By Janie Gabbett,
In the cool, expansive health club I joined this year, the recumbent bikes have TV screens to distract you from the tedium of pedalling. Flipping channels, I come upon Bonanza on an oldies TV station.
OK, for those of you not quite as old as I am, Bonanza was a Western series that ran from 1959 to 1973 about a widowed rancher, Ben Cartwright, his three grown sons — Adam (strong and quiet), Hoss (big and kind) and Little Joe (kind of a dick) — and their Chinese male housekeeper with a long-braided ponytail, Hop Sing. Despite the warning in the opening credits — “This program contains outdated cultural depictions” — the show is doing its job. I am busy trying to figure out who shot Pa, instead of counting down the minutes on the bike.
Pa tells the guy who found him on the side of the dusty road and nursed him back to health with only a canteen of water that he’s got to get back to his three sons. Then, inexplicably, he goes on to explain that each son had a different mother, all of whom are deceased. Whoa! Talk about an over-share there, Pa. Perhaps that explains why Hoss is twice the size of Adam and Little Joe put together, but still, I am shocked. How did I not remember this juicy bit of plot backstory? Our family watched Bonanza religiously.
Oh, wait a minute. I know exactly why I didn’t know that. Let me back up. I grew up in a farm home built by my great grandfather.
Stay with me here.
“John Gabbett is building a monument to himself out there,” was the gossip around tiny Delavan, Ill., when the local tradesmen broke ground in the late 1800s for my great grandfather on the once grand farm home off a narrow country road called Irish Lane. My great grandfather wasn’t the only Irish immigrant who saw the potential in this fertile farmland five miles south of town where the glaciers left the silt that to this day produces fantastic corn yields.
My father loved to quote that gossip with pride and relish. I spent the first 10 years of my life in what was by then a broken-down version of its former grandeur. My father had a way of looking past chipped paint and needed repairs. Irish Lane, however, remained true to its name. Even four generations later, our neighbors were the Ryans, the Mulcahys, the Kendregans, and the Murphys.
There had apparently once been grand parties in that grand home. In 2001, an account in the “100 Years Ago Today” section the weekly Delavan Times recalled a “country dance” my great grandfather hosted on July 25, 1901, for which he built a wooden dance floor on the lawn. The article said music was furnished by the Delavan Harp Orchestra, an astounding fact on its own, for a town of fewer than 2,000 residents.
“W. E. Culbertson received the first prize, a silver husking peg, for being the best dancer among the gentlemen present,” the article read. For those of you who were not raised on farms and aren’t 100+ years old, husking pegs were hand tools used back then to pull the dried husks off ears of corn.
I was fascinated by every word in that article, launching a hunt for ancestral photographs. When my sister sent me the sepia-toned formal portraits of my great grandfather John Gabbett and his wife Mary (Minnie) Hardiman Gabbett, it was hard to fathom them as the fun-loving, monument-building, party-giving pair my father and the newspaper described. Granted, frowning into the camera was in vogue back then, but he looked like he was trying to pass a stone and she looked like she was tired of hearing about it. But it wasn’t their scowls that had my chin on the floor as I stared at these images for the first time. You see, I had already met these two.
As a five-year old whose bedtime came first, I had the lonely task each night at 8:30 p.m. of climbing the creaky wooden stairs that dipped in the middle where the paint was worn off. Meanwhile, my three older sisters and my parents got to stay in the living room and watch the last half of Bonanza on the tiny black and white screen that passed for a television in 1961. As a card-carrying member of the TV generation, I will go to my grave arguing the injustice of assigning bedtimes on the half hour. There were no streaming services or DVRs back then.
It didn’t happen often, but enough times for me to remember clearly. I would catch of glimpse of some movement down the dark, empty hall as I rounded the corner toward the room that I shared with my sister Susie. Chasing the glance with a quick swivel of my neck, I saw a man and a woman dressed in unusual clothing peering out of an unused bedroom upstairs. He was taller by a fair bit. They never approached me, or even set foot outside that bedroom. They never spoke. They just leaned out of that bedroom doorway, smiling at me. Sometimes she would wave. Sometimes he would wink. Every time, I would scream.
Even today, I can remember her high-necked lace collar and long skirt under a cape tied at her neck and some type of hat or bonnet, as if she were on her way somewhere. He wore a round collar shirt, a thin bow tie like Colonel Sanders in the KFC commercials and a round hat that wasn’t shaped like my dad’s fedora. They seemed oddly dressed to me, given that my fashion frame of reference at the time didn’t stretch much beyond my mother’s shirtwaist dresses or Rob Petrie’s suits on the Dick Van Dyke show.
