Matiere Opaque : Ghost Stories Greeley's Rancho Arcana

It's Your Special Day

Sunday, November 24, 1985

Santa Monica, California

It's a drizzly overcast day in West Los Angeles; for me, the kind of day best given over to aimless wandering and reflection, and I'm in the mood for something from the past. I could go to the library and check out some history books ... or maybe I should just go full potato and rent a couple of old movies ... Casablanca? ... Touch of Evil? ... The Big Sleep?

Naw; I need to get out and do something physical. Hmm. Olvera Street seems too far; don't want to deal with traffic or the parking. Hiking in the canyons is out of the question. Too wet. Museums? None come to mind that I haven't seen recently.

Ah. Here's an ad in the paper for the antique show at the Santa Monica Civic. I saw a few of these when I worked there and the shows are always a good deal. That's a plan. Get out of the house, walk around, and muse over dead people's stuff. Don't know exactly what I'll find, but it should be interesting. A snipe hunt.

Off to the show.

+ - + - +

At the entrance to the auditorium, a child-size doll with long brunette hair and Victorian garb is seated on a wooden horse.

There is something odd about that doll... I have an eerie feeling that I'm being watched.

Wait! Is it the doll? DO HER EYES FOLLOW YOU AROUND? (gasp!)

...Umm, no. Too bad. That would be quite a piece. I'd pay good money for such an item. Put it in a guest bedroom, if I had a guest bedroom, for entertaining my special guests, if I had any. No, the person watching me is a former co-worker and we chat a bit about the old days.

We also agree that the doll is just the thing for disciplining a headstrong Victorian child. "Here Violet; Father bought this in London just for you. Her name is Sateena. Isn't she just grand? Let's put her on the chair next to your bed. She'll keep away all the BAD THINGS while you sleep. Sweet dreams..."

Inside, the main hall is packed with the goods and sundries of another age, mostly Early Vampire. Black oak chairs and thick-legged tables, big enough to land small aircraft on or plan the invasion of Poland; swords and guns and medieval armor, tapestries, illuminated Latin manuscripts, hounds chasing foxes, statues, clocks, bells and whistles; everything a well-furnished castle requires. I'm going to need a bigger house.

You know, the last time I saw this show they didn't have all this Germanic stuff. They must have signed on some new dealers.

Over here is a collection of intricately carved walking canes. One has a duck's head for a knob; the entire cane carved from one piece of wood and worn smooth by long use.

In the next booth is a selection of quilts and shawls. One is casually draped over a rocking chair, suggesting that the owner just stepped away for a moment.

I spend about another hour wandering around. Wooden Indian here, apple-peeler there; washtub, roller-skates, buttons, boots. The show is something of a disappointment; there isn't anything else that really captures my eye or imagination. Well, it's not too late to go rent a few movies.

On my way out I stop near the concession stand in the lobby, where another dealer has set up a collection of postcards, old photos, and other ephemera priced to sell. Stuff to catch the impulse buyer before they leave, just like the little things at the grocer's checkstand. Occasionally you can find something interesting here and it only costs a couple of bucks.

Lying on top of a nearby box is an old birthday card, and I keep looking back at it while I'm pawing through another box of old photos. I finally stop to pick it up and examine it more closely. Nice work. Good color and quality. But a bit too flowery for me. It's cheap and I'm inclined to buy it; but who would I buy it for? I know few who'd appreciate it and it wouldn't have any place in my home. Probably just end up in a drawer. Eh.

Time to go rent some movies and head home.

I'm driving back to West Los Angeles up Pico Boulevard and Woodlawn Cemetery is fast approaching on the left. Purely on impulse, I make a left on 14th, pull into the old part of the cemetery, and slowly drive toward the mausoleum, idly looking at the stones. A minor detour. I'll make a loop and get back on Pico in a few minutes.

+ - + - +

I find cemeteries fascinating, but not in a morbid way. Cemeteries and monuments always tell far more about the living than the dead, and more about society than the individual.

Names, dates, status, gender; the words on a stone marking an individual life lose their meaning over time as friends and family eventually disappear, leaving no one to tell what these words really meant. But the stones themselves can sometimes tell a curious stranger something about an entire world now hidden from view.

Size, location, materials, decoration; these kinds of things lay plain the thoughts, wishes and fears of the living at a particular point in time; a telegraph message from a fading past, addressed to an imaginary future. Subject: Immortality.

Put another way, cemeteries connect one shadow world to another.

+ - + - +

I have a few relatives here at Woodlawn, including my paternal great-grandmother Lizzie, born in Austria. She passed away when I was eleven years old.

I have only the vaguest recollection of her. She lived in an old cabin against a hill on Beverly Glen Drive up in the Santa Monica Mountains. Her tiny home was striking in its modesty and simplicity, as it was surrounded on all sides by larger, newer, and far more expensive homes. I believe she and her husband had lived there a long time, before all the development came to the canyon. She was living there alone by the time I was born, as her husband had passed away in 1957.

The primary memory I have of her is of her sitting in a chair with a quilt on her knees, her knotted hands folded, speaking to me with a soft, otherworldly accent while I played on the floor at her feet with her collection of walking canes. Though I was only five or six years old I remember this clearly because she was the first person I'd met who owned a cane. Some of her canes were plain and simple, others were ornately carved for show. Most if not all of these belonged to her husband.

Her home was small, tidy, warm, somber yet comfortable, a cocoon. I do not remember her being particularly affectionate or warm, but I do remember the hug she gave me when it was time to go and I remember her telling me something to the effect that I would grow up to be a strong and just man. No other visit stands out, though there must have been more, perhaps when I was even younger, for I was told by others that she was very fond of me. She loved my eyes and hair. She also apparently never forgot my birthday.

+ - + - +

Thinking of her, I decide to pay her a visit. I've only been there once before but I think I can find her grave. I pull over near the mausoleum, get out, and begin to wander about on the northwest side of the building, looking for her marker. A light rain is falling and all is gray and green, quiet and peaceful. I'm the only one here today.

After about fifteen minutes, I find her marker, next to her husband, and stop to think about her little home in the canyon, her fairytale accent and old world ways.

And I read the dates on her marker.

Today is her 100th birthday.


+ - + - +


So was there anything supernatural about the timing of my visit? No. The odds are only 1 in 365, not counting leap years, that I would just happen to pick her birthday to pay a visit. Far better than playing the lottery. And the fact that it was her 100th birthday? Well, numerically speaking, 100 is no more significant than 99, 98, or 101, 102. A number is just a counting tool, no matter its value. Only the mind adds significance.

And the impulse to turn into the cemetery?

Perhaps the goods at the antique show subconsciously triggered thoughts of my great-grandmother that began to nudge my consciousness as I was about to pass the cemetery. However, (1) I saw lots of other things at the show that had no conceivable connection to my memory of her, such as the scary doll I threw in here just for fun, and (2) I wasn't actually thinking of her when I turned to go into the cemetery. In fact, I hadn't thought of her in years. It was only when I approached the mausoleum that I did think of her and decide to stop.

Or perhaps I unconsciously knew it was her birthday, having visited her gravesite once before. I would have read the date on the marker on that first visit. Even though that occurred four years prior, and only for a brief moment, some say that the mind forgets nothing. However, the people who believe in this sort of retention and recall have apparently never encountered the organization of a mind such as mine, which, when I'm in wander mode, resembles a crowded pinball arcade, not a file room decorated with calendars.

Or maybe it's all just a simple coincidence. It happens. That's why we have the word (I can see Billy Occam nodding his head in agreement here).

And yes, I did wish her a happy birthday just the same. In this case, the messenger may be suspect, but not the message.

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