Sunday, February 12, 2017

Winter Special: A Heartland Haunting

(For the sake of anonymity, the names of those in this interview have been changed. And the graphics provided do not represent the family's true property. I do not own rights to graphics.)

About 100 miles northeast of St. Louis is a massive piece of land that stretches over 30 acres. It's hilly on one end, while the other is flatter, with a large fishing lake, lots of trees, and 3 vegetable gardens. It's the kind of setting that landowners fantasize about. It's quiet, it's secluded, and the family that lives on the land has roots that date back to the Civil War.

I met Joy through her daughter-in-law, Lacy, who I went to college with for a short time. At the age of 20, Lacy married Joy's son, Will. And after Lacy earned her degree, they moved back to the family homestead.

But unlike many modern living arrangements - where the adult children move back to their parents' house - Lacy and Will actually moved into their own home on the family property.

"There were two original homes on the property." Joy explained. "The original main house burned in a fire around 1902. The gate house was used as the main house for my family until 1960, when another home was constructed."

Of course, Joy's story is anything but simple. A woman of around 65, she and Lacy greeted me one afternoon while visiting St. Louis. Joy dazzled me with her long salt and pepper hair swept back in a low ponytail, her glistening hazel eyes,and a natural tan that was absolutely infuriating. Joy looks better at her age than I do in my 30s - a statement that the blue-eyed, strawberry-blonde, curly-haired Lacy has echoed. But after hearing Lacy's stories about living on that land, I was dying to talk to Joy.

"My parents had me when they were both 16." She began. "They never married, which was highly controversial in those days, but my father's parents were opposed to a marriage. My mother was from Mexico, so after she had me, she returned there and we lived with my grandmother. But growing up, my father would send us letters at least every month, which is how I learned to read in English."

Joy explained that when she was 13, her mother died suddenly. Within a year, her father traveled to Mexico to bring her and her maternal grandmother back with him to Missouri. "It was a strange thing, and when I was a kid, I felt like I had lived two lives - one with my mother, another here." But her face lights up when she talks about her father and first living on the family estate.

"I love the change of seasons. I love snow. I love having a fire in the fireplace. And the hard work never bothered me."

Her grandparents - the ones who opposed her parents' marriage - had also passed away the same year her mother did, which Joy explained was likely why her father was able to collect her. "I'm sure it was bittersweet for him. I'm sure he thought it would be him, me, and my mother that would all be reunited. He was a good man, my father. He loved my mother a lot."

The main house, which was completed in 1961, is the house Joy's father brought her home to. The house she finished out her childhood in, and the house she has lived in with her husband since their marriage in 1976.

"My father passed away in '71, and my grandmother a few years prior. My aunt and uncle lived with us in the main house, and they've been like second parents to me." In fact, Joy's aunt and uncle still live with Joy and her husband. "It's a large house, and my uncle often told me there's always been family living here. Always. I know when I got married, my in-laws thought it was strange that we didn't find our own place, or that my aunt and uncle didn't move out. But it's a lot of land. It's a lot of responsibility. And my heart was invested in this place. I couldn't leave, and my husband liked having a quiet life outside of a busy city."

The main house, in pictures, certainly doesn't look like anything from Gone with the Wind, or any other sweeping epic. It's a beautiful two-story (part ranch/part Victorian influence) with a porch that wraps around from the front to the back. Five bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and 2 living rooms, but the main attraction (per Lacy) is the kitchen.

"The kitchen is as large as a classroom. The dining table can seat a dozen. And the oven is the original from the 60s. I'm too intimidated to even touch it."

"It's just an oven." Joy countered.

"I wish you'd get a newer one."

"If it ain't broke..."

I liked observing the banter between Joy and Lacy. Stereo-typically, there's usually a flavor of tension between a daughter and mother-in-law, but Joy and Lacy genuinely interact like a typical mother/daughter would. Which is maybe why Lacy won't leave the property. Even after what she's experienced.

"The gate house was originally like a guest house, right?"

Joy nodded. "The property served as a gathering point for my father's massive extended family. He said that the rumor he always heard was his great-grandmother was so terrified of contracting foreign illnesses that she would insist that anyone traveling from outside of Missouri had to stay in the gate house for several days before coming into the main house, just in case they were carrying something."

"How old is it?" I asked.

"The gate house even predates the original home. I'm not 100% how old it is, but we think it was built between 1860 and 1870."

