The most distressing of my mother’s ghost sightings took place while she was in college. Eager to get the facts right, on a recent visit I asked her—we were finishing dinner—about the exact circumstances. Had it been her freshman year? I asked.
No; her freshman year, she’d worked as a live-in au pair for an acquaintance of her father’s, a professor. My grandfather had always made it clear that if my mother chose to attend a four-year university rather than the local community college, she’d be on her own financially. He considered it an act of largesse to have helped secure her a position that furnished not only room but board. In lieu of bus fare, my mother was given a switchblade, to wield if necessary when hitchhiking down the Pacific Coast Highway.
The house where my mother went to work was not a happy one. The patriarch was a strict disciplinarian who insisted she grade the children according to a punitive demerit system. His wife (a former student) was nice but afraid of him. The children did not treat my mother with much respect; she was only seventeen. Once the parents came home to find her tied to a chair.
In her sophomore year, she went to live with another family, almost as unhappy. The husband was a philanderer and the mother—also a former student—was unstable. Their child had developmental problems. My mother does credit that period with teaching her how to make bread properly; providing the family with twice-weekly loaves was one of her tasks. She says this is when she started to develop bad migraines, and also when her hair started to go gray.
In her third year, she had a brief, unsuccessful stint in some sort of communal-living situation; my mother was judged to have a bad attitude and advised to move elsewhere. Having grown up in the peculiarly insular world of her family, she found the campus overwhelming. When a professor of hers asked her on a date, she felt she had to go, and he led her to a pile of his dirty laundry and made her wash it. Still, she made friends and was successful enough in her academic and political circles that—when the free-speech movement was at its height—she was chosen as the female liaison to post the students’ demands on the door of the philosophy department. She speaks about this now with derisive pride, but pride nonetheless.
She was eager to live closer to campus. The homes where she had been working required long commutes and often uncomfortable car rides with her employers.
And so, when the position at Mrs. Pierce’s opened up, it seemed like a perfect solution. Unlike the professors’ homes, it was within walking distance to her classes, and the big old Victorian in the foothills was beautiful, too. Mrs. Pierce was at that time in her early nineties, and confined to a wheelchair. She had a day nurse; my mother’s primary tasks would be cooking and light housekeeping. A very sweet woman, Mrs. Pierce was herself a graduate of the university, had been widowed for some thirty years, and found it difficult to retain help.
The reason soon became clear—but of course, you knew that. It was about as creepy as such a situation could be; Mrs. Pierce’s two children had died in the 1918 flu pandemic, but their nursery on the ground floor was still preserved, absolutely intact.
At night, there were noises—lots of noises. Singing, and what seemed to be a gramophone. It often sounded, my mother says, as though heavy furniture was being pushed around, but on the occasions she worked up the courage to go downstairs and confront any intruders, the first-floor rooms were always empty, the Mission Oak furniture in place.
My mother stuck it out for a few months, because she had become very fond of her landlady. The noises, she said, came every night; her sleep suffered badly. And then one particular night, my mother was lying in bed and said she heard the tread of footsteps moving up the stairs and down the hallway toward her room. This had not happened before. My mother cowered under the covers, she says, paralyzed with the worst fear she’s ever known. The hinges of the door creaked; the steps advanced; she could feel someone, or something, staring down at her. She kept her eyes screwed tight; “I just pretended it wasn’t happening,” she told me. And then the presence finally abated, and the next day she gave her notice to a regretful Mrs. Pierce.
“I’ve always felt guilty about it,” my mother says. “But I … just … couldn’t.”
After that, she lived off campus with a boyfriend. She saw a ghost with him, too—well, she had an eerie feeling, on a car trip through Greece one summer—but “nothing” she said, “nothing like what I felt in that house.” For a while, they rented a house whose backyard adjoined Janis Joplin’s. I don’t know how much contact they actually had, but my mother’s lip still curls when she talks about her; she says she was the sort of feminist who made a great show of liberation but was desperate for even the worst kind of male attention. “You don’t know what it was like,” she always tells me, when I ask her to tell me about her college days.
Sadie Stein is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.