Seneca Falls, New York is the home of the first US Women’s Rights Convention. We all memorized that somewhere along the line. Declaration of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, et cetera, et cetera. You probably wrote a shi**y essay about it or had to dress up as Lucretia Mott and give a “suffrage talk” about Women’s Rights to your third grade class who chuckled every time you said the word “sex.”
Fans of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life probably know a bit more about Seneca Falls. Frank Capra, the film’s director, spent time there while writing the script, and although the film was entirely made in California, it is said there are plenty of reasons to believe that he had Seneca Falls in mind when he created “Bedford Falls.” The tiny, doll-like train station, the references to Buffalo, Rochester, and Elmira, NY…
…a bridge that runs over the sleepy canal in the middle of town that is now referred to as the “George Bailey Bridge.” Legend, of course, being that this is the bridge Capra recreated in the movie where George jumps to save Clarence the angel.
I’ve had the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life House’ pointed out to me many times throughout my life. “You want the moon, Mary?”
Downtown Seneca Falls is a picture of holiday cheer come Christmas-time, as you can probably imagine. Even a crotchity millennial like me can admit that when the “George Bailey Bridge” is all lit up, and the town twinkles red and green beside the water, it looks like a kind of “dream America.” A picturesque town ripped right out of the same history book you plagiarized your sh**ty paper from.
For me, Seneca Falls feels as much a part of my childhood as Syracuse does. I recently drove my boyfriend down ONE street in the middle of the town (slowly and creepily, of course), and narrated for him:
“this house was my aunt’s, then this one my grandmother’s. Across over there is a cousin, that house another aunt, then a great aunt, another cousin…and (as a woman emerges from a car parked up ahead) that’s actually some sort of cousin of mine crossing the street right now. Second, third, removed…I couldn’t tell you.”
My grandmother’s house in the middle of town was a weekly gathering place of the big Italian family every Sunday for pasta and meatballs and homemade sauce. Holidays would sometimes take place at a different family house on the same street, but her’s was always the home base. She was always the star of the show, and she held court from her rocking chair watching Judge Judy, a Stephanie Plum novel dog-eared on the coffee table.
I know losing grandparents is essentially a part of life. They are a privilege while they’re here, and they’re oftentimes our first experience with loss and death, (that is, if we’re lucky enough to have our immediate families around throughout the whole of childhood.)
I’m not gonna make this about cancer, because it’s not really about that, per se. The last year of my grandmother’s life was the year of my illness, and I don’t think I’ll ever truly know how it impacted her. I know it took a toll on everyone in the family, if not because they felt close with me, then because my diagnosis was an eerie reminder that none of us are safe from life’s unwelcome surprises, regardless of age.
But my grandmother was already battling a slew of health problems on her own, even before I upstaged her.
She died a week after I was declared in remission.
She never got to see me “being okay.”
Seneca Falls has never been the same since she passed, and I hadn’t spent more than two hours there in years, let alone two whole days.
There are too many ghosts.
But a few weeks back, my cousin needed a dog sitter while her family went camping for the weekend. Me, the “unemployed job-casualty” that I am, said, “Why not?”
I wrote last week about how I’ve been creepin’ around my hometown, scoping out locations of odd memories that stick out in my brain.
It’s muy, muy creepy…this I know. But I have no nefarious intentions and because I’m white I have the privilege of not really raising alarm bells. A sad but true reality that is not at all lost on me.
But my creepin’ reached an all-time high in Seneca Falls that weekend.
I arrived around six-thirty on Friday, tended to the dog, and ordered take-out from a restaurant on Fall Street (Seneca Falls’ aptly named version of Main Street). When I parked in front of the restaurant my dinner wasn’t ready yet, so I found myself wandering to the site of a canal-side bar, previously owned by two of my uncles (one of whom, my godfather, passed away in 2014).
