The house loomed through the cold March drizzle like a haunting pink confection with resplendent scrolls of butter cream frosting on the windows and doorways. There was a sign on the front yard announcing an Open House. To our surprise, the Victorian Italianate was for sale. Our curiosity and sense of adventure couldn’t help but to go exploring.
The house was enormous with high ceilings and tall windows accentuated by the stark emptiness of the rooms; cleared of all its furniture and adornments. Built in 1872, by a successful cheese manufacturer the home was a showcase of his prosperity after returning from the Civil War. It was obvious by the lace curtains, heavy draperies, and dark wallpaper that the owner favored a Victorian style in keeping with the home’s origin. There was a wide center hallway with two parlors to each side at the front of the house and a simple, yet elegant mahogany staircase to the second floor. The walls were painted deep terra cotta and, while neither the color or the house, were exact, I couldn’t help thinking about the New Orleans Victorian home featured in Anne Rice’s “Witching Hour”. There were crystal chandeliers burning brightly throughout and a welcoming fire burned in the south parlor; contrasting warmly to the dreary outdoors.
We both fell in love immediately.
One month later the realtor, a silver haired fox in his seventies, with bright blue dancing eyes and effusive charm, handed us the keys.
“I hope you enjoy living here as much as the previous owner. She loved giving parties- costume parties, Victorian teas and sort. There are some dresses, costumes really hanging in the front bedroom closet upstairs. She was supposed to come get them and never did. And oh, on the floor are a couple of boxes; mostly scrapbooks, history stuff about the house; she did a lot of research,…” His words stumbled, “I’m just going to throw this out there, funny really, no truth in it, how can there be? Once you start to meet people in town, well- they may be a bit skittish, don’t take personally…”
Spit it out, I think to myself.
“The house is reportedly haunted. Several, I believe, several ghosts. Well, anyway…” he halted abruptly and smiled, “here you go. Let me know if you need anything.” He handed my husband the keys and made his leave.
Momentarily taken aback; we decided having ghosts only gave the house more props and thought nothing more about it. We were gleeful as we practically danced through the rooms of the beautiful house, mansion by some standards, and delighted in the realization it was all ours; neither ever having dared to dream so fantastic.
When coming upon the clothing in the closet, we made a cursory look; mostly the costume jewelry of clothing, cheaply made, very Stevie Nicks, and not worth anything to me. We thought it better to hold off removing it permanently just in case the previous owner called. The boxes were another story- they appeared chalk full of interesting historical information.
While moving the clothing to the basement I felt a heavier fabric among the pile. Out of curiosity I stopped to investigate and found a deep green velvet dress made for a little girl.
It appeared very old, stiff with age; the gold ribbon at the bodice was brown and fragile. This would bear looking into…perhaps it belonged to one of the long ago residents, I would check it out when I had time.
Early the next summer our son, Ryan, came to visit. He is by nature a cheerful young man, full of creative energy yet with feet planted firmly on the ground. So when he came to us one afternoon with a spooked look in his dark eyes and said, “Hey, I think I just saw a ghost.” I returned his look with one of equal incredulous. He was the last of our adult children, five of them, mind you, to be seeing any ghosts.
“Really, I’m telling you the honest to god’s truth. I was comin’ out of the study and I glanced up the staircase and this little girl, she looked about eight, maybe nine.”
“What did she look like?” his father asked; naturally more skeptical than I.
“She was wearing an old fashioned, long dress- fancy, and she had medium, almost chestnut brown hair…oh and she was wearing a necklace; tiny beads. She had her hand on the banister and was just standing looking down at me. I only saw her for a couple of seconds but I definitely saw her.” He nodded his head as if seconding his own affirmation. “Oh…”he added, “she seemed sad…just sayin’”
We christened her Jenny and she was the talk of the dinner table for a couple of evenings and then just faded away as things do with a family of ten.
It was the following summer and Ryan was once again with us. Sorting the basement was a chore long overdue and Ryan offered to help lug items outside as we went through everything from infant clothing, stuffed animals, bicycles, roller skates, ice skates, text books, athletic equipment, prom dresses- you name it; it lived in our basement.
“It’s her!” Ryan exclaimed.
“It’s who?” I turned expecting a photograph of an old high school friend, a teacher or even a dead relative. To my surprise he is holding up, what can only be described, as a very creepy painting of two little girls whose demeanor glared from the picture as if already dead when posing.
“This is the girl. “ Ryan said; pointing to the older of the two. “This is the girl I saw standing at the top of the stairs last summer…and she’s wearing this same dress.” He jabs at the painting again.
