Yesterday, a friend and I spent the morning sorting through an old suit case that my cousin recently gave me that we found inside the old family homestead house.
It was amazing holding letters written by my great-grandparents…Ole and Christine and reading their children’s (my great aunt and uncles) school work that had been completed before World War I. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the correspondence was written in Swedish, which to my great disappointment I never learned to read or speak.
My cousin recently helped me walk through the old homestead house for memories sake. He also honored me by allowing me to be the custodian of the triangle-shaped flag given to my grandparent’s George and Esther Larson at their soldier boy’s funeral.
Since my visit to the farm, I have spent quite a bit of time reminiscing about the people who lived and loved there. Yes, that old, old house has seen its share of the joys of life…births, birthday parties, holiday celebrations, confirmations, weddings and “neighborhood and family doings.” When I stood in the kitchen doorway and looked out into the dining room, living room and front parlor somehow the chairs did not seem quite empty and voices and laughter from the past, for that moment in time, returned.
Along with the joys of this world that old homestead has seen its share of sorrow. Wars, economic depression, severe drought and crop failures made their presence known to those farm folk. It is not something people like to talk a lot about, but there were years when famine came and even farm families knew hunger. Grandma Esther told about a summer during the dust bowl years when the only feed they had for their cows were the thistles that grew in the mud that used to be a lake. She lamented about eating and feeding her children oatmeal three times a day. Yet, for the rest of her long life routinely ate oatmeal, just because she liked it.
Then, too, there was the great sorrow of death’s visits when old and young ones were called home to eternity. Such as, when our family’s two soldier boys so strong, smart and handsome were killed in action in Korea just months apart, and who now lie side by side in the family plot at old church cemetery.
This story is about one of those boys…my Uncle Wendall, who was the “Ghost in the Attic.”
Wendell, The Ghost in the Attic
My very first memory is of screaming for assistance in the night and staring at a light in the hall outside of my crib. I wanted out and apparently the rest of the world had gone deaf. Two things became clear at that moment; cribs are prisons, and prisons are not for me—I need freedom, and staring at lights made my eyes hurt.
I quickly dedicated my every waking effort to establishing a method to release me from physical limitations that surrounded me—I learned to climb out of that crib. This skill, learned so young, is of great benefit to any person born on a farm that housed a variety of animals kept in pens.
My bedroom was at the top of the wide oak staircase, on the second floor, at the east end of the big farm house built by my great grandpa Ole. Actually, both of my great-grandpa’s were named Ole. My family is Swedish, the whole entire lot of us, except my youngest sister who thinks she’s adopted—that’s what my brothers and I told her, so that makes it true.
Next to my room was my parent’s room. It was huge! Which annoyed me greatly because obviously there was plenty of room for me in there too, but, no, they had to hog the whole thing to themselves and poor little me was left to fend for myself.
The most important part about the location of my bedroom was that right above me was….the attic! Now this, unlike my brother is important, because that’s where Uncle Wendell’s ghost lived!
Uncle Wendell was a soldier who had died in a war and from all accounts was a very nice person. Then, too, that’s exactly what adult’s tell a kid about family ghosts so that you’re not so afraid to go to bed.
Wendell was a family ghost and family ghosts aren’t like other ghosts, because they want to be near you. They get lonesome. Sometimes you know they are there because you see their eyes move in the pictures by your grandma’s bed, or your nose tickles for no reason because they are thinking about you. But mostly you know they are there, because you can hear them at night…in the attic.
Wendell’s ghost lived in the part of the attic right above my bed, because it was where the window looked out towards grandma’s house and down the lane. I just knew that he liked to sit at the little brown table, wearing his uniform. To regular folks the uniform looked like it just was hung on a hangar by the window. But, I knew that uniform had a spell on it, because amidst all of the dead flies and dust that surrounded it, that uniform was always perfectly clean and wrinkle free.
That fact that Wendell’s suit was completely wrinkle free was in itself suspicious. On the farm not only did most of the clothes have wrinkles, but some of the animals and practically all of the people I knew were wrinkled. So why was this, the only item on the farm that was always neatly pressed? Suspicious to be sure! In my mind, it reassured the fact that there were unusual goings on in that house, and confirmed that we did indeed have a ghost living in our attic.