I stood outside the glass door, and peered inside. The space is still a bar, but a different one now. I spied the corner where my Dad and godfather had been seated when I flung open the doors, twelve years old, to announce the arrival of my first period.
It had happened at my grandmother’s, naturally, where everything happened.
My dad covered his face with his hands.
My godfather set me up on the bar stool beside him and toasted my womanhood with a Shirley Temple.
Here, now, in 2020, sat two strangers, socially distant from the rest of the bar patrons. Someone made eye contact with me, and I scurried back up the leaf-covered stairs to Fall Street.
Later, I lay awake on my cousin’s couch, her dog snoring beside me. Twelve o’clock. One AM. Two AM. I had not slept a night in Seneca Falls since 2013.
I felt unsettled, something amiss even with all the doors locked and this giant black lab at my feet.
At two thirty I sprang up and threw on a hoodie and sneaks. The grass outside was already wet with dew, and the crunching of leaves underfoot scared me sh*tless when it cut through the silence.
I jumped into my mom’s CRV, (now my infamous “creepin” vehicle of choice) and drove out across the “George Bailey Bridge,” past the old video store where my cousins and I had hiked to rent tapes, past the pretty fountain in the middle of town, beyond the Women’s Rights Convention Memorial Park where I’d walked my aunt’s dog, Dexter, and begged him not to poop.
I parked myself on the street in front of my grandmother’s house.
Turned off the car lights.
Sat in silence.
I dream about this house all the time. Dreams where I’m fumbling around looking for something, ascending the staircase, or looking out the upstairs window.
In most of the dreams I’m by myself, but every now and then my grandmother appears and I tell her we thought she had died. I tell her I’m so happy we were wrong, but that we should be very careful so she doesn’t die again.
I have never had a dream about my grandmother that doesn’t take place in the house. She never appears anywhere else.
So now I stare at the dark house in the middle of the night and wonder if maybe she’s in there somehow. I know it sounds weird but…I dunno…residual energies, that kind of thing? Possible?
A television flickers in the window of the tiny house next door. I’ve only been sitting here three minutes but I know I should leave. I know I’m being a total creep. I know this is weird.
Stars splash across the sky over the tiny garage at the back of the driveway where my grandfather used to grow grapes. Where he’d taken me once to show me the grapes, but told me not to pick any.
I picture myself sitting on the porch ledge in my navy blue bathing suit with the mesh top that always made me afraid my nipples were showing.
Gram tells me to be careful up there.
I try to feel like me at 5.
Me at 5, wanting to pick the grapes.
Me at 9, sun-kissed.
Me at 12, pimply.
Me at 18, bald.
I watch “ghost me” rip a big green leaf off the vines that had covered the house. I hear my Mom tell me to stop messing with them.
“Sauce is ready.”
“Set the table.”
“Is everyone here?”
I know I need to leave, but I whisper into the stale air, “what the hell are we doing down here, Gram?”
She didn’t get to see me being okay.
Am I okay?
The stars, again, distract me with a wink.
“Don’t pick the grapes, don’t touch, just look.”
I feel like Pierre at the end of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, wondering how I got here, wondering what it all comes to in the end.
‘…and there in the middle above Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars shines the Great Comet…‘
I feel better now, and I don’t know why.
I dry my tears and head back.
When my cousin returns, I ask if she’s seen how different the house looks now, although I know she must. She lives in the small town, after all.
My cousin says ‘yes.’
She says she knows the woman who lives in the house now. The third owner since my grandmother.
“I told her that was our grandparents’ house, and she asked me if they’d died in the house. I told her they had. She said she could hear and feel things sometimes in the house. Energies. She said it feels friendly.”
Grapes. Sauce. Bathing suit. House. Mom. Period. Bar stool. Shirley Temple. Grandma. Judge Judy. Rocking chair. Bald. Friendly.
All this creepy driving. Past-channeling.
I’m either going to leave 2020 a haunted soul or a fully realized person.
I’m done creepin’ for a while.