Esther’s Chest

>>Esther’s Chest

This is Halloweeeeeek, my favorite time of the year. In glassland right now, the winter rains haven’t quite settled in, the leaves shimmer with color and the winds rise just enough to blow the clouds away.

It’s also the week of the Pilchuck auction which, given the elections, current economic climate and all the scared rich people out there, may be in for much rougher weather than usual. So this year, my Halloween story combines auctions, ghosts and what happens when, as now, fear runs away with common sense. (BTW, if you want to read past Halloweek stories, like the one about the dead chicken ghosts or my candy story, feel free.)

I grew up in near-desert, where the best defense against heatstroke was central air-conditioning. People who didn’t have it fought the heat in different ways: room air conditioners in the bedroom, watered straw bales in open windows, a couple dozen electric fans in front of tubs of ice. Or, if people were seriously set in their ways, they simply opened the windows and drank lemonade.

Esther died in one such home. She was a maiden lady school-teacher, long since retired. The house was built by her family decades earlier and no one but family had ever lived there. Her sister, another maiden lady school-teacher, had passed away some years before, and so Esther died alone, the last of her line.

She wasn’t a recluse, far from it. Active in the local Methodist church, she was one of those smiling, matronly ladies who looks after noisy children during service, brings casseroles to the potluck, mends the pastor’s coats and renews the flowers on the altar. She was well-liked…but no one had ever stepped inside her home.

Summer was especially brutal that year and on the 16th consecutive 110-plus degree day the postman noticed Esther’s mail piled up against her front door. There were newspapers there, too, which was odd; Esther kept that front porch spotless.

Her car was parked out front so he rang the doorbell, just to check on the old lady. No answer. He knocked a few times. Nothing. He went around back and called her name. Nothing. But the sunporch window was open, so he stretched up on tiptoe, peered inside, and screamed.

He’d found Esther; she’d died several days before in the un-air-conditioned house and the aptly named sunporch had accelerated the processes of death. Indeed, things had gone so far that it took awhile for the county coroner to confirm Esther’s sex and race.

Esther’s funeral was well-attended; she had more friends than she probably realized, and the horror of her discovery undoubtedly added a few of the curious to the throng. She had no heirs; she left everything to her church. She named the church treasurer, my fiancée’s father Larry, as executor of the estate.

The coroner gave Larry permission to enter the house as soon as his team finished cleaning up the sunporch where Esther had lived and died. Esther had, well, seeped into things, so the cleanup took more time than estimated. “But we’ve got the easy job,” the coroner grimaced, “I don’t envy you, cleaning that house.”

Larry soon saw what he’d meant: Esther lived on the sunporch because the rest of her home was filled. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, it was crammed with stuff. Narrow tunnels led from room to room to front door, but that was all.

Esther’s family had taken thrift to new heights, literally: Generation after generation, they’d kept everything. Stacks of neatly taped boxes labeled “EMPTY RITZ BOXES,” were in fact full of clean, carefully folded cracker cartons. Larry found tottery skyscrapers of age-bronzed newspapers, towers of nested tin cans, all in an arcane filing system to which only Esther had held the key.

The parishioners rolled up their collective sleeves, established shifts, assigned workteams, and dug in to clear away the rubbish. At first, it went fast. Volunteers filled dumpster after dumpster.

Then a bond drifted out of the pages of an old magazine and turned out to be worth several thousand dollars. Now the game changed: Workers frantically retrieved rubbish from the dumpsters and found more bonds, money, stock certificates. A diamond wedding ring in a shoebox full of faded bouquets. Heaven only knew what had gone to the dump.

Every scrap needed careful evaluation, so the call went out for more volunteers. I wasn’t a Methodist but needed to bond with my future father-in-law, so I showed up the next day, ready for work. I found newspapers with headlines like “DEWEY TAKES MANILA.” Yellowed magazines describing new “bust girdles.” Empty laudanum bottles.

I cried over a packet of letters, tied with string, from a tubercular husband to his wife. He begged to leave the sanatorium and come home to die, but fear proved stronger than love, and she refused him his final wish. The last letter was his tender, resigned farewell.

I turned at a shout; the lady working the next pile over had found a bill of sale for a “Negroe slave.” The slave, a woman named “America,” had been a “strong and healthy housemaid or light field hand,” just my age. My stomach churned; I’d paid more for a few textbooks than Esther’s family had paid to buy a human being.

I wondered what it was like to be an old lady, the only one left, guarding the family’s treasures, embarrassments and victories. I’ve always had an active imagination; my childhood was populated with imaginary friends, mythical critters and regular visits to Sherwood Forest and 221b Baker Street.

Here, I found myself thrust into a remarkable time capsule, a précis of intimate family history more striking than any novel. As I opened a box of faded girdles and sweat-stained corsets, my treacherous imagination went into overdrive.

I sensed a growing humiliation—and anger—aimed at our little group. How DARE we sneer at the family and laugh at their private things? Pile carefully treasured mementos in bins like so much garbage? With each box, the feelings increased, and I felt ashamed. It was silly, but the feeling became so overwhelming that I finally headed outside for a soda and spent the rest of the day cleaning the yard.

That night, I suddenly came awake and froze; I’d felt someone settling gently into my bed. The covers moved, the mattress shifted slightly, then all was still.

Intellectually I realized that I was the only one in my bed, that I was imagining things again, and that a simple turn of my head would prove it. Emotionally, though, I knew beyond a doubt that Esther had come to demand an accounting in all her decaying glory. I was absolutely, starkly terrified and couldn’t move.