I believed that during the day my ghostly uncle liked to sit in the attic by the east window. From there he could see the green fields, blue-black woods, and grandma and grandpa’s little yellow house with the light gray roof. In season, he could watch the lilac’s bloom violet and smell the pink and white apple blossoms blooming in the orchard along the lane. Early in the spring, he would watch the corn being planted by his brothers. Soon there would be yellow-green shoots pushing through the rich blue-black top soil and he could almost feel the soft-cream colored downy corn tassels dancing on the mid-summer’s evening breezes. Autumn was golden, gold wheat, gold straw, gold soy beans and golden corn stalks that rustled and danced the cool crisp air.
His eyes could not have missed seeing his nephews and nieces playing hide and go seek in the orchard, having dirt clog fights in the fields, building forts in the lilac bushes and chasing run away livestock down the long gravel lane.
I was sure that Wendell never left his post by the window. For he had to stay there by the window to guard the triangle shaped flag the rested on the small oak table in front of the window—the flag that grandma said I was never to touch.
Grandma loved Wendell and told me many stories about how much fun he was and he was oh, so smart! She had a picture of him looking so very handsome in that wrinkle-free uniform, right by her bed. On her sofa was the navy-blue silk pillow with smooth shiny golden fringe that he’d sent her from a far away place called Korea.
No matter how many nice stories she’d tell me about him, I didn’t love Wendell, I didn’t even like him, because when grandma would go up into the attic to visit him, he made her cry. Nice people and nice ghosts do not make grandmas cry. Wendell was a ghost. He was in our attic. I knew it, and what was worse he knew, I knew it. I didn’t know how to get rid of a ghost, but I decided that he was not going to come out of that attic without a warning.
I always felt sorry for Wendell for being trapped in the attic, but he scared me just the same. It was his fault that I was afraid of the dark, for each night just as I crawled into bed –the noises began. It would start out with windows rattling, then the tap, tap, tap on the pipes. Then the wood moaned and cracked. The stairs were wood and it was him testing the stairs to see if he could sneak down. I would pull the covers up over my head and try to breath really quietly so he’d think I was asleep and leave me be. If ghosts can’t hear you, then they can’t get you, that’s why all the other kids in the family were safe but me.
I was the noisiest breather ever. During the day if I talked a lot, you didn’t notice the loud breathing so much, but at night my asthma gave me so much trouble breathing. No matter how hard I tried to hold my breath or breathe slowly, I was noisy.
It was common knowledge in Swede Grove Township, that ghosts steal and eat the noisy bothersome children. My older cousins Clyde and Bruce had told me so. They were much older, so they knew all about what ghosts do to little girls with big brown eyes, who they find wheezing in the night. First, they bite off each finger, starting with the pinky, and then they get the toes one by one so you can’t run away. That was enough bad news for me. At that point I knew that I was much more afraid of ghosts in the dark than death by pig and blindness by rooster during the day. I just had to get the trap done, so Wendall the ghost couldn’t get out of the attic and get me.
Being a farm kid who was around a lot of dangerous animals, including my older brother, I had plenty of experience developing early warning systems. I decided make a loud alarm that I could hear at night. A noisy alarm would alert everyone in the home of a pending ghost attack. Using material that would be readily available it seemed to me that the most prudent course would be to fill the stairwell with tin cans and glass bottles, then slam the door shut. Should Wendell the ghost try to open that attic door at night to cause mischief, the tin cans rolling down the stairs and glass bottles breaking would surely wake everyone up and scare him back up into the attic. A simple plan is a good plan, and I had already learned that when dealing with Swedes it’s best to keep it simple—including Swedish ghosts.
So the very next morning, I found a handy-dandy five-gallon pail and went prospecting for cans. This was not as easy of a task as you might imagine. The farm’s garbage pile was past the old red granary and the tool shed. Then you had to pass over a landing, travel right past the pig pens through a mud bog into the woods to get to the garbage pile.
The most challenging obstacle between me and safety from the likes of Wendell the ghost were the roosters—big Rhode Island Red roosters. Those big-cocky buggers were almost as tall as I was. It was a commonly accepted that those feathered fiends especially liked pecking out the eyes of little girls that left the porch by themselves without Grandpa George. Clyde and Bruce, my cousins, told me they’d seen it happen themselves. Well, if your older boy cousins loved you and were there to protect you so if they saw it, it must be true.