The child had rich chestnut hair, sad eyes, and a colorless smile. More importantly though, it was the green dress she wore; velvet with a gold satin sash that drew my attention. It registered almost immediately – the dress; the dress so old the color was faded; the one from the stash of the previous owner- that dress had been green and that dress belonged to this child. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I swear this is the little girl.” Ryan repeated.
“Hey, I believe you.” I returned. “I have that dress.” Now pointing at the painting, “I have that actual dress. It’s over in the other room.”
Ryan looked puzzled but followed me to another room in the basement. The stack of clothing sat right where it had been initially stored- so much for my initiative, I thought.
It only took a few moments to find the dress and retrieve the painting from the other room to compare. They were a match; even to our amateur skills. The back of the painting yielded another clue.
Louise and Renata Winterstellar Alsace-Lorrainne, 1904
Pointing to the stack of scrapbooks, news clippings, and notes I suggested lunch and an afternoon of historical sleuthing. Ryan agreed with a sparkling smile.
We began by deciding to look for anything relative to the years between 1900 and 1915. What we found was sketchy, at best, but enough to build a skeleton of facts; whether we’d flesh out the full story was yet to be seen.
Louise and her sister, Renata, were the daughters of, if not aristocracy, a wealthy family living in Alsace- Lorrainne; a German occupied territory in France. It explained the portrait; the children looked well cared for. The girls were orphaned and are sent to live with a distant relative in the United States, Gerta Winterstellar, the housekeeper at Baundale Farm. They immigrated to Ohio in 1908 and made a short stay at the there.
The circumstances of their parents’ death or how the girls found themselves at an orphanage on the lower west side of Cleveland that same year wasn’t spelled out in any of the paperwork.
Evidence did show that the girls were separated sometime in 1911 when Louise was brought back to Baundale Farm and put into service. The most exuberant discovery was a photograph of Louise in 1926. The picture was grainy; its color sepia and featured the young woman sitting on a beach, leaning back on one arm; her legs tucked demurely to one side and a smile of defiance flashing across her face. Her hair was chin length and crimped as the fashion of the time. She was very pretty, just short of beautiful and there appears to be an anger simmering below her surface that jumps right through the image. As I held it, a wave of dread, like heartache, washed over me. I dropped it as if it were burning; Ryan noticed without comment. Funny, there was no mention of Renata.
A little disheartened there was nothing more to be discovered we began to put the mounds of paper back in some kind of order. “If nothing else, we’ve begun to put some chronological order to this mess.” I said.
“And I know her name, if I see her again I can call out to her- maybe she’ll answer.” Ryan replied. “Her name must be Louise”.
As he was putting the last box in place he saw the corner of a page hanging and pulled it out to read.
“Just fold it nice so it doesn’t wrinkle and don’t worry about it.” I directed.
He kept reading, ignoring me and then said without looking up. “Hold on, I think you are going to want to read this.”
He handed me a sheet of very old, yellowed stationary; part of a letter, really; the handwriting was practiced but young, and sorely faded.
….. I am so tired all the time; but it is not of me I write.
I write for your help dear Cousin. Not for me but for our Renata. She is so small. She is only five years and the work is too hard for her yet she is so defiant and she has brought Mrs. Tobias, headmistress, to hate her. I write because yesterday at evening prayer she chooses to punish Renata for having no humility as God requires. She has a big paddle board she uses on the older children, mostly boys and says it is time Renata feels its sting.
I am so frightened, dear cousin, I can do nothing but I am forced to watch. Renata is now touching her toes and Mrs. Tobias swings the board and hits her. The strike moves her feet and she falls. Renata stands and glares at the Mistress. Her eyes are dry. I am crying so hard I cannot see. The woman says, you don’t cry? I want you to cry. l think I’ll hit you again. I’ll see you cry then. My heart is screaming inside, cry Renata, cry. But she will not. There is something I should do. I am older and I am her sister but I am frozen in this place. It is said to be a place honoring Our Lord, but I do not feel him here. Instead Renata looks at the woman with eyes like a wolf, touches her toes and makes ready for another strike. Mrs. Tobias hits her again and then a third time. Still she does not cry. All the little ones are crying now with me. I can hear their wails. When it is done I try to comfort her but she rebuffs me and says I am weak.
Please, dear cousin, please send for our Renata. I know she is difficult, her willful pride and stubbornness is only fueled here. And it will kill her. She will be a good girl if you give a chance. Your kindness and good heartedness will help heal the demons inside.
I was dumbfounded and Ryan seconded the feeling with “Well that’s pretty heavy.”
“Do you think this is authentic?” I asked.
“Looks old.” He answered, “Who knows?”