The picture Joy hands me looks like a farmhouse to me - I liken it to the Ulysses Grant cabin (walking distance from my apartment) that has been preserved. But the gate house looks charming. It's one story with a large roof. It has a front door that resembles an English cottage - angular with stained glass at the top. There's a pebbled pathway from the front door to the driveway, and a flower garden sets off the front of the home.

Joy's time in the main house has been idyllic - she has lived most of her life there, raised her only child there, and now continues living peacefully in the house her father took her home to after her mother died. It's her home; it's a piece of her. Every happy memory lives there.

But for Lacy, her time at the gate house has been less idyllic and more of a challenge of wits and nerves. Lacy married Will in 2005. They have a 3-year-old son. Lacy is a 2nd grade teacher while Will helps his great-uncle and father with the land, and also sells insurance.

Moving into the gate house was a perfect memory for Lacy and Will. "The idea of having our own house, and having our own yard...while everyone else we knew was living in a tiny apartment or in their parents' basement...we were incredibly blessed."

It wasn't a palace though. "Joy warned us that we'd have to do a lot of work on it. When we moved in, there was one bathroom, and basically one bedroom. I wanted children, and so did Will, so we worked and saved money so that we could add another bathroom and put up drywall for a second bedroom."

Four years ago, Lacy and Will started heavy remodeling. And for good reason: Lacy was pregnant.

"I went from agreeing to Will that we'd do a little at a time to 'let's get it done NOW.'" Lacy explained. "I wanted a bedroom to put my baby in. I wanted a second bathroom since the bathroom we had only had a shower stall and no tub. And I wanted everything done before the baby came."

With help from Joy and her husband, they were able to add another bathroom off of the kitchen, and also build an addition off the den at the back of the house.

"I had unbelievable anxiety while the add-ons were happening. I can't explain it - everything made me jumpy. I think I convinced myself it was just being pregnant and wanting everything to be perfect."

But halfway through the pregnancy, the feeling got worse. "I was painting the baby's bedroom. We had just found out we were having a boy. We told Will's parents, and they were just over the moon. Joy was baking a chocolate cake in the main house, which is all I wanted to eat. I was home alone, waiting for her to come by so we could eat it." She says with a laugh. "I had the radio on, and it suddenly turned off. The radio was just outside the door to the baby's room. So I went to check it out. It was plugged in. I just thought that the radio was old and flipped it back on. I went back to painting and didn't think much of it."

Lacy stated that Joy came by with the cake, and the weather was nice enough that they ate it outside.

"I didn't even mention the radio to Joy because, again, I thought it was just old. After we ate, I brought the dishes inside. I noticed the music wasn't on anymore. Something caught my eye in the hall, and straight down the hall was the new bedroom for the baby." Lacy smiled nervously, as most people do when they are about to tell you something that they think it utterly crazy. "In the doorway, just lying there on the floor, was the electrical plug for the radio." She rubbed her eyes for a moment and continued. "I know it was plugged in and playing when Joy came over with the cake initially. I know I didn't unplug it. But you can bet I never plugged it in again."

"I knew something was wrong." Joy added. "Lacy's naturally very bubbly, and it had been a good day. And suddenly she just got very quiet. I didn't want to pry. And I remembered being pregnant with Will and having days where I was just petrified. I think I kind of wrote it off as that."

Lacy confessed it was two months before she even said anything to Will. "Little things, I could ignore. Like occasional missing keys. Or the TV suddenly turning on. Because when you're pregnant, I swear, your brain is just not functioning."

But one night, everything changed. And Lacy knew that it wasn't the pregnancy that was messing with her.

"The house is like a little square. When you walk in, directly to the right is our bedroom. Directly in front of you is the hallway that leads to the den, which leads to the baby's room. To the left, the living room, and behind it, the kitchen. It's a very basic layout." Lacy says quietly. "I was about 2 months away from giving birth and was in that really intense nesting period where everything had to be perfect. Joy had given me a quilt for the baby's crib, along with some extra blankets and onesies. I was folding everything and putting things away. And suddenly, I felt like someone was standing right behind me. Like, the hair on my neck was on end, and I had that kind of nauseating feeling that if I turned around, I'd see something that I just didn't want to see."

