My aunt Idella was an unusually beautiful woman, winning state beauty pageants and drawing the attention of many men. She eventually married a man she had known most of her life and they were happy for a time. However, the man grew increasingly jealous of the looks his very attractive wife received and he accused Idella of deliberately inviting attention. He began drinking heavily and his drunken rages were directed towards Idella. After suffering several beatings, Idella left the man and divorced him (something rarely done in those days.) In time,Idella remarried and the man died from his alcoholism.
Idella married a foreign diplomat and had the glittery life of high society and money, but she kept a house in her former neighborhood. I remember visiting her there. It was so much fun to try on her fur coats and jewelry, and I loved playing with her baby grand piano. She never had any children, so I became the recipient of her attention with designer dresses and a rabbit fur coat similar to her mink. A brutal attack during a break-in at her home in Washington had rendered her deaf and I communicated through sign language that she taught me. Eventually, Idella developed cancer and died, but I never forgot her beauty or her sense of class.
When I was about nine years old, my Granny’s brother, Jerry, arrived at the house carrying boxes with old books and mementos from their childhood home. He explained that he had divided the belongings among the surviving siblings. My Granny enjoyed the flipping through the photos and horn books from her youth. She and her siblings reminisced about growing up and swapped some of their treasures so that each had the things that held the greatest sentiment to them.
A few months passed when Granny received a call from one of her sisters named Ruth. Her sister asked if Granny wanted a portrait that she had been given by their brother. Granny was puzzled but told her that she would take it. Ruth immediately brought it over. Granny and Ruth had a private conversation about the picture, then she left our house. Granny carried the portrait to the top of the stairs and sat it on a bureau.
When she came downstairs, I asked her about it. She told me that it was a picture of Idella and her first husband. I was surprised, because I had never known Idella had been married twice. She said they didn’t speak of the man because he was a mean drunk who abused Idella. I asked why we received the portrait and Granny told me, “Because no one else wanted it.”
I went upstairs and looked at the black and white picture. I easily identified Idella with her bright smile and perfectly done hair and makeup. It was cold when the photo was taken; Idella wore a long pea coat and her husband had a scarf. I looked closely at the man. He had a tight smile and unfriendly eyes. In his right hand he was clutching a bottle of liquor.
Weeks went by, and I began to notice strange noises at night like footsteps walking around. At first I thought it was simply Granny and Pap walking around downstairs, but I realized the noise was upstairs with me in the hallway outside my room. Granny left the hall light on as a night light, the single naked bulb protruding from the ceiling. My door was always opened, with the light spilling into my room.
One night as I lay in bed, I heard the footsteps. I rolled over and looked in my doorway, expecting to see Granny going to� bed. To my sheer terror, a huge masculine-shaped shadow filled my entire doorway. I hid under the covers and cried out for Granny. She came to my room to find me crying about the shadow man but saw nothing herself.
Several nights passed and I was so scared that I tore my sheets off my bed trying to hide.� Granny eventually took safety pins and pinned the sheets to the mattress.� She kept asking why I pulled at them and I told her the simple truth. There was someone watching me at night.� Granny soothed me, but some nights I was so afraid that I slept with her.
I began to ask again about the portrait. Granny sat me down in the kitchen and told me that the picture had been given to her oldest brother. They had the picture for several months when they noticed unusual noises in their house at night. After a series of “strange things” had happened in their house, his wife believed it was the fault of the picture and she insisted they get rid of it immediately. They gave it to Ruth and their house returned to normal. (I never found out what strange things happened.)
Ruth kept the picture for a month or so. During that time, she and her husband heard footsteps in their house. After speaking to the brother, they also believed it was the work of the portrait. That is when it was passed to Granny. Granny admitted that she had spoken to more of her siblings and found that the portrait had made it through four households, not two, before it came to ours. She told me, “They all say it’s haunted, but I don’t know about that.”
The footsteps and noises continued, though I never saw the shadow man again. The portrait remained in its spot until my Granny’s death, and it was one of the first things I took down after her funeral. I don’t know where the portrait ever ended up; I never saw it again. Sometimes I think about it and wonder if someone is walking the halls of a new home or if they have at last found peace.