Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sweet Ghosts of our Past

(A blast from the past...) 

Here's to all the romantics that like to step back in time every now and again! 


Sweet Ghosts of our Past                                                                                                                         E.M. Bryant

A woman visits her late grandmother's house and accidentally stumbles upon a shocking secret.

I hadn't seen my grandmother's house in over sixteen years. The memory of her life - so vivid and lively - ripped away so quickly.

Her name was Mary. She was a tiny blonde woman with bright blue eyes. Her eyes are what I remember the most. They were the clearest, bluest eyes. Nothing got by them! It was as if she could see through not only my own childish fibs, but through the thickest fog until the horizon at sunset was shining back at her.

Mary was magic.

Mary had the ability to smoke a carton of Lucky's a day and still speak like a grand dame. There was no crustiness in her tone. No Godfather-y chords. It was just Mary--sweet and lyrical.

When I was a teenager, I took knowing her for granted. Most of us do. Grandparents. Who are they? They existed before the dinosaurs. I'll see them next Sunday. I'll see them at Thanksgiving. I'll make time after Christmas. There's still time. It'll be fine. 

But then it wasn't. And in one horrible week, Mary went from fine, to being admitted to the hospital with stomach pains, to gone forever.

I can't remember my final visit with her, or even what we talked about. But I remember how she smelled - like lavender and lemon salts. And I remember how her house smelled - a heavy powdery perfume to mask the cigarettes and the dog. As an adult, society has enforced the negativity and disgust of all those things. But as a child, it was just Grandma's house. And the heavy powdery perfume could never mask the love and magic that was Mary.

As a child, she would take my hand. We would dance like heathens in a wild circle. She'd sing songs that were from Big Band days and jazz. They were songs that had no lyrics, so she would make up the words.

I can't remember any of the words now. But I hear her voice in my mind - the sweet, charming tone that eased worries and cured scraped knees.


Life carries on, but often during a quiet weekend, my thoughts drift back to Mary. Dancing Mary. Singing Mary. Maybe it's because my own mother is a grandmother now. And when I see my nieces and nephews interacting with her, I hope they have more time with her than I did with Mary. More memories.

My biggest regret is not actually getting to know what kind of woman Mary was. I only knew her as a grandmother. But the facets of her existence - widowed twice, raising four sons, and playing bridge on Wednesdays - are all I know.

That, combined with news that my uncles were selling her house, prompted me to take another visit.

Uncle Simon had handed me the key--long and intimidating iron. "The side door is the best way to get in. You'll have to use the skeleton key. Be careful. That house has sat empty for almost two decades now."

I climbed into my 2013 Ford Fiesta (class, all the way). Angry-girl 90s rock was billowing out of the stereos as I drove out of the city and through the suburbs. West of Ellwood (last known suburb before double-lane highways and endless pastures begin) sits a tiny village called Blarney.

Before the city expansion, most of the area consisted of beef farms and vineyards. Blarney was settled by an Irishman who actually despised wine, but allegedly won the Twin Mounds vineyards in a single poker game. His last name was Lockney, but his first name has never been known. It's always just been Blarney Lockney. And when Lockney took ownership of Twin Mounds, he built several small homes for boarders who needed to work. They were, no surprise, largely Irish immigrants.

My grandfather, whose last name was O'Malley (cue the Sally jokes), ended up marrying Lockney's great-great niece, Mary. They took ownership of a large Victorian home that Lockney had built for his ailing mother. When she died, the story goes that Lockney would not step foot inside the house, but left a note on the front door "For a poor soul who needs a warm bed, here's my mammy's house."

Two husbands and four children later, the home was a giant playground for myself and my siblings. The exterior was magnificent. Two stories - pristine white. A narrow wrap-around porch led to a gazebo on either side. The house itself was very tall, but not especially wide. The eastern side facing the vineyard was the door most of us used - with strangers using the extravagant front door that was two metal frames with a painted and very detailed glass menagerie of a woman looking out and pointing. The frightening display is largely thought to be Lockney's mother. I remember, as a child, being scared of that door - it was as if the woman was ready to grab you and take you with her to the other side.

