Kaaren Strauch Brown
Kaaren Strauch Brown
It was a motley group, none local. All of them had learned about Grace Garden Manor through their respective travel books. The three sisters from Dubuque—in their thirties, Middle Western attire, shorts (although it was not a particularly warm day), tees advertising Potosi beer, flip flops (not always comfortable on gravel garden paths)—had shifted their attention from me as well as from the house as we exited. They eagerly discussed their plans for the evening in exciting San Francisco. The two retired couples from Florida, in the middle of a road trip along the West Coast, were politely attentive with the occasional question.
And then there was the pair from somewhere in the Midlands, UK. “You have never heard of it, dear.” Well brought up, they introduced themselves properly, Mrs. Ross and Helen Ross, touring the American West as a graduation present for Helen, a brief respite before the London School of Economics. A dutiful granddaughter, Helen agreed to Grace Garden Manor as a concession to her grandmother who described herself as an avid gardener. Close to the end of the tour, the granddaughter was dropping with fatigue, unlike her formidable "ancestor."
One of the retired wives had asked a question about the large flowering plants we were passing, suggesting to her husband that it might be perfect in a front corner of a not-yet-purchased condo. As I fruitlessly searched my memory for the plant’s name, I was consoled by the knowledge that there was always a gardener in my groups who could answer many of the questions that I failed to answer. After all, it was a garden tour.
“Bear’s Breech,” Mrs. Ross announced, bending slightly over to examine the tall blue flower among the enormous green leaves, “also known as Acanthus.” Her bright blue eyes flitted over us, shining with the satisfaction of a good memory. “Oh, my!” Her dismayed voice stopped me in my tracks. “I’m sorry, Elaine. I think I left my cane in the Sally Homes arch.”
Holding up a hand to indicate that I would get the cane back to her, I began saying goodbye to my group as we entered the Garden House. It’s a long haul through twenty acres of beautifully landscaped formal gardens, never less than two hours, a little longer today to accommodate the more than usual number of avid photographers. In the Garden House comfortable chairs surrounded us, perfect for those who could not take another step.
“You’ll notice the call button behind the dwarf wisteria.” I always end with the same small joke. “If we had any influence with the (currently non-existent) butler, I would order tea.” Smiles, several “thank you’s” and most of the group moved quickly in the direction of the café, hoping for refreshments before it closed. It was late in the afternoon.
I turned to Mrs. Ross, who was waiting quietly in one of the chairs, her granddaughter standing next to her. She was not one of the photographers but she was a knowledgeable gardener, full of questions, curious about some of the more unusual plants—the Dawn Redwoods, the Camperdown Elm. Short white hair surrounded a well-lived-in, very vital face. Only a few new lines around the pale blue eyes betrayed incoming fatigue.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “The Sally Holmes roses are spectacular right now, arranging themselves in bouquets, some already turning pale pink at the petal edges. I lost myself, so much so, that I forgot the cane, nuisance on walks anyway. Gets caught in the gravel. If my son…well you don’t want to hear all that.”
Promising to retrieve the cane, “No, no trouble,” I quickly returned to the garden. The Rose Garden, unfortunately, is at the end of the first set of a series of what are referred to as garden rooms that proceed from the Garden House. I hurried along, tired myself, more than ready to call it a day.
The rose arch stands along the brick wall that encloses the garden, about halfway up the path, to the left. Blossoms obscured the leaves. The bench inside the arch was quite secluded, always a seductively shady spot to rest. The cane was probably inside, propped up against the iron lattice.
It was near closing time. Gardeners were no longer deadheading. I thought I was alone until I noticed a young woman sitting quietly on the bench, ankles primly crossed, hands limp across her lap. Her dark hair was cut in what was once a fashionable bob; her thin (maybe silk) multicolored floral dress looked a little cool for the day. Her pale grey eyes were slightly lowered, peering up modestly. A thought struck, Can a ghost be self-effacing?
I am a very well trained docent, even though I have not mastered the names of all the plants. I have attended all the sessions designed to teach us about the house and gardens; I have read a couple of histories of the family, listened avidly to the stories the more experienced docents accumulate—visitors love stories much more than history. So, even though it was a surprise to see her there, I recognized her immediately.
