Monday, July 07, 2008

Ghosts and Houses

The last few nights, I've been spooked at bedtime, reluctant to sleep in my darkened room. I've been leaving the bedside lamp on. It bothers me and makes it hard to fall asleep, but without it I start to imagine all sorts of things, like torsos, headless and legless, crawling up onto the bed, or strange figures watching from the foot. I never see anything, mind you, but the thought alone is enough.

When I first got here, when grandma was still in the hospital, I slept the sleep of the unimaginative, knocking out as soon as my head hit the pillow and not stirring until late every morning. And for the longest time that held steady, even when dad was here and the sounds of him stirring about at night sent my imagination scurrying.

But now, I lie awake forever, alert to every sound, catching shapes and shadows from the corner of my eye. Maybe it's the steady dredging of family photos and memorabilia -- staring into the faces of long-dead ancestors, reading their letters and asking questions that my grandfather would know, but isn't here to answer.

For instance: Is that a parrot in the top right corner? Were we once a bird-owning family? And whose summer home is that, who's at the piano?

I find myself wondering, are we a happy family? It's a funny question, and not one I'm comfortable asking my grandmother. In fact, I'm not entirely comfortable asking myself.

The pastoral landscape of my childhood could and did conceal any number of long-dead battlegrounds. But whose life doesn't stand on foundations that shift and creak sometimes in the wind? Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike and unhappy families unique, but I wonder if happy families might not be just as complex and distinctive as unhappy ones, their unique troubles soothed into another narrative, their private struggles forming the hills and valleys upon which future generations stand.

Were they happy then? Are we happy now?

I think it depends on what story you decide to tell.

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