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UNLOVED AND SPOOKY. Those were my first impressions of the old house. It looked eerily vacant, even though the previous owner-an old man-had lived there for thirty-some years until his death six months earlier. Although shabby now, with peeling paint and a roof so timeworn it looked mossy around the edges, I could see that the Victorian house had once been grand. From the outside, it looked like an abandoned old-fashioned schoolhouse (an apt first impression, as it turned out) with what appeared to be brick siding (it wasn't), long narrow windows, and porches all around. A small twelve-paned attic window tucked under the front roof peak caught my eye because it was quaint and interesting, and I really was hoping to find a home with at least one charming feature. Because I loved old houses and my housing budget was relatively puny, I had looked at a lot of homes that were in terrible states of disrepair or had significant architectural problems (one house I looked at years before had an open staircase leading into the home's only bathroom).
Another problem I encountered with houses in my price range was a "troubled" vibe-a vibe usually caused not by the dead, but by the living. The most common form of negative energy seemed to be fear, reflected in a "compound" milieu-homes barricaded behind nearly impassable stacks of junk, mean dogs, big fences, and yards filled with old vehicles.
I had looked at dozens of houses in the preceding months. My realtor, Todd, was an uncommonly patient man, a musician at heart whose day (and night and weekend) job was selling houses. In all that time, I had only looked at one other house that seemed spooky. It was an old house at the top of a hill-a Dutch colonial, like the Amityville Horror house.. You could only get to the house by walking up a long flight of stairs-there was no driveway. My mom was looking at houses with us that day, and as the three of us climbed the steep staircase, the house's front screen door started banging open and shut. That probably would have been enough to keep me from going in, but it was a breezy day, so we attributed the door's theatrics to the wind. However, other small things inside the Dutch colonial also seemed "off." I tripped as I stepped in the porch; something felt unsettled throughout the home, but especially in the kitchen and one bedroom; and in the otherwise empty house, we came across a piece of scrap wood that had the word "DIE" spray painted on it in black.
I made an offer on the Dutch colonial anyway, after getting an estimate on completely repairing and restoring it, because it was an attractive and interesting old house and it had a really private yard. I even liked the weirdness of it being accessible only by making the pilgrimage up the steps. The owners weren't impressed with my offer, however, and the price they wanted was too high for me to be able to make the repairs to the home that I felt were necessary, so I did not end up buying the Amityville Horror house. My ability to sense the energy of places was reasonably well developed from having made my living by cleaning houses at different times in my life. I believe that anyone can tune in to just about anything if they give it enough energy and attention. Since I spent long days working alone, scrubbing and sweeping and dusting my way through my customers' homes, I became attuned to houses.
It's also true that a strong intuitive ability runs in my family. My mom can see and hear spirits, and both her mother and mother's mother, who were Irish, were psychic, too. I adored my Irish grandma, who was very kind and always interested in the things kids have to say. Her house was beautiful and magical-there were ceramic elves and leprechauns hidden in her houseplants, satin gowns and fur coats in her closet. She even had an entire kitchen drawer just for cookies and doughnuts.
My grandma used to tell me stories about banshees and fairies. She said her mother believed that the fairies, or "little people," had come to this country with the Irish immigrants, hidden in suitcases and trunks. At night, my great grandma would set out a saucer of milk or bread crusts for the little people who, according to her, would disguise themselves as rabbits when humans were around.
On my dad's side, his father, who was a Montana farmer, would just "know stuff." For example, one time when they were driving, my grandpa knew their neighbor they had just passed on the road had been in a car accident and they had to turn around and go help him. My dad is able to "dowse" to find buried water pipes and electrical lines. And my dad's German grandmother had premonitions of tragic events, including a fatal plane crash. I overheard the adults talking about it when I was a kid. It terrified me since I was already afraid of my great grandma. She was very small and stern, and wore dark clothes all the time. Since she could see the future, I was afraid she could read my mind and knew how much I didn't want to go to her house for visits.
When Todd told me about the big old Victorian house in the neighboring small historic river town of Sibley, Minnesota, he warned me that something might be wrong with it. Even though it was priced far below market value, it had been on the market for six months with no offers.