I never saw their whole bodies, only about their top three quarters as they leaned out of that middle bedroom, seeming reluctant to cross the threshold into the hall. They were also not quite solid; more like holograms; a frame of reference I would only acquire 20 years later, on my first trip to Disney World.
The drill was always the same. I would let out a bone-cracking scream and fly back down those stairs, my feet barely grazing them. When I could catch my breath, I would gasp and stutter out my horror, explaining there were see-through people up there and beg my parents to let me stay on the ground floor with the rest of the warm bodies. They would chuckle in disbelief and with a “nice try” attitude order me back up those stairs.
Since this happened repeatedly, my sisters would simply glance over their shoulders and give a collective shrug before returning their attention to the small snowy screen and the bar fight they had just witnessed. Maybe this time Little Joe really would learn his lesson.
When I saw the sepia photos of John and Minnie Gabbett, it occurred to me that based on the style of their clothing, the filmy couple I saw all those years ago were at the very least their contemporaries and quite possibly actual apparitions of my great grandparents. After all, who else would hang out in that drafty old farmhouse other than the pair who built it?
After I saw that photo, I became interested in all things supernatural. I’m not talking “Ghostbusters”, I mean I started devouring books like “Life after Life” and “The Invisible World.” One consistent theory that stopped me cold – pardon the upcoming pun – was that a room with a cooler temperature than those around it is often associated with the presence of spirits. That was always true of the room I saw those two filmy characters peeking out from. Maybe the heat vent was closed to conserve energy. Then there was that can of mandarin oranges that exploded in there one morning. Sure, my mom had a habit of keeping canned goods well past their expiration dates. We’re not talking just past the “best by” date, we’re talking past the “throw this crap away” date. But still, that was creepy.
Not buying it? OK. Fine. But I’m telling you there was always something odd about that room. No one ever slept in there. We mostly tended to avoid it. Especially me. Situated between the bedroom I shared with my sister Susie and the one shared by older sisters Mary and Johanna, I would quicken my step and hold my breath as I hurried past, averting my gaze from any possible winks or waves.
There was another type of ghost in there too. The closet was stuffed with Mom’s I-used-to-be-somebody clothes – suits with matching hats, shoes, and purses from when she lived and worked in Chicago before she met my dad.
The only time I remember playing in that room was the day we were jumping on the bed until my cousin Patty fell off and broke her arm. You’d think those two holograms might have pitched in and broken her fall, but they didn’t, and we all got in trouble. Maybe it was their way of saying, “You kids get off my lawn!”
As an adult, I have come to feel comfort imagining these two ancestors hanging around, watching over us in a protective manner. At the time, however, even though they seemed friendly enough, they always took me by surprise and nearly scared the digested food right out of me each time they appeared. One time my dad agreed to go back up the stairs with me to get a look at these opaque weirdos.
“There are two of ‘em, Dad. One is a lady, and one is a man. They are see-through and…” But they must have heard his heavy steps straining the stairs, because by the time we reached the upstairs hall those two cowards were gone. My dad looked up and down the hall, squinting for clarity and listening past the muffled TV sounds of Pa telling Hop Sing to hop to it downstairs. Then he grabbed my sides and yelled, “Boo!”, which might have been funny if we had both been adults, but I was five.
That was the last time I told anyone what was going on upstairs. I finally came up with my own solution to the filmy pair by sticking my tongue out at them, slamming my bedroom door shut, pulling the yellow chenille bedspread and white cotton sheets of my twin bed over my head, and waiting the 30 minutes for my sister Susie’s welcome footsteps at her 9:00 p.m. bedtime.
Thirty minutes can be an eternity for any five-year-old, but for me, this was also a special kind of hell. I would close my eyes tight as I recited the prayers we heard every Sunday at Catholic mass, begging the Virgin Mary, Jesus and all their pals to keep me safe. Every clunk of the furnace shot through my body like a cattle prod, filling me with fear that the translucent pair had finally found their footing into the hall. They never did.
Eventually I would either drift off to sleep or ask Susie if I could climb into bed with her. She always let me. Sometimes she would read to me until I fell asleep. But she never told me that Ben Cartwright had three wives.
Janie Gabbett is a journalist who spent the bulk of her career working for the international news agency Reuters in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Chicago. Now she processes life by writing about it. Her essays have been published in Faith, Hope and Fiction, McSweeney’s, Persimmon Tree, The Christian Science Monitor and Esoterica Magazine. When not writing, she is either working in her art studio or creating pillow forts and dinosaur menageries with her grandsons.