"Mama, do you believe in ghosts?"
"Mm hmm," was my reply.
"Have you seen a ghost before?" was the next question.
I didn't want to scare my child, so I tried to deflect the subject.
"What are you wanting to be for Halloween?" I asked.
This got him to thinking. It's hard to come up with good, original costumes that aren't gory or inappropriate. One of his friends told me he was going as a pimp. The child was 9. The fact that child announced this with such aplomb frightened me.
"What was the scariest thing you encountered when you were a child?" he continued.
That was hard to say; I grew up with my Granny and while that woman was meaner than old Scratch himself, I saw her once wring the neck of a chicken. That chilled me to the bone.
I thought of how Aunt Sadie, Granny's oldest sister, would spend the night and recount tales of the Dacula nightriders - what they were exactly is still a mystery to this day but the tales Aunt Sadie would tell me would keep me up all night. She loved to tell me stories of things that went bump in the night, of haunts that roamed the halls of homes long departed and spirits that rose from the cemetery.
"You don't believe me, sugar, you watch out that window and look at that cemetery across the street ... you'll see those spirits start wafting above their grave and they will start looking for another soul to take back to the grave with them," Aunt Sadie would proclaim.
Not cool considering we lived across from a cemetery. And for some fool reason, when Aunt Sadie would visit, I would stay in the guest room with her, even though I knew she loved to scare me within an inch of life. As long as I would listen, the old gal would fill my head with her stories until she drifted to slumber, her snoring hopefully frightening off any vengeful haints wanting to carry me off.
"Now, I mean it, watch out that window, you will see those spirits start to rise, like floating wisps of smoke above their graves. But don't let them catch you, no, 'cause if they do, you will be the soul they take next."
I don't think it was necessarily appropriate for my great-aunt to be telling me that my tender soul was going to be taken if a supposed spirit across the street in a cemetery saw me watching but hey, this was the '70's before there was any parental guide lines for content. Her intent was to spook the shamrocks out of me and it worked.
Those were too scary to share with Cole; he took things quite literal and I didn't want him to be staying up late, scared over the tales I heard. I had forgotten all the details of Aunt Sadie's horror stories from my early years but they would have still been a bit much.
"Well?" he pressed on. "What was the scariest thing you faced as a child - Granny doesn't count, I know what you're going to say."
He knows me too well. Granny loved to scare me silly too, but unlike her sister who only visited once or twice a year, I lived with this mean old woman.
"You better behave, missy," the old woman would caution as we would head to Athens. I am not sure what I was doing wrong, maybe questioned the old bird as to why she was doing something. Maybe nothing and she was just getting her pre-emptive strike in to set the stage of fear. "If I have to, I will leave you at the witches' house. They eat children you know, especially mean, sassy little girls."
The witches' house was this big rock house that was on Athens Highway. It looked creepy and desolate, supposedly abandoned for decades but I swear, I saw a ghost or a witch or something in the window on the top floor on more than once occasion. Perhaps Granny picked up on that fear and wanted to capitalize on it as only she could - manipulating a small, sassy child's fear and overactive imagination.
"You wouldn't drop me off there would you?" I would ask, feeling a sense of dread sink into my bones.
"In a New York minute," she would reply. "That's what they do to little girls who don't mind and backtalk. They drop them off at the witches' house. Sometimes, if you are good, really good," she cast a doubtful glance my way, "you come back out. But if you ain't, you are put in the pot where they make sassy girl stew and eat you up."
I would ride all the way to the Classic City in complete and utter silence, my eyes watching the rock house until it was safely out of sight and I was safe from the cauldron of the witches.
Until one day, Granny gave her warning as we headed towards the downtown, threatening to drop me off at the house.
"No one that has ever gone in has been seen since," she said.
"Then how did you get out?" I asked.
I am surprised I am still breathing.
"Was Granny one of the witches?" Cole asked, his eyes big as saucers.
"No, Cole, she wasn't. She is something far meaner than that."
She is - she's the benevolent looking old grey haired lady wearing a sweater with kittens chasing yarn on it.
"Did Granny ever try to drop you off there?"
Oh, she threatened all the time but never stopped.
Cole digested all this, I'm sure wondering how his own great-grandmother could be so mean as to threaten to drop off his mother, a mere child, at a witches' house.
"Mama, is the witches' house still there?" he asked.
No, like most fairy tales the witches' house had a happy ending and one day, after years of Granny using the old rock house as a tool of manipulation, the house had been destroyed, knocked down and was replaced with a shopping mall.
"So the house is gone forever?" he asked. "Granny couldn't scare you anymore then?"
"The house is gone forever," I replied.
But the thrill, the possibility of being scared and knowing there is something a little bit spooky out there, will always remain.