That gloomy memory was palpable enough that I turned off my radio and rolled down my windows. The faded and barely readable "Blarney" welcome sign sat just a foot from the highway. Another expansion and the sign would be gone.

I signaled onto the turn to Main Street - and really, the only street - in Blarney. The vineyards that once loomed below the two giant hills were gone. In their place, overrun weeds and pieces of old forgotten machinery.

Further down the street, I saw what was left of an old ice cream shop. It managed to stay in business until '87, and I remember holding Mary's hand as we walked down for some strawberry ice cream cones.

Time had moved on - and if I had children, I'm sure they would have sworn the village was from the 1800s.

But I remember everything.

At the end of Main Street was the driveway to Mary's house. I took a deep breath, readying myself to see something that would break my heart. To my great surprise, the house was still standing.  


Two willow trees hung over the sidewalk that led to the front door. I went around the tangles of branches and found that the eastern side - the side nearest the vineyard - still looked exactly the same. Eerily the same. The vineyards were dried up, but the grass was lush and green. Pebbled cobblestone led from the gate to the vineyard to the side door. Nostalgically, I skipped on the cobblestone path until I reached the side door.

The skeleton key was almost poking a hole through my bag, and I pulled it out shakily. The keyhole was embedded with cobwebs. I pushed the key in and around to remove them, then stuck the key in and turned it until I heard that familiar *click*.

The door was heavier than I remembered. It wasn't dramatically decorated like the front door, but solid oak. Even after years of neglect, it remained intimidating enough to keep termites and other pests from feasting on its mass.

I put my shoulder against the door and nudged it open. It made a rebellious squeal as it opened, as if I was intruding on its peaceful Saturday afternoon. A blast of hot, old air smacked my face. A punishment, perhaps, for rudely pushing aside the solid oak guardian.

...Or a punishment for staying away so long.

The view from the side door was split. To my left, the kitchen - which Uncle Simon warned had been stripped nearly bare. Only the black and white tile and a dust covered counter-top remained. To my right was the living room - the sitting room, rather. Withered old furniture from the 40s lay in ruins. Dust and cobwebs made a heart shape around the room. A rug that I remembered had been brilliantly gold looked gray and ugly.

I was horrified that so much could be destroyed in barely twenty years.

The winding, narrow staircase that led to the upstairs bedrooms was near the front door. I took care not to look at that woman in the glass menagerie, and quickly (but not very carefully) ascended the stairs. The first observation, as I stumbled three or four times, was that my feet were bigger now. Or the narrowly shaped steps had shrunk.

The top of the landing led way to a vibrant bay window. There were no curtains or blinds, so the sun shined freely - dulling the once velvet-red wallpaper and highlighting the dust in the air. Most of the rooms were empty and stripped bare. Uncle Simon had also warned me of that. The end room, though, was Mary's. And I timidly approached it.

As a child, I scarcely saw her bedroom. It was off-limits for children - a rule we all obeyed. When I asked why, my mother told me that Grandma Mary had breakables that us kids would likely destroy forever in a heartbeat.

A valid concern. We were, at times, hellions.

But now my hand was on her bedroom door. In a second, if there was anything left, it would be for my eyes. Secrets. Memories. Maybe a whiff of that old heavy powder.

With one gulp of stuffy air for courage, I pushed open the door.

A bird flapping its wings wildly on the other side of the door nearly gave me a heart attack. It flew to the top of a wooden canopy above what was once Mary's bed. For a moment, it was as if we had locked eyes.

"You scared the hell out of me," I said like a crazy woman. It gave me a similar look in return.

The bed had no linens on it, and the mattress was gone. All that remained was the naked wooden canopy and foundation. The window on the other side of the room had been broken - or, more correctly, a tree branch grew through it. A nest of hungry babies chirped for its mother, who cautiously flew to them (but never completely stopped watching me).

The wall to the side of the broken window had a surprisingly glossy vanity table and giant mirror pushed against it. Underneath it was a cushiony looking rug - likely a brilliant blue color when it was new. I sat down on the dusty, round chair. Cobwebs had covered part of the mirror, and on the vanity were tiny bottles. I struggled with each one, trying to pop the top off.

Most smelled close to nothing at all. Some were putrid. The last one, to my delight, had a lavender smell that was all too familiar. Mary's perfume.

