My Ghost Story

I saw a ghost last week. 

Really, I did. 

It happened in northern Michigan where my family — eight, five, and one year old boys along with my wife and our nanny — was on vacation in Traverse City.

We were staying in an early 1900’s home just a couple of blocks from the center of downtown. It was an old house that somehow looked older, a gate that no longer latched on the chain link fence in the back yard, white paint flaking off the sides of the wooden exterior, a cement floor when you entered the home, old wooden steps that led up to a bedraggled washer and drier from the Kennedy administration.

My wife had booked the house on AirBnB and it was not the kind of place my two oldest boys were used to staying on vacation. In fact, when the two oldest boys saw the house for the first time they wrinkled their faces and looked askance at mom and dad, “We’re staying here?” my eight year old asked, in disbelief.

“Yes,” I said, “mommy picked this place.” (To be honest, I also turned to my wife and said, “Really? What did this cost?” “Like $340,” she said. So let this be a lesson to you, if you rent a HOUSE for $85 a night, it’s probably not going to be very nice.)

“Daddy picks better places to stay,” said my five year old. This is true, daddy likes to spend money on two things now that he’s married with kids: vacation lodgings and Costco products. I honestly don’t buy anything else. 

“How many things have to go wrong for us to check into a hotel?” my eight year old asked as we walked through the ancient living room, old wooden floor squeaking beneath us.

It was a quintessential grandparent’s house, ancient couches with strange patterns, the smell of cabbage somehow suffusing the air, linoleum floors, a bathroom with a ceiling so low underneath the shower head that I was almost going to be touching the ceiling with my head. (Also, a half used bar of soap and a quarter bottle of shampoo. Really, a half used bar of soap? We can’t get a new bar of soap?) I felt like I was back at my grandma’s house in 1987, but as we surveyed our home for the next four days at no point did I think it was the kind of place that might harbor ghosts.

“Dad,” said my five year old, “We’re staying here for real?”

This reaction, of course, set off the incessant alarm bells that terrify my wife and I — how do we keep our kids from becoming spoiled brats? My wife and I both grew up in middle class households, our parents were not rich. Indeed, neither of my parents ever made $50k in a year. We weren’t in physical danger or deprived, but our biggest worry in life was not the strength of a wifi signal so our iPads didn’t clunk out while we were playing Minecraft on vacation either.

So I’ve been trying to toughen up my kids. My immediate thought as we walked through the old house was that maybe this house was the perfect opportunity to toughen them up.

Certainly it had to work better than my prior efforts. Recently walking back from a birthday party in our Nashville-area neighborhood, both boys were upset because the birthday boy had a trampoline and they didn’t have a trampoline in their backyard.

This was the perfect time, I thought, to explain to them how fortunate they were. A trampoline is the only damn toy these kids don’t have. Hell, they have a playroom that’s big enough now for two full-sized inflatables to be inflated in it this past winter. Most people in New York City live in smaller apartments than their playroom. So this seemed like the perfect time to teach them a lesson about how fortunate they were.

“You know,” I said, launching into my best dad had it rough compared to you kids voice. “When daddy was little he used to drive into neighborhoods like this one with grandma and look at all the houses the rich people had and wonder what would it be like to live in a house that big. I’d think about all the toys those kids had and what it would be like to have a house like that. Mommy did the same thing when she was little too. We didn’t have a house like yours or toys like yours when we were little. There are lots of little kids now who drive into our neighborhood at Halloween or Christmas and look at all the decorations and see all the things that you guys have and wish they could have the same things too. So I understand you guys don’t have a trampoline and you might want one, but it’s important to remember how lucky we all are. Remember when daddy was little he used to wonder all the time what it would be like to live in a house like this.” 

“Welp, now you know,” said my eight year old without skipping a beat.  

Here I thought I had just killed it and my kids immediately shot down my parenting coup. 

But now here we were, in a crappy house in upstate Michigan that, truth be told, I didn’t want to stay in either, but I had to pretend like I thought it was a great because if you make your kids do shitty things that’s how you ensure they grow up tough. At least this is my wife’s theory, truth be told I’m a total wuss. She wanted to make all three of our boys cry it out in their cribs, but as soon as I hear them start to cry I go pick them up. The kids know it too, I’m an easy mark, they take advantage of me all the time. 

So I plopped down in a chair missing two springs and kicked my feet out in front of me, “This is great, guys,” I said, wincing as a chair spring jutted into the small of my back. 

My five year old came over close to me and whispered, “Dad, does this house have Netflix?”

“Nope,” I said, “this house doesn’t even have a television!”

