Monthly Archives: October 2011

A True Haunted Halloween Story

Did you have a haunted house in your neighborhood when you were growing up? I fear with all these Mc Mansion cul de sacs everywhere we may soon be saying so long to the traditional, eerie neighborhood haunted house.  Somehow a million dollar, well manicured, haunted house is just not as effective…. (By the way, we use to call cul de sacs  “dead ends.” I guess that is now considered offensive to dead people. Sorry dead people. )

Ours was the next street over.  A small brown house, it was neglected, overgrown and inhabited by an elderly woman who was rarely seen. We convinced each other that she had killed her husband and kept his body in her garage in a large crate. We would periodically dare someone to look in the window, the rest of us hiding in the trees.

Here is what happened to me at the Haunted House in the fall of 1978.

I never told anyone before, but it’s all true, I swear….


The haunted house was directly behind ours, the yards separated only by a thin chain link fence.  The old brown house leaned so far to the side it looked like it would fall over in a good breeze.  The concrete steps were chipped and broken, and the metal handrails that ran along the sides were rusted through. A few of the windows were broken; some ill fitted with pieces of cardboard to keep out the rain and winter chill. The trees and bushes were tangled together, their branches snaking up the sides of the thin clapboard. In the evening there was only ever one light on and a small television screen barely visible, flickering behind the dirty windows. The newspapers would sit outside collecting in the cracked driveway for weeks until the owner of the house; a tiny, twisted, ancient woman would shuffle outside.  She always wore a dingy grey sweater pulled tightly around her, even in the oppressive summer heat.  Shaking her head and muttering to herself, she would inch her way gingerly down the broken steps to collect the soggy bundles.

But it was not the house that fascinated us…it was the garage. The small building was almost lost in the overgrown, dense backyard jungle of intertwined trees and vines.  It too leaned to the side, held up by only a few cracked wooden beams. The windows were all smashed, probably by neighborhood kids throwing rotten apples at them, and at some point a tree had fallen over and landed on the roof, crashing halfway through, creating a hole that was never fixed. The hole let in just enough light that we could just make out some of the contents inside laying among the cobwebs; corroded cans of old paint, abandoned fishing rods, rusty tools…and one large wooden crate with a heavy lock and chains wrapped around it.

All the neighborhood kids knew what was in that box; it was the body of the old woman’s husband. She had put his remains in the garage, locked tightly away in that wooden coffin, so know one would find him.  There were many stories about how he died, some said she killed him by cutting off his head and then put his headless body in the crate. Some said she poisoned him by serving him rat poison in his food, and others said she didn’t kill him quickly at all but rather she had locked him up in the box, letting him slowly starve to death. Depending on which story you believed, at night you could sometimes see his headless ghost wandering around, hears his cries of pain, or listen to his moans of hunger.

Halloween of 1978, we were in sixth grade, too cool for costumes, but not yet ready to give up all that free candy. We roamed the streets scoffing at the little kids in their ridiculous outfits, rounded the corner of the block and stopped… shocked. We couldn’t believe our eyes.  Every light in the haunted house was on. The whole place was lit up like a Christmas tree, and there on the steps stood the old woman. There was a small, carved pumpkin sitting next to her with a candle flickering gently inside.  Her grey sweater was pulled tightly across her frail body and she held in her hands a tray piled high with homemade donuts.  The most wonderful smell of cinnamon and sugar wafted across the street, drawing innocent trick-or-treaters closer.

We looked at each other and screamed, certain that those doughnuts were steeped in poison.  We laughed, pointed, and jeered, “KEEP AWAY! HAUNTED HOUSE! POISON!”  We ran up and down the street loudly warning everyone about the crazy old lady, and telling them not to go near the house.

The old woman stood on those broken steps all night, proudly holding her treats and waiting for the children to come trick or treating at her house…but no one did.  Child after child, family after family scooted past, some politely nodding their heads hello, some looking away embarrassed or scared. No one stopped.

Later that night, after counting, and stacking and trading our candy, we climbed into our sleeping bags to tell ghost stories. One by one everyone fell asleep, except for me. I lay there, too frightened by the spirits of Halloween to close my eyes, and stared out the window into the back woods certain I would see the ghost of the murdered husband.

Then I saw it, a wisp of light, shining through the trees. What was that? I crawled to the window and peered out. A woman was running through the yard across the fence. She turned, looked around, laughed and headed towards the haunted garage. What if something happened to her? What if the ghost got her, or worse, that crazy old woman?  I had to warn her.  I tried to wake the others, but it was no use, so I snuck out the basement door and traipsed through the dark, cold October night, over the chain link fence and into the backyard of the haunted house.

