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January 30, 2023

My Father's Ghost

By Sand Pilarski

"Me and Layton started out to steal some pigeons..." my father began his tale.

Dad always changed the subject when I'd ask him why he and his best friend Layton felt the need to steal pigeons from some unspecified farmer's barn. Perhaps he didn't want to admit that pigeons were part of the family's menus back then in the tail end of the Great Depression. Or maybe he still didn't want the family who owned that farm to ever find out that they'd been targeted for teenaged burglary. Or maybe he just didn't want me to try and follow the same trail and wind up arrested for trespassing by following in her father's footsteps.

They left their houses around twilight and set off on the main path of The Meadow -- pronounced in that little Pennsylvania town as "Da Medda."

The Meadow was the playground of the older kids in town: too dangerous a venue for the under-nine crowd (copperheads and underground bumblebee nests as well as the nutcases that sometimes roamed around looking for child victims) but too uninteresting for the kids of dating age (poison ivy was too prevalent for romantic trysts, as were stinging nettles and briars, not to mention a mosquito poised on every leaf looking for a snack). But for those of the proper age and of adventurous stuff, The Meadow was jungle and haven, kids' "forts" built everywhere in the honeysuckle tangles. The main path was a regular highway for people on foot, for it ran, a few bare and worn feet wide from the west end of the light forest and stretched to the limestone quarry that operated about a mile away, and after the quarry, all the way to the farmlands outside of town.

In those days it was not uncommon for townsfolk to take their dogs and guns and hunt pheasant and rabbits in season in The Meadow; and in the summer, women would take buckets and pick wild black raspberries for homemade ice cream and pies. The Meadow wasn't a spooky place -- it was a continuation of the townspeople's streets and gardens.

Layton and my dad were just making use of the quickest way to get to the farm for their thievery.

In the green dim light under the trees, Dad and Layton saw a man coming up the path toward them, and they each stepped off into the weeds along the path to let the man and his dog go by. The man didn't even acknowledge them, and both boys turned and looked to see who the surly old codger was who was so discourteous. But there was no one within sight.

Dad and Layton cut and ran, forgetting their poultry larceny and returning home in fear, probably taking the north branch of the path that led quickly to the far more open wheatfields beside the forest.

Dad never forgot how frightened they were, seeing a ghost.


***

My parents bought that land many years later and converted it from forest into a nursery, selling azaleas and rhodedendrons and blue spruce and arborvita, and what had been the main path of The Meadow became a dirt road so that they could drive their truck or their tractor to the shrubs. It was after a day of working there that my father trudged back up the road to the street with our dog Raggs at his side.

She was a poodle-cocker-collie mix, with lots of spunk. She was smarter than you really want your dog to be, and had a great heart, ready to try anything you asked. Protective but not quite downright mean, she was a great animal to have around the house, and she adored Dad, and dogged his heels every chance she could. Dad loved her, and called her "Piggy" for reasons only known to himself.

Dad was thoughtful that night, and while he stroked Raggs' head as she panted beside him at the kitchen table, hoping that he would give her some of the cheddar cheese he ate as a snack in the evenings, he once again told the story of seeing the ghost in The Meadow while he was with Layton, ready to steal pigeons.

"I was thinking about that dog that was with the man we saw. It was walking beside him, just like ol' Piggy here walks with me. I remember that dog had long hair. It looked like her. She was walking with me this evening right at that same place me and Layton saw the ghost."

His blue eyes seemed a little haunted. "I think the man we saw was me."


***


My mother still owns that part of The Meadow, and it pains me to think that one day all too soon, a place in which my father haunted himself will pass into the hands of the city to build their new post office. Maybe someone will buy the property before the city can get hold of it and build a luxurious custom home with a pool and gorgeously landscaped gardens. And maybe some evening, when the new owners walk back from the mailbox to their house along the slope that used to be the main path, maybe they'll see an older man with a shaggy dog at his side.

I wish I could.

I miss you, Dad. -- Mes de los Muertos, 2003

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-11-08
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