I’m being haunted by a house. It’s long gone now. Burned in a fire many years ago, Mom told me. I spent only a few months there during the fall of 1973. We shared room and board with a kind young man. I remember his first name, but his face has evaporated along with the shimmering wonder of late evening stars country living must have afforded. Gone also are the names and faces of the neighbors who occupied the house only steps away from us on the same property. I was ten.
I’ve spent decades trying to find the exact location of the house. Last summer my sister and I found what we believed to be the place. Since then, nearly every morning that I open my eyes in Oregon, I wake with a forceful, visceral urge to make the 40-minute drive out to that tiny, rather unremarkable piece of country. I am fueled by tendrils of memories that wrap around my mind like the wild roots and vines still clinging to the trees. As I walk along the beguiling creek behind where the house once stood, I marvel at the life unseen but impressively felt among downed trees and fallen leaves.
Memories are entwined with powerful emotions. I am astounded at what my sister remembers that I don’t. But I can very clearly name the emotions of the things I do remember:
Fear… when, after falling asleep, my mother would shut the bedroom door connecting our rooms and leave me in terrifying darkness. The first time it happened, I startled awake in the night wondering not only where I was but which way was up. I floated in deep space, an icy black hole. At last, I found a wall and fell back to Earth. My hands walked my little self around the room to the door that opened to Mom’s room, calming light and warmth. When I could finally take a deep breath, I tearfully demanded that Mom not close the door again. She did. But next time I knew that black hole and how to find my way out.
This was the first time in our lives that my sister and I had our ‘very own rooms.’ Most of our childhood was in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Mom was a Hippie, which meant we lived the counter-culture lifestyle. Often we moved every few months. Sometimes every few weeks or even days, if we were staying with someone else. With her youth and beauty and restless heart, jobs and men came and went rapidly. In between, we stayed in friends’ spare rooms. More than once in a backyard shack Mom fashioned with beds. Waking up wondering where I was wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. Floating alone in deep space was new.
Loneliness… as I slept for the first time without my sister. This room was stark with only a single bed, a dresser and a wooden chair. The room’s allure was a separate door to a staircase that led down to the backyard and the enormous oak tree that overlooked the two-story house and lush creek. It was a bit thrilling, that door out to the wild. It was also unnerving. My sister and I, less than a year apart and mostly at one another’s throats, both said we were glad to be rid of each other. Her room at the end of the hall was closer to the bathroom and came furnished with a dollhouse. Every time I stepped out and looked down the long hallway, I could see her playing with it. She looked content and completely engrossed in creative play. I learned years later that, like me, she was terribly lonely during the day and terrified at night.
Joy… when the kind roommate spent a day building us a raft that he captained with his crew of two. Out we floated onto Little Muddy Creek to the small island in the midst of the wet, musty oak grove behind the house. We followed his directions, excited to make landfall at a place we couldn’t reach any other way. A pungent Oregon breeze over still water and the waft of fall’s decaying leaves still sends me back to that little piece of joy every time.
Horror… as the neighbor appointed himself the butcher of a chicken for Thanksgiving dinner. (Hippies had no money to buy a turkey.) Said he knew a trick. I watched nearby, mouth twisted in fear and disgust, as he swung the bird around and around trying to break its neck. Wings and feathers flew in terrified chaos. The ax did the job in a split second. I watched wide eyed, mouth open, as the headless chicken scrambled around the yard until its legs stopped moving and it finally fell to the ground.
Comfort… as the living room, the only room we could afford to heat by fireplace, served as sweet thermal living space during those freezing days leading into winter. In that room, I was swept up in the magical enchantment of delicate snowflakes that drifted over every limb of that giant oak and the space between the house and creek. Outside was the crackling silence of heavy snowfall. An elegant blanket of sparkling white wrapped every humbled surface.
Shame and panic… as my teacher announced that I would be the next in her Home Economics class to host a meal at my home to showcase my cooking abilities… of which I and my mother had exactly zero. My class consisted of ten children ranging from fourth to sixth grade in a little old farmhouse-turned-schoolhouse on Irish Bend Road. We’d been to another girl’s home the week before. She and her mother served soup with oyster crackers in fine china and matching silverware from an old-fashioned hutch in their elegant dining room.
I saw the same fear and panic in my Mom when I told her. She suspected the teacher of planning an inspection to determine if Child Protective Services should be called. Between my teacher’s announcement and frozen pipes (which no resident Hippies had money to fix), it wasn’t long until we moved again.
Recently, I heeded the near-daily call to drive out to the property. I sat behind the wooded creek as the breeze rustled the leaves. Their once vibrant colors fading to a more subtle form of themselves, much like we all do. I soaked in the fragrance of the shallow water, mulching leaves and wet fields just as they’d been in the same season I’d briefly lived there 45 years ago.
Writing in my notebook, I’ve tried to understand why this ghost of a house, no longer standing, has called to me daily. Why the years of painstaking searches, long drives and rambling journal entries?
As a child, to live an imposed nomadic life, to be moved so many times from so many unstable spaces filled with enormous emotions means to leave a tiny, jagged piece of one’s soul in each. As I wrote, I saw that young girl wandering the creek and the land, the old farmhouse. For nearly half a century, she’d wandered alone in a perpetual dark season of old memories still living there. I asked her to come sit with me, and soon held and rocked her as we cried.
Kirsten Steen was born and raised mostly in Oregon but traveled often and still loves traveling, most often spending time between the Pacific NW, Paris and Greece. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at the University of Oregon and her work has been published in Gemini Magazine and Medium.com. She was recently a Final Judge for the Oregon Writer’s Colony Non-fiction short story contest and is a member of OWC and Willamette Writers. She can be found on Instagram (@Steen.kirsten), Twitter and at her blog writeonthyme.blogspot.com. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her partner and two rescue cats, a blind calico and an adopted neighborhood-savvy ginger.