The first sign that things were not normal came when Uncle Pete, Grandma Hildi’s son, tried to sell her old house. It was a two-story white frame wood house with a huge front porch, like you see in old movies. The windows of the house and the porch were framed in green. This made the house look like a huge, grinning face. I used to have nightmares where that grinning façade would come alive and try to eat me. Nowadays, I usually just dream about Brad Pitt.
The house stood on a half-acre lot on the corner of Third and Maple. Grandma Hildi was a fanatic gardener. She had turned half of the yard into a horticultural delight. She grew flowers in part of the garden; the other part nourished corn, scallions, tomatoes, strawberries and a small culinary herb garden. In addition to gardening, she loved to cook. Her apple strudel won first place at the county fair almost every year. Grandma’s last words before she died, two years ago, were, “Don’t let the garden go.”
Hildegard Hellerbach Schmidt Gallo was a domineering force. Nobody dared say no to her.
She also kept the cleanest house this side of the Atlantic. She would follow us around with a dustcloth and a can of Lysol whenever we visited.
I think Grandma’s two husbands died first because that was the only way they could escape. They both had smiles on their faces when they passed on. I often picture the two of them in Heaven, hollering, drinking beer, dropping clothes all over the place, tracking dirt and having a blast.
Grandma had made out her will leaving her house to her two children, my Mom and Uncle Pete. Uncle Pete bought out Mom’s share. He hated that house, but he liked money. He put the house up for sale, and soon had the place running over with real estate brokers and prospective buyers.
It was a day last June, a gorgeous late spring day. Uncle Pete’s real estate agent was showing the house to a couple who ran an accounting business. Mom and I had been taking turns tending the garden, because Mom had promised Grandma Hildi not to let it go to seed, so to speak. Uncle Pete didn’t care. Mom and I were on our own. We had just finished watering the flowers and were about to check on the herbs.
The couple had toured the house, and now they were outside, near the yellow rosebush. At one point, I glanced around and saw a woman who I thought had come with the couple. She was oddly dressed in old fashioned green pedal pushers and a white, short sleeved blouse. She had bobby socks and oxfords on her feet. Her blonde hair was short and done up in a tight, curly style that made me think of old images from the 1950s. She was standing away from everyone, but following everything that was being said.
“We could do wonderful things here!” said the female half of the couple. “Of course, we’d have to get rid of all this (gesturing to the garden), but we’d have plenty of room for both a swimming pool and a hot tub.”
The woman in the 1950s getup suddenly rushed over and gave the other woman a smart kick in her butt. The victim screamed in surprise and fell forward. Mom and I screamed, too.
“Samantha!” shouted her husband as he knelt down next to her. “Are you okay?”
“Who kicked me?” asked Samantha.
“Nobody, Dear,” said the husband. “You just fell.”
“Someone kicked me in the rear.”
“She did!” I said, pointing at the 50s woman.
“Who are you pointing at?” asked Mom.
“Her,” I said, still pointing.
“There’s nobody there,” said Mom, who was looking directly at 50s Girl. Ms. 50s put her finger to her lips and mimed “Shhh!”
“Don’t you shush me!” I said.
“You shut your mouth!” said the woman. “You’ll give me away.”
“I’m not shushing you!” said Mom.
It hit me that I was the only one who could see or hear the woman in the pedal pushers. Everybody else was staring at me with surprise, suspicion and fear, including Mom.
“Oh, gee!” I said. “It was just that shovel and the bucket over there. The sun was in my eyes, and I thought it was a woman. That’s all.”
“We’d better get you some new lenses,” said Mom.
The husband helped his wife to her feet and she brushed the dirt off her pantsuit. The agent suggested that they go look at other houses. Mom wanted to go home. I said I’d be along soon; I just wanted to finish up in the garden.
When they had all gone, I walked over to where the 50s woman was still standing and said, “Who are you?”
“Lily Anna Duprez!” she said. “What do you mean, who am I?”
I knew the voice. “Grandma Hildi?”
“Who else, Carmen Miranda?”
“You’re dead. And you don’t look like you.”
She gave me an indignant look. “Don’t act so surprised. I wasn’t always an old woman. I was a peach when I was young.”