Virginia was the only child of the Langsdorf family. On her way home on a visit from her marital home in the UK, she developed pneumonia on the voyage across the Atlantic. She died in New York in 1932. Her children accompanied the body to Grace Garden Manor where it was buried in the newly developed family cemetery.
I saw her photograph every time I toured Grace Garden Manor, arranged in among the Langsdorf family pictures neatly arrayed on a table in the library, “an exact copy of the library in Mobley Hall.” Virginia Langsdorf Mobley’s formal picture stands modestly to one side; the soft black and white tones of the photograph blurring her features. I always thought she was almost in the picture.
Two large portraits hang on an adjacent wall, framing a floor to ceiling window that looks out over the Santa Cruz Mountains. James Langsdorf is portrayed in late middle age, self-satisfied, a ruddy face testifying to good food and good liquor. The painter caught the eyes of the robber baron, as grey and steely as a rifle barrel. Grace Masters Langsdorf was a gracious woman. Her face is set in repose, blue eyes calm, revealing nothing.
My brother always claims that the ghosts of the dead linger in their home environments, mostly around their graves. Not too surprising, he says, since many graveyards contain entire families across generations. Even as a disbeliever (after all, many people die far from home, or are cremated so there is no grave to hang out at), I did agree to meet his shade once we were both “on the other side.” Neither of us was quite sure how that might be arranged, given the fact that we live on opposite coasts, but we were confident we’d work something out. So you might say I was primed to see ghosts. Even so, Virginia was a surprise.
“You look exactly like the picture in the library,” I stammered, not sure how to begin the conversation.
She reached through her body to hand me the cane before disappearing into the heart of a rose blossom. I was alone.
“My granddaughter needed to use a loo,” Mrs. Ross explained when I found her alone, eyes half closed, resting peaceably.
“I think I just saw a ghost,” I said faintly as I handed her the cane, needing to say something to someone before I said nothing to anyone about my experience.
“Yes, you look a little ghostlike yourself just now,” Mrs. Ross said briskly. “I’m not surprised you came across a ghost here. These old houses collect spirits. Have a good cup of tea when you get home. You’ll feel much better.”
After all, she was a Brit. They probably saw ghosts every day, or at least whenever they visited a manor.
I tour once a week. Several weeks went by without another sighting. Virginia became a memory. It was pouring rain when I saw her again, sheltering under the Camperdown Elm. My group was smugly ensconced in the garden chairs under the patio roof of the pool house. I had stayed behind to enjoy the tree’s canopy, dense, a tent that my raincoat conspired with to keep me dry. Virginia was leaning against the massive trunk, eying me speculatively. Same thin silk dress. I assume ghosts don’t get cold.
“Elaine, we’re ready,” one of the men in the group called.
Virginia faded into the rain.
Miriam is my most rational friend. A retired professor of labor history from UC Berkeley, she views all of life with the same skeptical eyes that she used to examine her subject. Once a month we meet for lunch, usually for oysters in one iteration or another. Friends since high school, friends through marriages and child rearing, friends through geographic separations, too old to fuss, we can settle into long comfortable arguments. Our children are grown, established, somewhat boring to talk about. The grandchildren seem of a different world, which, only occasionally, is worth comment. Of course, she could advise me sensibly on whether or not I was seeing ghosts, actual or metaphorical, or just losing my mind.
“The cup of tea restored me wonderfully the first time,” I admitted, dipping a deep fried oyster into the tartar sauce. “The second time it just warmed me up. I’m afraid I’m going to be afraid of the garden, so help me out. Is this just a subconscious desire to stop touring? A vitamin deficiency? Brain cancer?” I popped the oyster into my mouth and waited.
“Twice, not in the same general area.” Miriam reviewed the meager facts. “None of the other docents are gossiping about the ghost in the garden?”
“I generally don’t see the other docents,” I admitted.
A raised inquiring eyebrow invited elaboration.
“Well, docents tour as singles. Once a year we all get together to receive our orders for the season. We’ve never been warned about ghosts, you know—‘don’t talk to them, don’t step on them, don’t mention them.’ Have passed up on the annual potlucks, long drive, don’t really like big events where I don’t know anyone.”
We both concentrated on our food. My oysters needed to be eaten hot. Miriam was trying hard to slurp all the oyster juice off the shells without getting it all over herself. Over coffee, our discussion picked up where we left off.
