far too much writing, far too many photos

Another sensationally beautiful day. Spectacular, in fact — like one of the first warm days in April. [Note: just went outside -- make that more like June. Woo-hoo!] I have no idea how long this kind of weather intends to hang about, but I’m going to savor it while it’s here.

And not simply another beautiful day — Halloween. A fine time to unload a story or two.

My brother, Terry, lives in a town just across the flats from the eastern reaches of the Catskill Mountains in New York. Used to be a small town, but between the college and the area’s accessibility to New York City, it’s now a large, busy town. Terry went to the college there, met his wife, married. They settled in the village and have lived there ever since, apart from four difficult years in the Navy.

A portion of those four years were spent in New Hampshire, working at the Naval yard in Portsmouth, living in Navy housing across the state line in Kittery, Maine. I drove up to visit one time shortly after Terry and Sue had their first child, Bebhinn.

My first time meeting my niece, a beautiful little soul. As I remember it, she wasn’t talking much at that point though she’d begun walking, if still a touch uncertainly at times. I’d never had much contact with babies prior to that and spent a lot of the trip about watching this teeny human navigate her way through the world she lived in.

I remember her being a bit tentative, a bit shy, with bursts of extremely sweet exuberance. My brother showed me a game they played where he would pick up the phone as if it been ringing, say, “Hello?” then hand it to Bebhinn, telling her, “It’s for you.” She’d then start chatting in nonsense-talk with the imaginary caller. Adorable.

Terry and Sue were into old houses, architecture, antique furniture. At that time the whole antiques thing hadn’t hit the way it has in more recent years, there were still abandoned houses sprinkled around the New England countryside, waiting to be explored. An intriguing, slightly spooky pasttime. I remember us driving around the traffic circle in Portsmouth then heading off away from town, stopping by the side of a road in front of a large old Victorian house that thrust itself up against the sky, vacant, seemingly forgotten, still in surprisingly good condition. We found our way inside, nosed around for a while, and as a result of some conversation about empty houses and ghosts, Terry and I decided to bring a ouija board to an old cemetery in Portsmouth one night during my stay.

During my teenage years, I did a fair amount of reading about what might be called the paranormal, especially during the summer months, trapped in the woods with my family. Pure escapism, in part, but also a sign of curiosity about this life of ours — the official explanations (i.e., those spewed by church and society) about life and its meaning never seemed credible to me, leaving me to cast about in my own small, ignorant way.

One night we parked on a side street in Portsmouth, Terry led me to an old churchyard, we found our way into its cemetery — old, old headstones everywhere, the thin kind, hip-high, leaning this way and that with age, some partially-covered in lichen, others with death’s-head angels carved above the name/date/etc. The air cool, leaves rustling above us in the trees. No one else around. We sat down, got out the board, started trying to strike up a conversation with someone of the nonphysical persuasion. Which turned out to be a far slipperier, more frustrating wrestling match than we’d expected. We’d ask questions, resting our fingertips on the little plastic thingie, it would kind of slide this way, sort of move that way. Not in any decisive manner, just futzing about. Now and then giving us little teasing bits of, well, not much, really — I seem to remember the board producing a woman’s name, but follow-up questions produced nothing coherent, contributing to a slight, growing sensation of being toyed with. We felt bits of energy and movement in the plastic thingie, but nothing of any duration, nothing sustained. As if things — whatever things — simply weren’t lined up, for whatever reason. But we kept trying. (After all, it’s just a game, right?)

Coming up on an hour later, with nothing much to show for our time, we were tiring. Terry asked ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ was) if we should stop for the night. Both of us felt the plastic thingie move surely, smoothly toward a certain part of the board, stopping over one of the key words. We both leaned over, looked at it, and in the same moment, the same nanosecond that the word registered, the bell in the church tower tolled, loud and sudden enough to make us jump. The word: ‘goodbye.’ We immediately said, “Fine,” picked up our toys, got out of there.

A genuine moment, if you know what I mean.

I once knew a woman named Ellen who told me about an experience she’d had way out in the New England countryside, at a place where a friend had some land with an old house. The structure was slated to be torn down so that a new house could be built, the demolition was imminent.

Ellen went into the building with some other folks, at one point the others were off in another part of the first floor, leaving Ellen by herself in the foyer, between the front door and the stairway. She happened to glance up the stairs, where her eyes met those of a man standing on the second floor landing, someone she’d never seen before. They stared at each other for a moment, then the unknown male turned and walked away, deeper into the second floor, out of view. No one knew who he was, no trace of him was found when they all went upstairs to look around.

The house was demolished soon after, the whole thing left Ellen feeling sad, a bit spooked.

Life: it’s packed of mysteries.

Happy Halloween.

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