Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Poetry

More Ghostly Than a Ghost

First Cup of Coffee Our youngest grandson came by yesterday. A junior in college, he towers over us and has a beard and moustache! But we can’t stop thinking of him as a tiny kid trying hard to teach Mary how to play Pokemon. This double vision is confusing.

Front parlor, Merchant's House
Front parlor, Merchant’s House Museum, New York City.  Photo by Patrick Blanc


It can be felt but not by hands
And though it has an outside and within,
it has no weight or skin.
I’ve seen it, but it’s never seen.
And never will its presence be announced
by bells or blinking lights on a machine.
It tells the truth; it lies; it prophesies,
but doesn’t make a sound.
Forever lost, it can be found
in flavors, textures, scents, and melodies,
in empty rooms, in photographs, in stones.
It isn’t air, but it is everywhere,
which is to say it isn’t anywhere.
It’s changing constantly but can’t be changed,
is part of me but is apart from me.
It haunts me, so it’s like a ghost,
But it is also like a place I go
like a ghost, invisibly, to visit.
So much for what it’s like and isn’t.
What is it?
Answer: The past.
From Flying Backward, A Memoir in Verse


I usually manage to ignore the passage of time, but then I see my face in the mirror or have to adjust to a sudden “hitch in my gitalong.”

Then I know I am older than I used to be, but I also know the past still exists. How is this possible? It’s gone but it’s not. And the future’s yet to come but it depends on the past. As for the present—I notice it only at the moment it has just passed into the past!

One of the spookiest things about the past is the way we can feel it—or can feel like we’ve wandered into it. This “sensation” isn’t really “a sensation,” since “the past” doesn’t exist. It has no substance shape or scent. It’s more ghostly than a ghost. We can feel it, though. It’s like an idea. They don’t exist, either, but we have them.

The historian Johan Huizinga has had the sensation of feeling himself in the past. He says it is “an almost (do not laugh) ecstatic perception of no longer being myself, of flowing into the world around me, touching the essence of things, experiencing Truth through history.” He compares it to the feeling of understanding we sometimes get when listening to music.

The first time we visited The Old Merchant’s House Museum, Mary had an experience like that. I thought the place was interesting. Mary’s response was more intense. I’ll let her tell about it.


Mary: That’s right. At first glance I was moved in a mysterious way by the Merchant’s House. It is rather unique among historic house museums in that almost all of the objects in the house— the furniture, the decorative arts, the utilitarian objects— belonged to the family who lived there for almost 100 years and date to around mid 19thcentury. Even the carpet and the curtains are exact reproductions of the originals.

On that first visit I felt like I was entering a past that lay just beyond what I could remember of my grandmother and her house when I was a small child.

As soon as I could, I volunteered my services and spent the next 20 years moving about that house and the Tredwell family’s belongings, learning about the family, the neighbors, and the historical period in which they all lived. And I gradually came to a realization of how important the past is in our lives. We do not emerge fully formed from the cabbage patch. We’re born into history and influenced in ways we cannot even comprehend by what went before.

2 thoughts on “More Ghostly Than a Ghost

  1. I love the poem. In my own past I feel like a stranger most of the time. I look at my son and I do not see the baby or the toddler. But I am reminded of that little guy by a phrase or picture. I remember thinking as a youngish mother how sad raising a child can seem. They change so quickly that every moment is a goodbye. Of course then there is the hello to the new. Who the heck is that man with the beard that showed up for a visit a couple days ago? I have had the great fortune of living in the past on stage. That is what being an actor is. I carry the character’s memories and essence around with me. So along with my sketchy memories of my real past, I have memories of my time in Edwardian England and Revolutionary France and my Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn and on and on. Isn’t that strange? Mostly it is really, really fun.


    1. Yes! parenting is hard—a continual letting go. But you’re right; the new is exciting. I love what you say about acting. Not many careers that offer this kind of benefit!


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