Growing Up With Ghosts and Getting Comfortable With History

The Burrow lives!

by Diana Cater

I grew up in the company of ghosts. My great uncle Alfred lives in the attic, next to his boxes of bank notes. Uncle Andrew lives in the guesthouse, Lila Hus, where he said the nisse were hiding in the ceiling. If I want to be with my grandfather, I look up into the rafters of the barns he built. And now that my grandmother has passed away, I like to think that she visits us in the form of the feral cats she used to feed. I think the orange tomcat is still looking for her.

A hundred years ago, the house I grew up in was a hunter’s shack in a Douglas fir forest. My great-great grandparents, Norwegian immigrants, made it their home. My grandpa remembered sleeping with his dog in a lean-to on the roof because there was no room for him inside. Every generation has added something new to it, and let something else decay. It’s far from perfect. The house is lopsided, the barns are slouching. But it is wondrously, captivatingly haunted.

This is what happens to me. I open a drawer and find notes and tokens that don’t belong to us. I open a book and out falls a portrait of a couple I don’t recognize. They’re everywhere, everyone who ever lived here. As a child, I was convinced that their presence sated the house with magic—and made my life special. Every door that opened by itself, every scratching sound in the walls, I blamed on them. I memorized and embellished every family story my mother told me. I threw raucous Halloween parties in Lila Hus for my handful of friends, telling the story of Uncle Andrew, throwing a hammer at the fairies in the ceiling. I was a shy, bookish girl. I didn’t get close to many people. But whenever I was lonely, I consoled myself that I lived in a dark house full of ghosts. And really, what Neil-Gaiman-and-Henry-Selick-and-Roald-Dahl-loving little girl doesn’t want that?

When I met Nat the second day of college, I fell in love with him immediately. He was sweet and gentle, fiercely smart, nerdy beyond belief, and like my grandfather, had a penchant for building wild contraptions and occasionally blowing things up. The first token of affection Nat gave me was a winged monster welded out of scrap metal. When I finally agreed to go out with him after a year of nervous, awkward flirting, I decided that he must immediately visit my house in Oregon on Christmas break. It wasn’t that I necessarily needed him to meet my wacky, adorable parents. He needed to meet my house—the place I had talked and talked about since we met. I was convinced that he wouldn’t understand who I was until he saw it himself.

On the seven hour drive there, I couldn’t stop smiling or kissing him at every red light. But then I began to recognize the windy country roads that led home. I felt myself close up and grow silent. It was dark outside when we pulled up to the house. As we stepped out of the car and up to the front porch, I began wondering if this was a good idea. My father threw open the door, standing before us in a floor-length black silk kimono covered in dragons. “Welcome to our home!” he cried, arms outstretched. My jaw dropped. I had never seen my father in a kimono.

My mother joined us, and we sat down in the living room, Dad in kimono, Nat absent-mindedly playing with his toes, Mom and I sitting awkwardly, feet glued to the floor. I was suddenly aware of the ghastly wood paneling, how the ceiling was starting to slouch in the middle, our old ratty couches. We talked politely for a few minutes. I said I wanted to go to bed.

What I didn’t expect, but probably should have, was that bringing Nat home was like having him read my diary. His presence made me insecure of every imperfection about our house—our dark, narrow staircase, crooked doors that don’t shut properly, dilapidated barns collecting dust. Suddenly, he was an intruder who made all the ghosts disappear. All that remained was our fixer-upper.

The next day, sitting in my childhood bedroom, I explained all of this to him and he understood. “I think your house is beautiful. It’s full of stories.” Hearing about this place and how much I loved it was one of the reasons he fell in love with me, he said. I tried to believe him. We walked through the woods, the maple trees leafless and the blackberry vines receding in the cold. He asked me to show him the trees my friends and I played in when we were little. It helped. That evening, my mother got out a box of my grandfather’s old ties, and said that Nat should take some. They were garish colors, paisleys, wide, fat ties. Nat loved them. He loved them for their novelty, for their total disregard for taste. He tried on tie after tie. Then he wrapped one around my neck and pulled me in for a kiss. The ice melted.

I think anyone who says that physical objects don’t matter doesn’t truly understand what that means. There is something deeply personal about a house, or an apartment, a room. To bring someone there is symbolic of a new stage of intimacy. They don’t just see piles of dirty clothes or unwashed dishes: they see the place where your life has unfolded. A part of you lives there that can’t live anywhere else. I was right when I thought that Nat could never truly know me until he visited the house, because he didn’t just meet my grandfather’s ghost or Uncle Andrew’s. He also met the shy, daydreaming girl who hyperbolized the spirithoods of long deceased relatives. And in response, he did the most loving thing a person could do. He said, “Tell me about your home.” He listened to all the family stories. He learned everyone’s names, living and dead. He looked at old photographs. And that’s when I began to understand that he was magical, too.

