Tag Archives: women’s lives

Should the Haunting Remain: A Review of An American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus

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My first encounter with ghosts was at the Avery House, one of Ft. Collins’ earliest and loveliest homes turned event venue and arts council office where I volunteered once a week. I’d heard a vague rumor about the Avery family ghosts but wasn’t expecting to run into them on the second floor when I was alone in the house one day. I can’t say that I saw them, only that I felt their sad presence, more sorrowful than malevolent. I wasn’t frightened but I slipped quietly back down the stairway anyway, thinking it best to leave them alone in their grief.

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My second ghostly encounter was in a Queen Anne-era bed and breakfast in Denver when I woke one night to an angry spirit hovering near the four-poster bed. Although the light, or aura, I suppose it’s called, of the ghost was bright red, somehow I knew it wasn’t there to scare me and I went easily back to sleep. Since I hadn’t felt threatened and no one had ever claimed a ghost in that house before, I didn’t mention it when I checked out the next morning. If a ghost isn’t bothering me in particular, I guess I’m willing to leave it alone.

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These experiences seem to make me less a sceptic than Hannah Nordhaus in her recent book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. But perhaps it’s easier to believe in a former resident haunting an historic home when the ghost isn’t one’s own great-great-grandmother.

As with the best of genealogical narratives, American Ghost by award-winning journalist and historian Hannah Nordhaus is really two stories: the story being investigated and the story of the investigation itself. In American Ghost, Nordhaus researches the life of her great-great-grandmother Julia Stabb, who followed her husband Abraham to Santa Fe after their 1865 marriage in Germany. The elegant home Abraham built for Julia is today known as La Posada, a hotel believed to be haunted by Julia’s ghost.

Using family diaries, historical biographies, and government and church records, Nordhaus reveals how Julia’s life was intertwined with the early days of Santa Fe’s settlement, from city planning to religion to commerce, for the Stabbs were a leading family in Santa Fe’s history, helping establish its development from a Western outpost to an important cultural and commercial center.

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However, it’s not just Julia’s life that stands at the center of Nordhaus’ book: Julia’s death and its probable cause take Nordhaus into the realm of psychics, 19th-century “women’s cures” and charlatans, and a family history of mental illness and suicide.
This second story in American Ghost of Nordaus’s efforts to find the truth of Julia’s life and death is just as interesting as the first. Here we follow Nordhaus to some seemingly seedy places as she consults those who claim the ability to commune with Julia’s ghost. We follow Nordhaus, too, as she travels with her mother to visit her family’s burial ground in the Jewish cemetery in Lugde, Germany, and to Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi propaganda death camp where some of Nordaus’s relatives perished. Even though these events happened after Julia’s death, the weight of Nordhaus’s family history draws us further into Julia’s sorrow.DSC_0814
Like all good ghost stories, American Ghost doesn’t attempt to persuade us as to whether ghosts really exist: we can enjoy the story while still remaining a cynic. I don’t intend this review to be a spoiler, so I won’t share what Nordhaus does and does not find. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Julia died and whether Nordhaus believes in her great-great-grandmother’s ghostly presence or not. But I will share Nordhaus’s conclusion about the role ghost stories play in our early 21st-century fascination with “reality” driven narratives: “This is what I’ve come to understand about ghost stories: it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive to us as it is the story.” For Nordhaus, “intuitive and emotional truths lie at the heart of most of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the truths between the facts that tell us who we are.”

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In American Ghost, Nordhaus does provide her great-great-grandmother Julia a voice through uncovering her story, but will gaining a voice quiet Julia’s troubled spirit and set her free from haunting the La Posada hotel? That’s a question beyond Nordhaus’s book, but one connoisseurs of ghost stories should consider. In the end, don’t we want some mystery to remain, some trace of the ghostly presence to linger? After all, we may run into one ourselves someday, leaving us with our own ghost story to tell.

