The first glimpse of my grandparents' property during my childhood visits was of two massive and craggy old Osage-orange trees that once stood at the corner of the large yard, nearest the approach from the street. They are gone now, but I still sometimes see the old house beyond the dark, spooky trees in my dreams. The house isn't so old by European or even East Coast standards, but ancient for central Ohio. My father and his siblings were raised there. My dad's large extended family often gathered for holidays in the house and picnics on the sloping, sprawling lawn, dotted with lilacs, mulberry trees and roses. It was during one of these gatherings that my cousins and I realized we had each independently glimpsed the same apparition.
At some point after my brother acquired the house, the local historical society examined the building and relayed that the smaller section of the house, which we always thought was an addition, was actually the older portion. The abstract dates back to 1823, but the older part may well have existed before then. The city of Columbus was founded in 1812 and the nearby Franklinton, long-since annexed by Columbus, was first laid out in 1797. I have recently verified that a member of a once prominent family in the early years of Columbus built the home and a portion of the more than 1000 acre frontier farm was the source for the land that is now Greenlawn cemetery. My other story, Iron Bridge, describes beautiful Greenlawn, a cemetery since 1848. The original farm was rumored to be a revolutionary war land grant, but no actual documentation has been found. My grandparents lived there for decades, during which my grandfather sold off bits of land surrounding the house until all that was left was a large yard on the small hill where the house still stands, now engulfed by the city.
The solid, old farmhouse is a two-story, brick colonial with extra thick walls, perhaps to protect against attacks from wildlife and maybe even Native Americans, who were known to camp in the vicinity in the early 19th century. The familiar musty scent of a very old building permeates the plastered walls. The original water pump and now covered well still stand conveniently beside the deep porch along the south face of the house. The massive fireplace and mantel are covered with uncounted layers of paint; the firebox has been closed off as long as I can remember. Access to the second floor was once accommodated by a spiral staircase in a fine wood cabinet that my mother remembered still standing during my parent's courtship. The spiral staircase was replaced by a standard stairway to accommodate my grandfather's ever-expanding waistline.
A curious feature is that the house does not face the lane running alongside. It instead faces the larger road several blocks away. The original builder most likely oriented the house to the main road and the lane leading to the house today is probably a remnant of the original long driveway to the house. When visiting my grandparents, I would often daydream a vision of the ancient forest and farmland once surrounding the house, rather than the homes and businesses that enclose the property now. No trace remains of the outbuildings and a barn that were almost certainly nearby. The Osage-orange trees may have been the last vestige of a tight hedge used to corral livestock, a common practice before barbed wire.
As a small child, I would never have dreamed of staying overnight with my grandparents without a brother or cousin, because we all "knew" the house was haunted. My grandfather would tell us ghost stories from his childhood in rural Kentucky, which set us up for long, spooky nights. He used the Appalachian term, haint, and always had a ready supply of eerie tales. The house did not have central heat so each of the rooms upstairs had a small grate in the floor that allowed heat to rise into the cold spaces above. Those grates would also permit grandkids to eavesdrop on adult conversations, but could be the source of terror as we imagined or perhaps even heard voices in the night from the rooms below.
The house's antique spookiness sometimes played out hilariously. An often repeated anecdote tells of my grandmother and one of my cousins who had returned from a trip to the grocery in the early afternoon, hours before my grandfather's expected arrival from work. As they began unloading their purchases, they heard heavy footsteps slowly descending the steps in the adjacent living room. My grandfather, who had returned early and unexpectedly, walked into the kitchen just in time to see my grandmother and cousin through the still open backdoor running across the yard in utter terror from the imagined horror on the stairs. My grandfather laughed to the point of tears when retelling this tale.
When I was in my late teens, and unbeknownst to us at the time, the family gathered on a warm, summer Sunday afternoon for what was to be perhaps the last reunion at my grandparent's house, before my grandfather passed away. After an enormous lunch of my grandmother's irresistible cooking, a group of cousins and I, all close in age, gathered in the large living room and reminisced about our childhood adventures in the old house. Eventually the spooky stories started. To our amazement, each of us had independently witnessed the same specter of an old woman on the second floor.
My sighting occurred when I was probably seven or eight. My younger brother and I were spending the night and as we made our way up the stairs to the bedrooms at the end of the evening, I saw movement in the dim light at the top. A small, stooped old woman in a long dress with her hair in a bun seemed to walk on air across the opening of the stairway above the top step, level with the floor beyond. The fringe on her shawl was visible as she held a lantern in front of her. The lantern seemed to glow, but cast no light in the gloom. She vanished into my grandparent's room before we reached the top. I'm not sure if my little brother saw her because I had already rationalized in my fear that she was my grandmother despite the fact that we had left her downstairs before starting up the steps. My grandmother, however, most assuredly could not walk on air. I can only speculate now that my grandfather must have opened the floor for the stairwell after he removed the original spiral staircase on the far side of the living room, which would explain why the apparition walked above the top step. To my knowledge, no one in my brother's family has seen the old woman.
During the long conversation with my cousins, one asked if we remembered the mysterious door in the back of my grandmother's large closet, where we often played as children. Her closet was unusual because it could only be accessed by climbing two steps to open the door to reach the storage within. The other fascinating feature was an interior door on one side. I never heard anyone mention that door until the conversation with my cousins. We all remembered it, but none of us knew what would be found beyond because we were unable to open it. When my grandmother walked by our group, we asked her. To our astonishment, she said that there was no door in the back of her closet. We were so incredulous that she told us we were welcome to take a look. She was right, there was no door, but we all distinctly remembered it.
During renovations, my brother removed a section of old, horse-hair plaster in the closet. Of course, he found a door that allowed access to the attic. My grandmother's closet had obviously once been the attic stairwell landing. The plaster seemed to date the wall that covered the door to a time long before our generation. I can't imagine how my cousins and I could have remembered it.
My father and brother eventually climbed into the attic to seal off any openings to the outside from the multitude of bats that would fly out every evening at dusk. They discovered what appeared to be charred rafters from a forgotten fire on about half of one side of the house. It is tempting to wonder if the old woman's specter dated from the time of that fire.