When Nat and I got engaged and decided to get married in October, he and my parents said that we should have a small wedding here on the farm. No, I said, thinking of the stress, of the awful wood paneling, of people seeing the wood paneling. And so we looked at venues, perfect, neat, expensive venues, with identical chairs and built-in speakers, and there was nothing wrong with them. But the only one I liked was a quirky Victorian house with creaky floorboards and black and white photographs on the walls, and Nat reminded me that we had a quirky house with creaky floorboards and black and white photographs. And our house had quite personable ghosts, who would be miffed if we spent the evening with someone else’s. I saw his point.

October 10th is quickly approaching. My mother has gleefully taken down the paneling and is growing pumpkins in her garden. My father has cleaned up a barn over-hang, strung up lights, and called it a dance floor. Nat has revivified my grandfather’s wood and machine shops and is building the benches for our ceremony. We’re gathering beer and board games, ordering pie and apple cider, and praying for good weather. And I am excited. I am excited for people to be here and celebrate with us. I know it will be small, simple, and very flawed. But hopefully, something also eerily familiar, like people have been laughing in these walls for a hundred years—a little bit haunted.

Top photo: the house with my grandfather and his sisters. The photo of Nat and myself were taken by my lovely cousin, Inga Ruddell.

Diana Cater

Diana grew up in Monitor, Oregon, and graduated with degrees in biology and English from Whitworth University. She loves reading comic books, building blanket forts, and listening to public radio.

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  • Sarah

    Please tell me you’ll do a post after the wedding–with pictures!

    • Another Sarah

      This is exactly what I came here to say! I’m really intrigued now, and am dying to see the house!

    • Kayakgirl73

      Yes please.

    • KateS

      yes! another vote to pretty pretty please submit your wedding afterward!

      your piece is lovely, haunting, and touching all at once – sounds like you will have a beautiful wedding knit together by those you love and all that history, which is just so awesome. best wishes this weekend!

    • vegankitchendiaries


  • Lena

    How lovely :) – how could you get married anywhere else?

  • Michigan Sara

    What a wonderful post. Kinda made me teary! Enjoy your wedding this weekend!

  • Celesta Torok

    I was just thinking this morning how very eery and fall it felt today. This post sealed the deal. So well written and haunting.

  • royalkazaar

    Have a happy married life… May God bless your weddding

  • RoseTyler

    Wow! Your wedding sounds absolutely perfect. Please share an after post with photos! It sounds like things will be imperfectly you! What more could you ask for!?

  • BB

    “I think anyone who says that physical objects don’t matter doesn’t truly understand what that means. There is something deeply personal about a house, or an apartment, a room. To bring someone there is symbolic of a new stage of intimacy. ”

    Yep. Totally true.

  • Have you ever read Pat of Silver Bush (by the author of Anne of Green Gables)? The main character, Pat, fiercely loves her house, which has been in her family for generations, and when she got older, the boyfriends she broke up with were the ones who couldn’t understand why she loved it so much.

    It sounds very special that Nat sees your love for your house as part of who you are. I especially love his point about how your ghosts need to be honoured (by spending time with them) on your wedding day.

    Much happiness for your upcoming nuptials!

    • Aj

      Pat of Silver Bush!!! I loved that book. I really loved all the LMM books and read them over and over until the pages were tattered. But the sequel, Mistress Pat, is just so heartbreaking in so many ways (or it was to 12 year old me). It was the one LMM I couldn’t bear to re-read.

      • yay, I’m excited to discover a little LMM contingent here on APW! I think someone mentioned Anne before on a Happy Hour thread recently, too.

        The last Pat book is indeed a depressing read.

    • MDBethann

      I <3 your LM Montgomery reference. I love all of her books, but the last "Pat" book upset me so much I couldn't read it again, even though I've read all the Anne books & others by Montgomery multiple times.

  • NW

    Such a wonderful piece! I felt like I was walking through the house and property with you.

  • JDrives

    I loved everything about this piece. I hope your wedding is awesome and the spirits help throw you a rockin’ party. Also, small world- my fiance is also a Whitworth grad!

