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Grandma’s Ghost Chamber

January 6th, 2014 at 11:11 pm

Flyover People column for Dec. 31



Last week, on a cold winter’s night when the wind was scaring up noise outside, I pulled the blankets to my chin. At that moment, Grandma Unruh came to mind.

When my brother and cousins and I spent nights with her during the winter, Grandma would come upstairs to check on us. At breakfast she’d always report, “You looked cold, so I put another quilt on you girls in the middle of the night.”

With six quilts fastening us to the bed, we couldn’t roll over, but at least we were warm.

Grandma’s place, a mile or so northwest of Pawnee Rock, was like many Kansas farms. The two-story home was sheltered on the north by cedars. The farm had a handful of outbuildings and the place was guarded by a watchdog named Shep.

The upstairs was unheated in the winter, without air-conditioning in the summer, and a little bit creepy all year round. As we climbed the enclosed staircase, drafty air swirled about us, as if we were being hugged by ghosts.

Haunted? Probably not. I’m pretty sure the creepiness we felt was something we brought upon ourselves.

I’ll bet you had childhood sleepovers at which you did your best to frighten yourselves, succeeded, and then spent the night deciphering the sounds of monsters.

We grandkids spent many nights at Grandma’s house. And I considered my cousin, Mary, to be worldly and wise because she was six years older than me, and was from the big city of Great Bend.

During her junior high and high school years, Mary often brought along a friend. Mary, her friend, and I would sleep in the bedroom that had belonged to Mary’s mom. My brother, Leon, slept down the hall in Uncle Laramie’s room. And Brenda, Mary’s little sister, a few years younger than me, got stuck sleeping with Grandma.

In those years before “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), Mary and her friend regaled us with urban legends of the day which seemed to always be about a young couple parked out in the country and that couple encountered a human who, unfortunately, had met with some form of evil in the woods and had a missing arm, leg, or head.

Since I didn’t have access to fresh horror stories myself, when it came time for my turn at storytelling, I often relied on the classic “Golden Arm” tale.

We were in the perfect theatre for ghost stories, the upstairs of that old farmhouse. On winter nights, the window panes, loose in their frames, would rattle in the wind. During spring and summer, violent thunderstorms shook both the house and our nerves.

As a town kid growing up surrounded by occupied homes, I felt vulnerable on the farm at night. A lone house seemed like a lightning rod for storms and for trouble.

We were about ten miles from Larned State Hospital – where the criminally insane were housed. Once, during a high school basketball game, the principal announced over the loudspeaker that a patient had just escaped from Larned State Hospital. He warned everyone, “Before you get in your cars tonight, be sure to check the back seat.”

At Grandma’s house, the city lights of Larned were a visual backdrop to the southwest, and the threat of an escapee looking for food, shelter, or victims seemed very real.

Inevitably, as we told our ghost stories, Shep would start barking at the edge of the dark field. When Shep’s barking suddenly quit, we stopped breathing. Was she silenced? Our imaginations would fly like the wind.

I reasoned, as any 9-year-old might, that if Shep were disabled, all we had standing between us kids and the bad guy was my pacifist Mennonite grandmother and Grandpa’s shotgun that she kept behind the dining room door.

But, on a previous occasion, I had watched Grandma wring the neck of one of her chickens – to make us lunch. So during those wide-eyed moments in the night, I felt oddly comforted by Grandma’s seeming enjoyment of killing chickens.

Between the two of them, Shep and Grandma managed to keep us safe from storms and from intruders.

Like any other set of kids who tell stories in the dark, we would scare ourselves silly, realizing too late that we’d gone too far. But then, the next time we stayed at Grandma’s house, we’d tell those stories all over again.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh


columns, life on the ground, nostalgia, seasons

  1. roger
    January 11th, 2014 at 14:33 | #1

    This was a particularly chilling column for New Years. Seemed better suited for Halloween. Still a great column evoking my own childhood memories.

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