Op-ed column: Departed residents still remain a haunting presence in an old home

She died in the fall of the year, late October when most of the trees had already undressed for the
M. Ryder/Tribune Media
M. Ryder/Tribune Media

She died in the fall of the year, late October when most of the trees had already undressed for the winter and the deer were nosing around in the grass under the apple trees behind the house, sniffing out the remaining drops. She was only 7 years old — 7 years, 2 months and 23 days — according to her headstone. Her name was Margret Ide, and her family buried her behind what is now our house.

The real estate agent never told us we were purchasing several corpses along with the house and 10 acres, the remnants of a farm. It didn’t matter, though, because we would have purchased the place anyway.

Finding headstones

Terry found the graves. He likes to poke around old properties, and he found them while taking a brief break from painting the house. By comparing the different pieces of broken headstones, I determined there were at least seven people buried there. Reflecting an old Christian tradition, the dead were buried with their faces up, feet pointing east, so they could see the second coming of Jesus while being resurrected.

Margret’s headstone is the only complete one, although it is broken in two. Between Google and the county archives, I hoped to learn more about Margret, but all I found is what I already knew from her stone — her parents were John and Elisabeth and she died on Oct. 28, 1835.

The locals say that our house is haunted. Maybe, but not in the way they think. I’ve been dealing with ghosts for years. I often feel their presence when I am writing. My parents sometimes peer over my shoulder to see what I am writing. I say, “Dad, I am only seven years younger than you now. You don’t have to approve or disapprove of what I do anymore.” And he takes my mother by the hand and leaves the room.

But this old post-and-beam house, built while we were Englishmen, not Americans, is haunted in another sense, haunted by history and by the many people who lived and died here. For the most part, it is a comforting haunting.

During the past snowstorm and cold snap, I thought of Clarissa Putman and the two years she lived here with her two little children and a servant. The house was not insulated and the two ravenous fireplaces let off more light than heat. There was no plumbing and the two women drew their water from a well in front of the house. The nearest neighbor was two miles down the road.

Jilted spirits

But what haunts the house more is the jilting of Clarissa. Clarissa was Sir John Johnson’s lover. He fathered two children by her and promised to marry her. But apparently Clarissa was just “any port in a storm,” because Johnson, son of Sir William Johnson, went on a trip to New York City and came back with socialite, Mary “Polly” Watts, as his bride.

Out of embarrassment, Clarissa fled to the other side of the Mohawk River and set up housekeeping. From the bluff above the river, she could see the three manorial estates across the river, homes of her usurper and would have been sister-in-laws, a bit of Jane Austen on the Mohawk River.

Tenant farmer

Until 1835 our place was a tenant farm. The first person who owned both the house and land together was an Irish woman, Mary McIntire. Since few women owned land in the 1800s and the Irish were considered barely better than blacks, Mary must have been one extraordinary woman.

Mary held onto the property for a long time. Then the house and land passed through a number of hands until we bought it in 2003, just in time to save it from the rain seeping through the roof, the prevailing west winds that had pushed the upper part three inches to the east, the carpenter ants in one of the white oak beams, mice and squirrels in the ceilings and walls and eastern milk snakes in the cellar.

But of all the people who lived and died here, Margret haunts me the most. She had little chance against the ravages of childhood diseases. As I sit writing this in the cold, unfinished, second floor sleeping loft, I wonder if she died in this room. Or did her parents move her downstairs, closer to the fire?

Having three children of my own, I can imagine their anxiety — hovering over her, cooling her brow with wet cloths, yet still having to take care of the livestock and daily chores, all the while getting ready for winter.

Autumn passing

Margret Ide died in the fall of the year, late October when the trees had already undressed for the winter. Geese were fleeing overhead. The cries of the boatmen could be heard, making their last trips of the season on the Erie at the foot of the hill.

Her parents buried her, with the preacher intoning, “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, yet shall he live.” And because they believed the words the preacher spoke, they lowered her into the ground, face up, making sure her feet pointed east.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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