Throughout October, Mondays will be dedicated to Haunted Hawleyville, a series of sometimes silly and fun and sometimes downright spooky memoirs. Check out the full lineup here.
I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. But I’m also not sure that I don’t. What I can say is that over the years, I’ve had some strange things happen that I can’t just explain away. Those stories will come in future Haunted Hawleyvilles.
This first tale, however, isn’t about me seeing a ghost. It is about me BEING one.
I was 8 years old before my sister was born, so for much of my youth I was an only child. As a girl, I was always fascinated by and a little envious of friends and relatives who had siblings close to their age. I didn’t think about them having to share their toys and their parents’ attention. I just thought about all the fun and mischief and having a partner in crime.
So when I went with my grandparents to visit our family in West Virginia, John Denver’s old “almost heaven” line rang especially true. My grandmom had a much younger brother, Hugh (although I always knew him simply as “Uncle Bunny”). He had children who, although they were my dad’s first cousins, were closer in age to me.
When I was 11, his son Jimmy was a teenager, his daughter Cindy was 12, and his youngest girl Mindy 10. Cindy and I were especially close. I’d spend weekends with her during the school year, and several weeks in the summer. Uncle Bunny’s home had been built on property adjoining my Great Grandma Katie’s (who was always “Grandma Ruggles” to me to differentiate her from all my other grandmas.). Uncle Bunny was both a mailman and a farmer, so my time staying with him and his family was an adventure in rural living for a city girl like me.
Grandmom with (Left to Right): Cindy, Mindy, me and my little sister Jamie.
Visiting was also a chance to watch close-in-age siblings interact and drive each other crazy. For Cindy and I, there was nothing more entertaining than poking our preteen noses into Jimmy’s adolescent business.
When my grandparents and I arrived for a weekend visit that spring, Cindy was ready to explode with new gossip. As we roamed the creek looking for salamanders, she told me that Jimmy, by then 16 or so, had taken to sleeping in the family camper rather than the house. Then, wide-eyed and giggling, she gave me the big scoop.
“And,” she said, her big blue-green eyes shining “He’s got DIRTY MAGAZINES in there. I SAW them when mom told me to go get him for dinner the other day!”
If I was a good girl, I would have said “Ewwwww.” Instead, I was as overwhelmed with curiousity as Cindy. She’d just been waiting for a partner in crime, and Jimmy was at a friends for the day. So we hatched a plan to sneak Uncle Bunny’s keys out of his kitchen, let ourselves into the camper and have a peek at all the butts and boobs.
That’s exactly what we did. We sat in that dusty camper and snickered and hooted and howled at what floppy and funny-looking things men had between their legs and wondered if our boobs would ever get that big. But we quickly got bored and hungry, and decided to head back up to Grandma Ruggle’s house for some fresh-baked pepperoni roles.
We spent the rest of that afternoon and evening with Grandma Ruggles and Grandmom, munching on country home cooking at the kitchen table with the brightly colored tablecloth and listening to the grownups chatter. That night, Grandmom was sleeping in one of the spare rooms at Grandma Ruggles’ house. Grandad was heading to Great-Grandma Hawley’s house up the road a ways for an overnight visit with his own mom. They decided, as they always did, that I could go back to Uncle Bunny’s with Cindy and spend the night there.
That night, we sat at opposite ends of the bedroom in our nightgowns and talked about school and boys and rock stars. Cindy shared her room with Mindy, who tossed and turned in her own bed and begged us to shut up. Finally, we settled down to let poor Mindy get some sleep.
I was just about to doze off myself when Cindy bolted upright beside me. My eyes fluttered open just as she began to shake me awake.
“Shit!” she whispered in the darkness, her eyes wide with fear.
“What,” I mumbled in return, groggy.
“I left Dad’s keys up at Grandma’s!” she cried.
“So, we’ll just get up early and go get them in the morning,” I answered, about to turn over and drift off to la-la land.
“No, we have to get them NOW,” Cindy demanded. Then she explained that in just a few short hours, Uncle Bunny would get up, milk the cows and cart the milk off to a location where he met someone who delivered it to a dairy. That was a big part of his livlihood, and if he didn’t have his keys to drive off into the pre-dawn hours he’d be just a bit pissed.
With no other option, we climbed out of bed and tiptoed past the sleeping Mindy. Luckily, the girls’ bedroom led into the kitchen and from there we had a straight shot to the living room and the front door. Barefoot and wearing nightgowns, we padded across the house, cringing at every creak of the floorboards. When we reached the front porch, we stood for a moment and breathed in the night air, giddy with relief. We had escaped the house without awakening any grownups.