My five year olds eyes widened to the size of saucers? “How,” my five year old asked me, “can a house not have a television?”

“That’s what it’s like in the Big Ten,” I said, “that’s why you don’t want to go to college up here.” (My wife is a Big Ten grad and I find it important to instill subtle lessons of conference superiority at an early age.)

As if that weren’t enough, we have managed to arrive at this house on the hottest day of the summer in northern Michigan. It’s 92 degrees and the house has no air conditioning. When I asked my wife about the house having no air conditioning before we left she said, “Don’t worry, it’s never that hot in Michigan in the summer.”

Now it’s that hot in Michigan and sweat is running down my rib cage, so I get out my phone and check the nearby hotels to see what room availability there might be in Traverse City. We were paying $85 a night for this house and part of me thought, even though it would send all the wrong messages to our kids and my wife would want to kill me, why don’t we just all move to a regular hotel room? 

My wife believes that if you have an obstacle you should confront it head on and tough it out. I, on the other hand, believe if there’s an obstacle you should find an easier way around it. The only thing worse than making a bad decision is continuing to make a bad decision because your pride forces you to do it. 

The problem was there was only one night available for hotel rooms in the area. So I booked a room for the second of the four nights we were scheduled to stay at the house. I did this for two reasons: 1. There might be a pool I could take the boys to 2. And most importantly, because I knew my wife would sleep with me in the hotel room and there was no chance she was sleeping with me in the crappy house.

All married men know this truth — the nicer the place you stay the more likely your wife is to sleep with you. I’m convinced this is roughly 99% of the reason luxury hotels exist.

(Two nights later I booked another hotel room at the same place so the entire family could watch “The Bachelorette” together. I wish I was joking about this. My eight and five year olds are obsessed with the show. But don’t worry, they’re watching for all the right reasons.)

Eventually we left our dilapidated, hot house and walked into the city to buy our youngest son shoes because somehow we forgot to bring him shoes on the trip. And God forbid a one year old not have shoes.  

As we are buying our one year old new shoes — and I am not making this up — my oldest son’s flip flops blow out at that exact time and so we have to buy him new shoes too. This is basically parenting summed up in a nutshell, you’re always spending money that you never anticipate spending when stuff goes wrong. How is it possible for me to have three kids and two of them not have shoes?

And the only kid with shoes? He’s the one that has twice clogged up the toilet in the past year. I have spent a thousand dollars on plumbers. The first time he put a stick in the toilet. He told me he was pretending it was a lightsaber and he wanted to see what happened when he flushed a lightsaber. And honestly I would be intrigued to know that too. What would happen if you flushed a lightsaber? It’s a damn good question. Would it destroy all the plumbing in the entire house as it made its way through the pipes? Would it cut a hole in the floor of the house? I mean, the kid has a point.  

Anyway, this kid uses more toilet paper than most families of twenty. So last month we had an entire team of plumbers working on his toilet because he’d gotten things so clogged up that when you turned on the water every sink in his bathroom and the toilet was flooded with poop. And the thing is, when my wife told me about it, I was totally okay with it. Because this is what I expect to happen, for dad to come home and the toilets not work. Being a parent has conditioned me to expect things to go wrong. 

But can you imagine if your roommate had done this when you were just out of college? If he clogged the toilet twice and cost you a thousand dollars you would have gotten a new roommate, right? Yet your kids do it and you just have to deal with it.

Anyway, the team of plumbers tromp through our house and actually took his entire toilet off the settings and brought up some anti-tank heavy plumbing artillery to flush the pipes. This thing was so heavy there were three full grown men carrying it up the stairs. It had a damn kickstand, I think they took out a crop duster through our window. At the end of the procedure my wife decided we’d have to put a sticker on the wall with an arrow on it so he knows how much toilet paper he can use. 

The first thing he has to do when we leave the house? Poop. And I have to watch him poop now like he’s El Chapo on suicide watch. Just to make sure he doesn’t flood another toilet. I’m standing there awkwardly beside his stall like I’m stalking a kid to kidnap when in reality I’m just on poop patrol.  

Anyway, we buy two pairs of shoes and head out to dinner. And by “head out to dinner,” I mean dad buys himself four drinks. The kids are a total mess at dinner, it would seriously have been easier to have dinner with a mongoose, a wolverine, and a possum seated at the table. 

Did I mention that I was also in the middle of a summer cold and couldn’t hear a damn thing because both my ears were clouded up? So I’m just at that point on a family vacation where all you want to do is for your kids to go to sleep. That’s a victory. 