I heard a giggle coming from the garage and snuck quietly up to the back, dropping in through in through a broken window. I landed softly on the floor and looked, there in front of me stood a young woman.

“Oh my,” She laughed. “You nearly frightened me to death!”

She was breathtakingly beautiful.  Her blonde hair cut short in a twenty style bob, her skin milky white and her eyes an icy blue.  She wore a flapper style iridescent, white dress, with loops of shiny beads strung around her neck, and a dingy grey sweater tied loosely around her waist.

“Did you hear us running in the woods? Sorry if we woke you. I was playing tag with him. I thought he came in here, but I guess he left…again. He always leaves.”  She pursued her lips together thoughtfully, and then clapped her hands together in delight.

“But now you came to visit!  I have been lonely for so long! This is wonderful! Come on, I will teach you how to Charleston and Shimmy. I’m Claudia.”

She took my hands and threw me around the room, dancing fast, singing and humming as she swept me away. Finally she stopped and leaned back against the locked wooden crate, breathing hard, catching her breath.

“Whew!  Wasn’t that was fun!”

She rubbed her hand along the crate lovingly.

“Do you know what is in here? It’s his piano.  He was a great pianist. So beautiful, no one played liked him…”

“And I was a dancer. A wonderful dancer.” She toyed wistfully with the beads around her neck.   “It’s too bad he left…” She shook her head sadly. “Why did he have to leave? I have been so lonely.”

“Hungry?” she said.

She grabbed a plate full of doughnuts that were sitting on top of the crate and shoved one in my mouth before I could protest.  I waited for the bitter taste of poison …but instead a warm buttery mix of cinnamon and sugar slid down my throat.

“Aren’t they just delish? It’s a secret recipe. They’re his favorite! I heard you and your friends screaming about them tonight during trick or treating, but I couldn’t quite hear what you were saying. I think you were saying how much you wanted one. Just think, now you can have then all!”

She began feeding me the doughnuts so quickly I couldn’t swallow them fast enough.

“Aren’t they just delish?” She kept saying as she pushed the treats in my mouth.

I felt them piling up in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. The doughnuts were landing one on top of another.  The smell of the cinnamon and sugar filled my nose, and I had trouble breathing. My hands clawed at my neck. I was desperate for air.

“Come on, dance some more, before it’s too late!”

Claudia grabbed my hands. She spun me around and around the room, crumbs and bits of sugary doughnuts flying out of my mouth, until together we dropped to the ground, and I managed to spit out the last bits of the sweet dough. I lay there gasping for breath as she chatted on.

“Can you believe he just vanished? Like that!” She snapped her fingers. “But you won’t leave me ever…will you? You won’t just disappear?”

Just then the first rays of dawn began to poke through the hole in the ceiling.

“Oh shoot!” She pouted, “I have to go.”

Her eyes narrowed and not for the first time that night I felt afraid. Her hand reached out, her blood red nails digging into the flesh on my arm as she tightened her grip.

”How do I know you will come back? You might leave me like he did and then I will be all alone again. I couldn’t stand it!”

She looked around, her eyes resting briefly on the crate, “Maybe I should put you in the…”

Then she threw her head back and laughed, “Yippee!” as she twirled around in the early morning sun.

“Never mind, there is no more time. But you better hurry back. I am lonely here by myself. I will make more doughnuts for next time! Hurry!”

And with that she left, her sweater catching on a nail and falling to the ground as she slipped out of the garage.

I ran home, climbed over the fence and back into the basement. Everyone was still sleeping, as I slipped into my sleeping bag, exhausted, and fell fast asleep.

I opened my eyes slowly. Outside the sun was shinning high in the sky and I could hear kids shouting and playing. My head was foggy, and it took me a minute to remember where I was.  My throat was parched and sore. I licked my dried lips, gagging when I tasted bits of cinnamon and sugar.   I stood up and fell right to the floor. My legs were aching and sore, as if I had been running or dancing all night. I slowly crawled upstairs and sat at the kitchen table, shaking my head as I tried to separate my dreams from reality.

My mother came in.

“Good morning sleepy head,” she said. “You sure slept late.”

The steam from her coffee cup curled above her head as she glanced outside through the backyard.

“What in heavens is going on over there?”  I heard her murmur.

I looked outside through the yard and saw blue police lights flashing through the trees. I got up from the table and ran through the backyard, throwing myself over the fence.

