Monday, September 7, 2015

Reunion Stories

Iowa is cold in May.  

50 of my extended family members, all mostly descended from my grandma's family of 13, visited tiny Percival for the second Monaghan family reunion.  The first was in 1959.

The farmhouse is still in our family, although it's decayed in the ten years since we saw it last.  It's one of those things you just can't think about, because you can't do anything about it.  It'll be ok, but it's not the showpiece it once was.  Some of the siding is rotting and one of the porch columns has been replaced by some kind of...jack.  

Circa 1915


It was very amusing for me to compare the branches of our family.  All of the Arizona people are dark, aggressive, funny, and a little scary.  My grandma moved to Phoenix in 1949 and two of her brothers soon followed.  Most of their children fit this bill, but none more than my grandma's four children.

In contrast, our midwestern family are all gentle, mild, religious, and peaceful individuals.  One of the cousins from Wisconsin said they were afraid of the Benz kids back in high school.  They were scary-looking, rude, and were still prone to fist-fighting in the living room.  My aunt threw knives at her brothers because she couldn't fight.  I always thought this was a funny lie my father told until he brought it up at a recent get together.  I looked to her for her denial - she only shrugged and said, "They deserved worse!"

My uncle got very drunk one night and missed the toilet in the bathroom the whole house shared.  My dad got up some time after this and became enraged when his bare foot met a puddle of cold urine.  He returned to the bedroom he shared with his brother, punched the sleeping boy in the face twice, and went back to bed.  His brother didn't even ask the next morning why his face was bloodied and his eye a little silver bag.  He just went with it.

Offensive jokes in the parlor
I love to freak my cousin out by recounting my morbid grandmother's tales of death in the house.  No house gets that old without a few grisly experiences.  The parlor we're sitting in held the body of my great-great grandfather Ed Monaghan, who entered the US illegally from Ireland, and worked on the railroads until he could bring his wife and child to Iowa.  They built a little house, and then built this house in 1895.  Their son married a girl from South Dakota and brought her to live in the home with his parents and sister, and over the next 20 years, she had 11 children.  They all lived to adulthood.

Ed's body lay in state in the parlor for a few days before he was buried in Nebraska City.  My dad made sure to tell my brother that the night he slept on the couch down there.

My great-aunt Julia died in the house during childbirth and she probably stayed a few days in the parlor, too.  Ed's wife Bridget died in there and doubtless lay in state as well.  These are practically ghost stories to us now, but death wasn't so intimidating back then.  It happened all the time.  When someone died, there wasn't a service to come haul the body off before you had to look at it like there is now.  You'd probably wash and dress the corpse yourself, then leave them in your front room for a few days in case anyone wanted to see it before it went in the ground.  No big deal.

The overture screen from Gone with the Wind?  No.  My great-grandma's porch.
My skepticism grows as I age and I can't even pretend to believe all the paranormal shit that I at least cautiously considered in the past.  Still, I think the house is a little disturbed.  I've slept there several times and each time has been less restful than the last.

It's the only place where I've ever woken up screaming in the middle of the night.  It was a setting of pure gothic horror: a lone Victorian house in the middle of an empty stretch of middle America.  A violent electrical storm with tree branches beating at the windows of the tiny upstairs bedroom I slept in.  A dream of a creature or spirit advancing upon me in the dark and a scream when it finally arrives at the bed.  

An old black walnut mirror sits on a shelf in my bedroom now.  It's from the farmhouse, some of the original set of furniture purchased by my great-great grandparents in 1895 for their fancy new house. The wood is chipped and splintering now and the glass is speckled and cloudy.  One of the few superstitions I allow myself is an aversion to keeping mirrors in the bedroom.  I don't like catching a reflection in the dark, and I guess that's one old Irish widow's tale that stuck with me - I don't want them in there.  But this one is, and it's ok.  I like to think of the faces that have looked into it and imagine the glass remembers them and could show them again.  That's not really reducing the creepiness of having a mirror in the bedroom, but ancestral ghosts don't seem so scary.


Nick said...

Late to the party on this one, but the last picture is fantastic.

Initials BB said...

Thanks, bro!