At this point in my ghost story — which has also morphed into a story about being a dad on summer vacation with his family — I should probably tell you that I have never seen a ghost or had a ghostly experience before, but that my family has had just one spooky, ghost-like experience. 

When we were looking at homes last year, we made an offer on an old, turn of the century home in Franklin, Tennessee, a suburban community just south of Nashville. The house was on Main Street in downtown Franklin and had been a funeral home for decades, but it was an exquisite home, perfectly decorated in modern style, a showplace mansion that was just waiting for a brand new owner. 

It had been on the market for a little while because some people didn’t want to buy the house because it had once been a funeral home. But it hadn’t been a funeral home for a long time and my theory on old homes is every single one of them has had someone die in them before. So I wasn’t troubled by the idea that lots of dead bodies had been in the house. Plus, I’m a history buff so I’m predisposed to love old homes. 

After we made our offer on the home the owners countered and we returned for a second visit to decide what our counter to their counter would be. Ironically, if they’d just accepted our offer we’d be living there right now.

It was a cold afternoon in late January of last year and we took our three boys along with us. As soon as we entered the home my wife began complaining that the house smelled like mold or mildew. And we knew there was no mold or mildew problems because we’d inspected the underside of the house. I can’t smell anything because my sinuses are so bad so I told her she was wrong. (Seriously, when I did the allergy test at Vanderbilt University I tested allergic to everything. Cats, dogs, even fucking grass and trees. How can you be allergic to grass and trees? Talk about evolutionary disadvantages. As if that weren’t enough, only one of my nostrils actually works, the other is blocked. This means I can only breathe through one side of my nose. It’s a wonder I’m alive at all.)

So as we walk around the house my wife keeps complaining about the smell, and I keep telling her it’s all fine. But then the two oldest kids, the ones who can talk, both agree that there’s a strange smell in the house too. We haven’t told them the house used to be a funeral home yet because we don’t want to terrify them. So we finish touring the house and talk about what our counter offer will be as we drive back home. 

Well, that night, my wife and all three kids wake up with awful nightmares. Even my one year old, who has never had anything bad happen to him and hasn’t even seen a scary movie before, wakes up with screaming nightmares. Before long we have a full bed, each of my two older kids and the youngest baby. 

I’m totally fine, unimpacted by bad dreams at all, but my wife decides it was the visit to the house and the strange smell that set off the bad dreams. I, of course, think that’s ridiculous, but you try disagreeing with your wife when she’s decided that the house you’re about to buy, a former funeral home, is haunted.

She tells me that she believes the smell that everyone but me smelled was dead bodies and that’s why everyone’s dreams were haunted, that we’d been impacted by an evil spirit. So my wife calls our real estate agent and tells her that the agent may think we’re crazy, but that we’re not going to make a counter offer on the house because she believes the house is haunted. 

Amazingly, our agent isn’t the least bit surprised. Because, and this is pretty eerie, she’d already received a call from the realtor of the home asking if we’d moved anything in the house that night during our visit. We hadn’t — in fact, I’d told my two oldest boys that if they touched anything I would take their iPads — this is my threat for everything — and so what we heard from her confirmed my wife’s worst fears. 

The next morning after our evening visit the real estate agent returned to the old home to look it over and all of the cushions from the couches we’d been sitting on in the main hallway had been moved to the master bedroom and stacked one on top of the other halfway to the ceiling. 

No one had been in that house after we locked the doors and left. The alarm had never gone off with a reentry.  

My kids hadn’t touched those pillows.

Yeah, the hair on your arms is probably standing up too.  

Now the rationalist in me would like to point out that sure, someone else could have snuck in and moved those pillows after we left, but who would do that on a cold night in January? And why would that make any sense to do if you were about to sell a home? It ain’t Scooby Doo here where someone is trying to scare away the newcomers. The owners of this home wanted it sold very badly. 

What’s more, the pillows being moved were just the latest in a long string of moved objects in the house — the chairs were regularly pushed back from the kitchen table when people arrived in the morning as if people had been sitting there overnight and stood to leave, objects would mysteriously move from one room to another, it was a place people didn’t want to go after night. 

That sealed it, we made a new offer on a home that was only a couple of years old and moved in. We have had no ghosts issues.  

I didn’t really believe the house was haunted. If it had been just my decision, I would have moved in. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in ghosts, I certainly believed they were possible and that we don’t know everything about our world, I just hadn’t ever had a ghostly experience myself and I tended towards skepticism when it came to stories of hauntings. 

Which brings me to the house in Michigan. 

