Coco and I arrived at our home in Minnesota on a Friday. We had flown away from Zurich without J because the doctor wouldn't let me fly past June 23rd. Coco and I stayed with a good friend of mine in Minneapolis, whom I’d actually met in Zurich, when we first landed. I liked to joke that her house was our decompression chamber, a place to make the transition from Zurich to Minnesota. In retrospect, it wasn’t a funny joke at all. It simply highlighted how little I knew about what we had gotten ourselves into coming home. Re-entry is no small thing. But thank goodness I had no idea. How could I have possibly gone through with any of it if I had known what was coming?
Friday morning, following a fun week with friends, Coco and I pointed our car north and drove to Duluth, watching the temperature gauge plummet like a rock thrown into deep water as we got closer. J and I made the move to Duluth thinking we’d settle down and call it home for at least four or five years. The city had charmed us in ways both big and small. We fell in love with Chester Bowl, a little tiny ski hill right in the middle of the city, where middle school-aged cadets would take kindergarteners and preschoolers up and ski down with them. The single chair lift didn’t open until school let out and it only operated for a couple of hours. Then all the kids would pile into the lodge, drink hot chocolate and eat hot dogs. It seemed like Norman Rockwell’s America. The other thing that stole our hearts was Lake Superior. It’s like looking out across an ocean when you stand on its shores. In the winter, the lake freezes, but before it does, there are a couple of weeks of steam. It’s almost magical to think that the air temperature gets so cold to cause steam to rise off of a lake that’s only 44 degrees Fahrenheit (6c) to begin with, but it does. Once the lake finally freezes and when the wind causes the sheets of ice to shift, piles of broken glass collect on the beaches. The ice groans and squeaks until it can’t take the pressure anymore. Then it crunches into brilliant sparkly, geometric piles. If the sight of it doesn’t take your breath away, the cold will.
We never ended up going to Chester Bowl once. It just was a few blocks from our house. It was the end of June, 50 degrees and raining when Coco and I arrived. We got our suitcases into our cavernous house and set up the new bedframe we’d had delivered in advance from IKEA. Our shipment from Zurich wouldn’t arrive for at least another two weeks and all of our things in storage out in Oregon wouldn’t be there until J arrived, flew to Portland, loaded them all up and drove back a few weeks later. I laundered our new linens and Coco and I went to sleep that first night on a brand new bed in an otherwise empty house.
It was around 3 am when Coco woke me up, pointing to a spot in the middle of the floor saying, “Why is she here, mama? I don’t like her here!” I didn’t fully come to, but instead tried to stroke her temple and cheek brushing her hair out of her face in an effort to get her to go back to sleep. She would not be placated. “Why is she here?” she asked again, at which point, I was fully awake. I sat up in bed and reached up to turn on the overhead light. “There is no one there. See, sweetie?” I said, my heart pounding out of my chest. “Let’s go back to sleep.” Then I turned off the light and willed myself to take deep breaths. I slept the rest of the night with my back turned to that spot.
For a while, I explained away the feeling that someone had just entered the room, or the figure I thought I saw in my peripheral vision, due to the novelty of it all. We were settling into a new space in what felt like a new country. It made sense. Once the house was fully furnished and all of us were there, I just tried to ignore it.
Weeks went by and we brought a new baby home. The first night in our house with sweet baby Theo, I woke up three times to see a little old lady, leaning over the side of the bed peering at him excitedly. The third time I screamed and woke up the baby. It was just a nightmare, I told myself. The lack of sleep was the perfect explanation for these apparitions. Then, fall settled in and Halloween was just around the corner when finally J said one day, “Do you ever see things in this house?” to which I responded simply, “Yes.” And then we didn’t talk about it anymore.
But it was out. We still managed to deny it a bit, but it was out. J felt that when he was in the woods, or down by the shore, that he also saw things then. We were sleep deprived, we were in a new place, we were really, really stressed out. Surely a logical explanation could be made.
One night, I woke up and saw a little baby, fully clothed in very old-fashioned clothing, sitting in our bed, looking at me. I was half asleep, but I wondered why Coco had a little bow in her hair in the middle of the night, and why her hair was so short. Then I sat up and looked down at Coco’s head, with her long blonde hair glimmering against my pillow in the light sneaking in through the blinds from the street lamps. I put my hand on Coco’s back while starting at this little baby girl in front of me. My next fatigue-addled thought was that it must be Theo, but I turned and placed my hand on my much smaller baby boy and looked back to see that still, this little baby girl just sat there, staring at me. She was the little girl Coco had been talking about that first night. Poor little mite! How dreadful to be stuck between two worlds with no mama and no family. I gasped and she disappeared right before my eyes. I lay down with a sigh and stared at the ceiling for a long time. I listened to the rhythmic breathing of my two little babies on either side of me. I counted the dots stretching across the ceiling from where the light came through the blinds. Despite all the stress and chaos in our lives at that point, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that my children, J and I were all healthy and alive. For months after I saw that little baby girl, I thought every day how thankful I was that we were all healthy and alive. Because being healthy and alive meant that we could get out of there, out of that situation, out of Duluth. Eventually, we did.
One day, not much later, I was doing laundry with Theo in the bouncy seat in the basement. I was pretreating a stain on Coco’s leggings in the utility sink when I felt someone right behind me. I spun around and saw an old woman in a nightgown with long, silver grey hair in rag curlers. I screamed and she brushed past me. I can still see the ecru lace on her nightgown, the wrinkles on her face.
Before everything had really become unbearable; before we knew we’d be leaving Duluth quite soon, our landlord had some ghost buster types come through. They brought sage and clanked around with weird wire instruments. They walked through the house and stopped right where Coco had pointed that first night. They told me that it was a very active spot. We had two ghosts, they said, an old woman and a baby, but they didn’t seem to be related or aware of each other. They said that the old woman liked to wander outside and went in and out through the laundry room. When they went through Coco and Theo’s room, they said the baby was sitting in the crib with Theo while he napped. “Don’t be frightened,” they told me, “she just likes being with him. She is very innocent and loving.” That night, after they left, we had dinner and went to bed. I barely slept. The old woman was in and out of our room all night long. I didn't dare open my eyes, but I could feel her come and go again and again. She was angry and didn’t want to leave, but just before dawn, she did. I never saw or felt her presence again. The baby stayed. She didn’t understand. There we were with two children, loving them, caring for them. I think she felt like she was part of the family. I saw her in our bed a few more times. And then we left. While I was packing one day, I told her we were leaving. The last day, when the floors were still drying from the mopping, I said goodbye to her and locked the door for the last time.
Originally, we had wanted to leave Duluth the way we had gone there and drive south to Minneapolis to stay with our friends for a couple of nights before Coco, Theo and I flew out to Spokane and J did the drive in the moving truck. But we didn’t have enough truck space in the end, so we left straight from Duluth. We spent the night with the only good friends we had made there. The next morning, everyone hugged and said their goodbyes and we literally pointed our vehicles west and set out. It was cold, 50 degrees and so foggy you couldn’t see the lake. I drove our car pulling a U-Haul trailer and J drove the Budget truck. We drove out past the edge of town and watched Duluth recede into oblivion in the rearview mirror. We crossed the state line and our spirits lifted. We watched as the temperature gauge climbed higher and higher. The mountains rose all around us, we entered the west’s embrace and all of the ghosts of Duluth were behind us.
(Photo of my friend's mother, that scared me half to death that spring when it appeared our of nowhere in my phone thanks to the auto-download feature on WhatsApp;)