(Let’s just pretend I haven’t posted in six months, mmkay? Mmkay.)
I believe in ghosts. Living things are made of energy and I believe some of that energy can cling to places, objects, and even people. As long as you invest your own energy into carrying the memory of someone, they’re living on in you, even if only a tiny bit.
We’re all haunted, for better or worse, by the people we choose to put energy into remembering, then. I am haunted by my Nana on the daily – whether by seeing a bird or flower she liked, smelling a scent that I associate with her, or thinking of a specific time I was with her. My paternal grandmother, Marion, haunts me often by way of my love for fiber arts and textiles. She was an amazing knitter and seamstress, and had aspirations in her early days of becoming a fashion designer. When I see a beautifully made piece of clothing or I sit down to knit for a while, her energy is there in my hands, if not my head, making me itch to create.
Can you be haunted by someone you’ve never met, though? Someone you have no memories of to feed your own energy into? I think in some cases, yes. Maybe you visit a place where someone’s energy is still clinging for whatever reason, like in a classic ghost story of a grisly death or unrequited love, where someone’s spirit can’t leave. Their energy might not even be trapped there due to bad circumstances – maybe it was a place that person loved so deeply or made it so much their own that they willed part of themselves to stay there long after their body had left. Perhaps there’s an item that was so important to someone that it ended up absorbing some of their energy. Whether a cherished object or a utilitarian one, the things we surround ourselves with and use on a daily basis can certainly carry echoes of us far into the future, I believe.
If you’ve gotten this far you’re probably wondering why I’m even blathering on about this woo shit. It’s not my normal LOL-fest, after all (please read that with the intended sarcasm. On no plane of existence would I have the audacity to judge my own writing an actual LOL-fest. Apparently I DO exist in a space where I refer to things as LOL-fests now, though? I’m not sure I’m ok with that, but I’m quickly sliding headlong into a black hole of parenthetical digression and I need to back away from that particular event horizon before it sucks me in and disintegrates me. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about space lately, can you tell?).
Where was I? Oh yes, explaining why I’m talking about ghosty woo things.
So, the reason I bring all this up is that I’m being haunted. The spirit of one of my great-great-grandfathers, Harlan Godfrey, has been all up in my grill for quite some time now.
I’ve always been really interested in old stuff. I was never really great in history class in school because that involved a lot of memorizing names and dates, which put me right to sleep. But old STUFF? Stuff you can hold in your hands, or at least see in the context of the time in which it was created / used? That’s always been my jam. I wanted to be a paleontologist, then an archaeologist, for most of my childhood. Eventually I figured out that both professions a) spend a lot of time doing very physical work in some pretty inhospitable places (or worse, are in academia), and b) are not known for making big bucks. Or any bucks, really. Being physically uncomfortable and being poor have both always been pretty high on my Do Not Want list, so I eventually moved on to other dreams (none of which I have actually achieved either, but at least I learned to be more realistic? That’s a useful skill, surely). My love of old stuff and old stories never really went away, though. Eventually I started channeling it into genealogy. This was especially satisfying to me because it combined my love of old stuff with my ridiculously strong life-long urge to know other people’s business.
For a long time my genealogy fixes came from my Nana. She had lots of old pictures, lists of names and birth dates, and she knew where most of the bodies were buried. Literally. Her husband, my Bampa, was long gone at that point – he died when I was 11 – but she had stayed in close touch with that side of the family and had a lot of knowledge of their ancestry as well. My mom has always been interested in family history too, and with the advent of sites like Ancestry, being able to build an actual family tree and show her all kinds of cool stuff like census records and draft cards got her sort of sucked into my project as well. We ended up going to a family reunion together a few summers ago – NOT something that either of us would normally volunteer for, as we’re both card-carrying introverts – but several very elderly family members were going to be there and we were interested in seeing if they could confirm some details of some people for us. At the reunion my mom’s aunt Jan (my grandfather’s youngest sister) mentioned that she had some books I might be interested in, and that she’d get them to me eventually.