  • Lian

    “We’re gathering beer and board games, ordering pie and apple cider, and praying for good weather. And I am excited. I am excited for people to be here and celebrate with us. I know it will be small, simple, and very flawed. But hopefully, something also eerily familiar, like people have been laughing in these walls for a hundred years—a little bit haunted.”
    This is so lovely – and it’s what I am hoping for with our wedding (mid-November) too. It will be in an old house with black and white photographs on the wall. Not our house, or one that has been in the family. But as I said when we picked it as our venue, it is like a comfortable sweater. Not particularly pretty, but so nice to be in. It’s amazing that you can have that in this house to is so -you-. I will join you in wishing for good weather for this Friday. I hope your wedding is magical.

  • um, can I come to your wedding?!?

    • vegankitchendiaries

      If you get a green light can I be your plus one?

  • Kayjayoh

    This piece gives me the feels. I grew up in a giant, creaky, work-in-progress Victorian complete with stuffed attic, lead paint, trick plumbing, and funny corners. I loved it so much. Sadly, my family sold it when I was 15 (an engineering fraternity bought it from us and moved in) but it left it’s imprint on me. Many of my dreams are still set there, even 20+ years later.

    Similarly, my dad bought the house my great-grandparents had built in northern WI. It was tiny, but well-built. It has gone through renovations and additions, but it still has the spirit of Swedish immigrants hovering about.

  • Class of 1980

    There is something about old houses that can’t ever be duplicated by newly built houses. There is an old hunting lodge in my area that is now a small hotel and farm-to-table restaurant. It’s imperfections are why it’s so wildly romantic, and when you’re there, you never want to leave.

    It’s said to be haunted by a sweet young woman too.

  • River

    This is a really beautiful piece of writing, Diana! And I love the accompanying photos.

    I have to say, this filled me with a sort of mournful nostalgia — not envy, not really (huge progress, for me!), but a sort of sadness for what never was. I moved around a LOT as child, all in the same city, but still — I’ve never had a family home, not REALLY, and for many years that was something I bitterly resented. Now, however, despite my missing that for myself — I LOVED reading about how much yours means to you. It makes me happy to know that someone who has what I dreamt of as a child appreciates it so deeply.

    These lines really struck me: “I think anyone who says that physical objects don’t matter doesn’t truly understand what that means. There is something deeply personal about a house, or an apartment, a room. To bring someone there is symbolic of a new stage of intimacy.”

    I think, surprisingly, they ring true for the perennially nomadic as well as the homebody. I’m an incorrigible pack rat mostly BECAUSE I lacked a permanent home – so I made a home for myself with objects, totems from every where and every person I had been. Now, as I am making a home with my love, I’m learn bit by bit how to let go of those objects and place my trust and sense of home in the care of another person. And that feels pretty magical.

  • Anna Z.

    So beautiful. Such a testament to love and history and place (my three favorite topics!).

  • Heather


  • We moved growing up so I don’t have one place that says home to me. But there is definitely a certain feel of the place I live in, and it brings me joy when others recognize it too, they recognize the me that’s filled the walls.

  • Mandi P

    Beautiful! We had an engagement party at my grandparents’ house – the same house in which my grandfather was born. It was special, meaningful, and perfect. Nobody minded the barn door that’s almost falling off, the cracks in the garage floor, or the 1970s-style bathroom with garish wallpaper. Everyone loved the musty, cobweb-covered stuff in the barns, the engagement ring that once belonged to my great-grandmother (the one who gave birth to my grandfather on the kitchen table in that house), and the memorial garden & pergola for brother (which is where the toy shed stood when my brother and I were children, and was the garden shed when my dad was growing up).
    Enjoy another special day in your special place!

  • Emma

    Yes yes yes! I grew up on a small island and it is so unique and special and made me who I am that you can’t really truly know me if you don’t know the island. Brought my boyfriend there for the first time this summer and was anxiously checking in with him the whole week “are you really having fun hiking the trails I know like the back of my hand? Did you really like running into my math teacher at the grocery store?” All of which of course actually meant “do you really like this core part of me?”

  • Manya

    What a beautiful piece! So beautifully written–and magical. I LOVED it! Thank you…

  • Jacob Martin

    hehe, I was there, and it was, without a doubt, the most magical wedding, not to mention the most magical 4 days, I have ever had the absolute honor and pleasure to experience. Diana is my very definition of magic, and should I die, young and restless, I have promised to haunt her to her grave. And I couldn’t be happier that she found Nat. A truer appreciator of magic there never was. Congrats to them both, and my condolences to the millions upon millions who couldn’t be there. Truly, that place is home.

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