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Gail the Friendly Ghost

"Tell them that the house is not for sale

We’re still living here

How come nobody can tell?"

-- “This House is Not For Sale” by Ryan Adams

On Thursday, January 18, Ryan and I paid $12,690 to sell our house on Hazel Street. We gave it away as if making a charitable donation.

When we bought our sweet saltbox abode in 2005, we were a family of three: Mama, Daddy, + baby Irie. When the real estate bubble officially burst in 2008, we’d already proliferated to a family of five: 3 + Leo & Fern. We lived there a full decade, and by the time we elbowed free from tight quarters, we’d become a family of seven: 5 + Francis & Gustav. In October 2015, we moved to the West Side (of Oshkosh) and admitted being traitors to our East Side friends. We were sellouts too - “but at least we’re buying an artist’s house,” we said. We weren’t moving unthinkingly into cookie-cut-out-land, no, sir!

Houses, like bodies, are identity containers. People wanted to know: Do you live in a character home on a real street with sidewalks, or do you live among the Stepford families, houses plunked down, assembly-style in an old farm field?

For ten years, we clung fiercely to our East-Side selves until we were sick and claustrophobic in our 1600-square-foot allotment. It didn’t help that Ryan’s life in criminal defense had begun to encroach on our lives there. His hard-core clients kept moving in up the block.

Michael Ruhlman wrote House: A Memoir, which shares something in common with an old idea of mine. Back in the 1930s, my grandmother’s brother Jack fell through the ice on Shadow Lake and drown. Their grief-stricken family lost their fortune and their enormous Victorian-style house, just up the hill from the site of Jack’s death. Every story my grandma told ended at this house, where her parents, Nellie and Van Nelson, hosted a viewing of Jack’s body before he was buried. Nothing about her 96 years of life mattered more than the wrap-around porch and dumbwaiter on Main Street in Waupaca.

Houses, after all, were graveyard alternatives. If Jack’s ghost haunted any dwelling, my grandmother knew, she’d reunite with him where they’d begun as siblings.

In The Motherhood Affidavits, I tried to write about people, not houses, even though I couldn’t resist personification. Our haunt on Hazel street is “the incredible shrinking house” and “a living, breathing entity.” For simplicity’s sake, though, when writing about how we moved – at long last – from Hazel Street, I chose not to distract readers with the details of a lease agreement. I simply wrote that a “family of four was set to replace us on Hazel Street.” Simple and true.

We imagined after renting, this lovely family (Mama, Daddy + 2 boys) would buy the domicile into which we’d once shoe-horned our own five little piggies. We’d lasted ten years on Hazel Street; they lasted fewer than two. At the tail-end of a hot summer for real estate, Ryan and I stood shocked and bereft inside our abandoned flophouse, wondering, how on earth are we going sell this old thing now?

For sale: old digs, circa 1888, worn to the nub by large family, rejected by smaller one, difficult to heat in the winter months.

We listed the house for $21,000 less than we’d paid in 2005. Though property values kept rising, ours had not recovered completely from the housing collapse. We slid even more quickly down the chutes and ladders until we landed with a thump where bargain basement deals happen. Selling a house in January in Wisconsin is kind-of a miracle, even if it costs the total value of my monthly salary x 3.

Especially for small children, one’s address is identity.

Irie and Leo felt as liberated as magpies when we’d moved away from Hazel Street. They’d endured one too many neighborhood horror stories. Gus and Frank were indifferent. Fern, however, our quintessential middle child, believed her existence was engrained into the warped floor boards there.

Her favorite friend lived within arm’s reach to the north; her “husband” (according to the August 2014 sidewalk wedding) lived across the street. Betty, the kids’ surrogate grandma, rocked all day on her front porch next door. She smoked cigarettes and snorted out jokes, plying the children with love, as they took turns crawling into her lap. That was then.

This is now.

On our last night as owners of the domicile at 451 Hazel Street, Irie and Leo were happy not to return, but Fern insisted on a tactile good-bye. She needed to kiss – lips to plaster – the old house farewell. In each room, she whimpered and snapped photos from her 4’8” vantage point, mostly cockeyed shots of chipped walls, as Frank and Gus followed her.

