Grandma died, and Grandpa mourned. “There goes the center of everything,” he said. Granddaughter Heather wept silent tears. Uncle Jim fell to his knees and cried, "No! No! No!" A prominent townsperson lamented, "She was the last of the perfect little ladies.” It seemed the whole town turned out for Grandma’s funeral, overflowing the church.
For seventy-three years, she had lived with a heart full of love, never dwelling on personal hardships, but finding the silver lining behind life’s clouds. The door to her house was always open, and her table always had room for one more.
She met Grandpa when she came west to visit relatives. He brought her to his ranch as a bride, and she was lady of the house they built on a knoll at the far end of a stream laced valley. Some said it was constructed over the site of an old Indian campground, though no one knew for sure. But, when it was very quiet, and they were alone in the house, they sometimes heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps crossing the upstairs bedrooms.
She created a garden full of beautiful roses and planted trees that grew into magnificent giants that provided shade from summer’s heat. She turned nature’s gifts from her orchard into delicious jams and preserves.
Four children called the house ‘home’ - two boys and two girls. They grew up, married, and moved away to raise their own families, except Uncle Jim, who considered the house his real home. He brought his bride, Aunt Carole, to live there while their home was built a mile down the road.
Granddaughter Heather’s most cherished memories were formed at Grandma’s house. It was a two-story home with a large downstairs living room dominated by a massive granite fireplace. Every Christmas Eve, Heather and her cousins hung their stockings from its mantle and speculated about what Santa might bring.
On cold winter nights, the grandchildren raced upstairs and shivered between the sheets until their bodies warmed their beds. A large lion stared at them from a tapestry hung on one bedroom wall scaring the younger ones before they fell asleep. On warm summer nights, the sounds of hooting owls, rustling leaves, howling coyotes, and other strange noises drifted through open bedroom windows, sounds more intriguing than scary.
In late afternoons, everyone assembled in the breakfast room for coffee and conversation, forging deep ties as the adults told tales from the family's history.
During summer vacations, Heather and her cousins caught polliwogs in the streams, rode horses, and swam in the pool by the house. Sometimes they went on long hikes, but the best walks were early morning ones when tracks of wild animals heard during the night were still fresh.
"I have fun with my friends at home,” Heather told her cousin, Alice, as they were growing up. “But the best times are when we get together at Grandma's."
"I know," Alice said and, after a moment, added, "Sometimes I feel sorry for kids who don't have a place like this to go to."
Gray hair framed a face lined with age in Grandma’s later years, yet she seemed ageless to those who loved her.
And then she died.
Grandpa tried to remain in the house, but he said, “The house! It seems to echo. I can't stay here without her." He moved down the road to live with Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole. But without Grandma, the ranch lost its meaning, and he moved to live with his daughter in the city.
The house was dark, cold, and alone as if waiting for Grandma’s return. Most of its furnishings remained as Grandma had placed them, but her garden gradually faded and died. Only the majestic trees she had planted as saplings maintained their silent guard.
Whenever Heather visited Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole, she was drawn up the road to revisit the house of her childhood memories. Deciding it would be an excellent place to live while going to college, she moved in, swept out the dust, and revived the garden.
School started, and Heather plunged into her studies with zest. Living in Grandma’s house was the perfect plan. But, as she studied in the silence of the house, she sensed an echo in its isolation. She felt restless, even distracted. One afternoon, she heard footsteps crossing an upstairs bedroom and remembered the rumors of an old Indian campground. Were the stories true? Could that be the soul of a lost Indian searching for its camp?
Then one night, Grandma came back while Heather dreamed. She was thrilled to find her grandmother in the kitchen, making her special donuts. They talked happily and agreed her absence had been a terrible mistake.
"You should not have gone," Heather told her. "The family is not the same without you. Please stay."
When Grandma returned the next night, Grandpa came too, followed by all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a family reunion in the best tradition of years past, and the house was bright, cheery, and full of love again.
But when she appeared on the third night, she came alone except for a dark shadowy presence Heather observed in a corner of the room, an apparition neither male nor female. Soon Grandma was back every night, the spectral being always lurking nearby.
The unspoken words invaded Heather’s mind. With a shock, she realized the stalking phantom was Death waiting to reclaim Grandma. Shuddering in horror, she turned to face and challenge the dark menace. She had to deny Death’s claim.
"Stop!" Heather demanded. "Leave her alone. She doesn't belong to you. She’s ours." Every night she fought to save Grandma, inserting herself between Grandma and Death to obstruct Death’s path. It required Heather’s constant vigilance because Death was tenacious and never far away. In desperation, she lunged out and grabbed the dark phantom only to find her hands held nothing. Every morning Grandma was gone, and every night she returned.
The battles exhausted Heather. She managed to keep Death at bay, but she couldn’t defeat it, and the fight drained her. Fatigue set in. She tried napping during the day; the naps were battle-free, but it was not enough. Discussing her desperate situation with Uncle Jim was to no avail. Night after night, Heather struggled to save Grandma. Finally, she fled in exhaustion from the house and its haunted memories.
Once again, the house was silent, alone, and cold. Gradually the family removed Grandma’s items, dividing the various keepsakes. Yet when Heather visited Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole, she was invariably drawn up the road to see the house once more and remember one so dearly loved. At last, she realized the future belonged to her, and the past could never be reborn.
Uncle Jim eventually rented the house to a woman with four children. It completely changed the house. The woman was small, the mother of two boys and two girls, like Grandma, but she had a mean temper and spread hate and ill will. Yet the house still beckoned Uncle Jim, and he regularly visited its new tenant. He sat at her kitchen table and talked as he once had with his mother, conversations now punctuated with vulgarities.
"Imagine," said his sister to Aunt Carole, "that woman up there in my mother's house! What's wrong with my brother?"
The family began avoiding Uncle Jim as resentment of the imposter grew. She was unworthy of living in Grandma's house, and she interfered with their freedom to visit it. She was a trespasser. The house belonged to the family. Outsiders were not welcome.
A breach opened between Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole as he spent more and more time at Grandma's house. Its occupant had become a symbol for his past he could not resist. When Aunt Carole could no longer tolerate the betrayal, she also fled, and the woman left the house to move in with Uncle Jim.
The house no longer called to the family. It had ceased to contain Grandma's spirit. It had been defiled. Over time, a violent storm blew down one of the great trees, ripping large branches from nearby trees and crushing the front porch as it fell. Small animals and birds moved in through the broken windows. A crack widened between the house and granite chimney, and debris blew in with the wind. The chimney finally toppled, littering the ground with granite blocks. Snakes and lizards slithered in to take up residence among the wreckage.
Heather doesn’t visit Grandma's house anymore. Its naked remains stand stark, bleak, and exposed to the battering elements. Uncle Jim still lives down the road, but, like Grandma's house, he too is alone. The other woman left him, perhaps moving on to greener pastures, and no one knows what happened to Aunt Carole. Uncle Jim is quietly living out his years just a mile from a skeleton that haunts his past.
The old Indian campground's spirits are free at last to reclaim their land.