“Hey kid! What are you doing?”

I looked up. It was a policeman.  He was carrying a flashlight and a box of tools, and was headed towards the haunted garage.

“What? Where?”  I gasped.

“Are you looking for the old lady that lives here,” he asked gently.

“Too late sweetie…she died, last night sometime. Looks like she choked on a piece of a doughnut.  Sure is a mess in there…she was cooking up a bunch of them for someone, that’s for sure. Don’t know who she was doing all that cooking for though…”

He scratched his head. “She didn’t have any family.   Poor old soul.  Claudia Jacobs was her name. Guess she used to be a famous show girl back in the day, a real beauty I hear. Became sort of a recluse after her husband ran off with another dancer. Well, that was the rumor. He just disappeared one day. No one ever heard from him again.  She lived a lonely life after that…an odd bird. … Hey help me out, I hear there is some old stuff in the garage we might be able to use for the policemen’s auction next month.”

He tore down a few vines covering the entrance and we entered the dark garage, knocking over a few cans and wiping away the cobwebs as we went in.

“Well, I don’t think there is much in here,” he said, waving his flashlight around at the boxes of trash.

“Just an old ratty sweater and a bunch of crumbs. Must be a family  of happy mice in here somewhere… Hey! Wait, what’s that? That might be something.”

He knelt by the old crate.

“That’s a pretty heavy duty lock.  I bet there’s something really valuable in here!”

I stood behind him.  Using his crow bar he pried the crate open and as the wood fell away, the last piece of Claudia’s love story was revealed.

The piano. It was shiny, a glossy black, with sparkling white keys.  It looked brand new, as if it hadn’t just been sitting neglected in an old, musty garage for all those years but rather had been lovingly polished and cared for on a regular basis.

“Wooooo,” the policeman whistled. “This must be worth a fortune! I bet it will get a high price at the auction.”

A few weeks later I sat at the dining room table struggling with my homework and listening to the bulldozers in the back as they took down what was left of the old house.

My mom called in from the kitchen,  “Interesting story here in the paper, honey. Remember that old piano they found over at the poor old lady’s house? Looks like they auctioned it off last week, and when the buyer opened the top he found a headless skeleton inside….”

My heartbeat quickened, my throat tightened and I suddenly smelled the faint scent of cinnamon in the air.

My mom entered, a familiar looking grey sweater thrown over her shoulders, and in her hand she held a tray.

“Doughnut sweetie?” She asked.

And that’s a true story!

I still think of Claudia every Halloween, and I still can’t eat cinnamon doughnuts.       


Telling the truth, the whole truth…….

Plane approaching ZRH

Image by Adnan Yahya via Flickr

Hey ! I am a guest blogger on this week!  You can find my article there at





This is the piece I wrote…

Telling The Truth:

It was a beautiful day yesterday. A treasure to enjoy before the cold weather sets in.  Early fall, the sun was shining, the leaves just starting to turn orange, red and yellow.  We ran around as a family; cleaning the garage, cheering at soccer games, friends stopped by, the boys looked for frogs and played wiffle ball in the backyard. In the afternoon, my husband piled as many boys as he could fit in his car and took them out to lunch. I took Eliza, my four year old in my car. She wanted McDonalds (sorry health nuts), or Old McDonalds, as she calls it, so we went to get her Happy Meal, and I got the requisite boring mom salad.  We whipped through the drive thru and brought our lunch home to enjoy outside on the porch.

The house was momentarily still, as the boys were away and it was just my daughter and I enjoying our picnic.  We sat outside munching away, the leaves falling around us, and high above a plane flew quietly overhead.

“Look, Eliza a plane,” I said.

Planes play a significant, symbolic role in our little lives. At bedtime, I often tell Eliza a short story of her adoption. She will whisper to me, “Tell me the baby Eliza story.” And I will whisper back in the dark about the baby that needed a family, and the family that needed a baby. About how her dad and I got on a plane that flew high across the ocean to get her. We wrapped her in a soft, pink blanket and took turns holding her the whole way back on the plane.  When we got home, there was a big party for everyone to meet her, and her brothers and sister had made a beautiful Welcome Home sign that spread across the whole front porch.

It’s a soothing ritual and a way for her to always know a piece of her story. Just a piece.  I have never ventured far outside of the story. I have never explained what “adoption” means. It is just a word she knows.  It has been enough, for now.

