My maternal great-grandmother was by all accounts a kind, but very unique, woman. She had an aversion to the sun, believed in Old World superstitions, and washed my infant grandmother's hair with lemon juice to keep bad spirits away and, of course, to preserve its infant blondness. She was fiercely loyal to those around her, even confronting one of my grandmother's childhood bullies in the classroom in the middle of instruction. Now, parents could not get away with this, but we all applaud her for taking a stand
According to my great aunt, she also had a secret she hid from our family and from the world. I would only discover it by chance on a day that, forever, changed my life. Until that day, I never believed in the paranormal. I was not prepared for one experience I had, however, while researching my great-grandmother's life and our family history in my great aunt's house, the house where my great aunt and grandmother grew up with their parents in the 1930s. The house remained in our family since, and only one other family lived in it before ours.
Built in 1890, this house is a two-story folk Victorian with patterned trim around the top evoking a gingerbread house. The front of the house faces the street, and is built upon a hill, such that the back of the house appears far taller than the front. Every room has multiple windows, the sides of the house are pointed gables, and most windows are draped with old-fashioned curtains. It has not been painted in years, and is a sickly beige color with chipped paint. There is a porch in front which is falling off the front of the house, caved in where people stand while waiting for the front door to be answered. From both inside and out, the house would give anyone the creeps. Approaching the house from the front, one might swear they see the curtains swaying even when the windows are closed, and dark shadows fluttering by.
The day after Christmas in 2016, while dropping my great aunt, now in her 90s, back home after visiting us for Christmas, I decided to spend some time in her home, searching for old family photographs and heirlooms. There were significant gaps in our family tree: I knew little to nothing about my great grandmother's family. All I knew was that she had three siblings, one of whom died very young of tuberculosis, and that their mother was sent back to Portugal from Ellis Island because she was ill with a communicable disease for which there was, at the time, no cure. I had never seen pictures of any of these people, but I wanted to. According to family legend, she spoke two languages: Portuguese, and another language whose name was lost in the sands of time that her husband and children could not understand.
When you walk in the front door of the house, you enter into a dark, spooky hallway, with a stairwell to the right that curves leftward and the hallway to the left, which turns a corner. Immediately to the left of the front door is a boarded up door leading to the living room, and there are piles of papers, boxes, and other assorted items of little significance scattered against the walls. My elderly great-aunt, clearly, does not throw anything away. Upon walking down the hallway in front, one comes to a door to what was once a nice dining room, but now there are papers piled up on the old dining room table such that it is no longer recognizable as a table. Off the dining room is the living room and a kitchen, as well as a door leading to the back stairwell. The second floor is nearly a replica of the first, given that the house was originally built for two families. There is no telling what items exist in the house from time immemorial, and I couldn't wait to find out.
Still, I stared up the front stairs, feeling dread and foreboding. The upstairs hallway was so dark that I could barely see anything until more than halfway up the stairs. I was instructed not to turn on any lights in the upstairs hallway, for the wiring had not been replaced in decades and the light switch at the top, a push-button switch from the 1950s, would produce a sharp electric shock and, possibly, ignite. I climbed the dark stairs, feeling as if something was watching me and would jump out at me. With dark wooden doors on all sides, slightly cracked open, and a cold draft coming down from the attic, I felt as if there was a malevolent force convincing me to turn around and head back down the stairs. I kept going.
I came to a small room with sickly yellow walls and boxes upon boxes of old photographs and documents. The room was brightly lit, in great contrast to the hallway. For a moment, I felt safe. I went through box after box, finding nothing of interest. After initially believing that I would need to go up to the attic to find any family photographs, I found a box with nothing but a large photograph in an old-fashioned frame, facing downward in the box. I picked it up and turned it toward me. The photo, dated 1905, showed a young woman with a face both familiar and strange. Her hair was tightly curled and pulled back, and she wore a cinnamon-colored brown dress and a ruby necklace. Her facial expression was serious yet serene, and I saw something of myself in her face. Based on the name on the back of the photo, I recognized her as my great-great grandmother. In the back of the frame slipped out a second photo that almost seemed purposefully hidden there, of this same woman sitting in a chair holding a small child. In this photo she looked different, and clearly darker skinned, as was the child on her lap. Her coarse hair was styled upward, with an old-fashioned clip to pin it back. The photo resembled ones you see from old Louisiana. This was not a photo of an early twentieth-century European immigrant family.
If only I'd always known that one of the great horrors of history, the legacy of one of mankind's cruelest sins against humanity, coursed through my mother's veins and, ultimately, my own.
