Haunted Home

“We would still be here, you know,” Ruth confided as we said good-bye. “If it hadn’t been for my father’s speculations. …”

Her eyes teared up when she crossed the threshold; everything looked very much as it had when she and her family left the house fifty years before. The Arthurian table, chairs, and sideboard her father had commissioned for the house in 1905 still occupied the dining room, and for a moment one of her sons wondered if we hadn’t gotten hold of their old china as well.

“Remember,” Gil asked his brother, Warren, pointing up to a Quimper plate on the china shelf along the ceiling, “how insulted I used to be if I finished my soup and there was a lady on the bottom of my bowl?”

And then he paused and peered at me in astonishment. “But where did you get my grandfather’s china?”

It was actually my grandfather’s china, and this was only the first of a series of coincidences and affinities to emerge during Ruth’s visit. Puzzled by a display shelf along the hallway walls, my wife had decided to line it with Indian baskets (until she discovered what they cost). Ruth said that, in fact, her father had had one of the largest collections of Indian baskets in the Northwest and had displayed them not only on the hallway shelves but on the living-room settle as well. And the Japanese woodcuts that we had recently inherited and that now hung in our dining room turned out to be very much like the Japanese woodcuts that once adorned the dining-room walls in Mrs. Gazzam’s time.

Mrs. Gazzam’s woodcuts had come from a Japanese neighbor named Furuya, who, according to the xenophobic laws of the period, was not allowed as a first-generation Japanese immigrant to own land. The Colonel agreed to hold Furuya’s property for him in his name, and for this Mr. Furuya, a prosperous importer and later the Japanese consul in Seattle, lavished gifts upon the Gazzams: a suite of teak furniture for the library, grass paper for the downstairs walls (which peeled off the night after it was first applied), and an elaborate screen for the dining room that so offended Mrs. Gazzam’s taste that she had the reverse side papered over and would turn it face forward only when she heard the crunch of Mrs. Furuya’s wooden sandals approaching up the driveway.

Ruth was married in front of the living room’s stone fireplace, which the family festooned with flowers. An upright piano her grandmother Yeaton had brought by covered wagon from New Hampshire had stood where my grandfather’s piano now stood, and back in the thirties Ruth had hired Ivan Novikoff (or “Ivan Awful Cough,” as her husband called him), an eye-patched Russian dancing master, to teach the girls and boys of Bainbridge Island the fox trot, the box step, and the Lambeth Walk.

According to Ruth’s sons, the Japanese used to do a lot of fishing in front of the house, and out in the channel the boys had once caught a lingcod of such proportions that it took both of them to wrestle it up to the house. Young Warren’s portrait of its baleful stare haunted a hidden corner of the hall. I reported to them about the cutthroat trout I’d caught from my lawn, and everyone listened politely.

So not only had Ruth Gazzam Haight survived the Depression and the Colonel and the loss of her beloved Alabama, but she and her family had thrived. After his father died in the late 1940s, Gilbert Haight found his footing as the senior partner of his own law firm and before his death in 1967 seized the opportunity to teach history at the Bush School in Seattle, where Ruth, employing the administrative skills she developed as hostess of the Gazzam House, ran the residential program.

Escaping from Manitou Beach in 1939, her son Gil worked his way through Stanford University, acquired a Rhodes scholarship, and went on to a distinguished career as a professor of chemistry; his sister, Mary, a graduate of Smith, married a professor of history and is now one of the Bush School’s most celebrated teachers; and their brother, Warren, became a businessman of substance and consequence in Hawaii.

I don’t know if, like the snail, we transport our houses with us, if their atmospheres cling to us in layers like a shell. But my family haunts all its houses in its dreams. My grandfather died in the sprawling house he built from a little cottage in Ohio and inhabited for sixty years, and I think my father may choose to die in the drafts of the old mansard house he and my mother have occupied for twenty-five years, and maybe I, too, have found my resting place in Warren Lea Gazzam’s one enduring fancy.

“We would still be here, you know,” Ruth confided as we finally said goodbye. “If it hadn’t been for my father’s speculations, we would never have left this place.”

“ I know,” I said.

And then I told her about the first time I had toured the house the year before in the company of a Realtor.

“Well, Andy, I’ve got a few more houses to show you,” the agent said as I lingered in the hallway. “So maybe we’d better move along.”

“No,” I told him, sitting on the stair. “You don’t understand. I want this house. This is my house.”