I have no idea why I felt such fear; in my forensic pathology phase (long story), I’d seen desiccated, mahogany-tinged corpses and felt only fascination. But now I could not make myself turn and look. Somehow, I knew that making eye contact with Esther would cause all hell to break loose. I couldn’t turn on the light; the enveloping darkness was my only safeguard.

So there I lay for most of the night, without moving, while waves of rage radiated from the other side of my  bed. Eventually I drifted off to sleep and in the morning, Esther was gone and I felt really, really stupid.

I headed back to Esther’s house later that day and for several days after: More work, more finds. And each night I’d wake and feel Esther settle into my bed. My terror abated, but I still couldn’t turn my head. I began to wonder if in fact I wanted Esther to be there, if I wouldn’t look because to discover an empty bed would destroy the only ghost story I’d probably ever have.

The real Esther had been a pragmatic schoolmarm but I could just imagine her chuckling and playing the spook to indulge the flightiness of a silly young woman. The feeling from the other side of the bed relaxed and became more like a neighbor’s casual visit.

Each night I’d wait for her to arrive, let her settle in, then tell her what we’d uncovered that day. Gradually, my recitations expanded to include my hopes and fears around getting married so young. Esther was the perfect sounding board for all this stuff since she never said a word (well, duh). I’d vow to turn my head on the pillow and ask for HER story, for the stories behind her possessions, but I never did.

Finally, in the fall, Esther’s house stood empty, her things catalogued and appraised. Larry got estimates and readied the house for sale. In place of an executor’s fee, he asked for the slave America’s bill of sale and the grateful church had it nicely framed.

Esther’s possessions went to auction. My dad won her pearl-handled silk umbrella that doubled as a cane. Mom bought a beautiful set of Fostoria glass dishes and goblets, golden yellow with a raised ribbon design, which she still uses on special occasions.

I desperately wanted something from Esther’s auction, too. In a funny way, she’d become a close friend—even though I’d never known her in life and didn’t really want to know her now, especially since, to me, she was more “dripping corpse on the bed” than live human. It really bothered me that there was no one left to think of Esther as anything more than a nine-day wonder, that horrific thing the postman found.

Someone needed to remember Esther and her treasured possessions, but how? I watched her things sell—cups and saucers, a mint-condition collection of WWII Life Magazines, beds and chairs and pots and pans—without making a single bid. Finally, the only thing left was the dresser that had stood by Esther’s cot on the sunporch. It was an ugly old thing, fumed oak with three drawers, nothing special, but I felt a sudden rush of affection for it and raised my hand.

I bought that chest for $30. A year or so later my new husband and I refinished it, brought out the golden, close-grained tones of the oak, and moved it to the living room of our new home. We laughingly named it “Esther’s Chest,” and made it the catch-all for our treasures. Eventually we divorced, and Esther’s Chest fell to my share of our possessions.

I thought about Esther last night, as I filled my nightly waterglass and set it next to the alarm clock on Esther’s Chest. Esther stopped her “visitations” on the night of the auction and I’d never experienced anything like that again. I know it’s dumb—and please, please, please, Esther, don’t take this as an invitation—but sometimes I miss her.

Postscript: I wrote most of this last night, intending to come home tonight, edit and post. As I walked in the door after work, FreddieMac’s iTunes installation suddenly burst forth with treble-volume song:

I step off the train
I’m walking down your street again and past your door
But you don’t live there any more
It’s years since you’ve been there
But now you’ve disappeared somewhere like outer space
You’ve found some better place
And I miss you – like the deserts miss the rain….

Right there the song stopped and went into a high-pitched squeal. I didn’t know I’d ever downloaded that song and it’s not on any of my playlists; I didn’t particularly like it back when it was popular. I’m not even sure who sang it although googling the words comes up with pop artist Sade. It’s simply there as “Track 05” at the top of my song listings, and when I replayed it, it once again stopped and screeched at that same point.

OK, now that’s just plain damn weird.

2017-10-07T17:40:37+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Ed LaPlante November 2, 2008 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Cynthia,

    What a wondeful tale, I love the history of peoples lives. Donna’s aunt was the executor of her uncles place in NY and found over $30,000 in cash between papers in the basement but at least she had been warned about the cash down there.

    Ed

  2. cynthia October 30, 2008 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    Thanks Steve; I took that pic several years ago and it just seemed to fit the mood.

    Unfortunately (from a boy-did-I-have-a-lot-of-growing-up-to-do perspective), the story is pretty much what happened. Esther’s house was a literal treasure trove of history. What gets me now is how much of that stuff we discarded as valueless. I watch “Antiques Roadshow” now and see old books and valentines and buttonhooks selling for small fortunes; we sent most of that stuff to the dump. I do wonder if my ex-father-in-law still has the bill of sale for the slave and how much it would be worth today.

    Ghost-wise, I think I pretty much knew I was letting my imagination run away with me even then, and there really wasn’t anyone there, but, well, I had a lot of growing up to do. 😉

    Now the music thing last night…that was a little startling, I have to admit. It’s probably more readily explained by a glitch in my Mac laptop than a ghost. But hey–it’s Halloween!

  3. Stephen Richard October 30, 2008 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    Great photo of the leaves!
    Not sure if the story is fiction or fact, but then that makes it good.
    Steve

  4. Sara October 30, 2008 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Ohhh, that is creepy!

Comments welcome! (thanks)

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