A few days ago, I got an email from, or, rather, about, a ghost.
I'd gotten a Facebook friend request from someone with an unfamiliar name. I often ignore such requests, but I accepted this one, thinking it might be someone I went to school with but forgot about. I was sort-of right. It was, indeed, someone I'd gone to school with, but I was five or six at the time. We went to the same Montessori school together for a year, but I haven't been back there since I was six and I lost touch with the people I knew there soon after I left. I haven't even been back to see the physical campus, and I don't know exactly where it was, so thoroughly is it locked away in my past.
And, as memories locked away are wont to do, it haunts me. Not horribly--I don't think of the place often, and it doesn't get in the way of my life. I wasn't traumatized there, and though I was upset at having to change schools, I don't think I was traumatized by leaving. It's just that I had some real emotional connections there, connections to things and people that have not been real for me since.
I remember the school was in a large house, or perhaps a small mansion, with a red roof and a partial wrap around porch that stood at the top of a hill. From that hill you could look out on a vast and mostly rural valley of twisted trees and occasional industrial smoke stacks, probably from mills that owed their location to having once depended on water-power. I remember looking at those smoke-stacks and telling my teacher I wished I could turn the stacked upside down, so the pollution would all be sucked back in. She agreed with me.
The driveway ran up that hill to the house, and along the fence beside the driveway, on our side of the fence,was a long row of forcythia bushes, their stems arching into a long tube. At the top of the hill, at the entrance to the tube, the stems were thick enough for a child to climb and I could walk under the arch almost without ducking. From there, room after leafy room succeeded each other running down the hill until at the bottom you could only crawl out the narrow opening. The hill itself was mostly lawn, but fell away maybe two or three hundred feet across a horizontal distance of little more than twice that, before flattening out again just above the road. It was a heaven to sled down in the winter, especially as I lived an hour's drive away, where there were no good sledding hills, none that I knew of at the time, anyway. When I was five we spent our recess in a playground with a chain link fence around it that was off to the side of the house, to the left, as you looked down the hill, whereas the fence and the forcythia were to the right. It was a fairly large playground, as I recall, with a sandbox and see saws and various structures to climb on, plus what I now know to have been a good-sized ash-leafed maple, which we could climb by using the fence to get up to the lowest branches. I liked that playground, but on the day we went out to play on the hill instead I liked that better and I never looked back. I don't think any of us did.
The second rabbit I ever saw was up beyond that playground, near the woods, back when I hardly ever saw rabbits. Maybe there weren't as many at the time, and maybe I, being a child, made a good deal more noise that I normally do now. A stray dog wandered in once, and was captured and put on a leash, and a woman came and spoke of the dog and I thought it was hers, but other people, animal control people, I think, came also, and put the dog on a different leash and took it away. I don't know why, and I felt sad for the dog. A horse came once, in company with a human who was using the horse for some educational purpose, but I remember nothing at all about what the human said, other than that if the horse stepped on your feet they would break. From the road you could see the face of an embankment, raw red dirt perhaps the height of a room, edging the base of the bottom of the great hill. And on that raw red embankment was an old, faded, green wooden door. I knew that the house had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and I was sure that the door opened onto a secret tunnel that led into the basement of the house, for the transport of fugitive slaves. I'd been in the basement and seen no such door, but obviously it could have been remodeled when the place was converted into a school. It didn't occur to me that a door in the side of a hill by a road wouldn't be the best way to access a secret tunnel, and it didn't occur to me until many years later that the door was probably just a door, leaning against a hill, and it probably didn't lead anywhere at all.
While I was there, I made several friendships with other students and I was also bullied mercilessly, although not, I'm happy to tell you, by my friends. Because of the bullies I made a fairly deliberate decision to put most of my energy thereafter into solitary play, a somewhat sad conclusion but one that may have ultimately resulted in me becoming a writer. I also directed a lot of my social energy towards my teachers, particularly one of them, called Pat, whom I adored. It was she who agreed with me that smoke stacks should be turned upside down. I was never a teacher's pet in that I never expected to receive special treatment because of my alliance with the teachers. I never expected them to protect me from the bullies either, and indeed they did not. Instead, I understood that my being a good student, and particularly being an obedient student, was the price of admission to the only social connection I made any serious effort to cultivate there, my relationship with my teacher, Pat. Years later, at another school, I was shocked to hear that Pat had stopped in and asked about me, but I was elsewhere at the time and she left no contact information. I do not even know her last name.
After two years my parents pulled me out and sent me to a new school, one closer to our house with a better social climate, but the die, in certain respects, was already cast, either by the Montessori school or by something else that my school simply revealed. I have been enamored of trees and bushes and hills ever since and I have been angry at pollution and interested in doing something about it. And I've been a fundamentally easy-going student who automatically assumes that the person in the front of the class, not my fellow students, is the person I should look to for a good conversation. Some of the results of these ancient tendencies you now know as well as I do.
But all these people, these places, are like dreams in my mind, intense in my memory but real to no one else still in my life. The other children called the samaras of the ash-leafed maple "helicopters," because they spun on their way down if you dropped them, and I have no way of knowing if anybody remembers that except me. For this, this utter isolation from any subsequent part of my life, that Montessori school might as well be dead and buried inside of me.
And now--this stranger on the internet who remembers me eating onion grass when I was six. Apparently, the school made at least as serious an impression on him as on me, for he credits in, in part, with his subsequent "obsession with forests and mountains." Perhaps he also remembers what we called the samaras? Perhaps he, also, remembers Pat? He remembers the house and the playground,the hill and the forest, and he asked about the school, and the place where it stood. I had to tell him it stands there no longer. I've heard that lovely hill has been eaten by houses, that creeping neoplasm of the modern economy, the sprawl of development. If a place is an entity one can love, and indeed he appears to have loved it more thoroughly and enduringly than I, it is also an entity that can die.
And he therefore bears greeting from two different kinds of ghost.
I was thinking about all of this as I drafted emails to him, trying to get a sense of who this stranger on the internet is. Can at least one of those ghosts be liberated, resurrected, the memories it is made of made relevant once again? And while I was writing my husband put on a DVD he'd ordered on Netflix of a Fleetwood Mac reunion concert and cranked up the volume.
Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow.
Don't stop, it'll soon be here.
It'll be here, better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone!
It was Halloween, Samhain Night, the eve of the Day of the Dead. I logged off my computer. It was time to get up and dance.