 1937.” They stood together, their arms around each other’s waist, and smiled into the camera, looking quite happy and content. My mother wore a simple sundress — no doubt one she had made herself — and held a small bouquet of daisies in her hand. Her long hair was pulled back and tied at the back. My father, dressed in dark pants and a light shirt, grinned from ear to ear. They stood in someone’s backyard, a few flowers in a flower bed nearby. Neither of their faces revealed the long, hard, difficult years ahead of them: six children in six years, struggles to make ends meet, and the war that separated them. Perhaps it’s best, I thought, that we don’t know the future.
I found a few pictures of each of my siblings, obviously taken at the time of their births, but there were fewer photographs with each child. By the time I was born — my father in Europe, my mother no doubt exhausted — only two pictures existed. In both, I am propped up on the sofa, dressed in a long white baptismal dress with a small white ribbon in my hair. There were no other photographs until my father — a total stranger to me at the time — returned from the war.
I had a clear memory of my father’s return home. There had been much fussing by my mother, a thorough housecleaning, and then this man was there — picking me up and holding me in his lap. I had felt uncomfortable and uneasy. Mary and Natalie, who could remember my father from before he left, had complained that no one else was able to sit on our father’s lap except me. I had squirmed and asked to get down, but my father had held me firmly in his lap.
In the collection of photographs, there were several that were clearly taken on this momentous day for the family. In one, all five of us children surround my father, still wearing his soldier’s uniform, and smile at the camera. In another, my parents sit in the middle of the sofa, stiff and proper and unsmiling, while Peter and I sit on one side, and Natalie and Jacob sit on the other. Presumably, Mary, my oldest sister, had held the camera. In every single photograph, I could sense my own uncomfortableness. The evidence was there permanently: a scowl and a deep crease in the middle of my forehead.
My father was tall, over six feet, quite thin, with dark black, wavy hair, and thick glasses. When I was a small child, he had seemed very large to me, and I had been a little frightened by the distortion of his eyes through the lenses of his glasses. My mother, by contrast, was at least a foot shorter than my father, blonde and blue-eyed. With each child’s birth, she had gained weight, and by the time my father came home from the war, she was certainly a hundred pounds overweight. Together, they looked quite odd. Tall and short. Thin and fat. Dark and light. No trace of that young couple on their wedding day in 1937. They had nothing in common physically, so I often wondered if they had any common interests; I could not remember them ever doing a single thing together. I had not felt as though I looked like either one of them, though one of my brothers came to look exactly like my father, and both of my sisters were carbon copies of my mother. At times, this seemed further proof to me that I was not my father’s child.
I found several photographs that were taken between 1945 and 1952, which showed my siblings and me together, either all sitting on the sofa, or standing in front of a little house, presumably the one we rented, as I was sure that my parents had never managed to own a home. My mother had probably taken these photographs, too, and they were probably snapped on a special day — Easter, perhaps — when we had been dressed up in our best clothes. My parents were notable by their absence. I wondered if they had sacrificed new clothes for themselves, so that their children could have them.
After my father returned from the war, my mother stayed home, but I was not yet in school, and I was alone with my mother, who spent many of her days crying, talking to herself, and pacing. By the time I reached five, I had been glad to go to school in order to get away from my unhappy mother. Looking back on it now, it seemed to me that from the moment my father had returned, joy had left the family, not that there had been a lot of it beforehand. My mother’s fears and worries were locked in her own mind, and I had no comprehension of what she was dealing with.
For two days, I worked alone in my new apartment and immersed myself in the old family photographs, piecing together a timeline of events while ignoring the outside world and my neighbours. I was unaware of the time passing. In the late afternoon of the second day, my back began to grow weary of bending over the many photographs and taking notes. I stood up, walked into the dining room, and gazed down at the street: cars, young girls giggling (and I wondered why they weren’t in school), a truck with a loud boom box and a noisy muffler. I could hear a siren off in the distance. Being on the fifth floor, I could not hear the private conversations of passersby, but I had learned in just a few short days that I could hear the shrill screams of a schizophrenic or drug addict, or the obvious high of a drunk. With the windows closed, as they were now, the sounds were deafened but could still be distracting. It seemed not too bad, but it was September and I momentarily wondered what it might be like on a hot July day.
I returned to the study and re-focused on one of the family photographs. With my back to the door of the room, I felt a cool draft over my shoulders and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I held my breath and waited to see if I would feel anything else, but I was afraid to lift my eyes. I was certain that if I turned to look, I would see the little girl’s ghost. My heart pounded. My palms grew sweaty. I put the photograph down and gently, slowly turned around.
She stood in the doorway — a filmy, indistinct outline in grays and whites, wearing a romper and shoes and socks, a child of about six years of age. It seemed as though she looked directly at me, and I felt sure she smiled. She didn’t move from the doorway, though she was in constant motion, bending and twisting as if in a breeze.
“Hello,” I said as softly as I could, not wanting her to be frightened.
She did not respond, nor did she leave.
“Do you want my help?” I asked.
Her smile disappeared, and she frowned instead. It seemed to me as though she nodded her head, but the ethereal figure continued to move and wave in strange gyrations.
Sixty seconds later, she was gone. I remained riveted, as though my feet were nailed to the floor, staring at the doorway, questioning what I had just seen, and certain at the same time that I had just seen and spoken to the little girl’s ghost.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.