“Canterville ghost, needed redemption. Ghosts of the murdered, usually women, looking for justice, or revenge. Staple of bad books. Unbaptized babies wandering eternally.” Miriam stopped cataloging, looking to me for additions.
Remembering the pact with my brother, I suggested, “Dead relatives looking for each other.”
“Okay. We have the commonality. Ghosts need something. I wonder what Virginia needs.”
I burst out laughing. Rational Miriam? “Are you telling me…?”
“Why not?” she broke in mischievously. “Much more fun to play at ghosts than to whine about university politics. Now you have one month before we meet again to find out what Virginia wants. Start by not scaring her away every time she lets you see her.”
June drifted by languidly, lovely warm days, spring beds wilting, summer flowers just getting started. The Sally Holmes roses continued their exuberant blooms. No sign of Virginia.
“This is for you.”
The secretary pushed a letter at me as I signed in at the beginning of a shift. “Elaine, Docent, Grace Garden Manor, etc. etc.” The handwriting was beautiful. A return address identified Mrs. Ross, a UK address. Like all visitors, once the tour was over, she had disappeared from my mind.
“I have just returned from a tour of Mobley Hall, part of our National Trust now,” she wrote. “Grace Gardens are superior. With regard to your ghost, you may be interested in reading a history of the Mobley family. I’m sure the Grace Garden Manor library has a copy. Yours truly, Maybelle Ross.”
Starting guiltily, I remembered the luncheon with Miriam was only a few days away. I tucked the letter into a pocket; whatever I found out, I owed Maybelle Ross an update. Once home, I dropped her a note, thanking her for the information.
King and Country: A History of Mobley Service to the Crown. Luckily, it was a slender volume; I might say more a long annotated list than a description of service. Elizabeth I made an enterprising buccaneer a baronet, elevating him to the minor English aristocracy, attaching a large tract of land to the title. Over time, a modest manor house became larger and more pretentious. Over the same amount of time, the sons of the enterprising buccaneer became more enamored of the title than the enterprise that achieved the title. Luckily, the estate was productive, its hired managers competent. About 1910, William Mobley, who inherited all the family good looks as well as the arrogance of a member of the minor nobility, realized the family fortune needed an infusion of capital. It was the given wisdom among his friends that an American heiress was the easiest way to accomplish this.
Poor Virginia. She was no match for an English gentleman with courtly manners. It was a ship-board romance. Her father was delighted. Her mother was resigned. William Mobley could not have been more satisfied. Not only did he receive the needed infusion of cash, but he also received a commitment for an ongoing generous allowance for his soon-to-be wife.
Virginia was already a ghost, long before she died. William was not cruel, rather inattentive. His wife produced an heir, as well as the funds to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. She was undemanding. He went to his club.
“I know what Virginia’s ghost needs,” I paused dramatically, challenging Miriam to guess. She waited. “Virginia Langsdorf Mobley needs a life.”
Miriam held up a cautioning hand. “Perhaps,” she conceded, adding, “remember though, we didn’t factor the malevolent ghost into our first list.”
“No, no,” I protested. “You haven’t seen,” stopping for a minute to laugh, “if I can call it that, seen her ghost. She is almost not there, even for a spirit. Never looks at me directly, although the up through the eyelashes may be an affectation she learned in England.”
“Well, then,” Miriam responded with a challenging look, “tell me; how does a ghost get a life?” She paused, “or I guess, an afterlife?”
It is hard for two atheists to take up a question like that so we switched to dissecting California’s likely reaction to the current health care crisis.
“James Langsdorf was a great fan of Thomas Jefferson. Grace Manor emulates the Palladian architecture of Monticello. It’s based on symmetry, as well as the Greek and Roman values of harmony and humanism as expressed in classical temple architecture. This house was designed to be Langsdorf’s retirement home.”
A little history before actually entering Grace Manor makes it easier for me to tie things together for my tour members. As we progressed down the drive towards the pillared entrance, Virginia appeared, sitting demurely on a bench, looking at the three deer nibbling away at the fallen crab apples on our right. She was still there as I looked back before entering the house. Perhaps she might hang around for a conversation, if not today, maybe next week when I again led a tour. It wasn’t today.
