One of the recurring memories I have of my childhood was the annual pilgrimage to Grand Marais, Minnesota, located on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
It was the place where my father grew up, along with three brothers and a sister, and where his parents had been born, lived, and eventually died.
The other memory, that his parents never came to visit us, we always had to go to them. That, and the fact my mother hated them, that animosity borne out of an event at their wedding that no one ever spoke about.
Not until a long, long time later, after my father had passed away.
We stopped going when I turned eighteen, though I don’t think that was the reason. Mt grandparents hadn’t died or gone anywhere, it was just the week before our pilgrimage was to begin, my father announced there would be no more visits.
You could see the relief on our mother’s face, much less ours because they were, to put it mildly, quirky. Steven, the youngest brother put it more succinctly, weird and creepy.
Perhaps it had been the house, a large sprawling two-story mansion that had been added to over the years, and reputed to have thirteen bedrooms. Thirteen.
They had a butler, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and several housemaids. Odd, because I got the impression my grandfather didn’t work, and yet they were, reputedly, very wealthy. Equally odd, then, that wealth didn’t extend to my father.
Which, in the final analysis, was probably the reason why we stopped going. He had been cut out of the will.
Of course, none of this would have reached my consciousness if I had not received an email from one of the sones of my fathers, brother, and uncle who had never visited us, I’d seen probably three times in my life, and who had lived with his parents in the mansion.
I’d not seen, or heard of any children of any of the other brothers, or sisters, so this was a first, and aroused my curiosity. I had thought that our part of the family had been exorcised from all their collective memories.
And, that curiosity would soon go into overdrive because with the email came an invitation to come and stay, and meet the other members of the family.
I had a sister, Molly, and called her once I got the email, and she said she had one too.
Was she going? Hell yes. It, for her, was going to be the unearthing of all the secrets.
What secrets, I asked, knowing full well there had been a few, but she had simply said I’d have to wait and see.
The drive brought back a lot of memories, and unconsciously I found myself listening to the same songs we did when Dad droves us.
Molly had come to my place, and we drove there together. In itself, it was a good reason for us to reunite after so long being apart. It was even more profound considering we did not live all that far apart, it was just life and family that got in the way.
She, like myself, found herself reliving the annual pilgrimages, her memories being hazier than mine, but that was because she was a lot younger.
She had been the one to leave home first, finding our restrictive parents unbearable. My departure took longer because my mother had implored me to stay, and not leave her with ‘that unbearable man’.
That final few miles from the outskirts of town, past the waterline, then inland was hushed with anticipation. I last remembered the house, although forbidding, as impeccably maintained, with gardens, I was sure, that featured in ‘Architectural Digest’.
This vision as we approached was so different than the last, in the last vestiges of the evening, a dark forbidding place still, only a lot more sinister. The gardens had been abandoned long ago, and everything was overgrown.
The fountain out front, the centerpiece of the gardens, was buried and gone.
The house had also fallen into disrepair, and I was surprised the local authorities hadn’t condemned it.
I parked the car in the driveway, and we sat there, staring at it.
“That motel back down the road is looking good,” Molly said.
The invitation also included staying in one of the thirteen rooms.
“Depends on how many ghosts there are.”
“The motel or here?”
I shrugged. “I guess we’d better get to the front door before it’s dark, just in case.”
Closer to the stairs leading up to a veranda, I could see the different shades of timber when rotten planks had been replaced. We made it to the front door, Molly hanging on to me just in case.
I pulled a ring dangling from a chain and heard a gong go off inside the house. A minute passed, two, then the door creaked open, and an old man in a dinner suit was standing there. “Mr. Garry, and Miss Molly, I presume.
He stood to one side before we answered, and we went in.
The inside was utterly different from the outside, having been renovated recently, much brighter than I remembered from the endless wood paneling. The old man ushered us into a large lounge room, on one side a huge log fire was burning, and around the walls, where there wasn’t a bookshelf full of books were family paintings.
“It’s like a mausoleum,” Molly said.
I recognized a lot of those faces in the paintings, including one of our father and mother together, probably not long after they were married. The men of that family all looked the same, except when it came to me, I looked more like my mother.
“Much better than it used to be.”
“I don’t remember much.”