Now, Grandpa George was someone special. He was the tallest quietest fellow I’d ever seen, except for old man Peterson, who by the way was the only guy at church with one hand and the other a hook. I was told he wasn’t a pirate, but I knew better. It was fascinating watching him click that shiny silver hook onto the collection plate every Sunday. You had to just take a quick peek at his hook, as grandma considered it heathenish to notice or comment on such.
Grandpa was always calm, no matter what. That was his job…expressing the excitement of life was grandma’s responsibility.
Grandpa George always wore Osh Gosh bib overalls, a blue cotton shirt with the elbows mended with old white handkerchief material. He had brown leather work boots with the criss-cross laces up the front, and a big broad-brimmed yellow straw hat, that his white hair stuck out from underneath.
One of the things I liked best about grandpa was his old ticker. When he’d rock you, you could put your ear on the middle of his chest and hear his old ticker…tick, tock, tick, tock …just a ticking away. It really was his gold pocket watch, but he called it the old ticker The old ticker was magical, because no matter hard it was to breath when your were sick with asthma, all you had to do was listen to the old ticker and it would keep you safe while you took your nap and it guaranteed that you would wake up again. It always worked.
Anyway, back to building the ghost trap. I wasn’t about to let some rooster spoil my plans after all grandma, grandpa and my parents hadn’t raised me to be a coward. They were always telling me how brave I was when I had a difficult time breathing during asthma attacks. They said it took courage to get all of those shots for my asthma and not cry. So, I had no fear as I jumped off the long green porch on the south side of big white house determined to get those cans to keep the ghost in the attic.
I started out across the lawn and down the slope toward the barn and the granary. I went slowly being careful not to be seen by my mom, dad, grandma, Grandpa George or the roosters. Pigs didn’t concern me as much and they’d just kill me dead, but I didn’t want my eye’s pecked out, as that just looks so nasty and would give nightmares to other good little children, so I was afraid of the roosters.
My dog Mitzy, the German shepherd, came with me for protection. She understood the importance of the task at hand and was looking for the roosters too. My heart was pounding, partially from fear and excitement, but mostly I could never breathe because of the asthma. Mitzy and I crept past the barn, undetected, then, then we scooted across the barnyard to the granary. Yes, the coast was clear and Mitzy and I headed into the woods to fill the bucket with cans.
You can’t imagine the horror that me and that dog experienced when we got to the garbage pile. There right on top of the cans were the blasted roosters, scratching for worms. Well, we retreated some, to think over our options. We had burned a lot of daylight just getting there, and we’d be missed soon by Grandpa George. He was a slow mover, but tricky, he always seemed to be right where I was going instead of where I’d just been.
We decided that if we were brave enough to come this far, what’s a few chicken pecks. I pulled my cowgirl hat down low over my eyes for protection. Then, with bucket swinging wildly over my head—me and that dog rushed them roosters.
Dogs bark at fleeing chickens….
After I learned THAT lesson of the universe, Grandpa George took away my bucket and explained to me again that if I continued to glare at the dog like I was doing, my face would permanently freeze and I’d be a walking grotesque reminder to other busy little girls that they should listen to their grandpas. After another lecture on the perils of death by pig and blindness by rooster, we went hand and hand to get cookies from Grandma Esther. Who again explained, in great detail, in English and Swedish, how positively nasty death by pigs and blindness by rooster can be.
I took a nap on grandpa’s lap and awoke to find that grandma needed help to make more cookies for grandpa. Since only I could get the dough balls rolled to exactly the right size, I was stuck. It was during the cookie baking that I noticed that all of my artwork I had drawn for grandma so faithfully had gone missing from her refrigerator. Why, grandmother’s refrigerator was as barren as a twin heifer calf.
She explained to me that as soon as we cleared the table from the cookie baking, I had to draw her more pictures of horses. With a note of pity in her voice she explained how it had happened again. She just had to give them to the unmarried aunties in town. They were having another low spell and it lifted their spirits some and gave them a happy heart to get my pictures.