That night after dinner we walk back home and get inside the house around ten. Everyone is pretty tired so we rapidly break down the sleeping arrangements. Our nanny will sleep with the baby in the back bedroom, my wife will sleep upstairs with our eight year old, and the five year old and I will sleep in the master bedroom. We have to play man-to-man defense on the kids when it comes to summer vacation. 

Everyone else in the house falls asleep pretty fast, but I stay awake in bed watching “Billions” on my iPhone. (By the way, “Billions” is incredible, watch it.) About one in the morning I turn out all the lights in the house and go to bed.

It’s hot in the house so the five year old and I are sleeping without any covers at all.

Just after two in the morning my five year old screams out loudly and I wake up beside him and tell him everything’s fine. But he doesn’t really wake up, I think he’s just having a nightmare.

At this same exact time I see someone moving outside our bedroom, in the dining room, no more than ten feet from me. Based on the size of the shadow I assume it’s my wife or our nanny up getting something or reacting to our five year old screaming. So I call out to them.

“Hey,” I say, “we’re okay in here.”

But I get no response.

That’s strange. 

As my eyes adjust a bit to the light in the old house, the hair on the back of my arms stands straight up — what I’m seeing isn’t my wife or our nanny it’s an old woman in an old black dress.

And she isn’t walking.

She’s slowly gliding across the room. There are no feet beneath her dress.

I’m in disbelief. Am I awake, am I really not dreaming. I sit there frozen on the bed. But, amazingly, I’m not afraid. The ghost pauses near the entrance to the kitchen and just looks at me. I look back at her. She isn’t frightening at all, she seems sad. All I can think is, “I can’t believe I’m seeing a ghost!”

As I’m sitting in the bed I start to run through all the things I could be seeing other than the ghost. Could it be a reflection, a strange light shining in from outside, anything else to explain away what I see? Then I decide that I want to get closer so I stand up and walk towards the exit of the bedroom.

As I do this the ghost moves into the kitchen doorway and then vanishes.

I walk through the entire house and kitchen, still more amazed than scared. I don’t see anything at all. I go back to bed, sit in the exact same place I was sitting before and try to see if there’s some sort of reflection I could be mistaking for the ghost. There’s nothing.

I wait up to see if she’ll reappear, but eventually I fall back asleep.

The next morning I tell my wife and our nanny what I saw. I feel a little bit ridiculous telling the story in the light of day, but I’m convinced of what I saw. 

The ghost makes no more appearances during our stay in the old house.

On the day we leave my wife emails the woman we rented the house from, says that our stay was fine, and mentions that I believe I saw a ghost in the house. Has anyone else ever reported anything like that?

The woman responds by saying that several people have told her that they’ve been aware of the presence of an old woman, a dear sweat old woman named Hazel, who lived to be 101, and has been described as a kind spirit.

The hair on my arms stands up as we drive along in the car. The ghost that others have seen in the house is the exact same one that I saw and we’ve never discussed its existence with the woman before. 

Wow. 

My kids, amazingly, don’t seem to care at all. Dad’s a weirdo who may have seen a ghost, but why isn’t the “Ghostbusters” DVD working?

I feel less like a crazy man with the story from the owner of the house. At least what I saw has been seen by someone else as well. 

I now believe in ghosts because I saw one, but I’m also intrigued by the experience. Why did it happen? Did my son call out because he sensed the spirit or did the spirit materialize because she was an old mother and heard the child cry out in her home? Or was it completely happenstance, did I see the ghost because my son happened to call out at the exact moment she materialized in the house?

Also, why was she there in the house? Why are some houses haunted and others aren’t? My theory in general is that humans can experience such intense emotional events in their lives that a part of our spirit imprints itself there forever, a part of us is constantly trapped in the intense energy of that moment. I think that old woman had such intense love for her husband, that on the day of his funeral, which may well have taken place in the old home, are part of her is living there forever.

Again, she didn’t seem angry or scared, she just seemed sad.  

But that’s just my theory, after my experience I’m filled with many questions, none of which I have answers for.

As we roll on across the state of Michigan on a family vacation with these deep thoughts rushing through my head, my reveries are broken, however, by my eight year old, currently fighting with his brother over Minecraft in the back seat of the car.

“Dad,” he asks, “how big will our hotel room be on Mackinac Island?”

“I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt you guys,” I say.

“Whatever,” says my eight year old.

“Yeah, whatever,” says my five year old. “You told us ghosts aren’t real.”

Which is true, I did. What parent tells his young kids late at night that mom or dad believes in ghosts?

After all, a dad’s gotta sleep.

“That’s right,” I say, “ghosts aren’t real.”

Except, at least in my mind, they’re now 100% real.   

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