I stood up from the vanity chair, still acutely aware that mama bird was watching. I took the room in--the faded wallpaper, the canopy bed, the broken window, the vanity... I had a Mary Lennox/Secret Garden moment: a moment where I knew explicitly that this was not my room, nor should I be in it.

Even mama bird was mean-mugging me.

But I couldn't leave. The smell of that particular lavender... It was overwhelming. And insanely, I half-expected Mary to come swooshing down the hall in one of her long skirts, and then smile while lecturing me to go back downstairs. This was HER room. 

The sentiments echoed several times in my mind - this is Mary's room. You'll break something. Go back downstairs.

I listened. I started to leave.

But then...

This is Mary's room. This is your grandmother's room. This is your last chance. 

Beside the canopy bed was an end table. There were three framed pictures that were covered in dust next to an equally dusty music box. I picked up the first picture and dusted it off. It was a very old picture of my grandfather. He was very young. Very handsome. He was standing next to Mary, who was very petite. Her head barely breached his chest in the photo. Near them, four tiny boys.

I was afraid to pull the photo out of the frame to see if it was dated for fear of breaking the frame. Mary's frame. I moved to the second. It was a picture of a girl. She had a bonnet on her head and cloth shoes on her feet. She was standing next to a man with very long fingers and a heavy beard. Behind them was the vineyard. I knew instantly. Mary and her father.

The third picture was of a presumably teen-aged Mary. She was sitting next to a handsome young man. Judging from the clothes, it was likely early 30s. The young man had a fedora on. Mary's dress had lacy sleeves and a knee-length hem. I didn't recognize the man as he certainly didn't resemble my grandfather or my step-grandfather. There were initials at the bottom right of the photo of C.R. 

Secrets. Mary had secrets.

I suddenly wished with everything in my heart that she was alive again. Who is C.R.? Why do you keep his picture on your nightstand? Why don't you have any pictures of me in here? Or my siblings?

When I held up this mysterious third picture, I could see what looked like lipstick marks around the thin glass. Why is C.R. so special?

Mary had secrets. This house wasn't just "grandma's house." Or a childhood playhouse. This was a woman, a stranger, named Mary O'Malley's house. And it still possessed treasures and secrets I could never understand.

Heartbroken, I was almost out of that room until I remembered the music box. I picked it up without thought and opened the top.

Music poured out of it. A tiny ballerina danced stiffly. It was strange - the music box had been wound all the way up. And as soon as I had lifted the top, nearly two decades of song bellowed into the room.

What started as a screaming, crazy, furious lyrical mess eventually slowed to a soft and beautiful tune. A familiar tune.

Mary and I had danced to this tune. She had sung to me in this tune.

And in a blast of returned memory that could have landed me flat on my bottom, I suddenly heard the song again. I heard Mary's words. "Sing it high and low, sing it nice and slow, and then WE DANCE, we dance, with Cesar Rom-er-o." 

I laughed wildly as tears filled my eyes.

Cesar Romero. C.R.

I turned the music box over and engraved in the back read: "We'll dance forever until heaven kicks us out. - Cesar."

The music stopped. The room was silent and still. A breeze from the broken window brought a whiff of lavender around the room. My heart beat loudly against my chest. "I miss you, Grandma Mary." I whispered.


I left the old Victorian house quietly. Even the cranky oak door seemed pleased with my departure. Before I climbed back inside the Fiesta, I took one last look at Mary's house...and even had the guts to mean-mug the lady in the glass menagerie for her years of torment.

Two husbands, four sons, and four granddaughters... And soon another family - or worse, a land developer - would have the pleasure of stomping up and down the pebbled cobblestone. And weave up and down the winding stairs. And live among secrets they would never understand...

I so wished I had more time with Mary. There are so many questions.

But I relish knowing I saved some of her treasures: three photos and a priceless music box. A music box that could transport me back in time and bring Mary back. And a music box that Mary treasured with all her heart.

Until we meet again, Mary O'Malley. 


Published by E.M. Bryant
First Printing, April 2014

Copyright E.M. Bryant, 2014
All right reserved

Printed/Published in the United States of America

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner/publisher of this book.

Publisher’s Note:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

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