The aunties were without a darling of their own, didn’t I know. And, Jesus expected me share my drawing talents and be a blessing by supplying artwork for those two old bare-shouldered ladies wearing faded loose chiffon flapper dresses, with dirty embroidered hankies trapped between their shriveled bosoms, that could be pulled out with warning to wipe your face at anytime and who smelled like strong coffee and the root cellar in our basement.
As I sat there at grandma’s kitchen table focused on my Christian duty and drawing those pictures, I strongly suspected that I was deliberately being kept from the garbage pile. Well, there’s one rule I was born knowing and that is that there is no sense in deliberately offending God or grandma. I gave those drawings my best effort, besides grandpa let me sharpen my crayons with his real jack knife.
By the time I’d finished all the drawings that grandma needed, it was getting dark outside and grandpa walked me home to the big house for supper. Not only was supper was waiting for me, but so was Wendall the ghost. I knew that Wendall was there in the window watching pa walking me home. It was another scary night of waiting for an imminent ghost attack.
So the very next morning, I snuck out of the house again. To get out, I waited until mom was in the kitchen, then I went into the pantry and down the basement door, past the old wood stoves, said “good morning” to the black and orange salamanders on slimy green stone walls and out the coal shoot on the north side of the house. Then, I ran for the woods.
I had made it clear of the house, but Mitzy was following me. She was loyal, which is a worthy trait, but it had already been established that she was a chicken barker. I tried to lock Mitzy in the outhouse, but she made it clear she was also an outhouse barker, so we discussed the situation and decided to stick it out together. She looked like she’d sincerely try not to bark the roosters this time and sometimes you just have to trust someone. So off we went toward the junk the pile, in the dark woods past the granary together.
On the way there I took a quick break to pick and eat a few black raspberries that grew wild by the tall gas pumps. We used these gas pumps on our farm to fill the tractors with gas. These pumps stood on four legs and were about seven feet off of the ground with a big barrel on top. When, no one was around, I liked to climb up on top of them and pretend they were horses. I’d sit astride the barrel and dream I was a wild Indian. Free to race my pinto pony across the prairies at top speed.
It seemed to be a good morning for a wild ride and Mitzy was busy eating chicken poop. So, I climbed up on a gas pump and spent some time roaming the vast plains of the Wild West in search of buffalo and adventure.
Unfortunately, adventure I found, because, just when I was kicking my mount in the sides to go faster to catch the buffalo, grandpa walked right beneath my gas pump pony on his way to feed the baby chicks. I held my breath so he’d not hear me, because gas-pump riding was, as with most things, strictly prohibited by grandma. She felt it was dangerous. I don’t know how she found so many perils in everything. I guess she was just a natural born worrier.
Just when grandpa had passed by my seven-foot high pump-pony, and I was grinning at my cleverness at being undetected, he set his bucket of chicken feed down and without looking at me said, that I should be careful not to let grandma catch me up there again. Then, he left to feed the chicks. This is why I loved grandpa, he trusted four-year old girls to exercise their own good judgment.
After, I’d finished my imaginary western adventure. I climbed down and called for Mitzy. Luckily she was done eating chicken poop and grandpa had left his feed bucket by the granary door. At first, I thought it was one of his tricks, but no, good fortune had finally smiled on me. I grabbed the bucket and escaped into the woods to get the cans for the ghost trap.
This time I was able to get necessary cans and jars. I headed back to the big house. The best thing about living in the big house is that it had four different doors to go in. As the whole relation and neighborhood was Swedish, and we’re a trusting bunch of folks, the doors were never locked. The windows locked, doors always wide open.
I went in the big front hall door, because that door was only used when we had important company to impress—never was used. Also, that door was the closest to the great hall that lead directly to the upstairs and the attic door. I got in just fine and dumped my cans and bottles on attic stairs. It was then that I realized one bucket of cans would never be enough. So back, I went to the dark woods for another load, then another and another. Soon my trap was just grand; the stairway was filled with cans and bottles. I could hardly get the door to the attic shut with all of those cans in there. Should Wendall try to escape now, the racket would awake everyone and keep everyone, and especially me, safe from a ghost mangle.
I went to bed that night, expecting a good night sleep. No more worrying about the nightly noises coming from above my bed. And there weren’t any. My trap worked so well that for more that a week, not a peep did I hear from the ghost in the attic.
