© 2022 Robert Sickles
Back in the mid 70's, Jess and I decided to move in together. We really liked the rental we found, a small furnished house in north Seattle with a huge cherry tree in the yard. I knew that my landlord had acquired the house and all its contents after a woman who had lived there for many years passed away. The house was probably built in the ‘20’s and had nice interior features like leaded glass cupboard doors, coved ceilings, arched doorways, glass doorknobs and a big clawfoot bathtub. The basement was accessed from outside, and there was a workbench under a small window. I plugged in a shop light, unpacked my tools and set up a handy home workshop. At the time I was a partner in a musical instrument building business across town, but there were many tasks I could perform at home.
My favorite basement find was an old musty kitchen cabinet called a Kitchen Queen. It had upper cupboards and lower drawers, a marble work surface, a hopper for flour with built-in sifter, a row of cannisters, and a tin-lined icebox. It would have been useful for a pie and cookie baker. I wanted to use it for organizing supplies and hardware, so I dusted it off, left it open to air it out and emptied the contents of drawers and shelves into a box. There were all sorts of kitchen drawer things, plus recipes on cards and notes written in a beautiful old-style penmanship, and bundles of yellowed letters tied with string, addressed to “Bertha.” I was looking over some of the letters when my neighbor rang my doorbell, so I set aside my nosey business and left the papers heaped on the workbench.
When I returned the next day, I found the papers neatly stacked, and I even thought that some of them had been put back in a drawer— one that I was sure I’d emptied. The cupboard doors and drawers I had left open to air out were closed. “Ok, I thought, I must be really absent-minded,” and I returned to my cleanup of the old cabinet. It still smelled like old dust so I propped the doors open with a couple of pieces of kindling wood. Returning the next day, I found the doors of the cabinet were closed, the kindling was lying on the floor and papers were organized again. Also, some objects that I intended to clean up and use for decoration upstairs were back hanging on the wall where I had found them—a kerosene lamp, a picture frame and an old-fashioned rug beater.
Was Jess straightening up for me? I didn’t think so. She worked long hours downtown and came home to put her feet up, not much patience for dealing with "my areas" of the house. She especially avoided the dark and dusty basement.
I thought through all the possibilities—that I was doing it to drive myself nuts; or a neatnik homeless person was living in some secret recess of the basement; a family of fastidious rodents; a wandering neighbor confused about which house they were in; a psycho control-freak landlord… or a ghost. A poltergeist or something?
OK, maybe it was my own girlfriend gaslighting me. “Jess, do you swear you aren’t tinkering with my mind and moving stuff around?”
Jess only rolled her eyes and mouthed something that began with an “F”. I didn’t need to be skilled at lip-reading living with Jess. And I knew that exasperated look of hers, it meant “I'm really tired. How many times are you going to ask me that?” She could say so much with so few words.
I was spooked. Over the next weeks I was on guard for every little sound of floors and doors creaking around the house. Occasionally, I noticed that things got tidied up or moved. Jess started noticing it too and came up with a suggestion, "Why don't you just talk to your ghost, maybe it'll see that you can be trusted or something."
I decided to play it cool. If it was a spirit named Bertha who liked her things put back neatly, so what? For whatever reason, she was attached to that house. I spoke out loud now and then: “Bertha, I know you don’t want your things disturbed.” “I live here now and would like to use your things." "I promise I will not destroy anything and will try to be tidier.” She apparently had house rules and I decided to comply. "I promise to put everything back when I move out." And "No more reading your letters."
Thanks to my one-way conversations, the drama eased up. There was only the occasional helpful organizing of little things, for which I voiced my thanks. I routinely spoke her name in a respectful tone whenever I wanted to use something from the house, just in case her spirit was checking up on my promises. “Thank you, Bertha, for letting me use your pruning shears.” Jess would come home from work and ask how it went with Bertha today. It was crazy, but things worked better around the house when I was mindful of our ghost’s wishes.
One day I was raking the front yard when a young man rode up on his bicycle and stopped for several minutes, just staring at the house. I asked if he knew the place. He replied, “This was my grandmother’s house, I used to spend a lot of time here. She passed away a couple of years ago.”
I held my breath… and had to ask. “Was her name Bertha?” He smiled and nodded and wondered how I knew. I didn’t let on about the eerie moving of things and closing of cupboards, only saying I had found letters and recipes—maybe he’d like to come in and look them over. It seemed safe to simply mention that I sensed her presence when I found the cupboard full of papers.
He rolled his eyes and indicated he wasn’t a believer in spirit stuff. Then he laughed, and told me one thing about his beloved cookie-baking Grandma Bertha: she was sweet as could be, but could be very firm when it came to her pet peeves about her grandchildren: leaving messes for her to clean up, and getting into her desk and being nosey about her personal business. OK, there it was... I knew exactly who he was talking about!
He declined my invitation to come in and look around, saying he had to get going and maybe he’d come back later. Off he went on his bike, but he never returned. That was disappointing. It would have been so fascinating if, among Bertha’s letters or things, there was something special that stood out to him, like an insight or some answers to his questions. Even if it was only to have her cookie recipes that he loved! These 50 years later I wonder if it has occurred to him how foolish he was to ride away.
Anyway, it seemed that Bertha and I had reached an understanding, we lived in peace, and I kept my promise to put everything in its place when I moved out.
Good luck, next occupant!