WHEN THE WIND BLOWS around my house in the Catskill Mountains, the family that lives on my roof howls. They jump and stomp and the summer porch rattles and creaks as if they’re trying to shatter the windows and knock down the bolted door. On particularly bad nights the back door to the house blows open and the spirit of Edna lets herself in from wherever it is she spends most of her time. She finds me in bed alone reading, or on the couch watching a movie or even crouched in a corner of the small guest room. I’ve learned that it’s useless to try and hide from a shade. She stares at me with milky blue eyes, she smiles and nods as if to say “I warned them. They’re up there. Be careful.” Edna Eterno. An apt name for the ghost that eternally haunts the home that after ten years I finally consider my own.
I bought my house in 2005, a modest little place that sits on an acre of land on a rural road. I loved the place the minute I stepped over the threshold; but once I took ownership I felt like I’d been asked to take on the maintenance of Downton Abbey. Like most long-term New York City residents I was shocked and terrified by what it really means to own a house in the country. I owned pipes and a well and a septic tank. People talked to me about heat tape, and PH levels and effluents. I endured the requisite parade of eccentric or incompetent handymen. Jack the painter charged by the hour, totaling his many many hours in a child’s marbled notebook that I was never allowed to see. He spent so much time at the house and ran up such high heating bills that I began to suspect he was living there while I was in the city trying to make enough money to pay him. Fred the agoraphobe could only come to fix things if his neighbor was available to get him out of the house and drive him. There was the work crew that dismantled my bathroom walls and then disappeared so that on weekends I’d find evidence that a horde of mice had swarmed up from the crawl space. The crawl space! The only entrance to which is inside my house. I still keep two rugs and a heavy set of drawers on top because who know what may emerge. Things that crawl! But what makes my country home buying experience different from others, I think, is that I bought my house from Edna, a tall, proud looking, elderly woman who smiled sweetly when she invited me and my broker in to look around.
It was the first and only time I met her. On subsequent visits to see the house, Edna was gone. No one seemed to know where, neither my real estate broker nor hers. She was alive they presumed, but her whereabouts were a mystery. The sale went forward without her. It was understood that when I closed on the house Edna’s furniture would remain. Fine by me. I’d save a lot of money not having to shop for furnishings.
The day I moved in, I saw that a bank calendar on the kitchen wall was still on the date when I met Edna. October 2004. Three brightly painted, incongruous tchotchkes – a musical note, a vase of daisies, and a horseshoe – hung askew above the chrome and Formica table. The midcentury birch wood cupboards were filled with all sizes and shapes of cake pans and cookie tins. There were large jars of flour and confectioners’ sugar, and spices of all kinds lined up on exposed shelves. Whoever she was and wherever she’d gone, Edna, it seemed, liked to bake. It was a long while before I dumped the baking supplies. I felt as if those tall jars were standing sentinel over the house, making sure I didn’t change Edna’s place too much.
In a cabinet above the refrigerator I found-gold rimmed shot glasses, highball glasses, and white enamel ashtrays printed with instructions on how to make Manhattans and martinis. It seemed baking wasn’t all that occupied Edna. I amused friends at dinner parties with kitschy 1950’s glassware and desserts served on intricately glass cut candy dishes.
Utility drawers in my tiny mud room were filled with hammers, nails and screws of every size, screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, electric tape, scissors. With no tool kit of my own I put these things to use doing the only handy work I was good at: hanging pictures and putting together cheap bookcases. I also found a clothespin holder made from old pantyhose. I dumped the clothespins into a cheap woven basket, the kind sold in the supermarket and filled with lurid green cellophane grass and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, and prepared to hang my laundry on the miles of clothesline in the yard after washing it in Edna’s ancient GE washing machine.
Edna was everywhere. In a storage shed at the back of the house I found two amateur paintings. Upon close inspection I realized they were paintings of the front of my new house from days long before I set eyes on it, before two small windows were removed and replaced with a large picture window. Edna’s garage was filled with shovels, rakes, hand saws. I found a handmade wooden level, a large, inoperable kerosene stove, a workbench with a hand-cranked vice attached. There was a huge contraption so heavy I couldn’t move it; someone told me it was for smoothing black top. There were plastic bins stacked on crude wooden shelves. One was filled with manuals on how to learn stenography, another with sheet music. There was a standing microphone as if for a singer and a hand painted marquee advertising The Blues Notes. Hello Edna! Were you a trained secretary, do-it-yourselfer, jazz singer? Who or what are you now? The last bin I opened held New York newspapers with full page pictures of Osama bin Laden and screaming headlines about the World Trade Center attacks. Were you shocked and terrified by the turn the world took?
