Little Details (10/22/09)

Spirits among us

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

The light in my office refuses to turn on. I flip the switch several times in a vain quest for illumination. My computer fires up, casting its blue glow over early morning darkness. I’m alone upstairs in my tiny office, in the old Victorian in which I work. As a nonprofit serving at-risk kids, our digs are decidedly austere.

Dance music and the aroma of fresh-baked scones waft upward into my workspace. Our cook plays her dance music with the volume turned up high. She loves to dance and frequently performs the Samba while flipping pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches.

One hundred percent of the kids we serve qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most lack traditional family supports. Many are survivors of trauma, which impedes their ability to learn.

Our agency’s cook artfully arranges cereals and fresh fruit for students who will soon arrive. Scones nestle in baskets, ready for quick consumption. Food is displayed in a decidedly homey manner for kids who may have been denied nurturing homes. Full stomachs fuel the fire of human curiosity.

This is not a story about education nor is it a tale of challenges faced by children in foster care. It’s actually a bit of a ghost story.

“If I play the music loud, I can’t hear what’s going on in the rest of the house,” our cook jokes.

If the radio is off, our cook hears things — unexplained noises — when alone in the house. Arriving for work at 6 a.m., she’s the first one to unlock the door and turn on the lights. She sometimes hears footsteps. She’s witnessed interior doors waver and shut without the prompting of human hands and nary a draft in sight.

Her story confirmed my own feelings of a presence. It’s not ominous. It’s just there, like someone watching over me. If I work late and the building has cleared out, I never feel completely alone. Once, a small rock, a souvenir from a faraway beach, inexplicably slid across my desk before my eyes. I wondered if there’d been a tremor, but lack of seismic activity dispelled that explanation. I shifted the rock back and resumed working, nervously joking aloud that my spectral guest was “playing a game with me.”

I realize there are two kinds of people: Those who believe in ghosts and those who do not. I fall into the former camp.

I cautiously asked other colleagues if they observed any seeming paranormal activity in our 1890s Victorian. My boss just smiled and laughed. I don’t think he believes in ghosts.

My persistence as an amateur spectral seeker paid off. Several other staffers had stories to tell — of friendly, mischievous ghosts. It seems our spirits are shy. They don’t like crowds. They typically show up when few people are in the building — in the early morning or evening hours when the place is largely deserted.

Our payroll administrator occasionally works late. She hears doors opening and closing. Murmurs of conversations wend their way into her office from down the hall after all have left for the evening. She’s sat at her desk and watched her adding machine spontaneously calculate mismatched numbers, untouched by her human hand. She once heard footsteps ascending our carpeted staircase and called out, “Who’s there?” No one answered. No one appeared.

Our maintenance person, a healthily skeptical guy, notes that tools and other items occasionally go missing only to reappear in nonsensical places. Is there a poltergeist engaging in playful telekinesis or is there some other “logical” explanation?

One staff member claims she saw an apparition. Our former cook encountered the ghost of a little girl dressed in an old fashioned white nightgown on the stairs. The girl smiled at her before disappearing into the thick, horsehair plaster walls. The cook quit shortly thereafter.

If our house is haunted, our visitors are of a decidedly friendly vintage. Perhaps they know we’re working to keep kids safe. If our house isn’t haunted, several of us suffer from overactive imaginations.

I’m not sure if my temperamental lights reflect ghostly handiwork or stodgy wiring. I’ve not experienced disembodied voices or hyperactive doors, but I’ve definitely sensed a presence. As days grow short and darkness accompanies my arrival and departure, I try to not linger in the office alone. Friendly ghosts are preferable to mischievous ones and yet, I’m inclined to commune with the living.

Happy Halloween.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or