Every small town in Vermont has its own special ghost story. (Many of them have been recorded by Joseph Citro in Green Mountain Ghosts and Green Mountain Dark Tales.) These hand-me-down visitations make good bedtime fare, the kids begging for a scary story, but nothing too spooky to ruin the sleep of a jumpy four-year-old. Our part of Vermont is no different. A nearby inn has a haunted room, number 329, which, according to Mr. Citro, was visited by poltergeists. An employee was called to the room by a couple and their two kids. When he got there, he found the rocking chairs rocking, the lamp shades spinning, and the bed walking across the floor. The kids were crying, the parents were huddled in a corner with eyes wide as headlights, and the employee took one look, turned on his heels, and left a lot faster than he came in. This is the same establishment in which employees have reported hearing strange voices, feeling ghostly taps on the shoulder, and sensing unexplained footfalls, the air becoming chill as the unseen walks past.
My own family has plenty of ghost stories as well, some old and some recent. My four great-aunts often summered in rural Maryland at a house that had a long gravel driveway. In the middle of the night they often heard the sound of a four-in-hand driving up to the front door, horses breathing hard, with the distinctive sound of wagon wheel on stone. Of course, the driveway was always empty. A cousin of mine once lived in a large house just outside Baltimore with friends and went up to explore the large attic. There was a woman at the other end, dressed in old clothes, rummaging through suitcases. My cousin mentioned this at dinner, described the woman, and was told that the person in question was the original owner, who had died years ago. This was the same house in which a closet door once opened to reveal a spectral staircase that was never seen again. (None of the witnesses had the courage to enter.)
We are all haunted by different visions. I once met a Vermonter who told me his dreams were filled with the scent of the two-fisted baking-powder biscuits his mom used to bake in the wood cookstove, the aroma drifting out over the fields, calling the men to breakfast. He said they never tasted the same baked in a modern oven. A farmer acquaintance of mine is often visited by the memory of burnt cookies, the farm's cook selling the good ones to the local country store. He got to like the taste after a while and is now never quite satisfied with the pale, "underbaked" variety. My own memories are haunted by the yellow farmhouse of my childhood, the green Kalamazoo wood stove burning even in summer, bread rising on the proofing shelf, and the sudden appearance of ghostly figures at the screen door, the sun at their backs, their approach having gone unnoticed in the half-light of the small front parlor.
In the country, old men sit on sofas and front porches, dreaming of ghosts who haunt their waking dreams, young sons sitting beside them in the cab of an old pickup, traveling down dirt roads long since paved and decorated with outlet stores. They remember the throaty growl of the exhaust and the warm breeze that rustled the thick, sun-bleached hair of their sleepy traveler, head crooked and resting on the brown vinyl door panel. But cooks remember ghosts of kitchens, grandmothers at the stove, sturdy and cheerful, stirring pots and rolling out thin sheets of dough, kids at their feet. Kitchens of the past were always simple rooms, filled with confidence and the bustle of hard work, not the empty showpieces of today, linoleum replaced by granite, a whisk made obsolete by machinery. Cooks also lie awake at night with the ghosts of foods remembered: a large bowl of homemade peach ice cream, sweet-and-sour fish cooked in a shack on a deserted island beach, a glass of cool Sancerre at a Left Bank bistro, the season's first batch of new potatoes steamed and served with fresh chives.
The drumbeat of the new century is just around the corner, and I wonder if our ghosts will be buried at last, unable to visit us at the witching hour. Our eyes will be unable to detect a smoky wisp of spirit, ears too dull to hear the swish of a long black skirt as a phantom disappears around the corner, the sound of her dress the only hint of her passing. We will write off ghostly visitations as "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato," as Dickens's Scrooge attempted to do with Marley's specter. And if we are one day unable to call to mind these ghosts, so too will we be unable to come back to visit the next generation, reassuring them with happy memories of our dead century. We would do well to lie awake at night and listen for the sound of ghostly footfalls overhead or the aroma of pot roast from another age. After all, we are only listening for ourselves.