Lacy takes a swig of tea before continuing, and I can see Joy's face growing uncomfortable. "I called out to Will. I knew he was in bed and heard him getting out from under the covers and walking toward me. I didn't turn around until I heard his footsteps coming down the hall asking if I needed something. As soon as I turned around, there was a shadow figure behind him that just darted from the front door toward our bedroom. All I could do was scream and point, and Will took off down the hall, probably not even knowing what I was yelling about."

"And that's when you told him about what you were experiencing?"

She laughed, nervously. "Oh, I didn't mention the radio. But that night, I know I saw something dart across the hall. I know it. So I did tell him that I thought something was wrong in the house."

"How did he react?"

"He was concerned and worried," Joy chimed in. "Lacy's a very logical person. When Will came up to the house to talk to me about it initially, I could tell he wanted to write it off as Lacy just being extra emotional and tired. But we all know Lacy. She's a very patient woman. Very reasonable. Not someone who scares easily. And my gut told me that if she felt like something was off...maybe something was off."

Lacy described the following weeks, and how Joy would come by in the evenings on days Will worked late (since that's when Lacy felt the most uncomfortable). But it wasn't long before Joy got her own taste of the gate house.

"My son was out of town for his work, and Lacy's due date was coming up. Nothing strange had happened, but it's an eight-minute walk between my house and theirs, and I thought it best to just sit with Lacy. Just in case she went into labor and needed help."

One particular evening - the day before her grandson was born - still haunts Joy. "Lacy was asleep, and I was watching TV in the living room. It was early fall, and the weather was cool enough that we had the windows open. I got up to refill my iced tea, and when I stepped inside the kitchen, there was a strange chill that rolled right over my feet.

"I didn't have many lights on because Lacy was asleep. Just the hall light and a lamp in the living room. But when I felt that chill, I stepped out of that kitchen quickly. In the hall, toward the baby's room, I swear I could hear what sounded like humming. Very low, very soft humming. I thought it had to be Lacy, but she was in her bedroom. So I stepped down the hall toward it. As soon as my hand reached for the light-switch in that baby's room, it stopped. It just totally stopped."

"I can't believe you didn't wake me up!" Lacy playfully nudged her. But I could see the look on Joy's face - the look of uncertainty.

"It was a moment that only lasted seconds. We had all those windows open. I think at the time I just wanted to get you through the pregnancy, so I just tried to believe that the humming was just wind or something."

Lacy gave birth to her son, Foster, the next day. And for a time, it seemed as though any activity that might have happened in the house was over.

"It was really peaceful. When I was in the hospital, Will had a minister bless the house, which just made everyone feel better. Getting home, everything was just perfect. There was nothing strange. Nothing scary. Will and I had the baby in our room for the first couple months, then we moved him into the back bedroom. And truly, I had gotten to the point where I really did just think it had all been in my head."

"Having this baby around was just wonderful." Joy added. "Lacy seemed like her old self again. Will looked happy. You know, I always wanted this huge family, and at the same time, nothing is sweeter than having this one little guy around to love."

But the activity in the house started up again upon Foster's 1st birthday.

"Will was out on the lake with his dad fishing. The baby had fallen asleep on my bed while I was folding clothes, so I put a bunch of pillows around him and went into the living room to finish folding clothes. It was such a normal day. And it was in the middle of the day." I watched Lacy fidget her hands before continuing. "It wasn't midnight. It was as bright and sunshiny as an afternoon can get in October. I went into the kitchen to get something to eat, and I heard Foster. He wasn't fussing or anything. He was just baby babbling. So I thought I'd grab some crackers real quick and grab him before he got out of his pillow fortress.

"But then I heard something that sounded like singing coming from my bedroom. And it was almost like Foster was engaged with whatever - whoever - was singing to him. Like he was cooing. So I dropped my crackers and ran in there. The room was ice cold, but I didn't see anyone. I grabbed my baby and walked up to Joy's."

"At this point, what did your husband and your father-in-law think?" I asked.

"Nobody had lived in the gate house since my grandparents had died." Joy said. "And my husband thought it was a good solution for Will and Lacy. To keep them nearby. And so they wouldn't start out with a massive amount of debt. I think he figured it would be a lot of hard work. But I doubt ghosts or spirits ever entered his mind. It didn't enter mine. I've lived here most of my life, and never did I encounter anything odd until Will and Lacy moved into the gate house."

