I was a kid when my grandmother on my mom’s side passed away. We were out camping at the time, so word didn’t get to us until we returned from the trip. My mom was devastated. Her mother had choked on a chicken bone during a midnight snack, and Grandpa didn’t find her until the following morning.
Years passed and the tragedy faded. We made the move to California. I remember this part clearly, because we were still living in the duplex, before we ended up at the house with the pool. At least three or four years had passed.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, my dead grandmother arrives via parcel post.
I don’t remember a whole lot about this grandmother. She’s only a vague memory because she passed away while I was so young. Being that she was only 14 years older than my mom, she didn’t feel she was old enough to be called “Grandma” so I was instructed to call her “Nana.”
Nana and her husband, my mom’s stepfather — who for some reason they called “Spud” — were only occasional visitors. I mainly remember them from Christmas mornings. Grandpa Spud is especially vivid in my memory because of the year he dressed up as a convincing Santa and scared the holy crap out of me.
So, years later, Nana shows up at our duplex in California in a white box. She’d been cremated and these were her ashes. Obviously they didn’t wait this long to cremate her, but I’m at a loss for why it took so long for the ashes to reach us. I’d hate to think they’d been lost in the mail all that time.
The ashes arrived addressed to my father, because Nana’s will stipulated that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes spread via airplane over a specific forest in Oregon. My father, being a pilot with his own airplane, was the logical choice. They had all lived in the same area up in Oregon in the 1950’s, back when my dad was in the lumber business. I guess this forest was someplace dear to Nana; perhaps that’s where Spud had proposed to her. My father was familiar with the place. The idea of flying up there and taking care of Nana’s last wish wasn’t a problem. However, it wasn’t a priority either. After all, she was already years dead, and my father was a busy man.
Nana’s ashes, still securely sealed in the white cardboard box, sat around the house for a while. It would spend some time on the dining room table, or the coffee table in the living room. Or I’d occasionally see it sitting on the kitchen counter. Finally during a frenzy of housecleaning, Dad took the box and put it on a shelf in the garage. There it sat for quite some time.
It was after Dad put the white box in the garage that Mom started noticing weird things going on. She’d be cooking dinner, and have the oven set to a specific temperature. She’d turn away and take care of some other detail, and turn back to see the oven temperature knob was not where she’d set it. Puzzled, she’d set the knob back to the proper temperature, then later discovered someone moved it again. This was unsettling, especially since she was the only one in the kitchen the entire time.
Then Mom noticed that someone kept changing the temperature on the air conditioner. This also was odd because it was happening while my dad was at work and I was at school. There was no one else in the house.
These things had been going on for a while before Mom finally mentioned it. She didn’t seem frightened; she seemed bemused, almost comforted. It was familiar to her, because it was exactly the kind of things that would happen when Nana was around. Mom and Nana always argued about what temperature to set the stove or oven, and Nana always wanted it colder or warmer in the house than Mom did.
This talk of Nana’s ghost being in the house scared me, but I didn’t see any of these inconsistencies of temperature settings with my own eyes. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time. My toys weren’t moving around, and I wasn’t seeing anything strange. Nana wasn’t appearing to me in a doorway or anything like that. So I didn’t really believe it. It still gave me chills but it was fun to go along with it. Mom had always believed in ghosts. Ghosts were fun.
Being scared was fun.
This changed when our little dog, Taffy, started getting involved. Dad used to call used her “Ten pounds of love in a five pound package.” She really was a tiny little thing, but she thought she was a ferocious attack dog. Taffy had no fear, and she was on guard at all times to protect her family. She’d bark at the mailman, at other dogs and cats, and especially at visitors that she didn’t recognize.
Suddenly Taffy had begun to bark frantically at things that no one could see. Especially in the late evening, she’s suddenly start growling and barking for all she was worth at a corner in the dining room, or at a spot in the hallway. It didn’t seem to be that she was barking at something she heard or smelled, because she had her eyes fixed on a specific point and all her attention was right there, right in front of her. She was barking and snapping at thin air.
This is something I witnessed personally. It was very freaky. I remember that it even disturbed my Dad. “Taffy!” he’d say. “What the hell are you barking at? Taffy! Stop!” He’d have to bend down and pick her up, and carry her away from whatever had her so upset.
Finally, there was the time when my dad was gone on an extended business trip, and my mom and I were up late and watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We were sitting together on the couch, with Taffy at our feet, and Taffy started growling. By this time she’d gotten a lot less frantic about the whole thing, having become more familiar with whatever it was that upset her. She’d just stare and give a low warning growl.
On this night, she did more than just stare at a spot in front of her. Very slowly her head turned as she was growling, as if she were watching something cross the room from left to right. It was weird. I remember sliding over closer to my Mom. Taffy suddenly stood up, still tracking something with her eyes. She was pointing toward Dad’s rocking chair.
As we watched, and as Taffy continued to growl, the chair moved slightly. Just a little bit forward, and just a little bit back, like something was trying to rock in it. I remember the look on Mom’s face. She turned toward me to make sure I was seeing the same thing she was seeing.
I didn’t have to convince her to let me sleep in her and Dad’s bed that night. We slept with the lights on. As soon as my dad got home from the business trip, Mom told him that he needed to get Nana’s ashes spread over that Oregon forest.
He needed to do it now.
Dad agreed. He took me along as copilot. Back then he had a single-prop Cessna 192 and it took a while to fly all the way up to Oregon, but he navigated us via familiar landmarks to where we needed to be and then had me open the white box. Inside was a thick plastic bag. I’d expected the ashes to be white and powdery, like the ones in the fireplace, but they weren’t. They were strange flat chips colored black and gray. After all those years, there was Nana – and now, as I’m writing this, when I think about Nana this is all I can see. Not her face or her voice, but these strange looking ashes.
In an airplane, you can’t just crank down a window and toss something out. The only part of the window that opened was this little five-inch hatch, and when Dad reached across and flopped it open, the wind made an unbelievable wail and it was like a tornado had been let loose inside the cockpit. I had a hole cut in the plastic bag, and I shoved it up against the open window hatch as my dad dipped one wing low and circled. Most of Nana’s ashes made it out the window, but a good percentage of it swirled around us in the cockpit. I even got some in my mouth. My dad was yelling and the airplane bucked and jumped. The ashes stung my eyes.
There was a sudden THWAK, and the window sucked the last of the ashes out along with the plastic bag. I shut the little hatch, and continued spitting out ashes. Dad leveled the airplane, and after a few moments began laughing. We turned south and headed back home.
After that day, Taffy no longer barked at invisible things, and the air conditioner and oven ceased changing the settings on their own. That cinched it for Mom. For her there was absolutely no other explanation than it being the ghost of Nana haunting the duplex, waiting for us to fulfill her final wishes. I think my father was convinced, too.
If you think this was spooky, read this one: A Picture of a Ghost? >
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Books by Jerry