The zinnias were in full bloom before Virginia made her next appearance. As usual, it was at the end of the day. I was sitting on the steps to the sunken garden, admiring the pink and orange petals, contrasting artistically with the blue of the water in the large pool in the center. If I let myself drift, it became an ever-changing Impressionist painting. A hummingbird was drinking from a small water fountain, quite acclimated to humans as it concentrated on the water jet, ignoring me completely. Virginia, however, sent it humming away frantically as she emerged from the jet. She giggled with satisfaction, then looked directly at me for the first time.
“I don’t have much fun.”
She seemed to want to explain the trick she played on the hummingbird. I must have expected a breathy voice, something ghostly. It wasn’t loud, but it was strong and clear.
“It’s not that I’m beginning to fade,” she went on, “but it is hard to appear to more than one person at a time, or being,” she added thoughtfully.
“Fade?” I echoed.
“That’s the real problem, of course.” She thought she was explaining something self-evident. “Mama and Papa have faded enough so they can’t leave, even if they may want to. Have you seen them?” she asked. “They generally waft through the gardens together at twilight.” She perched decorously on the water, leaning against the edge of the fountain, letting the water play over her shoulders, clearly showing off.
“No, you’re the only ghost I’ve seen. I wonder what you want from me.”
“I hate rational people,” she responded irritably, her playfulness gone. “It would be much more satisfying if you were a little afraid of me, although,” her voice became more thoughtful, “no one ever was.”
Her body assumed a little more solidity; I could actually see the pattern on the silk, washed out flowers on beige.
“What do I want from you? Well, I’m ready to leave; I may want a lift into the city.”
“No,” I responded, having given this matter some thought since my conversations with Miriam. “You could slip into any of the cars in the tourist lot. I suspect no one will notice you if you don’t want to be noticed. You could answer a question for me.”
I explained the plan my brother and I had made to meet after death. She was furious.
“Oh, yes, everyone wants to know about ‘life after death.’ What a boring question. Dead is dead! The question you really want to ask is, what decisions are left to make? And you already have a companion. Oh, the selfishness of it all.”
No fancy fading into a flower or mingling with the water until she disappeared. Virginia turned herself off abruptly.
“Be careful,” Miriam warned at our next lunch. “She does want something. She thinks now you won’t cooperate. There is a lot of anger that builds up over a lifetime in a woman who doesn’t have a life while she’s in that life.”
It was a beautiful September morning when I had my next ghostly encounter, early enough to have a quiet cup of coffee before any activity started. I sat on a bench in the sun admiring the view. The West Terrace faces a small mountain range that stands between Grace Garden Manor and the Pacific Ocean. The Langsdorf Family Cemetery lies halfway up the nearest slope. It was designed to look back at the house and gardens. Trees now intervene to block all the views. James and Grace and Virginia are interred there, their graves marked by granite slabs kept intermittently clean by the gardeners. I suppose that’s why the founders wander the premises, as the only way to see their old home now. They looked just like their portraits as they strolled down the path along the wall. Virginia was right. They were quite faded, forcing me to look closely to make sure I was seeing something.
The Langsdorfs stopped in front of me, looked me up and down carefully, and continued on their way. I wondered if I was the object of their morning stroll, having been told by Virginia that they generally appeared at twilight.
“And where are the ghosts of the Masters family?” I asked Virginia several weeks later. We were both in the Garden House. A light rain drummed on the roof. A low fog obscured the garden.
The Masters had lived at Grace Garden Manor for many more years than the Langsdorf family lived there. They raised a large family there, had innumerable parties, if the newspaper society pages were to be believed—“Emily Masters was launched as spectacularly as one of her grandfather’s ships” the Chronicle said cattily of Emily’s debutante party. Lorelei Stevens Masters carefully preserved Grace Gardens, now internationally known, a domestic rival to Longwood Garden. She did such a good job that the National Trust snapped up the property at her death.
“They didn’t die here,” Virginia explained patiently. “They didn’t die for years and years, probably were more than ready to move on.”
“Move on…” I responded thoughtfully.
“Yes!” Her good humor vanished. “What in the world do you think happens when you die? But, of course, you don’t have a clue. You now think you’re going to be a ghost, drifting from here to there forever. That isn’t what happens. You saw my parents, or almost saw them since there is nothing much left to see. They died old so they are going to fade faster than I am. In a couple of years they’ll just disappear. Gone forever.”
“Gone?” I asked encouragingly.
Virginia chose to walk through the door, to dissolve in the mist.
“Only one month left in this year’s touring schedule,” Miriam observes.