“Sorry,” I said, figuring “peach” meant pretty. “How come you aren’t in Heaven or something?”
“This is my something,” she said. “I get to stay here. So what’s all this about? Who’s selling my house?”
“Uncle Pete,” I said. “He bought Mom out.” It was obvious I wasn’t going to get any inside afterlife information from Grandma, so I might as well let her change the subject.
“It figures,” she said. “I should have known he’d do that. I was too softhearted, letting him have half the property.”
I wanted to say how she was never softhearted, but held my tongue. She had an advantage over me, being a ghost, and I didn’t want to make her mad.
“Well, don’t just stand there gawking,” she finally said. “Go finish your gardening.”
She held back and didn’t say a word to me as I worked, which must have meant I was doing it right. When I was finished, I looked back to where she had been, and she wasn’t there anymore.
Later that evening, I told Mom the whole story, expecting that she wouldn’t believe me. I was surprised when she brought out an old picture of Grandma taken about the time Uncle Pete was born. “Is this the woman you saw?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, if you see her again,” said Mom, “tell her I’m sorry I sold my half of the house to Pete, but we needed money.”
As the months progressed, fewer and fewer prospective buyers came to inspect the property, until nobody was showing up. The place earned a reputation for being haunted. Grandma Hildi’s foot launched more than one butt into the air and more than one victim was clobbered with the business end of a shovel being swung by invisible hands.
In the meantime, Grandma and I developed a mutual fondness. I began to look forward to seeing her and she became more and more friendly. I knew that our relationship was becoming warmer when she invited me to cut a bouquet of the yellow roses before they started to die out and bring it home. I thought I actually saw her smile when I held the bouquet to my nose and inhaled the fragrance. She started to call me Lil. I didn’t like it, but she could have called me Frogface if it meant she was getting close to me.
Uncle Pete finally decided he’d had enough, and he was going to confront the situation. In August, he gathered Mom and me and drove to the house. He parked on the street and we all got out and walked over to the garden.
“Mom!” yelled Uncle Pete. “Show yourself! Mom!”
“Who brought him here?” said a familiar voice. I looked, and there was Grandma, walking toward us from the back door.
“Uncle Pete wants to talk to you,” I said. “Is that okay?”
“Where is she?” asked Uncle Pete.
“Right here on my left,” I said. “She’s not happy to see you.”
“This had better be good,” said Grandma, with her arms folded.
“Mom, just listen a moment, okay?” said Uncle Pete. He went into a monologue about how he was selling the house to get money to send his daughter to an Ivy League school. He always tried to make his parents proud of him, he said, but he never could. He was hoping that his daughter, at least, could make the family proud. By the end of his speech, he was crying big, gulping tears. Mom put her arm around him and tried to comfort him by telling him that Grandma must have felt love, but didn’t know how to express it. I peeked at Grandma, whose face held a combination of shame and pain.
“Tell Pete I’ll stop attacking people,” she said, after a long silence, “if he’ll just keep the property in the family. Tell him I’ll be happy if the garden is kept intact.”
I repeated this to Uncle Pete, who stood shaking his head. Finally, he looked up and said to Mom, “You want to buy your half back?”
“Yes,” said Mom. “I’ll even buy your half, if we can arrange some way so that I can afford the payments.”
“Deal,” said Uncle Pete.
“Come in the house for a minute,” said Grandma, turning around and heading for the back door.
“She wants me to go into the house with her,” I said.
Uncle Pete gave me the keys, and Grandma led me into the house and into her bedroom. She told me to open the closet door and lift up a loose floorboard in the back. I did, and found two large scrapbooks. I opened one of them, in which Uncle Pete’s childhood had been preserved, from baby pictures to handmade Mothers’ Day cards to a picture of him in his football uniform to a newspaper clipping detailing how he had won a city-wide spelling bee. The other scrapbook contained memories of my Mom. Grandma had kept everything, carefully preserved.
“Take these and give them to Pete and your Mom,” she said. “Tell them I loved them the only way I knew how.” She hesitated, then said, “I still love them.”
I gave the scrapbooks to Mom and Uncle Pete, and gave Grandma’s message to them. All four of us stood out there in the garden and cried.