Strange New England

A Compendium of History, Folklore, and Evidence of the Unexplained

Strange New England Podcast
Strange New England Podcast
The Light in the Barn

I was ten years old when my grandfather died. He died in his sleep during the cold February night with his rosary in his hands. My cousin had to break into the house on Sunday morning because Grampy never missed Mass and it was time to go.He found him under the covers, cold and still.  The doctor told my father that he had died peacefully, that he fell into a deep sleep and his heart slowed and then, eventually, it simply stopped. My father always said that he hoped that was how he would go – to fall asleep in one world and wake up in the next. 

His was the second earliest death I can recall. Grammie had predeceased him by five years and it was during those intervening five years that I got to know the old man. Grampy spoke French, used Pearson’s Red Top Snuff, spoke little and worked hard. He lived alone in the same little house he had  built in the 1920s, heated only by a woodstove. To say he didn’t work would be a lie; he was retired, but spent his time working hard, keeping himself busy living a life that would have been familiar to anyone born the century before, every day filled with vigor and purpose. He drew his water from a spring, used a scythe to reap the hay from his field, and cooked his own meals, with a liberal use of salt pork and beans. He was a simple man who had supported his family by working for all of the farmers his property bordered and maintaining a huge garden, a large barn and small horse barn, a pig sty and chicken coop. His house always smelled of wood and wintergreen, molasses and roses. He had a Farmer’s Almanac tied to a string hanging on a nail on the wall next to the telephone he never used. He drank his water from a tin dipper kept in a pail covered with muslin, still the freshest, clearest water I have ever had.

 After my grandmother passed, I asked my mother if I could go visit my Grampie, alone,all by myself.  We lived on the Back Presque Isle Road in Caribou, Maine in a part of the world that still felt new and untamed. It was 1971. At seven years old, my mother gave me permission to visit him, possibly because of her concern for the solitary state in which he dwelt. I had heard conversations on the phone between my father and his sisters worrying about the fact that the old man was talking to thin air, addressing his wife even though she had gone and met her maker. My father wisely told his sisters not to concern themselves with his need to speak to the close and quiet darkness, because, to be truthful, I spent entire days with the old man during which he might have uttered only a dozen words to anyone, living or dead. “He’s not hurting anyone,” my dad had said, “and otherwise, he is fine. Leave him alone.” They did. 

 I would tell my mother where I was going and she would tell me to make sure I came home when I saw the porch light flashing, something she always did to summon my brother and I back to our evening meal – which was supper, never dinner. That was the thing. I could see my grandfather’s house from the kitchen of our home. I had to look over Grampy’s field and past his gray-boarded, tar-papered horse barn, a low-built double stall affair that hadn’t seen a horse in my lifetime. If I looked in the falling dark, I could see her switching the light on and off. I even knew when the light was right so I would look out for it. 

On the days I visited my grandfather,  I would walk along the side of the road until I got there and I would just walk up to him and he would look over at me and nod, his youngest grandchild, without even a word. We would spend long hours like that, just being together without much conversation at all. He would answer me if I had questions, usually about fishing or axes or cows, because he still had one that often got loose and wandered through our garden. Later in the day he would offer me molasses cookies he had bought at the store.  We would watch Gunsmoke together on Monday nights and then I would walk home in the growing dark, and my mother and father would ask my how the old man was. I was their emissary. I was also very fond of my grandfather. He was good to me in a quiet way and I would help him by turning his whetstone wheel while he sharpened his ax or go inside to his chair and get his Pearson’s Red Top snuff, which he would pinch and put between his gums and lips. Even now, as a man in my sixties, he is current in my mind, a living thought sandwiched between old memories that never seem to fade.

I am telling you all of this because less than a year after he died, he began to haunt me.  I never told anyone at the time. I knew it was a haunting. One of my earliest memories is of my sister who woke the entire house up with her screams when I was five years old because she had awakened to see my grandmother’s spirit standing at the foot of her bed.  If my sister could be visited by a grandparent’s ghost, why not me? There was also the idea that I didn’t really know how to tell anyone what I was experiencing.  Like most hauntings, it occurred first to me when I was alone. I tried with all of my mind to find a reason for what I saw but my eleven year old mind simply couldn’t. My father and mother were very busy at the time.Dad had just taken on a partnership in a business in town and was gone most of the time. I never told my brother. I remember the first time I saw the light in the barn.

