Things that go bump in the night

Finding Disneyland

As genealogists and family history researchers, we deal with what our ancestors have left behind. But what about the ancestors who stayed behind? We all know that when we blissfully, stoically, and persistently work at finding and understanding our forebears, they will look over our shoulders, tweak our brains, and sometimes yank on our chains to get their stories told. Mine serve up apple pie and coffee!!

When I was awaiting the birth of my son, I worked a crewel embroidery scene of a small boy kneeling at his bedside reciting the old Scottish children’s prayer “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.” It’s also a Halloween prayer once said by children to ward off grasping Beasts-Under-The-Bed or those gruesome Closet Monsters. (It doesn’t work on my Despicable Dust Bunnies.) My Scottish ancestors must have been at my shoulder while I worked, plotting and planning fodder for my stories.

“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”

Very old houses like mine are seldom quiet; mine whispers. Sometimes it shouts. My blind and audio-oriented husband knows where I am in the house because the floor boards holler most footfalls, every door has its say, and the stairs creak predictably with every step. It is impossible to enter this house without being heard; even less possible to walk in it without a sound.

We’ve learned to differentiate between its normal sounds and its whispers. Being awakened at three in the morning by the smell of fresh coffee and bacon isn’t all bad, even if we live alone and don’t rise until six. We happily enjoy the aroma of fresh apple pie even if we’re not baking and the oven is cold. Such are the whispers of My Old House, whose antique wooden beams have absorbed centuries of scents and aromas. Its shouts are a bit different.

Understand here that although I loathe and detest house painting, I do most of it because giving my very capable husband access to paint in any manner defies common sense, logic, and my courage. Therefore, he remained working at his office desk across the hall from my living room paint project on a day when we were alone and no one arrived.

He didn’t look up when he heard me come in the back door, through the kitchen, down the hall, and into the living room, doors opening and closing and footsteps clunking all the way. As the living room door closed, he immediately heard me once again come in the back door, through the kitchen, and down the hall to the living room door, and asked if I had just come in and gone out again.

I hadn’t. I had just then come in with my tools, and I was wearing somewhat paint-squishy, non-clunking sneakers. The living room was empty of everything but paint and tools.

Husband looked a bit peaked at that moment.

Whenever I worked in the chamber over my kitchen, I was careful not to let our two Siamese cats into the area they see as Disneyland. I saw them outside the room when I finished, and secured the door’s deadbolt. An hour or so later, my indoor cats were absent. In an increasing blind-panic (no pun intended), I started another thorough sweep of the upstairs when I had a “nudge” to unbolt the chamber door. There were both Siamese, complaining, impatient, and looking worried. Disneyland had lost its attraction. I had lost my patience and gave vent to a loud “scolding” of house and ancestors.

Disneyland had lost its attraction.

An occasional “misunderstanding” with My Old House does little to diminish its pleasantries, but it is important to be clear about who owns whom. It claims superiority by attacking my checkbook on a regular basis; I assert ownership by complying – loudly, and with expletives. The house responds to a good scolding by keeping floorboards quiet when no one is walking on them, or silencing unmoving doors. Apple pies return unbaked to the cold brick oven and the coffee pot remains quiet. We make repairs and amends, and soon the house whispers again, silently considerate of guests, shouting only for its prodigal “caretakers.”

If my ancestors are baking and brewing coffee, we have no apparitions, no visions of previous occupants, just antique wood reacting to modern atmosphere, and old energies of sound and smell that seem to have learned not to trifle with me when I am caffeine-or-sleep-deprived (or covered in paint)! Any really old house has its own sounds and smells. Mine serves up apple pie and coffee! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

These are some of the stories of My Old House that I’ll keep for the generations to come, filed under “Family Going Bump.” It is perhaps not those nighttime noises of my ancestors’ past but my own which are truly the scariest of all:


Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.View all posts by Jan Doerr