Too busy mopping garlic butter from my escargot shells to respond, I content myself with a complaint. “The bread is stale.”
“I wonder who she haunts when you disappear for the winter,” Miriam continues. “But what I really wonder is what she thinks she needs. You still don’t know?” Her voice rises with the question.
My appetizer done, I lean back to think for a few minutes. Miriam is right. Virginia clearly has a purpose, otherwise why the irritation when talking about the life of ghosts, why the comment about my whimsically planned afterlife reunion with a brother—“You already have a companion”—a companion for what? After all, she is a ghost, dead already. She might still be angry at an unsatisfactory husband who thoughtlessly died after a long retirement in Monte Carlo, too far away, I suppose, for a ghost to travel for a companion.
Miriam’s chuckle brings me out of my reverie. “You’ve turned a rational old lady into a superstitious one,” she says ruefully. “I had a moment of fright, thinking that your ghost might be determined to harm you. Silly.” Another chuckle. “Let’s plan a weekend away, maybe a quick trip to LA to the county art museum. I understand they currently have an excellent exhibit of Durer’s works. Next month’s lunch away.”
Virginia is forgotten as we immersed ourselves in planning, thinking of good restaurants and a comfortable hotel.
I was finishing the first of my October tours. The deciduous leaves had turned, decorating the garden’s corners, reminding me of my roots. Fall is the only time I really miss the Middle West with its wide variety of trees, the leaves of each designed by Mother Nature to assume a different hue. The endless honking of the Canadian geese as they prepare for the long trip south is the music of autumn, much like the singing of small birds make up the symphony of spring.
Tired, I made my way to my car, more than ready to be home. Traffic was light, easy enough to drive a little faster than I ordinarily would. I was just past Millbrae when it happened. The steering wheel turned sharply to the right, out of my control. The car raced over the shoulder, past two trees to crash headlong into a stone noise abatement wall.
I became dimly aware of flashing lights. Curiously, they were below me. The voices were clearer.
“No rush.” “Neck must have snapped immediately.” “We need the claw to get her out of here.” “ID?” “We’ll have to wait until we get her out.”
I noticed that they were talking about me, but looking in the car.
“I’m up here!” I shouted.
Then I heard the giggling. Quite inappropriate, I thought censoriously. She was sitting on the wall looking quite satisfied with herself.
“I did warn you,” Virginia said softly. “Told you I was looking for a companion. Showed you the very first time we met that I could manipulate a solid object. Remember the cane?”
What I remembered is how casually I dismissed Miriam’s fears that Virginia was a malevolent ghost. Catching the breeze, I floated up until I was standing over her.
“You were in the car. You killed me!” I accused her furiously.
Although my voice was harsh, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t angry, wasn’t feeling any emotion, not even regret, which I would have expected. After all, this was an unexpected end. My feelings must be with my body.
“Now, now,” Virginia remonstrated. “I merely caught the steering wheel. If you hadn’t been speeding…”
“Oh, no,” I responded swiftly. “You killed me. You wanted me to be your companion, your companion for what?”
“You gave me the idea, your plan to meet your brother. Well, I thought, you’ve already met me so we can go together.” She held up a genteel finger to stop my next expostulation. “It’s getting late for me to leave. I almost left it too long, been a procrastinator all my life, and death, I suppose.”
Another unseemly giggle. She assumed a more serious demeanor as she prepared to lecture me.
“As I already told you, you can gently fade away on home territory, so to speak, much as my parents are doing, your energy slowly dissipating until nothing is left. But you’re stuck then, no place to go. I was stuck all my life. I’m ready to go on, catch the wind and let myself dissolve into small packets of energy and be carried wherever, small bits of consciousness exploring and exploring. But…” she stopped, peered up at me, wanting me to understand. “I have always been cautious, fearful, perhaps, so I don’t want to go alone.”
Now I have always regarded myself as a compassionate woman, ready to lend a hand, but not my entire being. I was sorry not to be able to tell Maybelle Ross the end of the ghost story. I suspected as a new ghost that I had enough energy to drift around and whisper my goodbyes, probably wholesale at the funeral. After that, well, disintegrating into parcels of consciousness had its appeal. I didn’t need a companion, however. After waiting a few minutes for the strong night winds, I slipped into one.
“Get a life,” I called back, making sure that Virginia couldn’t follow me.
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