It was twilight and the orange-red of the sky was dying down to a level glow tinged with shadows. It was late October and the cold of winter was already dancing around the edges of things. Puddles had margins from razor-frost ice. You could see your breath in the early morning.  I was alone in the house, my parents not yet returned from work, and I was setting the table. It must have been around five-thirty.  Our dining room windows looked out over Grampy’s field, a view I’d seen a thousand times before, waiting for the bus to come down Buck’s Hill, watching for headlights or the smoke as it rose from the chimneys of the neighbors’ houses. What caught my eye was a light where a light should not have been,  in the window of Grampy’s small horse barn, a building never used and seldom entered. Even during his last few years, I had never seen him enter it. It was a place I entered only a few times in my life, a place forbidden by my father, no longer used , with old hay and sisal twine binding rope on pegs, old leather straps hanging, dust and memories.   As I gazed at it, it seemed to glow steady and bright. I marveled at it for a moment and when I could not think of any good reason on God’s good Earth why there would be a light there, my mind went elsewhere. Was someone inside? Surely not. But perhaps? I couldn’t be sure. I waited and watched and my heart beat faster while my mind searched for something, anything that would explain it, but I couldn’t find an anchor to tie to my thoughts. And then my parents came home and I debated whether or not I should tell them and Mom made dinner and when I sat down to eat, I looked in the direction of the barn and there was nothing – no light, no sign of life, nothing.  Had I imagined it? Perhaps I had, or perhaps I had been given a vision?

One day flew past the next and, seeing no further indication of the light, I told myself I must have been mistaken. Then comes another early evening and I am again alone in the house and then, I see it again, as clear and bright as Polaris, a light in the window of my grandfather’s barn and I begin to put two and two together – his speaking with my grandmother who had passed, my grandmother’s ghost showing up to my sister, the loneliness of the vast landscape in which we lived and my own eleven year old vivid imagination and I came to the unbearable conclusion that somehow, for reasons unknown to me, my grandfather was sending me a message. He knew I was alone in the house and that I would be looking in his direction and there was the light, a sign from beyond that he was still lingering. I stared at the old ramshackle barn for long minutes, my heart beating like a hammer in my chest, wondering what this meant and why. And then my mother’s car drove into the driveway and she came in and put her coat away and when I looked out again, the light was gone. It was a light just for me, I concluded, a message that only I could see. I did not know its meaning. 

As the days and weeks and months rolled by, I saw that light often, just at twilight, almost always when I was alone, sometimes when others were there. I never told a soul about it, either. There was something personal in it for me, something meant for me and only me and I kept it that way. I loved my grandfather and I missed him and if he was trying to send me a message, I wondered, it must be a message of assurance and trust. I found myself thinking about him more often, wondering exactly why he would do this. Was I supposed to understand the meaning of the light in the barn, because I didn’t. I could never tell when it would show itself or for how long. I got to the point in the bleak midwinter of finding some small comfort in the fact that he had chosen me to contact, his youngest grandchild. 

But I’ll tell you something else. I never once went near that barn. I entertained the thought of forcing my way in – it belonged to my Aunt but she lived in Boston and would never know I had trespassed. I never went near because I believed that my Grandfather’s spirit now dwelt in that old place and the last thing I wanted to do was encounter something from the other side, something that should not be there, even if it was my grandfather. I kept my distance and as spring gave way to summer, I discovered, much to my relief, that the light in the barn ceased to glow. It was gone. 

I confess that a small part of my mind actually missed it. Was my grandfather now truly gone? Was he in Heaven, at rest, where he should be? One hot Sunday afternoon in midsummer, when everyone was busy and had forgotten that I even existed, I got on my green Schwinn banana bike and rode to his little house on the corner, owned now by my father. It sat there empty because my dad was getting ready to rent it out. I tried my hand at the door but it was locked. I climbed up the woodshed roof and then up to the roof of the back ell and finally shimmied to an upstairs window and found my way inside. There I was, in the oppressive heat, walking the floors of the little house all by myself, without permission. I went from room to room. There was the old beige cabinet TV we watched together. I turned it on to see if it still worked. It did. I went into the kitchen and opened all of the cabinets, all empty and clean from a long day of my mother’s hard work. I went into his bedroom, the one he had fallen asleep in and never woke up and sat in a circle of warm sunlight on the hardwood floor and watched the dust float in a sunbeam as time itself stopped and I realized why I was there. I was looking for the old man. I was looking for my grandfather, or maybe his ghost. I had no idea how long I had been there when I decided that I was indeed the only one there. The isolation of the place, the emptiness of it, made me sad. I wandered into the living room and found an old bronze knick-knack of a sailing ship that my grandmother got when she went to Old Orchard Beach once in her youth. I took it and stashed it in my pocket.  Then I left the same way I got in, closing the window as I left. I never told anyone about this until now. It has been my secret. I still have the sailboat. 

