Tuesday, January 29, 2013
The Ghosts in Our House
The ghost of abolitionist John Brown has been in our house the past few years. He joins the others who have gone before him--Billy the Kid, Jack London, William Shakespeare, Edgar Poe, Mary Shelley, John O'Hara ... many others as well. The ghosts come, you see, once you begin to study.
Joyce has been hard at work on a book about John Brown, a book that has taken us to just about all the relevant sites in his life, from Harpers Ferry to North Elba to Osawatomie to Put-in-Bay to Connecticut to Pennsylvania. And to numerous sites as close as 100 yards from our house. Brown grew up here in Hudson (some family are buried here, a street is named for his father, Owen), and he lived in two other places where Joyce has lived (Akron, Kent). And once she began looking for Brown, she found him everywhere. And once John Brown recognized her interest, his ghost came to our house. Melted through the front door. Settled in.
He makes his presence known in so many ways. He plans our itineraries, sculpts Joyce's days (and, in a way, mine), inhabits her imagination, disrupts her sleep, populates her dreams, reminds her that what she has just learned is but a hint of all that remains, subtly invades most of our conversations.
We'll be pulling out of the driveway, heading to Kent or Aurora for coffee, and Joyce will start telling me the names of the streets we are on--the names they had in Brown's day. Or she will tell me about something odd she found in the archives today. (The Hudson Library has a glittering collection of Browniana.) Or she will think aloud, wondering how to unsnarl a particular Gordian knot in his story--and there are many. Sometimes it's as if I'm not in the car at all--just Joyce and John, chatting amiably, Joyce pursuing, John retreating ... Odd to be jealous of a man who's been dead since 1859.
I can only smile. I know what's happening. I know that the ghost is here. He doesn't talk to me, but I see the signs. I know them well. For Joyce has ridden along with me and my ghosts. For many years. For a term, everything I say contains the words Jack London or Poe or Mary Shelley or whoever. Most recently, John O'Hara has been riding with us. Joyce goes with me over to Pottsville, Pa., where he grew up. We spend nearly a week there, driving around, finding things, not finding others, John's ghost both urging us on and denying us all. Walking along a street, we see him, hovering over a building. We quicken our pace. The signal for him to evanesce.
Right now, as I type, Joyce and John Brown are upstairs. She is trying to hold him long enough to transform him into words. He allows her small victories. But he knows that if he gives all, he will somehow die again. So he shimmers just out of reach--or so he thinks. Joyce is most persistent. He cannot suspect that it is not her arms that will finally embrace him--but her imagination. And by the time he realizes what is happening, it will be too late.