An imaginary encounter with Mrs. Mary Anna Laughlin Walker
It was a Sunday in August following the destruction of the house known as “921 Main Street” when I met with a ghost in Oakwood Cemetery. Out of the corner of my eye, I was sure that I could see a weeping and agitated female form lingering over a distant gravestone. She had appeared out of summer rain and nothingness. I suddenly thought for a moment that she must be an incarnation of what my friend Jimmy Silvaroli, lead investigator from Niagara Falls Paranormal, would call a lepke; a perfect and human manifestation in a cemetery, undeniably visible for a short time. And then she was gone. But before her inscrutable disappearance I walked over to her and spoke with her. She, being fascinated by this acknowledgement of her being, told me about herself and how the demolition of her home rendered her a homeless ghost. How she, and so many of our other pioneers who have found themselves forced out of their living quarters, are lost in Niagara…and what would I do? I told her that I was not a wrangler of ghosts, but I would listen to her story and do my best to render assistance.
Our little tryst began with me seated under a shady oak, pencil and paper in hand, and with her draped over a tall gravestone, elbows bent and a fist beneath a pointy chin. Her dress was white and impeccably pressed. Her eyes unfolded before me as if a giant blue banner, not unlike the sky and clouds. A little breeze picked up and I noticed how—unnaturally-- her hair did not move as mine did. She appeared other-dimensional and fixed as a movie image—although I understood that she was actually alive (in some sense) and that she eerily contemplated all of my moves with great interest.
Feverishly, she began to relay the week’s horrible events, but not without telling me the details of her life and the circumstances of her spiritual disarray. Her voice was faint, a passing whimper, and as I scribbled furiously I am sure I missed bits and pieces while an ambulance or a helicopter flooded the soundscape. And so she commenced her story with the tragic events of August 4, 2011…
Being afflicted so regularly with the usual weakness and dissipation that comes from the break of day and sunlight…I wondered what noise and commotion had stirred me from that heavy sleep. It was the men and their machines coming for my house. I was much familiar with that sense of impending violence toward that vessel of my being. There had been talk before of destruction and in years past even fires had swept through this place. I slammed doors and shrieked with a voice to the center of my energy source--but to no avail. I was taken for the wind. As for the fire…I had been able to stop it before it consumed the place. Whirling like a cyclone. Blowing into the burning cinders with a deep and cold breath. I saved some paintings that way….But this time it was…unstoppable…their rude machines clawing into the veins within the walls, tearing through layers and stairwells, ripping away the rooftop. Terror accosted me and I found myself clinging to pieces of wood, a floorboard, a doorframe…shrinking into a spider’s web. Then the great and formidable quiet…and the questions that plagued me most of all. What to do? Where will I go? This house had been my shelter for many years. Of course, Anthony had wanted me out and now he has finally had his day…but I will have mine yet….
Her eyes blackened with this and turned away from me, for a moment, and then she began again.
I surveyed the scene and bounced onto the warmth of a passerby. He was kindly, though very perturbed at my home’s wreckage. Almost as if it had been his own. And then he took a piece of the rubble and carried it off. It was the “921” and it was a piece of my home. Miserable and defeated, I curled in between the numbers until I fell asleep. When I awakened…I found that I was here….at this place. And I was not alone. There are others here that have found themselves in a similar predicament…their ancient haunts desecrated to a pile of rubble. We wander together and alone. We take turns gathering heat from the living, from rays of sun, from squirrels and rabbits, the crows…from you. And your heat gives us form and voice.
It was then that she extended a bony, white hand and brought it to my cheek and my thoughts rushed away in a tumble of water as wild as Niagara Falls. I was frightened to the depths of my soul but, still, there was a curiosity that stopped me from running out of those gates. Though I trembled, I couldn’t help but ask her…who are you? And she answered…
My name is Mary Anna Walker. Ha…I had almost forgotten that I had a name as it has been ages since I have told anyone at all. Or heard it uttered…When I was a girl…I was Mary Anna Laughlin. I was born in 1862, in the old village of LaSalle. My people were Irish Catholics. I remember most…the peaches. The most wonderful peaches in the world grew on Cayuga Island. Everyone would come for them. If only I could taste one now…it was the peaches that brought him to me, my Anthony. We courted for a short time. Our pleasure was to race with his team alongside the river with our hearts on fire. How Niagara will do that to you…make you wish to join her in that rush over the rocks. Into her cool, sweet mouth. We were married in 1878. He was from Suspension Bridge, then Clarksville, the son of English Protestants. Just the beginning of our troubles…
And our Mary cried. It was strange for me to see a ghost with actual tears and I contemplated that fact but then reassured myself that the whole experience was unlike any other. I wasn’t sure if she had decided she had said enough and just as I was on the verge of disappointment she spoke again…
It was a life of luxury…my little stint as Miss-us An-tho-ny Walk-er. He was an entrepreneur even at seventeen. Let me tell you he held the sole proprietorship of the laundry industry in Niagara Falls for many years. With a four cylinder mangle that cost more than $1,000…he could do flat work and his plant had a capacity of 9,000 pieces per day. Not to mention a Sinclair shirt ironer and a Durey shirt starcher. The boiler had a 60 horsepower capacity. Lots of steam! Mr. Walker had plenty of steam and some to share! Hahaha…
And she laughed but it really wasn’t so much of a laugh as it was a mockery of a laugh. It was frightening and made me gasp for breath to hear the ghost laugh like this.
