Monday, August 22, 2011

Ghosts of Colonial Williamsburg

I stopped at Colonial Williamsburg to taste a piece of good old American history. Now, I never liked the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia since it was a glorified poster hall and everything (besides that cracked old bell) seemed one-dimensional. Williamsburg promised to be a living portrait of history, with the entire town operating the way it had three hundred years ago.

So it was. Complete with horse-drawn carriages and guides in colonial clothing, it was a step into the past. The apothecary was open, with lavender for fragrance, vinegar for flavorings, and iodine to prevent infections. Wigmakers demonstrated the onerous craft of creating a wig, the many months it took to perfect curls made of corn stalks and powdered to a dignified white for special occasions. There were concerts on the piano and harp, as well as grand balls held at the opulent Governor’s mansion in which glorious ladies and cavalier men danced the night away. This was where I fell in love with English country dancing, the elegant dance steps a la Jane Austen.

Near the Capitol building and the public gaol, there was a flurry of revolutionary activities like tar and feathering, as well as various patriotic proclamations that led to the Revolutionary War. There were simulated cases at the courthouse, including the very popular witch trial, and tours of the cannons, rifles, and bullets of the magazine.

Most interesting though, was that this quaint town was rumored to be haunted. Approximately half the staff who worked there believed that they had personally seen or heard a ghost. A blacksmith told me of someone turning on the faucets in an otherwise empty house and he found no one present when he searched the house. Another barmaid confessed that in King’s Arm Tavern, she witnessed the dartboard flying off the wall and hitting the head of one obnoxious guest who criticized the original d├ęcor of the place.

No one would be caught in the village at night and there were specific places to avoid. One was the Peyton Randolph house, one of the oldest buildings on the property. Apparently, a young soldier had died of illness on the premises and many claimed to see an apparition or heard heavy footsteps climbing the stairs. Another was the Wyeth house, where a certain Ann Skipwith had allegedly taken her life in the bedroom and locals believe her spirit never left.

Minions of the infamous pirate Blackbeard were known to haunt the streets through the sounds of old wooden carts. Nonetheless, I was assured, they were friendly ghosts. Small-time entrepreneurs even managed to make a profit from these supernatural happenings; numerous ghost tours inundated the average tourist.

Ghosts. Hauntings. Spirits of the past trapped in the present. I began thinking of the hauntings of our past, things that we had done and said that were regrettable and ultimately unforgettable. Such incidents spur guilt, an insidious beast which eats away at our authentic selves, until we become a shell of porous holes, unable to contain any exuberance or passion.

I remembered Roxanne, a big-boned bully who had “beat me up” in junior high. I ran into her at pharmacy four years ago, where she apologized profusely for the pain she’d caused me. She said that now she understood; she’d suffered from anxiety and depression and could not leave the house for a period of time. While I was picking up allergy medication, she was there for something more potent, a remedy to make her life stop hurting. I told her she needn’t be so hard on herself as I had forgiven her a long time ago. She responded in gratitude and relief, accompanied by tears of joy. She confided that she was incessantly haunted by the way she had treated me.

I realized that Roxanne was her own victim, far more than I ever was. So I was a bit shaken up, broken glasses, torn books, and endured a bit of social ostracism. I had moved on far more quickly than my perpetrator did.

Ghosts are more than the dead. Ghosts are the mistakes of the living, the reminders of what could or should have been, the bittersweet consequences of a decision gone awry. Ghosts are our greatest fears about ourselves and the most devastating truths which we are unable to face.

Ghosts are the scars of the soul. We all have them.

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