As it happens, country folks feel that getting together with neighbors is important and my mom and her lady friends had this club, a ladies club, and they’d meet once a month. They’d take turns meeting in someone’s home to play games that rhymed and made them giggle. There was always great concern about whether the napkins matched the tablecloth and they ate lots of fancy desserts that we kids and our dads could only taste after the ladies had gone home. Those gals really seemed to enjoy it!
It was my mom’s turn to be hostess to the club’s monthly meeting and our whole house was in an uproar in preparation for the doings. The rules had been clearly articulated…we kids weren’t to touch anything, make a mess, bring any type of animal into the house, or to make fun of any of the company. If any of these rules were violated there’d be a spanking. Yes, there was probably a spanking in my immediate future—as I was an excellent mimic.
Grandma had volunteered to help mom clean the whole big house, and it did look grand! Everything was ready for ladies and mom was getting her best dress on. Things were going so smoothly that grandpa was even taking a rest. He was just sitting on the back porch, with a couple of his chicken feed pails beside him, resting his head on a broom handle. He looked so peaceful; I decided to join him for a visit.
As a plopped down on the porch step next to him, he smiled at me and whispered quietly, “They keep the silver coffee pot in the attic, Trina.” I completely froze as the sound waves from the horrible racket of all those cans and bottles cascading down the attic steps onto grandma reached my ears. Then, grandma screamed “WHAT IN THE WORLD HAS GONE ON HERE!”
Grandpa pulled his old straw hat low over his eyes and whispered “protects me from the hen pecks” and winked at me. Then, he asked me if I thought two buckets would be enough. I sadly shook my head–no, we’d need more. Grandpa pointed at the two other buckets he’d stored under the porch for just such an emergency and together with our buckets we entered the house.
Mom came charging out of the bedroom, demanding what and who had broken into where and wailing that her club party would surely be ruined! Grandma was at the top of the stairs looking down on grandpa and me with her lips pursed tight and her hands on her hips. I knew at that moment; I was in big trouble, going to get a spanking, would cry in front of my cousins, and eventually would be eaten by Wendell the ghost.
Grandma’s eyes never left my face, but they narrowed just a bit, as she used her most calm no nonsense voice to explain to my mother that somehow some old boxes had been left on the attic stairs. The boxes were filled with old cans that someone must have been saving, and she had accidentally tipped over the boxes. Grandma promised we’d clean up the mess and clear out before the guests arrived so everything would be just fine.
When we reached the scene of the disaster, grandpa started to pick up the cans and put them into the pails. Then he stopped and asked me why I wasn’t helping him. I couldn’t lie to grandpa, so I told them how the cans were probably covered with ghost germs and that I was afraid of Wendell’s ghost in the attic. Grandma’s eyes narrowed as she very calmly asked me if I was afraid of the attic because Wendell’s things were there. Well, yes, I responded, I was, but more importantly I explained how ghosts attacked little girls with asthma and ate them in their sleep, I knew it was true, because the cousins had told me so. I, then, shared the gruesome details of death by ghost attack. I told her how I could hear him up in the attic at night and that I no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t breathe quietly and that’s how he’d find me and get me for sure. So I had made a ghost trap.
Without a word, grandma just sat down on the top of those stairs and stared at me for the longest while. Then, she pulled me onto her lap. She started out talking really fast in Swedish, but after she calmed down, as she usually did, she switched to English. Grandma explained Uncle Wendell. He wasn’t in the attic, because he wasn’t a ghost. He lived in heaven with Jesus and was and angel.
Wendell had been a wonderful young man who had loved his country, cherished freedom and wanted to pass that gift on to me. He had died in a war—far away from our farm. Wendell had not died afraid. He had a strong faith in God and knew that he had a home in heaven. He died defending other boys that were with him. She told me that she took good care of his uniform and the flag, because she missed him—not because of any ghost germs.
Uncle Wendell was never a ghost in the attic and I was never afraid of him again. How can anyone be afraid of someone who loves so greatly that without even knowing you would sacrificed their life to allow you to grow up safe and free. I will, however, always remember how he died and why. I will treasure the stories that were shared with me and keep him alive in my heart…by never forgetting his selflessness and unwavering love of God, family and country…. Wendell is my hero.
Good night, kids!
And, oh, by the way ghosts would never come down the stairs…because they can go right through the walls.