The Ghost in the Kitchen
Posted on March 30, 2011
I am making a sweet potato pie when I first notice that it’s gone. I don’t eat sweet potato pie but I do like to introduce my husband Robin’s British-Australian mouth and stomach to foods from my Texas childhood and this certainly qualifies. So I am rustling through the utensil drawer and sure enough, another one’s gone AWOL. This time, it’s the fruit and veg peeler. In about fifteen minutes, I will discover that my little steamer basket has gone with it. This began last week, when my kitchen accessories apparently organised a silent revolution and incremental exodus, led by the salad tongs. This is disturbing, in an intangible way. I mean, they are cheap items and it’s not as if I can’t buy replacements tomorrow but they are things that I make use of and count upon on a daily basis.
It’s a bit like arriving at work to find that people you never really thought about before, but whom you counted upon to perform various duties, have been cut from the office budget; they are suddenly more loudly noticeable in their absence than they ever were in their understated presence. Sadly, your parking tickets are no longer processed by a person who says hello and goodbye in the harsh concrete lot. Instead, you interact with a machine that never recognises you from one day to the next and that is indifferent to your complaints if it fails to work properly. Or, the rubbish builds up in your office, in the bin and on the floor, along with the dust, because someone forgot to tell you that the cleaner comes only twice a week now. Like these workers who perform many of the transactions that support our daily lives, the tongs, the steamer basket and the peeler were each helpful and steadfast in their service, until their recent, inexplicable disappearance.
A reasonable reader might ask why I would not consider several other viable alternatives before reaching a ghostly conclusion. Well, here are the options I mulled over before deciding that none of them could solve the mystery.
Option One: someone in my home has taken my utensils. Well, that would point the finger directly at Robin, and for a whole slew of reasons, he is the last person I would suspect (well, that’s not true, maybe our prime minister or somebody like that would be the *last* but you get my point). Like most couples who have been married for a while, my husband and I have our household roles and territories clearly defined. The kitchen is one of my areas of operation, as the ground-level tool shed is his. We don’t encroach. He would no more remove one of my tools than I his, not without asking and probably not at all. We are both respectful of the facts as they stand: without my cooking accessories, his meals may suffer and without his tools, things may not get repaired around the house and garden. We are both reasonable enough to understand how our own lives are kept happily afloat with this arrangement. Besides, he is no practical joker and he is as confused about these tiny losses as me. He has scrabbled heroically and repeatedly through cupboards and drawers and Tupperware on high shelves, trying to locate these things so that I can get on with cooking supper.
Option Two: would normally be other people, but last I looked, we were the only two people who lived here. We have no children and no pets to remove things from their usual more-or-less organised and categorical storage places; however, we are beginning to toy with …
Option Three: we have adopted a ghost. Robin is true to his culture, as reflected in his British reserve and calm (i.e. he is not given to bouts of hysteria like me). About a week ago, he exited our bedroom to say that a toy ball we keep on a shelf in there was flashing, of its own volition, and that he could not figure it out. Now, he is an electronics guru, so if he cannot figure that out, that means something. The ball has been lodged there for years with never a sparkle from it. Under normal conditions, it takes a fair bounce against our wood floors to animate it. Even shaking it in your hand won’t do the trick.
I am not saying that these events add up to anything on par with the Amityville Horror or seeing dead people, but it is at least a step up from the great mystery of the Universe that every adult grapples with in the existential abyss of three a.m.: the question of where all the missing socks go.
Now here’s the really disturbing part …
Truth be told, for months now, I have been harbouring thoughts (only half-formed and soon forgotten) that I need some new things for the kitchen: that the old tongs are a bit too hard to scrub clean, that the steamer basket is missing bits and has gone wonky, and that the veg peeler has forever been inadequate and could use an upgrade. Like most people who are not serious chefs or die-hard foodies, though, I don’t ever think about my cooking and serving utensils until the very moment I need to use one. I have never taken time to reflect upon their utilitarian goodness and to miss them, until now, when I am regretting having entertained unkind thoughts about them, including coldly planning their demise while making use of them.
And so I come to the next option …
Option Four: I am the ghost of the kitchen. My unconscious mind has acted on my wicked intentions to do away with these innocent objects, while I sleep. For, short of the walking dead haunting my home in a tragically uninspired manner, it occurs to me that the most obvious suspect in this domestic mystery is *me.* Since childhood, I have remained a bit wary of my sleeping self, like it’s some other me that I don’t really know or understand and which kind of scares me. As a child and adolescent, I was a serious sleepwalker, given to rather infrequent but intense bouts of somnambulism.
In my youth, as now, I was also a wildly vivid dreamer and would often wake in fright from nightmares. Like many or even most people’s sleeping brains, mine is a chaotic toddler, rushing around and loudly banging into walls, totally out of control since all the higher management functions that act as parent figures have shut down for the night and are likely relaxing over cocktails and cigarettes. This is fine as long as I can’t move. It’s not so great if I am ambulatory, for obvious reasons.
