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Growing Up With Ghosts and Getting Comfortable With History

The Burrow lives!

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.

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