In fact, I didn’t change Edna’s house all that much. I’d pulled up her green shag carpet and put ready-made covers on her floral couches but kept her heavy end tables and bureaus. I bought a few lamps at Home Depot and throw pillows at Target but I napped on Edna’s couches, watched her TV and slept in her bed. The place looked like grandma goes to graduate school. Sometimes it felt like Edna and I were roommates, except that she was living in an alternate dimension and time. If I could reach through the veil that separated us there’d she be, sitting at our Formica table smoking a cigarette and drinking a high ball. Maybe she occupied the house during the week while I was working in Manhattan. One bright Friday afternoon I arrived and heard what I can only describe as “celestial” music wafting through the house. I must have left on the radio, I thought before I realized that no, I don’t have a radio here. I went into the yard to see if the music was coming from the neighbors. It was not. As I searched for the source of the sound I became convinced that the house was singing. The house was singing because it was happy. Edna and I were taking good care of it. A few months later an overnight guest claimed she heard the same music during the night.
All over the house, in bureau drawers and file cabinets, I found papers. Edna had a husband. Joseph Eterno. He was a veteran, I knew that from a form letter he’d received, auto-signed by Harry Truman and thanking him for his World War II service. Joe was a member of the associated Musicians of Greater New York. That would explain the microphone and sheet music. Between 2002 and 2004 he made frequent trips to Columbia County Medical Center. I saw the bills. After he died, Edna collected $603 a month from social security with $66 subtracted for Medicare. MCI was hounding her for unpaid bills. A Catskill police officer filed a $350,000 lawsuit against her for rear-ending him in traffic. I worried about Edna. Where would she come up with that kind of money?
About three months after I bought the house I was poking around a nearby tag sale when I came across a plaster statue of the Buddha. It was around two feet high, a slender, cross-legged Buddha, his robes draped open revealing a bit of his chest. His hands rested gently on his lap. The silver and black paint was a little chipped, one of the colorful paste jewels above the hands was missing, but for $3.00 I thought it was worth the price. It wasn’t until I got it home and turned it over that I saw “Joe” written in ball point pen on its felt bottom. Joe, Edna’s husband, had come home. Eternal Eterno.
When the weather warmed I met my neighbors. “Hi, I’m the new Edna,” I joked.
No, no, no they chuckled. We don’t need another Edna. You have no idea what we went through. She and her husband Joe built that house by hand. They used to come up on weekends, then settled here when Joe retired. They did everything themselves, always out here together. No kids, just the two of them. She really lost it after Joe died. She had the State Troopers up here a couple of times a week insisting that there were people living on her roof and looking in her windows. But she must have been a spitfire in her day. From what we understand it was a real scene here back then. Weekenders got together at an old duckpin alley down the road to play music and party. All those old-timers moved up here when they retired. And one by one they passed on. All gone now.
Edna was one of the last to go. We tried to help her, the neighbors told me. We tried telling her there was no one living on the roof, no one trying to get into her house. But it just got to be too much after a while, we had to back off. We don’t know what happened to her. She had a niece in Roanoke, Virginia, who may have taken her.
Maybe that explains the boxes I found in the garage with nothing but Roanoke scrawled across them.
When spring came I was delighted to see Edna’s lilacs and day lilies blooming around my property. And for the first time I noticed a large boulder set just at the edge of an orderly patch of iris. It was painted white with a fading but discernible red heart in the middle. How could I have missed that? It was clearly visible from the window above the sink. Did Edna and Joe paint it together? I pictured them watching the sun rise over the rock from the east facing window – she tall, elderly and stately, he young and slender, smiling serenely, his shirt exposing a bare patch of chest like the garden Buddha. Does the painted rock commemorate their love for each other? For this house that they built, the gardens they planted? Is it a memorial?
I occasionally Googled Edna on days I was going down the Internet rabbit hole. One day I got a hit. A short obituary. It was dated 2007. August 12, the date of my deceased father’s birthday. Edna Eterno passed away in Roanoke, Virginia; preceded in death by her husband Joseph. She was a beloved sister and aunt. A Mass of the Resurrection was celebrated in her honor. She was gone but not forgotten. Not in Roanoke and not in the Catskills.
Little by little I replaced Edna’s furniture with my own tables and dressers and couches. I filled the garage with my own pile of useless and worn out things. Edna’s house is my house now. But sometimes when the wind blows she comes back to find Joe and they dance with the family who lives on the roof. And some nights when the wind blows particularly hard she lets herself in. She reminds me that when I’m gone all I’ll really leave behind is a collection of objects and papers and stories told by strangers. But if I’m lucky something lasting might endure. Something heavy and solid, with a flaming red heart at its center.