But as we sat out there on the porch, looking at the blue sky and the plane sailing smoothly across, I thought, I should start telling her now.  So she will always know.  Not just that adoption means love forever, but the nitty-gritty physical part of the adoption; that another woman gave birth to her, that she was not created in my body, as her siblings were, but that another mom and dad created her…that whole piece I have left out.  I felt like I should introduce the concept soon, she is almost school age, she sees other women who are pregnant and is starting to ask, ”Why is her tummy so big?” Soon she will say, “I was in your tummy too once, right?” With my biological kids it was easy, “Yes you were! I remember you kicking me!” But now….what do I say?

It’s easy to tell her a bedtime story about a plane and wrapping her in a blanket of love…it’s not so easy to look beyond that. So, I thought I will tell her gently, slowly and we can talk about it in pieces, as kids thankfully do. I want her to always know so it is never a surprise, just a natural part of who she is…but I guess I also want her to know to make it easier for me.  So she doesn’t turn to me in public and say, “ I was in your tummy too, right?” So we can have our own discussions, on our own terms and then she can say just as proudly as any child, “I was born in someone else’s tummy and in my mom’s heart! ”

So on a splendid fall day, in a moment of quiet and sharing, I thought, “Here I go.”

“You know what?” I said, cheerfully.

She turned and looked at me. A chicken nugget in one hand. Her eyes big and brown, her long hair tousled, her sparkly shoes always on the wrong feet, glimmering in the sun.

“What mom?”

And in a sudden unexpected rush, I felt my throat close. Tears appeared out of nowhere. I couldn’t say it. I choked.  Because the truth is, I want her to be from my tummy. I want to be the one that felt her kick. That pushed her out into her dad’s waiting arms. I want to avoid the questions that will surely come, the possible pain she may have. I don’t ever want her to ever feel “less than” or unwanted. She is so not that.

“That plane sure is beautiful,” I said.

“Yeah!” she said. “I came on a plane, and you and daddy!”

“We sure did,” I said. “Come on, want me to push you on the swing?”

Anne Cavanaugh-Sawan

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. ~Desmond Tutu

Teeth, Feet and Fly…..

Kenny Rogers - Nov 2004 Photo by Alan C. Teepl...

Image via Wikipedia

Funny, the things we remember from our childhood. Often, it’s not the big expensive trip or the thing that cost the most, but the little pieces that make up the bigger ones: the crazy family car rides, the chaos involved in actually taking the family photos, the tree in the front yard.

Another story I wrote also made it to Editors Picks in The Readers Digest contest.  It is on the front page as of now, titled “Eddie.”

It is about the “photo” tree we had our yard growing up. The maple tree where we would stand and take all of our family event photos, first day of school, First Communion, prom, etc.


His name is Eddie. The big, tall maple that lived in our front yard. We named it Eddie because momma always said there was a refreshing eddy of a breeze that would come right around that tree in the sticky, hot summer. Eddie is in all our family photographs, the first day of school: “Go stand near Eddie so I can take a picture.” Easter: “Kids line up near Eddie. Quick, before you go get your church clothes all dirty!” Prom: “Why don’t you and George go stand over near Eddie? Ya’ll look so grownup!” Eddie was the home base for our massive neighborhood games of hide and seek “I gotcha ya!” “No way. I tagged Eddie first!” Eddie is still the first thing I see when I pull up to my parents’ house. A few less leaves, bending perhaps a bit more, but standing proud, delivering his cool breeze.

Do you like the Southern effect I threw in there? I think I wrote this after seeing The Help.

(My other Editors Pick, Sunday Car Ride, is now on the third page as more Life Stories flow in.  Some of them are pretty good…but ignore those and vote for mine,

Don’t you wonder what sorts of things your children will carry with them into adulthood?

I came across an article recently about Randy Pausch. You all probably know who he was, the Carnegie Mellon professor who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, gave a lecture to his students titled, The Last Lecture, which went viral and was viewed and read by people all over the world.  Originally written for his children, he shared it with a million others.  You can find his lecture on YouTube, or buy the book version.  It was a wonderful speech, the wisdom of a dying man, full of the kind of guidance and value only those in such a position can give.  Sadly Randy Pausch died in 2008.

The columnist in the piece I read asked people to send in one piece of  advice they wished to share with their children.

“One?” I thought, “That’s impossible.”