The following summer, Jan showed up one day with a smallish clear plastic tote bag – the kind that gift sets of shampoo and body wash come in. Rather than bottles, it was filled with small books.
“Here’s something to get you started. I want these back eventually, so please be careful with them,” she said, handing them over. I pulled out the first little book, smaller than most peoples’ cell phones today, and flipped open the cover.
‘Diary of Harlan F. Godfrey, 1910’
I went home that afternoon and lost at least three hours reading. The entries are all entirely utilitarian. Harlan was a subsistence farmer in turn-of-the-century Vermont. He used his diaries to keep track of weather, which heifers were bred and which ones were sold, when he bought feed and supplies and how much he paid for them, etc. Not exactly riveting reading for most people, but for whatever reason, I was hooked. I read through all the diaries over the space of a few days, then proceeded to bend the ear of every family member who showed even the remotest inkling of interest about them.
Jan’s words kept bouncing around in my head – “I want these back eventually”. But…but what if I some day had a burning need to know how much Harlan had paid for a hogshead of cracked corn at Chase’s store in Bradford in September of 1910? She wanted the books back, but I couldn’t handle the idea of losing that resource. I needed to preserve my hoard of the most banal treasure imaginable. So I decided to do the only reasonable thing, given the situation:
I decided to transcribe it. All six books worth.
It should be noted that, like with most plans I come up with, I decided I was going to do it and then immediately started four other things, which lead to three further projects, which in turn brought on an avalanche of roughly 17.6 million additional tasks. Before I knew it, a year had gone by. And then another one. That is 100% how I’ve made to to age 39, by the way. I swear the last time I looked, I was 27. This whole ‘time compressing as you age’ thing is pretty fucked, especially if your brain was pre-wired to have no real concept of time passing like mine is.
Anyway. Jan still hadn’t asked for the books back a couple weeks ago when the second anniversary of me having them whizzed past, but I know Jan and she is as dragon-esque with her hoard of precious old things as I am, so I know she won’t forget and I won’t be able to put her off for long once she decides she wants the books back.
So, last Friday when I had something else I really needed to be doing and thus was fair gagging for a procrastinatory escape hatch, I pulled up a Google doc, cracked open the first diary, and started transcribing. It’s going faster than I originally figured it would – it takes me about 30 minutes to get through a month of entries, provided I don’t run into any super scrawly bits that I have to try to decipher. Harlan’s penmanship was pretty decent but he wrote with a pencil, the point of which wears down periodically, making things harder and harder to read…to the point where I’ll find myself muttering ‘sharpen your god damned pencil, Gramps’ like he could somehow hear me from 110 years in the past. His grammar is also pretty suspect, which can be kind of amusing at times. He wrote very much how he would have spoken (must be genetic?), so there are entries like “Done choars this F”, meaning he did the chores this forenoon, and “drawed wood all day”, meaning not that he’s drawing pictures of wood but that he’s dragging it out of the forest with his horses. My favorite is that, almost every Sunday, his entry is “here to home”. Sometimes it’s accompanied by notes of people having visited that day, but mostly it’s just that one simple statement that sounds so…content. Like he’s taking a well-earned day off after a week of hard work. I mean, for all I know he spent his Sundays beating his kids and kicking the chickens…but I’d find it quite surprising if that were the case.
What used to be Harlan’s farm, and then his son Floyd (my great-grandfather)’s farm, is about a ten minute ride from where I live. It’s a spot I have been inexplicably drawn to for many years – since way before I knew which property my ancestors had owned, since before I stopped to look at the gravestones in the little cemetery tucked up on the side hill and noticed many names I recognized from my family tree. All that energy, all that love of place that three or four generations of my ancestors worked into the side of that hill… it’s like someone strikes a kind of cosmic tuning fork and the bits of those people that live on in my blood start singing that haunting note and I have to go back to harmonize for a little while.