But I was three weeks away from the move-out date for my home, and the deal on the house I thought I was buying had fallen apart at the last minute. It was the third time in a year that I was set to buy a property, and the third time the deal had fallen through. Not relishing the thought of moving into my parents' basement with my teenagers, Molly and Jack (and since I had not yet mentioned the idea to either my parents or my kids), I was very motivated to find a place to live.
I was reaching a turning point in my life. My family, and especially my kids, had always been at the center of my life. Raising kids was probably the best and most meaningful experience of my adult life. It was a big part of my happiness. I knew I was heading into the homestretch of day-to-day parenting, and I knew how much I was going to miss it when it was over.
Other changes were in the air, too. I wanted to find a better job in a different field, and my relationship of two years had just ended. It seemed like a good time to try to make some long-held dreams come true, starting with my desire to live in a grand and interesting old house. I figured if I found a cool old house in my price range, it would need some love and attention. That was fine with me. I'd have the rest of my life to work on it.
Warrior princess Molly, who was sixteen, didn't care where we lived- she had her eye on the door and the total freedom that awaited her at age eighteen. Fourteen-year-old Jack, the trickster, wanted to finish high school in our old town in Wisconsin. He didn't care where we lived either, as long as he could still go to the same school and hang out with his friends.
So along with my high hopes and small budget, I also had a very limited geographic area to work with-within driving distance of friends and schools in our old town. Todd took my nearly impossible wish list in stride, in the low-key way you would expect from someone who wears purple Keds. He seemed only mildly surprised when the old house that sounded like a perfect match suddenly appeared on the MLS, which is a list of all of the properties for sale in a designated region.
The old house was in a neighborhood that was historic and interesting, and as I looked around, I felt at once hopeful and wary. Why hadn't anyone bought this house? Although the neighboring houses were in varying states of disrepair, the street boasted some of the town's most architecturally noteworthy homes. In its earlier years, the street had been referred to as the "silk stocking district" because of all the well-to-do families who made their homes there.
Across the street from the old house was a stately three-story brick Victorian mansion, with a third floor balcony and chimneys dotting the roof like toadstools. Built as a private residence in 1881, at different times it had served as a hospital, a nursing home, and, it was rumored, a sanitarium. In its latest incarnation, it was an upscale bed and breakfast. Kitty-corner from the old house was a funeral home. Kitty-corner in the other direction was a beautiful old German Catholic church and an elementary school. Within strolling distance of the old house were six churches and three schools, the Mississippi river, and a downtown so picturesque it was used as a location for filming movies and commercials.
Unlike the rest of the historic homes in the sleepy old neighborhood that were hidden away behind towering oaks and century-old maples, there were no trees in this yard-and no flowers, shrubs, or vines, either. Standing sentry on the house's side boulevard were three Chinese elms, a type of tree that seems to delight in throwing its twigs and branches around the yard as much and as often as possible. I was all too familiar with Chinese elm trees, having played pick-up sticks with a neighbor's property-line elm for fifteen years. The old house sat on a corner lot- something else I noted without too much enthusiasm, as the home my kids and I were leaving was also on a corner lot, and I had been hoping for something more private.
But I could see that the lot had the potential to be a breathtaking yard, the kind I'd always dreamed about. (My dreams have always been bigger than my budget, but I can usually figure out a way to make things happen.) I could envision hedges around the back, oak trees on the front boulevard, a statue encircled by flowers in the front yard, vines on the bare stone walls, a wrought iron fence, and, eventually, stone walkways winding lazily through the gardens. In the coming years, some of the house's magic (or strangeness) found its way to the yard as well. A grapevine grew up from nowhere after I'd wished for one to cover a bare stone wall. A lone yellow flower, a replica of a wooden flower in the bay window above it, appeared in a cement crack. And on summer evenings at dusk, in the first years especially, my kids and I would sit on old wooden chairs on the back porch and be treated to a swoopy bat parade as hundreds of bats circled our house. But on that late winter day, the bare yard gave no hint of what was to come.
Todd consulted his sheet and announced that we were supposed to go in through the back door. I took one more look around, then followed him down an old carriage driveway to the back of the house.