Robin says that he is certain that I never sleep walk because he would have seen me doing this and he has not. However, I am not so sure he would recognise the difference between an awake me and a sleepwalking me getting up during the night and staggering off to the bathroom. Also, as a sleepwalker, I am reportedly a crashing bore, prone to insignificant though potentially symbolic acts of dull ritual. Eyewitnesses to these events used to tell me that they didn’t wake me because they were curious to see what I would do.
I guess they were hoping for some kind of circus tricks or a dancing bear act, but it inevitably turned out that my actions were disappointing to them – trifling and meaningless like a crap surrealist film with no dialogue. I carried out the most mundane of activities in the course of my night time wanderings, such as picking up carefully selected items off the floor and returning them to a particular table or shelf, or simply walking around for awhile staring unseeingly but intensely at my surroundings before returning to my bed. Only occasionally would I do something daring like try to leave through the front door.
So, if I were going to create a hypothetical profile of our suspect in The Case of the Missing Things (yes, actually, I did grow up on Nancy Drew), I would have to admit that, at least circumstantially, I seem to have both motive and method. Firstly, it is clear that these were never my favourite utensils and that their days were numbered. Secondly, I have a known history as a sleepwalker who carries out tedious, forgettable tasks. And you know, I find that idea to be far spookier than the possibility of an actual ghost: this imagined midnight vision of myself, sound asleep, wandering blindly into the kitchen in pyjamas to choose another cheap sacrifice from the drawer and then, either hiding it from my conscious self or … what? Where are they being kept? What is their final resting place? So far, we’ve found no bodies buried in garbage bins or the back garden.
But then, as I was pondering all this, it came to me as clear and true as the tinkling bells of angels getting wings …
We rent our home. It is a lovely, rambling place with plenty of big windows through which the morning sun pours. Our back terrace looks out over a rambling English and Australian mixed garden, that was both planted and devotedly tended for forty years by the woman of the family who once lived here, whom I will call Abigail. The house was built in 1969 from a design by the owners in collaboration with their chosen architect. Like the garden, it was a true labour of love. The couple settled in for several decades, had children and did all the usual things people do until, one-by-one, the kids grew up and moved away. By this time, Abigail and her husband were getting well on in years and eventually, he died first and she was left on her own. She was coping just fine and thriving into her 80s, still faithfully tending her home and garden, until an accident several years ago meant that it was no longer possible for her to remain in this big house on her own. Abigail was moved to a local aged-care community, only a few blocks away, where she was well-liked, well cared-for and basically content.
When Robin and I relocated to this neighbourhood five years ago, the house had just been purchased by an investor who was not, himself, interested in living here but chose to lease it out. We became curious about Abigail, the house she had built, the garden she had tended and how she was doing in her new home. Also, we continued to collect bits of her mail, which eventually gave us an excuse to contact her and invite her to spend an evening with us at her old house. She was very pleased to receive this invitation and we enjoyed a quiet and congenial supper together, getting to know one another.
Secretly, though, I was glad when night began to fall, shrouding the views of the garden, which I realise looks shabby and unkempt compared to when she was its keeper. At that time, we were under considerable drought stress that was killing off trees at an alarming rate. Also, it is a fact that neither of us is the master gardener she was, nor do we have the time to cultivate that level of attention to our plants and trees. As my husband drove Abigail back to her new home, she repeatedly told him how “marvellous” she thought we were for thinking of her and, most especially, for genuinely appreciating the unique qualities of the home she loved.
On February 2 this year, Abigail died. But my “eureka!” moment came only today. Until the past few weeks, we had never had anything disappear or any of our inanimate objects lighting up as if to say “Hello, people!” While I can’t prove this, I now suspect it must be Abigail, rather than my own sleeping self, who is playing harmless spirit-tricks. Perhaps, in her subtle way, she is letting me know that I really do need better kitchen equipment and that, while I am living under her roof, she expects certain standards to be maintained.
It makes sense, I think, that she should be staying here, at least for a while, post her demise. After all, she loved this house and she never wanted to leave in the first place. No one can tell her now that she is in no shape to live here and has to move out. And anyway, she’s not on her own, since we are here, too. I could imagine her pulling such small pranks as these, even just to say “I’m here” but as she was a kind soul, she would never do anything to terrorise us or try to scare us away. Will she continue to waft about or eventually move on to her ultimate destination? That is not for me to say, but as it has only been about six weeks since her death, one might assume she needs a bit more time to adjust to the enormous change of being rendered incorporeal.
I am happier with this explanation of the Missing Things than with any of the others, so the Abigail-is-living-with-us-now resolution is the one I am going to settle with. Now, I have to figure out if there’s a way to communicate with her, short of buying a Ouija board from Kmart, of which she’d probably disapprove anyway. I would like to suggest some ideas to her, such as a good and thorough haunting of the garden, where she could get some much-needed weeding done and maybe sort out the problem with the leaf mould. This relocation to the outdoors would have the added benefit of distracting her from the kitchen, thereby saving my husband and me the time and expense incurred by disappearing utensils. As far as I know, ghosts can read, so I might leave her a note to ask that she stay away from the blender because it was a special order from the U.S. that is not easily replaced.