When autumn came again and the nights grew almost intolerably long, I found to my surprise and my fright that the light was once again visible. For five nights in a row I found myself not even wanting to look but forcing myself, I saw it there, as clear as a fallen star from the sky.  And now I wanted to know more, so much more, than I did. I was bolder and thought, if this is a sign from the old man, I need to get over my fear of the horse barn and go inside and perhaps find what he wants me to find to help him go to his rest.  I tried twice and failed, my heart failing me, my courage a small bird in a cage not willing to fly free.  I rolled in my bed that night unable to sleep. I could see him there in my mind’s eye sitting on a stool in the corner of the horse stall, his mouth considering  wad of snuff in his mouth, his eyes squinting behind his glasses and in my imagination we was calling over with his hand, motioning me to come nearer and nearer. When I did, I could see him moving his lips, trying to tell me something. He wasn’t impatient or bothered. But no sound came from his mouth and that made my skin crawl. I tried to stay, in my mind,  – God knows I did, but even in my imagination I ran. It was almost too much to bear. This was not the kind of thing that could be real. It was something out of a Saturday afternoon matinee at the Powers Theatre, not the reality of my ten year old life.   I still hadn’t told a soul. I didn’t think I ever could.

There are moments in your life where the sudden realization of a simple fact changes everything. It’s often something you should have known or seen all along, but you didn’t and you live in fear or you suffer anxiety when you realize something so life-changing is, in fact, so simple, so common. I was sitting in the darkness of the dining room in late October, staring again at the light in the barn, when my mother drove into the driveway. I heard her close the door of the Mercury station wagon and come into the house. I knew I had to leave the dining room – I didn’t want her to know I was sitting in the dark. As I sat there for one last moment, I heard her enter the house and then turn off the porch light that I had turned on not an hour before. The loud click of the switch was immediately followed by the disappearance of the light in the barn. 

Time stopped. I said hello to her but my mind was racing too quickly to think. I flicked the switch to the porch light, saw that it was on, and went back to the dining room. The light in the barn was back. I ran back to the switch and flicked it. Sure enough, the light was gone again. All of this time in my imagination, I had been haunted by my parent’s porch light reflecting in the window. 

The next day I found the courage to go to the horse barn and I discovered that, before he died, my grandfather had put a bright piece of tin behind the window facing our house. Positioned as it was, the angle of the light to the window of my dining room presented a perfect vector of fear as light was reflected back to my eyes from the tin and the porch light.  I laughed in relief and was happy that I had suffered in silence. I told my mother of my discovery and she didn’t laugh. She understood I had spent a good year wrestling with the supernatural, all by myself. She never laughed at me. I never told my father.

So you see, the light in the barn was not the ghost of my grandfather haunting me. It was a trick of the light, a misunderstanding of the brain. I was young enough at ten years old to still believe in things I could not prove. In the years that have passed since, I recall that year of wonder with a kind of strange fondness, because for a year, I felt my grandfather’s presence. I still imagine that he was there with me as I stared out in wonder and some fear at the light in the barn. Perhaps he had been trying to tell me, in my imagination when he spoke but I could hear him, that the light was just a reflection. I suspect that I didn’t hear him, because I didn’t want to. I did not want to let him go, just yet, and I held onto that light as a kind of hope, as a benevolent spirit in a lonely, sad world.  

The thing about seeing a ghost is that it is inexplicable. Those of you who know you have seen one, even if you’ve never told anyone, understand that. Maybe you haven’t seen a spirit, but you’ve felt it, or heard it, or simply knew it. And probably, you were alone and it caught you like a whisper in the dark and you know you’ve experienced something uncommon, something from beyond, and you own it like a secret and tell no one or perhaps only those whose trust you know will keep you safe.  I thought I was haunted by my grandfather’s ghost and perhaps I was, in a way. Perhaps he was with me in spirit during that time. Since that time, I have had the occasion to witness three other moments when I encountered something that defied explanation, so perhaps I am prone to believe in such things or, like my good friend Paul says, I am sensitive and simply refuse to accept it. Since that time when I was ten years old, I have been haunted not by ghosts but by the possibility of them. In a world where everything can be explained, even the simple reflection of a porch light reminds me that ghosts aren’t real. So why do I keep searching for them? Why do I have the strongest hunch that they are real AND explainable? I don’t know. But when darkness falls and I look out into the world from my window, even now I see phantoms in the wind, I hear them call my name and I know that though I cannot prove they are there, nevertheless, they are. If ghosts are merely memories or thoughts of those past, then it is as much a part of the human condition to wonder about them, about what comes after the last breath, as it is to seek to explain them away with logic and science. I am still haunted. I think I always will be.  

Tom Burby

Thomas Burby is the owner of and the author of THE LAST BOY ON EARTH and THE SEVEN O'CLOCK MAN, both available on Mr. Burby has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maine and an MSEd in the Science of Education from the University of New England. He loves a good scary story...


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