Jenny became Louise and was again dinner time fodder. Everyone read the letter and more questions than answers were produced. Despite finding the identity of our ghost there were no more sightings, no strange noises, no crying in the night. I hung the portrait in one of the bedrooms; the colors matched famously with the décor, and I was inexplicably drawn.
Unlike the rest of my family, that thought the portrait disturbing, I often found myself standing before it, almost mesmerized by the story of these girls and the draconian lives they led.
The following spring there was a knock at the door and much to our surprise the dapper young man standing on the porch claimed to have once lived in our house. At first my husband and I were tentative but as the conversation moved forward his veracity was proven.
What an excellent surprise- an enjoyable afternoon full of stories about our house in the 1970’s.
Ryan joined us at some point in the afternoon. He and Steve, our unexpected guest, got along famously which only added to our enjoyment. Steve was tall and thin, with a genuine smile and an easy going pleasant countenance.
As he turned to leave he said with an affable smile, “Have you met Louise? I noticed you have the girls’ portrait on the wall in the bedroom.”
“Have you met Louise?” Ryan asked, his eyes wide; arms akimbo.
Frankly, we were all taken aback.
“Of course.” His answer was nonchalant. “I was a kid; she was a kid.”
“I saw her at the top of the stairs- just once. We found her dress, the letter she wrote her cousin… well there’s a lot that doesn’t fit. We know she came here as a teenager as a maid of some sort…”
Steve looked perplexed. “Louise never lived here. Louise died in France, not long after her parents. She never made it to the U.S.” He was very matter of fact.
“Well, that can’t be right.” Countered Ryan, “what about the letter she wrote from the laundry, whatever- you know the house from hell.”
“What letter? I never heard about any letter.”
“Seriously?” Ryan cocked his head with an adamant look of disbelief. “C’mon- you got five more minutes; I’ll show it to you. I know right where it is.”
So we all traipsed down to the basement and Ryan pulled out the zip lock plastic bag he stored the letter and the photograph of Louise. Only the photograph remained.
“Where’d it go? I know I put both things in the bag together.” He looked befuddled and I felt the same. “Well, anyway- it’s got to be here somewhere but here.” he distractedly handed the photo to Steve. “Here’s the picture of Louise we found.”
A smile dawned on Steve’s face. “This isn’t Louise. This is Renata.”
Ryan was now sure that Steve had more than five more minutes to sit down and explain and our visitor acquiesced. According to Steve Renata had been brought to Baundale upon her arrival to the States. She was a firecracker of epic proportion and shortly sent to an orphanage in the city. A few years later Gerta received word the child had succumbed to polio. Henry, Gerta’s husband, insisted upon bringing the child back to Baundale; he knew a cripple would never be adopted. Gerta wasn’t too keen on the idea but since their employers agreed, Henry won out.
“The long and short of it was Renata’s scars were far deeper than the braces confining her legs and the apparent anger she was born with went from simmering to a full blown fire as she got older. She drank like a fish and liked her cocaine; may have dabbled in other excesses- who knows? What I do know, is one night there was an incredible drunken scene, Renata stormed out, slamming the front door, and was never heard from again.
When she slammed the door Louise was caught in the house and unable to follow her.”
“How was she able to follow Renata all the way from Europe and not out the front door?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I think it’s the house- I’m not sure and neither was Louise- none of us were. All I know is that Louise traveled here with her sister and considered herself to be Renata’s guardian.”
“Who told you all this?” my husband asked.
“Louise, who else?”
“Did Renata know? Did she feel her presence?”
“Louise said she knew. Said Renata could see her and they actually spoke. Louise blames herself for not being able to protect her. Something happened when they were little. Louise wouldn’t talk about it, has spent the better part of a century waiting for her sister’s return. If she’s still roaming around this house it must mean Renata hasn’t come home yet.”
“There was nothing in the records of Renata?” I said.
“Maybe none of her antics were recorded, but didn’t you say you only checked up to 1915? Maybe you should continue your search.”
He was at the doorway now, giving his childhood home one more fond glance.
“So you’re saying Louise actually shared this with you? A ghost shared this with you?” I had to look skeptical; so did my husband.”
“Most of it…” he said with a cheerful smile, “Louise was never was much of a talker. It was Daniel. Daniel filled in the blanks.” He read the confusion on our faces. “He was a stable boy, kicked in the head- still has the mark on his cheek.”
No one spoke; the implication was too much to digest in the moment.
On the sidewalk Steve turned and thanked us once again for sharing our home.
“And oh…if you ever run into Harry; give him my best. Harry- now Harry is one cool cat.”