Vagneur: Separation of spirits and memory

Five or six years ago I wrote a column about a certain “ghost” of my teenage years, a night visitor who would come to our Woody Creek ranch house (built by my great-grandfather) after I had gone to bed. He’d enter through the back door and stealthily creep across the kitchen to the bottom of the hallway stairs; when you’re all alone in a three-story house, this gets your attention.

Then, after a long pause, the night caller would begin to ascend the stairs, one thumping tread at a time to the top, where he’d hesitate as though thinking about what direction was next. Then, as if on cue, he would come down the hall and stop directly in front of my bedroom door. Eyes wide-open, I’d eventually go to sleep, waiting for the door to open. My dad, who’d had the same bedroom as I when he was a child, remembered the same experience, exactly the same way. The elusive spirit never arrived unless I was totally alone in the house.

Several years after my grandfather died, and while sleeping in the same room mentioned above, I had a dream that Gramps was down the hall in my brother’s room, lying there in his casket, ready to come back into my life if I would just lift the lid and rouse him up. Ah, the mind plays cruel tricks, and where once stood a vibrant man there now lay a decaying facsimile of my childhood hero. The eyelids, once alive under bushy eyebrows, were rife with decomposition, and even a youngster of 14 could recognize the obvious — you can’t go back, no matter how hard you might have loved.

Granddad was the first big loss I didn’t understand, at age 11, and then scant years later the ranch sold, a tragedy I sometimes still struggle with. Gramps and I had conspired like blood brothers, on the brush-covered hillside of Gobbler’s Knob, that someday the ranch would be mine, and I dedicated myself to that eventuality. His death and reality dealt a different hand.

Like a warm breeze from the south, a twist of fate rustled over my life this past summer, almost 50 years after the last time the door had closed behind me, and I found myself living in that same old ranch house. What were the odds, against all expectations, that the abruptness of the decades-old adjudication could be repaired and the hunger in me to touch it one more time appeased? The continuity of four generations of cattle ranching in my family had been broken, and I foolishly thought I could bridge the gap somehow. The temptation was too great.

What meanders we take out of curiosity and broken hearts when sometimes we should better leave well-enough alone. The colossal enormity of the stirred memories was staggering, and my mind reeled from one to the next, without structure or consequence, so great was my enthusiasm.

But soon the rooms began to echo with the silent sounds of events irretrievable, things I wanted to relive but couldn’t. The memories were there, but without the people that populated them, there was an emptiness that couldn’t be assuaged.

Like the persistent “night ghost” of my teenage years, I once again was dealing with nebulous entities just beyond my grasp. My father’s spirit was strong, and on some unconscious level he at last gave me an understanding of the twisted road he’d had to take in selling the place, but more importantly, I began to look back at how he and my mother, as a couple, negotiated the life they led together.

There were no answers, no epiphanies, just like there were none when I stood in my dead brother’s childhood room and tried to imagine his passion for life when that space was so important to him. My sister is still living. One day we will talk.

It didn’t seem right, me looking back, trying to understand what might have motivated them and what it might have felt like, but I couldn’t resist. It was an intrusion into the lives they lived and the memories they left, and really, it was none of my damned business.

With an increased awareness of my own mortality, I’d sometimes walk the rooms alone, staring into the eerie, translucent light of approaching darkness. Songs of eternity coaxed me forward, my hand reaching out for them, but I couldn’t cross the divide that separates us. The world of the dead is forever closed to the living, and memories are just that. Any teenager who’s had a bad dream could surely tell you that. But it’s not because I didn’t try.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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