"Will has had a few things happen to him that shakes him up a little. Nothing directed at him or us, just little things. Like, we have a key rack that hangs on the wall next to the front door. One morning, his keys were gone. We looked for half an hour. Then he opened the door and found them dangling from one of the low branches of a tree. Just dangling there, in plain sight. That was pretty creepy for him."

Joy nodded. "He mentioned that, and the bed incident."

"I'll never forget that as long as I live."

Lacy went on to describe, to date, the most terrifying experience she has endured. "About 6 months ago, Will had the stomach flu. It was pretty bad. So I had walked Foster up to Joy's that night because I didn't want him catching it. It was around 8 o'clock, and by the time I got Foster settled and walked home, it was probably close to 10 or so.

"Even though it's just a few minutes of a walk, I always text Joy so she knows I'm home, and vice-versa. And I planned to grab a blanket out of the bedroom and just sleep in the den, outside of Foster's room. It was August, and it was hot. When I opened that front door, though, there was just a rush of really, really cold air. Not air from the a/c was on, but really chilly air, like the front door was opening to the refrigerator. I closed the door behind me and immediately I had goosebumps. Something drew my attention to the bedroom, so I stepped closer and took a look. There was a woman standing at the side of the bed, leaning over my husband. She had long, dark hair and wore a sort of prairie dress. I couldn't move. I couldn't even breathe. And then, it was like something snapped me out of it. Because my husband was lying there sick, and something was hovering over him - and I had no idea what its intention was.

"So I ran into the bedroom, jumped on top of my husband, and flipped the light-switch on by the bed. The woman was gone...she was just gone, and Will was looking at me like I had lost my mind, and why did I scare him like that. I told him what I saw, and he was absolutely horrified."

"Meanwhile, I've got the baby thinking everything is quiet over there." Joy said, shaking her head.

"Will didn't know I had taken Foster up to the main house. He didn't even know I wasn't home." Joy nodded at Lacy, and for a moment I wasn't sure what twist was coming. "Will swore that I was laying in bed next him, then he said at some point I got up to check if he still had a fever. He said it was so realistic that he could feel my hair on his face when I leaned over to touch his forehead."

"That terrified me." Joy said. The very idea that a spirit had gotten that close to her repulsed her. "I still hope part of what he thinks he experienced was just a dream...because he was so sick."

That was 6 months ago. And in that time, nothing much has happened. "I went online and read an article where if you think you have a ghost, you have to confront it firmly and tell it to leave. Only sometimes they don't. So the article suggested confronting the ghost and stating where it is and is not welcome. And I did that. I went into every room- from Foster's to the bedroom to the bathrooms - and I told her not to go near my son or husband. That she was not welcome."

"And do you think whatever was causing the activity is gone now?"

I watched Joy and Lacy exchange a look before Lacy answered. "I think it knows not to come near Foster. But I don't think it's gone. I still get occasional blasts of chilly air, almost as if someone is just walking down the hall or something. I haven't seen her since that night. And I haven't heard any singing. But it's just a feeling. Yeah, I think she's still in the house."

As for Joy, she's doing her own research. "There's so much we just don't know about our own ancestors. There's so much history to the land. But no one, not even my father, could really give any details other than names. But events. Maybe bad things that have happened here - that's what I want to find out. Maybe finding all that out will help identify what Lacy saw in the gate house. And why it's there."

But life, despite the activity, goes on. Lacy still enjoys teaching. Every morning she takes Foster up to Joy's, where he spends the day until Lacy returns home. It's special time that Joy cherishes. And it's more great memories for the main house.

The gate house, however, and if Lacy and Will continue living there, is still debatable.

"We're not leaving, but we've definitely talked about building a new house." Lacy says. "I'm envious of Joy's memories, and being in the main house, you can feel the love. You can feel the happiness. I want that for my son. I want a home that doesn't have a ghost lurking around." She giggles. "So we'll see. But we won't leave the land, no. We'll stay."

To date, Joy is working with a historian to map out the history of her family's land, including who owned it before them, and what events or tragedies may have brought any paranormal activity into her family's life today. Lacy and Will no longer sleep in their bedroom, but have turned the den into their master bedroom. Lacy says they keep the door to the old bedroom closed and locked. She wonders if the spirit has claimed that empty space, and maybe that is why nothing wild has happened lately. Regardless, she says they will not open the door again.

**Heard of any good ghost stories? Give me a shout:**

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