Holding onto each other’s arms and stumbling in the darkness, we made our way to Grandma Ruggles’ house. The distance between the two homes was almost nothing, but in the dark of night with a big yellow moon glowering down at us, it seemed endless. The weather had been wet, and mud squished between our toes as we stumbled along.
We passed the camper, and noticed what looked like a flashlight shining through the window.
“Your brother’s in there looking at all those cooters,” I told my cousin, and we both went off into fits of laughter. Maybe that’s really what he WAS doing. Otherwise he surely would have come out to see why the heck we were roaming around that late.
We reached Great Grandma Ruggles’ house and padded up the porch steps. One of us bumbled into the porch swing and set it off rocking and creaking. We froze and held our breath, but nothing happened.
Timidly, I tried the door. Of course, it was locked.
Resolutely, Cindy squared her shoulders and said we’d have to go through the window. She made her way to it and somehow managed to lift of the screen without damaging it. My cousin would have had an awesome future as a cat burgler. Instead, she grew up and became a health aide who took care of Grandma Ruggles in her last years.
Once that was done, Cindy climbed through the window with the grace of a kid who spent a lot of time roaming the woods and riding horses. I followed, plopping to the floor of my great grandma’s living room with all the agility of a suburban kid who read a lot of books, watched a lot of TV and bruised her butt tottering around on roller skates.
By then, Cindy had reached the end table where she’d left the keys. “Shhhhhhhhh!” she hissed as I pulled myself to my feet. It was only then that I realized I hadn’t even needed to come in with her. It wasn’t like she’d needed my help finding the keys. So I turned and scrambled back out the window, with a little more grace this time. Cindy followed quickly, but as she was landing feet-first on the porch we saw a light come on in the spare bedroom, and heard someone stirring about.
“Shit!” we both whispered, clutching at each other. “Shit” is so much fun to say in the years before the word “teen” gets added to your age.
Then we bolted down the porch stairs and hightailed it back to Uncle Bunny’s. Mud splattered our nightgowns as we sprinted through the wet grass. Once, I almost stumbled over a rock, and Cindy tumbled down to one knee once but got up and kept going. Breathless, we reached the house and let ourselves back in. Cindy set the keys on the kitchen table and we scooted into the bedroom, where we dove beneath the covers and broke into a fit of giddy giggles.
We whispered and chuckled for a long time, high on our success at being sneaky. Our clothes and muddy feet were getting Cindy’s bed all messy, but we never bothered to figure out how we’d explain that. Then Mindy rolled over and mumbled in her sleep, and we quieted down. Gradually, we started drifting off ourselves, still giddy with our adventure.
Then the phone rang.
We both bolted upright again. Phones ringing at 2 or 3 am are never a good thing. We sat frozen in the bed for a moment, then Cindy hoisted herself up and started to run for the phone. But Uncle Bunny had awoken, and he got to it first, flicking on his coffee pot with one hand while he reached for the phone with the other.
Cindy hunkered back down under the blankets with me, and we listened to a one-sided conversation of “ummm-hmmms,” and “really?” and “I’m sure they’re ok.” Then Uncle Bunny put the receiver down on the counter and strode towards the bedroom. We dove down into “sound asleep” positions. Cindy even pretended to snore.
Uncle Bunny flicked on the light, and our eyes flew open.
“You okay, girls?” he asked.
“Ummm-hmmmm,” Cindy replied, trying her darndest to sound like someone woken from a sound sleep. “Why, Daddy?”
“Aunt Junie (to me, that was ‘Grandmom’) just called, and she was all shook up,” he said.
“Why,” I shot up and asked, before I could think about it. I may have been a mischievous brat, but I loved my grandmom and didn’t want her to be upset.
“Oh, she said she had a bad dream,” he continued. “She woke up and thought she saw two white figures floating through the living room. They looked like you and Cindy, and she got it in her head that she was seeing your spirits, trying to tell her something bad had happened to you. So she called me and told me to make sure you were alright.”
Well, I thought about my grandmother waking up and thinking she had seen mine and Cindy’s ghosts flitting about the living room, and I cracked. I felt horrible. So did Cindy. We looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement, and told Uncle Bunny everything. He called Grandmom back and told her what had happened.
They scolded us, but they laughed their butts off, too. After all, it WAS funny that two young girls in light-colored nightgowns who had divebombed in through a window were mistaken for flitting ghosts when Grandmom woke up out of a deep sleep. We didn’t even get punished, although Uncle Bunny hid his keys from Cindy after that. We did have to get all the mud out of her bed on our own, though.
The real losers were Jimmy and Mindy. His magazines disappeared. Mindy, as it turned out, had been faking sleep when we got home and knew all. She was planning on having blackmail material against her sister for a long time to come, and us coming clean burst that bubble.
I guess that sometimes, being an honest ghost pays off in the end.