When my sister and I were young children, my mother would often tell us a story, the same story, with one elegant variation. The story was a simple one, a scary tale. I forget now the details of the opening, but it was something like this. You are alone in the house with someone looking for you. You do not want the person to find you. It’s not clear what they intend to do to you when they discover you. However, whatever it is, it’s something you don’t want to learn.
You are upstairs in the house. They are below you. They start up the stairs, and as they climb them, they say how many steps they have come: “I’m up one step… I’m up two steps… I’m up three steps, etc., etc.” At some point in the climbing/counting, and this is the elegant variation, my mother would grab us and shout, “I’ve got you.” My sister and I, who had listened to the horrifying counting, with our mouths open, and our eyes wide, would scream and then break out into laughter.
No matter how many times my mother told us the story, we never grew tired of it. There were even times when we would ask her to tell it to us. There is something—I’m not sure what the correct word is—pleasant about being frightened within limits. I do not know where this comes from, the pleasure in the feeling. But the emotional enjoyment of something scary stays with many of us long into our adult lives. Years ago, I enjoyed reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was somewhere in the middle of it when my former wife went into labor with our daughter. I took it with us to the hospital and read it aloud to my wife while we were waiting for her to be taken to the delivery room. I’m not sure what it did for her. I have the feeling that it was not helpful, or sensitive. But it certainly took my mind off what she was going through.
Recently, I was in Vermont. Whenever there, I try to visit Robert Frost’s grave. I was able to do so on this trip. Frost is buried in the Old Bennington Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont. From the church at the top of a hill, one walks down a gently sloping path that runs by the left of the church, turns right, and soon finds Frost’s grave. Typically, I will recite a prayer in his memory or talk with him, telling him how much his poetry means to me. Sometimes, I will recite a poem.
This year I was particularly moved by a poem Frost wrote titled “Ghost House.” The poem is the second one printed in Frost’s first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, first published in 1913.
“Ghost House” is an early poem by Frost but bears his enduring stamp—rhyme, meter, a sense of place, and haunting phrases: “I dwell with a strangely aching heart,” “Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart.” Ah, what a gift to be able to write like that! In his biography of Frost, Jay Parini writes of the poem, composed in Derry, New Hampshire:
“Reading through A Boy’s Will, one begins to assemble a visual and emotional portrait of those years of bucolic isolation, their range of imagery and metaphor. ‘Ghost House,’ for instance, is about an abandoned house (an image that would stay with Frost throughout the decades, as in “Directive”—a poem written in the mid-1940s). Written in 1901, it was inspired by an old cellar hole with a broken chimney standing in it—what remained of a nearby farmhouse after a fire had destroyed it in 1867.” (Parini, Jay. Robert Frost (pp. 90-91). Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.)
Often, a poem is set to music, or background music is played to enhance the emotional power of the words. Frequently, although the composer or poem reader has noble motives, they fail to accomplish their goal and, what is worse, even detract from the poem’s power. I did, however, find what is, to me at least, an excellent reading of this poem with music. After you’ve read the poem aloud, click here and listen to the poem being beautifully read to music. I did it with my eyes closed.
Now, do the hard work. Consider your life, where you’ve been, where you are, where you’re heading, or think you are headed. Do you dwell with a strangely aching heart? Many of us, and I include myself among them, do. And for me, at least, like my mother’s scary story, something is comforting in that. Memories, even ostensibly sad ones, may prove to be “As sweet companions as might be had.”
All the best,
P.S. Monday, July 5, 2021. After reading this post, my mother’s youngest sister, my Aunt Donna, provided the following details concerning the story I reference. I am grateful to her for sharing them with me.
“The story you refer to from your mother (I heard it many times from her too) was about the two sisters, Mary and Jane. They went to church on Sunday and wore their little white gloves. Their mother said, ‘whatever you do, don’t lose your gloves‘.
They lost them in the church someplace, and while they were looking after everyone was gone, they heard a noise. Afraid they ran for the belfry and this person climbing the stairs would say I’m up one step, etc. and on the third step, we would get the ‘I gotcha.’ Our young eyes danced with excitement as it built, and we knew what to expect. You are right; it was still a good story.”