We humans love to give advice. We have whole magazines full of advice on how to parent better, how to lose weight, how to be sexier, how to clean your house.  And then there are books and movies and talk shows full of advice. Every month professional advice givers are coming up with new suggestions for us; people like Oprah (the almighty advice giver), Dr. Oz (who makes me want to run out and buy vats of disinfectant), and Charlie Sheen (who also makes me want to run out and buy vats of disinfectant).  Just please don’t take any instructions from that horrid Snookie person on MTV.

I realized that, thanks to all the media and wise people who have gone before me such as Randy Pausch, Dr. Seuss and Kenny Rogers, all the good advice has already been given. (What? You never thought of Kenny Rogers as a philosopher?)

“Do not tell people how to live their lives. Just tell them stories. And they will figure out how those stories apply to them.” (Randy Pausch).

 “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (Dr. Seuss).

“You better know when to fold them, know when to hold them, know when to walk away and know when to run…”  (The great Kenny Rogers, he is as of this writing still alive, although his plastic surgery debacle is awful!)

“Man,” I thought. “That’s not fair! Those people got to give a lot of advice! Not just one piddly little piece, lots!”

So…then I thought, I have some life knowledge I would like to share, but I can’t narrow all that valuable insight down to just one thing! Forty or fifty things maybe, but not one! I mean, who can only give ONE piece of advice?  Especially someone like me; I am a woman, a parent and a psychologist. That combination SCREAMS advice giving!

So, after mulling it over for some time, I managed to condense my infinite wisdom down to just three crucial life recommendations I would like to now pass on to the next generation.

Get your pens and paper ready!

Teeth, Feet, Fly.

When I was in college, a friend and I had a rule that when we were out and went to the ladies room, before returning to the table (or the bar), we were to check our teeth (for wayward pieces of food that might be stuck in there), feet (for a piece of toilet paper that might be trailing on the bottom) and fly (to make certain it was properly fastened).

Simple, basic, straightforward advice.

And while you are at it, teeth, feet and fly can also be expanded to looking after other proper hygiene issues such as brush, floss, deodorize, and wash. If you smell bad and look bad, you won’t get in the door: not for a date, not for a job.

This advice may help get you in but the rest is up to you.  (Such as look people in the eye, without being creepy.  Smile and answer them when they talk to you.)

And don’t forget to discreetly tell your friends when they have something in their teeth, or if their fly is down.  Wouldn’t you want to know? Isn’t that what a true friend does? Tells you when something is not quite right? Helps you out when you are in a jam?

(See how I managed to sneak in a lot of advice there? It’s a mom trick.)

Never Say Never.

Never Say Never.

Not as in a, “fight for what you want, and stand up for yourself” Justin Bieber sort of thing, (What? You never heard the Bieber song, “Never Say Never?” You obviously don’t have a teenage girl).

Although that’s all good and true, and you should stick to your guns and not give up (sneaking in more mom advice here), what I mean is never say, “I would never do that!” Because the truth is, we don’t know what we would do, or not do in certain situations. What words we might say, or how we might act.

I am not saying you shouldn’t have your beliefs, or values, those are important, but just realize there are situations in life in which we all become strangers to ourselves, and do and say things we may not recognize.  And if you say, ‘I would never do that,” in a judgmental way about someone else’s behavior and then later do something similar….it’s just awkward for everyone (Ted Haggard).

And, no matter what, when you are a parent don’t ever say, “My kid would never do that!” That is like the kiss of death! Once you look at someone else’s child’s antics and say, “Oh my God, my child would never do that!” I can pretty much guarantee you; your kid is going to do whatever it is… or worse.

Marry the one who makes you laugh the most.

Forget the one who your friends think is the cutest, or the one your parents think will be the most successful.  Life is long, trying and tiring at times.

Marry the one who makes you laugh the most.

Marry the one who makes you giggle at the most improper times.

Who makes you smile at the same time you are crying.

The one who makes you see the absurdity in all of it all: in life, in others, in yourself.

The one who makes you laugh when you come home from an important job interview in tears and tell him/her that you just realized that you had some leftover green thing from lunch  in your teeth the entire time.

Or who makes you smile inappropriately when you catch his eye in the middle of a serious school meeting regarding your child’s less than stellar behavior.

Marry the one who brings you joy, instead of flowers.

(Unless you are lucky like me and find someone with all of those aforementioned qualities, then go for it of course.)

So there it is.

My three pieces of advice  for the next generation.

Now it is you chance. What three important things do you want to say to your children, or family, or friends, or dogs before you go?

If you had three pieces of wisdom to pass on, what would they be?

There is no guarantee anyone will listen but I bet the next time you go the restroom you will remember Teeth, Feet and Fly….