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That Old House

I remember that old house from my childhood. My stepfather would take us there to visit family.  It was the longest drive through the country side and across a long, one lane dilapidated bridge.  The dust would trail after us from the tires on the gravel road.  I was always equally excited and frightened at the thought of spending time at the old house.  Excited because my step-aunt, Bunny, who was literally six months older than me, would be there.  She and I would find things to do because there was only one black and white TV and we were limited to only one hour after dinner. We would ride bikes, “swim” in an old horse trough, make hay bale mazes in the barn and take long walks down dirt roads.  She was more “country” than I and I learned a great deal from her about the mischief you could get into around an old country house. However, I always felt frightened at the cold, old building. It never felt welcoming and it had cool spots around the house, shadows on the walls, and a general vibe of melancholy. 

When we neared the old building, it always appeared to be somewhat in disrepair. Sad, if a house can be sad. It wasn’t exactly falling apart but it was not as crisp as it could have been. It was two story, with a porch that spanned the front. It had a Victorian flair, but just a touch.  It was still a country house that had seen better days. There was a big old Elm tree in the front that provided shade and kept the heat off the porch in the summer. There was a smaller building behind the house that was a cook’s kitchen. It had five cast iron stoves that you could see if you peered through the dusty windows.  Stories told that the house had been a hotel in the 1800’s…which made sense with the kitchen.  You could imagine the house in a different time. She had been a beauty once. 

My step-father’s mother was a caregiver for the elderly man who lived there. She and he lived on the main floor making bedrooms out of what had been the parlor and library. I remember the kitchen that was in the house had a well-pump at the sink and a set of stairs that came down from what had once been the “servant’s quarters.” We had simple meals such as boiled potatoes with butter and salt.  Usually, I was just there for a day or two but on occasion I would stay for a week. I felt frightened then more than other times.  When I was in the house for more than one night, Bunny, who spent more time there than I, always encouraged exploration of the second floor.  There were six rooms upstairs.  One, the long ago staff accommodations, four that the doors were always open and you might find and old feather bed or wardrobe inside, and one that was shut up. Door closed. It was at the top of the stairs and I always ran past that door.  It just felt creepy.  No real reason for it.  There were no stories of anyone dying in the room (well that I knew of).  No one locked away for their own good.  But I would scoot past as fast as I could. 

One day, when Bunny and I were exploring, she decided to pick the lock on the room at the top of the stairs.  It was an old door with a skeleton type key hole, easy to pick.  Hesitantly, I went in.  It was full of furniture, odds and ends, books and dolls.  It was dusty as you would think it might be.  We crept around looking at the collection of items.  It was so cold in the room, especially for a summer day in a house with no air conditioning.  I was near panic at the thought of being caught, and the utter weirdness of the space. Bunny, of course, was much braver than I.  So she questioned aloud “what is this for, who did this belong to”, etc. Suddenly a book toppled off a shelf and hit the floor with a bang. We looked at each other and made a mad dash for the door.  My heart was racing. To me that was a clear sign that I should not be in that room.  She laughed at my speed.  For a chubby girl, I moved pretty quickly.  We ran down the hall to one of the open rooms and flung ourselves on a bed, Bunny laughing, me hyperventilating. 

There were other odd things that happened in the house. Sometimes you could hear footsteps when there was no one there. Sometimes the stillness of a room would be overwhelming, as though time had stopped. At other times you could sense something or someone watching you. Once, as I was headed to the bathroom, I was stopped in my tracks by a man at the end of the hall.  I had never seen him before. I asked if he needed help because he was just standing there. He looked old and was wearing worn clothes and held a hat in his hand.  I turned to go get the grandmother but when I turned back he was gone.  At the time, I just dismissed it. Looking back I’m not sure that the man was really there.

One day, though, I was waiting for Bunny to use the restroom.  She ran inside for a quick break and I waited outside by an old hitching post that looked like it had been there since the house was built.  I stood listening to the sounds around me and I began to hear the sounds of men marching, their feet hitting the road in unison. I could almost hear a chant from the men marching in rhythm. It felt not too distant, just out of sight. Of course I saw nothing. There were no men, definitely not soldiers marching. Maybe it was the sound of my heart beating in my ears or maybe my imagination. Yet, it was one of those moments that I still remember 40 years later. 

Eventually, the old man died and we never had a reason to go back to that house.  I think about it from time to time.  I wonder what it was like when it had been a hotel.  Or what it was like when the old man had been a young man. Did he have a family? Was there laughter in the air? Were there other children that played in the barn or ran the halls of the house?  What was the life of the old house before those few summers? And now, does it still stand? I hope it does.     

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