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Marking Her Days with Grace

Recently I took out the few diaries I have from my Grandma Smith and re-read her sparse entries. A true farmer, she always noted the weather, both the high and low temperatures and noteworthy conditions like sheer wind or a blinding snowstorm. Some days in July she would just write “Hot.” My favorite weather entry reads:  Sat, Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today. Even in a North Dakota winter, that could be considered an understatement.

Another series of weather entries in 1966 reads like a poem:

Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above

snow melting

just like spring

Thurs, March 10: No need for a weather report.

Fri, March 11: Weather is fine.

Re-reading her diaries this time, I looked for clues about how she spent her days. She sewed a lot and she baked a lot of bread—six or seven loaves at a time. She kept her flour in a deep pull-out bin in the kitchen cabinet that held a 50-lb bag. She would bake once a week, making enough for morning toast, noon sandwiches, and evening bread and butter. Covered by thin cotton dishtowels embroidered with vegetable people or sunbonnet girls, her loaves rose high in their pans.

Sometimes she would make cinnamon rolls along with the bread, letting my siblings and cousins and me roll out the rectangle of dough and spread it with real butter from our uncle’s creamery. Then we would spoon on brown sugar and sprinkle the dough with cinnamon, roll it up tight, pinch the seam, slice into a dozen thick rounds, and pack them carefully in the cake pan to rise. Fresh and hot from the oven, the sugar and butter-filled rolls melted on our fingers and tongues. No “store-boughten” cinnamon rolls could ever taste as good.

Grandma Smith worked hard on the farm, even after she and my grandfather weren’t raising animals and crops anymore. A typical entry of her busy life reads:

Tues, Feb 11, 1966: I baked 2 apple pies/ put in freezer/scrubbed the kitchen floor/fed the cats at the barn/burned the papers/this pm I’m going out visiting.

I remember my grandmother down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in case someone stopped by. I marveled that she wore dresses around the house with her old pantyhose, not wanting to waste a brand new pair. When I would ask her why she didn’t just go bare-legged, she would exclaim in disapproval, “No, I can’t do THAT!” She was fashionable her entire life, even when scrubbing the floor.

Because the Smith farm was on the highway into Williston, the county seat, many of my grandparents’ farming friends and relatives would stop by unannounced for coffee on their way to or from town. In her diaries, Grandma Smith noted who had visited that day and what she had baked, like lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or a kind of cookie she called “Matrimonial Chews.” Visitors were so common at the farm that one entry comments on not receiving guests:  Sat, March 9, 1985: I was home all day. Baked a pie but no company.

My grandmother rarely noted her feelings or reflections about her life, but one of the few reflective passages she wrote makes me laugh: Tues, Jan 25, 1966: I’m cleaning the basement—and it sure looks better. That “sure” sounds just like her, a mix of practicality and positive thinking. If you’re going to do something, it seems to say, do it right—and be happy you’ve done it.

Why weren’t her diaries more personal, more revealing of her thoughts and feelings? I don’t think she worried about someone discovering them. After her death, we found these few diaries stuck in an old cabinet in the basement, more tucked away for safe keeping than hidden.  I think instead that she didn’t feel a need to express personal feelings in diary form. What was important was recording the everyday events of her life, keeping track of the weather and the visitors, the comings and goings of a farm on the edge of town.

In a few entries, though, I catch a glimpse of a more private side of my grandmother, moments of the solace she found in the natural world. In her diaries, she would note signs of the seasons changing, especially when a long, cold winter was turning away for spring:

Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

Tues, April 12, 1983: No snow yet. Cleaned house. Saw a meadowlark today. Gophers are running around and also saw a pheasant and two rabbits.

In entries like these, I can imagine her looking out the window over the prairie, although “prairie” is my word, not hers. She would say “pasture,” since the long grass is where my grandparents grazed their cattle. I can imagine her walking to the creek to look for mayflowers, grateful for a sign that spring had finally made its way to the north. She paid attention to the creatures around her because they inhabited the same piece of land. She marked her days by the weather and the seasons because they formed the backdrop of her life on the farm, determining each day’s possibilities. These diary entries reveal an intimacy with nature that seems a private part of my grandmother’s life, quiet moments of grace in the midst of her busy days.

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