A lot of readers have asked me if I believe in ghosts because there’s a thin ghostly thread that runs through the Chesapeake Diaries. Not enough to make the books feel paranormal, but just a hint. There’s Alice, the ghost of the elderly woman who suffered from agoraphobia and who, some in St. Dennis suspected, practiced witchcraft (nothing evil, of course). Then there’s Rose, the wife of eighty-five year old Curtis Enright, who died about twenty years ago but whose presence is still manifested in their home by the scent of gardenia whenever she’s around. And there’s Grace Sinclair, who is very much alive and very much in touch with the aforementioned ladies, mostly via her trusty Ouija board. She’s the keeper of the Diaries, and often writes about her spirit friends.
I don’t know what happens once we cross into the next dimension. So I can’t say that I believe in ghosts. Then again, I can’t say that I don’t.
My kids both swear that the old house they grew up in had several ghosts. I never saw or felt anything in the nineteen years we lived there. I did have stuff disappear and then reappear, but maybe I’d just been forgetful. It didn’t seem like it at the time, and I am a little absent minded sometimes, so who’s to say?
So while I can’t say that I’m a believer, and I can’t say that I’m sensitive to such things, there was this incident about fifteen years ago that I can’t explain any other way except to say…well, let me tell you about it exactly as it happened:
Background: There was an old house in the town we lived in – one of those places that you walk past and are dying to see inside. I think it was built around the turn of the century – maybe a little later. It had a tall black iron fence around it and dense overgrowth of shrubs out front so you could barely see the front. EVERYONE was fascinated by this place, because hardly anyone had ever been past the front door. Lorna, the reclusive woman who lived there was in her seventies (I think) and had one friend who ran errands for her, took her to doctor’s appointments, etc. When Lorna died, the friend inherited the place, but the upkeep was high and she was eager to sell it. Of course, we immediately made arrangements to see it.
Oh, the house was every bit as fabulous as I’d imagined – needed a ton of work! – but it had already been sold. The contents, however, were for sale.
This is where it starts to get weird.
Lorna’s mother – Prudence – had been a stage actress in Chicago around the turn of the century who met and married a banker. He moved her and their daughter to the Philadelphia area, and after he died, Prudence “downsized” to this lovely home in my town (complete with a very fashionable and authentic Japanese garden – very chic back in the 1920s-30s).
It’s very difficult to adequately describe what I found in that house.
It was obvious that this woman – Prudence – had been a total fashion plate. Every room – I think there were 4 or 5 bedrooms on the second floor and several more on the third – was crammed with Prudence’s clothing. Every dress – and there were a staggering amount of them! – had shoes, a hat, a parasol in some cases, and jewelry. There was a room filled with hats – just hats – and another with racks and racks and racks of dresses and coats. The excess was simply overwhelming. I’d never seen anything like it.
Did I mention that ALL of Prudence’s clothes were made by a dressmaker? Nothing off the rack for our girl!
And yet there was so little of Lorna, the daughter, in this house – it made me so sad. It was as if she’d kept a shrine to her mother all those years.
Anyway – I bought a few vintage pieces that I thought were representative of the times and when I went back to take one more look before the house went to settlement, a friend of mine – we’ll call her Helen because, well, that’s her name – came with me. We were in a room on the second floor that served as a sitting room, and Helen was looking around in a cabinet while I was looking at the gorgeous Mercer tiles that surrounded the massive fireplace. All of a sudden, Helen shoved what she’d been looking at back into the cabinet, slammed the door and said, “I’m ready to go. Let’s go now.” and made a bee-line for the stairwell.
We were in the living room, saying goodnight to the woman who now owned all this grandeur, when suddenly I felt as if a huge block of ice was pressing up against my back, head to toe, cold air breathing down my neck. Did I mention it was a hot August night? No air conditioning?
I knew without question that it was Prudence – I could feel her, and she sure wasn’t happy, which I thought it was odd, since I’d been in the house several times before without incident. I looked at Helen, who was wide-eyed and white as a sheet, and I knew she felt the same presence I did.
The two of us fled for the door at the same time.
Now, we laugh about this today, but that night, we all but got stuck in the front doorway trying to get out of that house! We ran through the tangle of shrubs and through the open gate, got into my car and locked the door.
“You felt her too,” Helen gasped when we were safely in the car.
“Prudence, definitely, but why tonight and not before?” I wondered.
“That case I was looking at upstairs? It held her stage make-up. She got right up behind me and let me know that I’d gone too far. I touched her make-up and that apparently was the last straw. Her clothes – hats – shoes – jewelry – she was okay with all of that stuff. But not her make-up. I think she followed us downstairs to make sure we’d leave!”
True story. Every word. Just ask Helen.
And for the record – though I admit the thought has occurred to me – I’ve never followed Grace’s leave and tried to get in touch with Prudence via a Ouija board. My one contact with her – if that’s what it was – was enough for me!
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Mariah Stewart is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty novels of contemporary romance and romantic suspense. A native of Hightstown, New Jersey, she lives with her husband and their dogs amid the rolling hills and Amish farms of southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, where she gardens, reads, and enjoys country life.