He was always larger than life to me, even though I only knew him through his childrens’ stories and old family pictures.
My Great-Grandad Norman Ruggles died before I was born. But when I visited my Great-Grandmother Katie in Tunnelton, WV, he still seemed to be everywhere. His picture on the wall was stern and fatherly, his eyes intense even in black and white. The memories his children carried, particularly my Grandmom and my Great-Aunt Fuzzy, were colorful and vivid.
In my teens, my first boyfriend B and I went with my grandparents for a West Virginia weekend. B and I rode in the back as my grandfather drove. We watched the urban sprawl of Baltimore change to the mountain and farming landscapes of Western MD, and by the time we crossed the West Virginia state line I was full of giddy excitement. These “trips to the country” never failed to thrill me, even as I grew to the age where most teens would lose interest in family visits to remote mountain towns.
My grandmom passed the travel time telling B stories of her childhood in the house we were about to stay in. I had heard them all before, but they still entranced me. Especially the stories about Great-Grandad Ruggles.
Norman was a coal miner and a farmer, who raised my grandmother, her sister and four brothers with a stern but loving hand. He taught them to hunt and fish and farm, and to be proud in spite of being poor as long they worked hard. He was also fond of his booze, and would spend many a night sitting on his porch with a bottle.
Some of my grandmother’s favorite stories were of her father’s drunken singing. It seems I might have gotten my tone-deaf chicken squawking from him. But in the bottle, he must have thought he sounded like Hank Williams, because he sang loud and proud. The children would huddle to listen and try to muffle their laughter. It pissed him off when they giggled at his crooning.
Other times, he’d tell them ghost stories. My grandmother’s best girlfriend growing up lived in a farmhouse up the road. Between their homes was a church and a cemetary. This friend often stayed at the Ruggles house until after dark before traipsing home. My grandmom would walk with her to the middle of the graveyard. Then they would say their goodbyes and each run home alone as fast as they could.
When she got home, my grandmother’s heart would be pounding, and her father would still be on the porch, chuckling to himself. That run home was always scary, because before the girls left Norman would fill their heads with tales of ghosts and ghouls waiting in the graveyard.
By the time we got to the Ruggles house, B had gotten a delightful earful of my Grandmother’s childhood stories. He soon met all the weathered but healthy family members who had been kids in the road trip tales and now had children of their own. He basked in Grandma Katie’s warm smile, welcoming hug and home country cooking. I showed him the picture of Norman on the wall, and talked about how I wished that I could have met him in person. B studied the picture for a bit, his eyes meeting Norman’s vivid gaze. Then he turned away.
The day passed quickly, as those fun-filled trips always did, and before we knew it dark had fallen. We visited late into the night in Katie’s living room, under Norman’s watchful gaze. Then gradually, the great-aunts and uncles and cousins who had gathered to see us drifted home to their own farmhouses. My Grandfather left to head up the road to stay with his own mother, my Great-Grandma Hawley.
Grandmom, B and I were staying at Grandma Katie’s. So were my Aunt Fuzzy and her husband, my Uncle Don, who were visiting from Williamsburg. There were two spare bedrooms in the farmhouse. Aunt Fuzzy and Uncle Don took the one near Grandma Katie’s room. Grandmom and I shared the one by the living room (the same one Grandmom was in during the night I was a ghost). B was to sleep on the couch in the living room.
It had been a long and busy day, and I fell into a sound sleep quickly, my grandmom snoring softly beside me. I woke sometime in the wee hours of the morning, long before the sun chased away the darkness. The sounds of a door creaking open had startled me out of slumber.
I let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Beside me, grandmom still snoozed. I slid from the bed as quietly as I could, and padded barefoot out of the bedroom. The couch came into view as soon as I stepped into the living room.
B’s blanket and pillow were there, but he wasn’t. The room felt much colder than our toasty bedroom, and the chill nipped my bare arms and ankles. I wandered into the kitchen, but it was empty and cold too, although not nearly as chilly as the living room. I could hear Great-Grandma Katie and Uncle Don snoring in their beds on the other side of the house. I’ve got a lot of snorers in my family.
I crept back into the living room. For some reason, my eyes wandered to Norman’s photograph. He seemed to be watching me almost reproachfully. Then, through the window, I saw a shadow move out on the porch.
I jumped and gave a muffled yelp. Then the shadow grew clearer, and I realized it was B.
I threw his blanket over my shoulders and went outside. He was standing on the porch, looking confused and forlorn.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked him.
“Your great-grandfather told me to get out of his house,” he replied as if that made all the sense in the world.
A shiver went up my spine. The night was dark and the moon was heavy in a cloudy sky. Up the road, just out of view, I knew the church and graveyard rested in the moonlight, and that one of the headstones belonged to my great-grandfather – the same man my boyfriend said had just told him to leave the house.
That’s enough weirdness for anyone to swallow – especially an easily spooked teenage girl.
We sat on the porch swing and talked, shivering in the cold and talking about what had happened. B said he’d awoken to find a man who looked just like the one in Norman’s picture standing over him, pointing towards the door. The man had never spoken, B said. But he’d known that the pointing finger meant “get out of my home.” Not knowing what else to do, he had.
Eventually, I got B to come back into the house. When the sun crept into the sky and my grandmom, Aunt Fuzzy, Uncle Don and Great-Grandma Katie woke up, they were surprised to find us already awake. We told them what had happened.
Sitting around with warm coffee mugs in hand, sunlight streaming through the windows, and family chattering around us, the weirdness of the night faded. My family was convinced that B had a bad dream, fueled by all their stories of how gruff Norman could be and the picture hanging above his sleeping place. In the comfort of the morning, it was easy to convince us they were right.
By the time we got home, it felt like little more than a funny story to share for years to come. Sitting in our living room back in Baltimore, I told my mom about our adventure, expecting her to laugh at our silliness.
Instead, she looked surprised and a little disturbed. I soon learned why when she told her own story.
When they were newlyweds, she said, she had traveled to Grandma Katie’s with my father. They slept in the bedroom where I was sleeping with Grandmom. She had awoken – or dreamed she had awoken – to find Norman watching her. He didn’t point and tell her to leave the way he did B. But by the way he was staring at her, she knew he was disturbed by her presence.
So in her dream, she told him that everything was okay, that she belonged there because she was his grandson’s wife. And she said she felt a sense of peace in him then, and that he went away.
I still to this day wonder what happened.
My great-grandfather, long buried in a cemetary a short walk from his home, was a vivid character in the stories his children told. Did my mother and my first boyfriend coincidentally have similar odd dreams when they visited his home, sparked by those tales and his imposing picture on the wall?
Or, did Norman remain protective of his family and his home even after death, and show up to check things out when he sensed newcomers in his house? Did he treat them differently because he knew that B would not become a part of our family, while my mother of course already had?
I never saw my great-grandfather’s spirit myself, in dreams or while awake. But I did feel his larger-than-life presence in every nook and cranny of the house.
A few years after B’s experience, my Great-Grandma Katie’s health began to fail. She passed away while I was in college. During her last year or so, my cousin Cindy moved in and acted as her caretaker, and she continued to live in the house after Katie’s death.
When Grandma Katie was still alive, Cindy would often hear the little radio in her bedroom playing old music late at night. When she’d peek in, Grandma Katie would seem to be sound asleep. But Cindy would assume that she must have awoken and wanted to hear music, turned on the radio and drifted quickly back to sleep.
She never could figure out why that old radio continued to come on at odd hours and fill that bedroom with quiet old music after Katie joined Norman in the graveyard.
What do you think?