“Fine work done, Mr. Walker! A laundry and carpet cleaning establishment that is a credit to the city of Niagara Falls! Everything done in No. 1 order. Tip top. Ship shape. Family Washing 4 cents a pound. No. 356, No. 358 and No. 360 Main Street…telephone is 46…”
She smoothed her sleeves, the perfect lines of her skirt. Pushed her face so close into mine that I caught a fluttering aroma…one of wet leaves and grass, dirt, the ruffled feathers of a black bird.
And such a fleet of swift carriages he had…delivering the fruits of his sanitary enterprise throughout the day hours. But it was the night that was for soiling those perfect white sheets…with his filthy girlfriends. When my boy was just a little molly-coddle, he stayed closer to home…and it was our amiable Nancy Young—servant girl—a Canuck-- that brought a glimmer to his eye. I was sorely forgotten and stashed away like the fine china…only brought out when necessary. He certainly ate off the other little plates…Miss Margy Hayes and Miss Clara Jackson…and in the end didn’t his sweethearts receive all the leftovers? For me, the crumbs…one dollar, Miss Pencil-pusher. How would you feel about one dollar for a lifetime of servitude and devotion?
I let go of my pencil and set my paper on the grass. Miss Pencil-pusher! Of course, I was confused and frightened by her pathos. She was quite assuredly, a woman rejected and scorned for ages. What pent up sadness! She was one of those lost souls; expected to “put up” with much more than the rest of us. And when she told me about Howard James, I felt it would have been rude for me to start writing again, so I made mental note of the rest of our encounter.
Howard James was born in September of 1889 and I lost him on February 25, 1914. He was only twenty five and just two years into his marriage with Florence upon his death. They were married in Welland in order to evade such publicity as would have followed him. Of course, there was that other marriage…but it hadn’t worked out. I suppose like father, like son…In the end all that really mattered was that it wasn’t fair that a woman could lose everything she ever had. I had my social and civic affairs and my circle of friends…but that wasn’t enough for a woman who had lost a husband and a child. And then…my home.
Anthony died on March 18, 1921, leaving a large estate and a very peculiar will. To his former employee, the constant Margy Hayes, bookkeeper—$10,000, a house and a lot in Ontario. To his tried and true Miss Clara Jackson--$5,000 and an island in the Niagara! St. Mary’s Hospital received a $4,000 legacy. For Mrs. Anthony Walker? Hahaha…$1.00. If it weren’t for the swift business of Judge Hickey it would have been $1.00 and $1.00 alone…but his reconstruction of the will gave me life use of the homestead at 921 Main Street. That was it and I vowed I would never leave. Never ever leave 921 Main Street.
She stopped and walked a few paces; propped herself, like a doll, against her little gravestone…Mary A. Walker, 1862-1938. She was pensive, deep in thought for a moment, and then she shook her head gracefully and concluded her story.
But I’ve left 921 Main Street, now haven’t I? In fact, it was really a prison, wasn’t it? Your friend carried me away in his arms. I must have been quite the burden. I do hope he didn’t receive any slivers or blisters from the cracked and broken wood. My ridiculous green and purple painted beauty! But he saved me and he saved my “921.” Like a sea captain, he took me through a bumpy mysterious expanse of time and destiny, and now I’m here…where I belong…in Oakwood. Howard is here, and Anthony…yes, there is much, much time for reconciliation...or not. It’s up to me what I want…after all of these years. I am waiting for a crow or a person, maybe a child full of vibrance, to walk through these gates and give them some light so we can begin again. I have seen the others, the shadows, the homeless ghosts who have been cast out into the darkness and the cold but have somehow made it here…and they wait for you. Always wait and then take a little piece of your light…just a little piece is all we need to come alive.
I picked up my pencil and my paper to write some more, but our supposed “lepke” was gone and instead a large black crow stood and shook out its rain soaked wings upon the grave of Mary Anna Walker. Somehow, I had the feeling that I would see her one day, again, soon. And I was tired, very tired.