“Remember …” “Remember …”

After ten minutes, without lamps to illuminate our exit, the kids tripped out the back door. Finally back inside the van (which I’d left running, heat full-bore), we backed down the driveway. Our house on Hazel Street appeared – once again personified – to shift into reverse, as if moving away from us, instead of the other way around. Beneath the new moon’s eclipse, the boys rattled and clanged in the back seat, but Fern, who’d shifted from sniveling to chatting, was moving her lips discreetly like a girl in confession.

“Who is she even talking to?” Frank screamed.

“Leave me alone! I’m saying good-bye to Gail.”

Although we’d packed up all our possessions, I’d somehow, in the flurry of bank transactions and walk-throughs, forgotten about Gail, Fern’s most trusted confidant during our years on Hazel Street – not an imaginary friend but a ghost.

When we purchased our home from the living Gail in 2005, she’d lived there for roughly 50 years – the kind of permanence neither Ryan nor I could imagine. She sold the house to afford every Wisconsinite’s dream: Florida. But shortly after moving, she was stricken with pancreatic cancer and passed away. Half a century on Hazel Street: less than a full winter in the Sunshine state – a tragedy we must have lamented often enough that the children converted Gail’s story into theirs. She gave up her ghost to them.

Even Irie and Leo must have believed in Gail’s spirit. The planchette hovering over their Ouija Board once spelled out G-A-L-E, as in a gale of wind, when they invited a free spirit to identify herself in our dining room. But Fern adopted Gail fully and fell in love. From as early on as two years old, planted in the steep stairwell, she bantered with her invisible companion.

It’s funny about Oshkosh. Whenever people asked which house was ours, I always said, “We live in Gail’s old house,” as if it never belonged to us anyways. She lived there five times longer than we did, and maybe her ghost still did.

As we trekked back across town on Thursday night to what we still referred to as our “new house,” Fern slowly stopped talking to Gail, miles waxing between them.

“Well, Fern,” I said in a pathetic effort to comfort her, “maybe Gail’s spirit hitched a ride inside my body, and she is coming to live with us on Greenbriar Trail.”

“No, no, no,” she screamed at me. Neither her seatbelt nor my foolish logic offered comfort or restraint. “She needs to stay there. She belongs on Hazel Street.”

What did I know about ghosts? I could read about them, but Fern had befriended one. Later that night, when we lay knotted up in bed, Fern insisted again that Gail’s spirit would tend to her newest inhabitants on Hazel Street.

In the morning, I typed into Google, “Do ghosts inhabit bodies or houses?” I mean, really, I wanted to know. People build careers on this stuff. They study the anthropology of religion, ancestor worship, animism, folklore of the Americas, and even scientific concepts like geomagnetism mean to disprove the supernatural. Mostly I just wondered if “ghost” were the right word for Gail. Might spirit or specter work too?

When I finally landed upon the word “fetch” – the spirit of a person yet alive – I stepped closer to comprehending. Driving along Hazel Street, I often catch glimpses of my younger self chasing babies up the sidewalk. That mother, those babies, are gone, either buried inside our older bodies, or free-floating somewhere in the ether.

On Thursday night, I must admit, when I slowed to a halt to snap one last photo of the Hazel Street facade, I felt for a fleeting instant as if I watched myself vaporize. I was like a chunk of dry ice dropped into water – solid, then gas. Maybe all bygones billow like ghosts, lingering, drifting, curling up against former windowpanes. Maybe we are all braided horsetails of fog.

Laura Jean, circa 2005, and all her nursing babies, is there and then she’s not, an optical illusion, a phantom, or both.

Maybe Fern would feel good knowing our own ghosts joined Gail in the old bones of the house. Might the newest occupants catch us in their peripheral vision? Or maybe those five little fetches (+ Mama & Daddy) hitched a ride on our van, eager to track their embodied selves. Maybe – I’d like to believe – they followed us wee-wee-wee all the way to our new home.

"Tell them that the house is not for sale

We can grab a couple sheets and give them quite a scare."

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