I instantly realized what my great-grandmother had been hiding. Details about her life that had once seemed insignificant and were easily brushed off with no second thought came back to me and fit together like puzzle pieces. Now intrigued, I began to search the rest of the room for old photographs and heirlooms, but first, I needed to put this photograph back. I snapped a photo of it with my iPhone camera, which I still have to this day, and placed it in its box. When I bent over to the box, I saw something that caused me to gasp. Sweat poured down my face.
My great-great grandmother's ruby necklace, from the photo, sat at the bottom of the box. I knew it was NOT in there five minutes prior. I was afraid to pick it up, and everything inside of me told me not to pick it up. You can guess what I did. I picked up the necklace and studied it in my hands. It looked perfectly preserved after all of these years, shiny and beautiful, as if it could have been new. I initially intended to bring it home as a present for my mother, and to see how it might look, I picked it up and placed it around my own neck. Over the course of the next minute, as I studied the necklace around my own neck, the sky outside turned to clouds, and the once brightly-lit room got dark and foreboding. Out of nowhere, I hear a hissing whisper coming from behind me, followed by the words "It's a lie!" The voice was sinister and deep, and I could only distinguish that it belonged to a woman.
My heart racing, I placed my head in my hands, refusing to turn around. I did not know what I would see if I turned around and stared into that dark, creepy hallway. Part of me expected the attic door, previously slightly cracked, to be wide open and something to jump out. All I knew was that I needed to take this necklace off.
I tried to take the necklace off, but as I tried to lift it off my neck, it suddenly felt like it weighed ten times more. I grabbed the back of it, but it just would not be easily lifted. It did not dig into my neck or cut me, initially, but when I clasped it in my hands to lift it up, it was as if its weight increased exponentially, to the extent I could not lift it up from behind. I do not know physics, but this seemed impossible and defied the laws of gravity. I picked up the ruby in the front and it was light as a feather. I finally gave up and searched the back of the necklace for a clasp, my heart racing and sweat pouring down my face. I wanted nothing more than to be out of this room and back in my car. There was no clasp to be found, and the necklace now felt as if it was getting tighter and tighter around my neck. It took every bit of strength in me to not scream.
The harder I tried to pull the necklace off my neck, the harder it weighed down on the back of my neck. I knew when I looked in the mirror, there would be scratches there, and I gasped out in pain.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the necklace bounced upward and I was able to grab it off my neck, removing it as easily as I put it on. I threw it into the box, under the photograph of my great-great grandmother, and ran out of the room as fast as I could. As I reached the landing of the stairs to head downstairs, I heard the same grumbling voice, belonging to a woman, that said "Just go! Go!" My feet, likely, did not touch the stairs as I flew down them and into the kitchen to tell my great-aunt what had happened.
When I got downstairs, I asked her about the secret, and expressed that I finally figured it out. She confirmed to me that I had, indeed, figured out what my great grandmother had been hiding, and that as seemingly insignificant as this secret was to me, it meant a great deal to our family that no one found out. I wanted to tell her what happened to me upstairs, but I knew that, even being a superstitious older woman, she would never believe me. I simply told her I found a ruby necklace that I also saw in an old photograph of her grandmother.
That was impossible, she claimed. No such necklace existed in the house. The necklace was brought back when my great-great grandmother was turned away at Ellis Island, and was buried with her in Portugal. When she arrived, she was deemed unfit due to her illness, and her children were allowed through, to be looked after by a related family that immigrated at the same time. They never saw her again. She, along with all of her belongings, were sent back, so there was no possible way the necklace could have been upstairs. She loved that necklace, and died with it around her neck. Her remaining family overseas, knowing how much she loved that necklace, could not bring themselves to remove it from her, even in death.
I insisted that it was upstairs, and conquering all of my fear, ran upstairs as fast as I could to grab it. I lifted up the photograph in the box, but the necklace was gone. There was no trace of it anywhere. It was as if it had been a figment of my imagination, or had vanished into thin air.
As I turned around, the attic door began to creep open, as if pushed open by a draft. It could have been a draft, but it still sent me running back down the stairs. I did not turn to look behind me. I said my goodbyes, and ran out the front door, never to return. When I pick my great aunt up at the holidays now, I remain in my car, remembering the experience I had upstairs. To this day, I have nightmares about being strangled to death in the attic.
I woke up this morning to find a photo on my "Your Memories on Facebook" of my maternal great grandparents, which I uploaded exactly two years ago to this date. I had decided to publish this story last night, but didn't have time to write it until today. The photo appeared on my timeline today.
Family secrets of those days are fascinating. Imagine the things we still don't know about...
Loved this story. ❤