To one side there was a large staircase that you could go up one side and down the other, and as children, we used to run up and down, and generally be annoying. Sliding down the banister was strictly forbidden, until after everyone went to bed.
I was half expecting to see the old man come from the depths of the house, but instead, a man that I could easily mistake as my father came through from the rear, where, I remembered, there was a room before the kitchens.
“Garry, I presume. And Molly. My God, it’s been too long.”
A shake of the hand for me, and a hug for Molly.
“David, or Jerry?”
“David. You remember. We used to run amok in this place.” He grinned.
He was the wild one, and all I did was follow. There were about seven of us, in the end, before we stopped coming.
“The others will be here tomorrow, and they’re dying to meet you. My dad was the last man standing, and he left the place to me, not that it was much by that time. I’ve spent years doing it up, but there’s a long way to go before it returns to its former glory. By the way, there are no ghosts in the bedrooms, and they are modernized with their own bathroom. I saw you out in the car before, looking horrified. Just a word to the wise, that motel does have ghosts. The jury is out on whether grandfather still roams the hallways, but I guess that’s something you’ll find out tonight. He was a horrid man by all accounts. Sorry, my wife says I babble when I’m nervous.”
“He does.” A woman, a few years older than Molly came out from the back.”
“You remember me.” She smiled.
I remembered her, had for a long time because back then, she was the first girl I thought I was madly in love with. The fact she was a cousin didn’t seem to matter. She just ignored me anyway.
And her beauty had not diminished over the years. “How could anyone forget you?”
“Yes, I had that effect on boys, didn’t I? It’s good to see you again.”
We both scored a hug, and yes, being close to her again did increase my heart rate just a little.
“Come,” David said, “sit and we’ll have a drink. Have you eaten?”
“Not for a while.”
“Then we were about to have a bite, I’m sure there’s plenty for everyone. Sit, and we’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“No wife, husband?”
“Yes on both accounts, but we would never bring them here. This family is difficult enough for us let alone outsiders. The rest of the group, well, you’ll see, are just plain quirky relatives. If you ever saw the Addams Family, TV series or movies, well, they’d fit right in here. But you’ll see. More on that soon.”
He and Angelina disappeared outback and silence fell over the room.
“Why do I get the feeling we might be murdered in our beds tonight?”
It was beginning to look like that was a possibility.
When David returned with the old man, Angelina, and what looked to be a maid with food and drinks, we sat down again, turning our fears of being murdered into a severe frightening of ghosts.
The old man was enough to think ghosts were alive in the house. It couldn’t possibly be the butler from the last time I saw him because he would have to be about 120 years old.
When all of us were settled, David began.
“There is another reason why I asked both of you here, along with all the others, by the way, there are around ten of us. Your father never told you the truth, or perhaps anything, of the situation when he stopped coming to visit his parents, did he?”
“He just said it was a difference of opinion, that his father would never see reason, didn’t like my mother or her family and gave up trying to be civil.”
“It was worse than that, he told him that if he didn’t give up your mother, he would cut him off from the family fortune, which eventually he did. It’s probably why you found life a little tougher for a few years.”
That was one way of putting it, we were taken out of our private schools and had just about all our leisure activities curtailed, and the worst, no more holidays. Mother even had to get a job, which disappointed her family, but they were not as rich as my father’s family was, so couldn’t help us financially.
“It was difficult.”
“Well, the good news is, your grandmother, our grandmother, was not as quirky or pedantic as her husband and never forgot the service your father did for her when he could. In that regard, she has left a bequest to both you and your sister, Molly. It’s been a long, hard battle to get it through the system, but it’s finally sorted.”
“I liked grandmother more than grandfather,” Molly said.
“Most of us did. He was a rebel himself, going against his family, a very interesting bunch themselves. Our quirkiness probably came from them, the last of the relatively unknown banking and railroad tycoons more famous in the 19th century than today where we are relatively forgotten. It is of course a blessing in disguise. But you ask, what is that quirkiness worth?”
“Not much I would imagine, after all this time. Our father taught us the value of money, so it’ll be nice to have some extra.”
“Some extra.” He smiled. “It’s about 125 million dollars, each. Enough I would say that you can now afford some quirks of your own.”
© Charles Heath 2022