My ghost is a mother. I am convinced of this by both the ghost’s behavior and the history of our house. You see, a mother died here, on the property. We were told the three-story Victorian was being sold “as is” after the longtime owners, a couple, had died tragically.
“They didn’t die inside the house,” the agent said, without offering details.
We didn’t pry. We’re Canadian.
My wife loved the renovation challenge the house presented. I loved the location, close to dear friends. Having already lost several bidding wars, we were thrilled to learn our offer had been accepted. I was newly pregnant, and the house was such a deal.
Included in the purchase were all appliances, the electrical light fixtures and a judgmental ghost — the last not making her presence known until a few months later.
We packed away any worries and focused on constructing our new life. My wife began gutting the house while I focused on my ever-expanding tummy. But on reflection, bad luck had met us at the front door. I was put on bed rest because of my apparently “incompetent” cervix and stayed there for the better part of seven months.
Almost everything in the house needed to be replaced. Plumbing lines were slopped into the street and veins of electrical wires restrung through skeletal wood framing. History was demolished and order restored under the capable hands of my fearless wife. She needed no help from me except for occasionally answering her shouted questions: “What do I do with all these crucifixes they left nailed to the walls? Throw them out?”
Bed rest wasn’t so bad. The house was full of friends and family pitching in on the renovations. We added one more to the party when I delivered a perfect baby girl.
Motherhood intoxicated me. I felt like a superhero. I had created life with my uterus (by far the coolest thing any of my organs had accomplished). Sometimes just my mere presence alone soothed her. But we weren’t the only mothers in the house.
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Ghosts are experts at gaslighting. You quickly begin to question your eyes and ears.
When the door to our bedroom creaked open on its own during a 3 a.m. feeding, I figured the door, like the baby, had trouble latching. I sensed someone had entered the room, though, wagging a finger while I fed the baby from a bottle. Then, suddenly, the television went off, as if to say, “If you aren’t going to breastfeed, can’t you at least pay attention to her?”
I brushed it off as bad wiring combined with sleep deprivation. A few months later, though, the “bad wiring” grew more audacious. I had decided to put the baby to bed a little earlier that night, turning the light off as I entered the room. But as I lay her down, the light switched back on. Puzzled, I walked over to the dimmer switch and found the knob turned to the “on” position. That was odd. I turned it off, but as soon as her back touched the mattress, the light snapped on again.
Instead of feeling scared, I grew angry. This ghost’s maternal judgment had crossed a line. She was arguing with me, saying it was too early for bedtime. Didn’t I know better? Well, I had been a mother for six months. I did know better. And I gathered myself and announced to the room: “This baby is going to bed. Right now.”
As the words escaped my lips, we were thrown into darkness.
I screamed and bolted down the stairs with the baby and into the waiting arms of my partner, who’d heard the commotion. She soothed my fragile nerves, checked the room and came back down to explain, calmly, that I was out of my mind. Ghosts are not real.
She was right. It was probably a slippery knob. A blown fuse. A coincidence. I was a fool to doubt her.
The next day, my wife made some inquiries. I came home to her waving a burning bouquet of sage, smudging the house to ward off evil spirits.
Our second child was born three-and-a-half years later. More spirited than our first, she preferred night to day, but she was funny, charming and her smiling, bright blue eyes made you forgive any sins. We were getting used to sleepless nights in this house anyway.
One time, a nightmare woke me. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw a black shape hovering over me, the exact size of a human head.
I shimmied my hand under the covers to touch my sleeping wife’s arm and whispered, “Am I still dreaming?”
She opened her eyes a little. Then a lot. “Jesus!” she said, leaping from the bed and flicking on the light.
It wasn’t a head, of course, but a partially deflated helium balloon from our daughter’s birthday party that I had yet to tidy up. It had meandered up from our main floor, down the hall, through our bedroom doorway, across the room and settled above my sleeping face. As balloons do. All the time.
The burning bouquet of sage returned.
As the years passed, things got tougher for us. Money was tight. The same stresses we survived before now carried so much more weight with two children to support. Any time we had with each other had been swallowed whole by the endless chores and repairs the house demanded.
The strange occurrences — we barely gave them a second thought now. A glass, sliding across the length of the dining room table? Condensation. A rocking chair, rocking independently? Uneven floors. So many of the unseen threats around us I ignored as benign.
We had everything we ever wanted, we told each other daily. We were happy, right? But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had died. Was our once-celebrated love now nothing more than a half-deflated balloon? No! Our love story was solid and true. I trusted that we would find each other again once the toddler years were over.
Instead, my wife disappeared.
Well, she didn’t really disappear. She just left. They call it a tsunami divorce. You may spot a small wave of trouble in the distance, but you don’t believe the magnitude until it’s too late.
In this new world, life moved on in a blur of grief. The children got bigger. Shared custody started. Sometimes I swore I could hear my ex-wife’s boots in the hallway. I found myself often alone in an empty haunted house full of memories and questions. What did I do wrong? Did anyone else see this coming? Where did everybody go?
The house itself seemed dead. As if all the life had moved out instead of just one person. I refilled it with new friends, lovers, pets and dinner parties, but it felt like “Weekend at Bernie’s,” with everything falsely animated.
Even the ghost had given up on me. No pictures falling off walls. No slamming doors. Just silence. Until one night while I was watching late-night television and the midcentury swivel chair next to me, laden with unfolded laundry, began to turn on its own.
She was back — and urging me to do my laundry!
I will never know if she was real, or if I just needed her to be real — or perhaps if talking about ghosts being real or not misses the point entirely. Which was this: I felt a kinship with my ghost. We were an otherworldly odd couple, two mothers whose plans for our lives had changed dramatically without our input. We may have surrendered to our circumstances, but we were not quite ready to leave our home.
Recently, after facing the most terrifying of all dark forces (the divorce lawyer), the “for sale” sign went up outside, the finger paintings came down inside, and I finally said goodbye to my ghost. I thanked her for believing in me. I moved on.
Now I love sitting on my new front porch under the star-shaped fairy lights watching life go by. Sometimes my ex-wife will roar up in her Jeep, music blaring, children in the back and her fiancée next to her. And I smile, remembering how thrilling it was to have been the passenger in her life.
Ultimately, all I ever wanted was for our little family to be happy, in whatever form that took. If this isn’t exactly what I pictured, at least we can lie down in our separate homes and rest in peace.
Allyson McOuat is a writer living in Toronto.
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