The final evening of my daughter’s college graduation extravaganza, I crawled into a four-poster bed with my husband, Steve, in one of America’s most haunted cities: Savannah, Georgia. It was midnight. Steve fell asleep quickly, but my overexcited brain refused to cooperate with the rest of my exhausted body. I finally drifted off to sleep when angry shouting pierced the stillness of the twilight. The noise came from the sidewalk below the window of our second-story bedroom.
F— you or I’ll f—ing…
My ears strained to make sense of what sounded like an argument. I heard only one man’s voice; was his companion a soft-spoken woman? Was she in danger? Was he talking to himself? Were we in danger? My mind assessed the possibilities, aware that loved ones were sleeping in bedrooms on the floors above and below us. We had rented the entire Addams family-style mansion, built in 1865, to accommodate a host of out-of-town guests.
Did someone put a hex on this family?
Steve went to the window. I could see his head and shoulders in silhouette, as he pulled aside the heavy lace curtains. The voice retreated into the distance. No gunshots. No sirens. I fell back into an uneasy sleep. I would idly wonder, hours later, if the cursing man had put a hex on us.
The next morning, after Steve deposited our sons at the airport — one headed back to college in Michigan, one headed home to Minnesota — we went out to brunch with my parents. Our daughter, Louisa, and her best friend, Grace, met us at the restaurant, a hipster vegan place Louisa chose because Grace was vegan. Grace appreciated Louisa’s thoughtfulness, but she didn’t appreciate the pretentious attitude of the server, Troy, who had a man bun and a beard. She worried that he would give vegans a bad name, especially after she inquired about the tea options. Troy assured her with an earnest smile that the restaurant’s teas were crafted by a “legitimate witch” who gave them her special blessing. We wanted to laugh but who were we to question the legitimacy of a witch?
Louisa and Grace would consider, hours later, the possibility that the witch’s blessing had saved them.
We said our goodbyes after brunch; the two young women drove off in my car, packed with all of Louisa’s worldly belongings, headed toward Atlanta on an adventure that was to cover the1400 miles between Savannah and our home in Minnesota.
My parents, Steve and I had driven that same route in my car, but in reverse, days earlier. Now, the four of us climbed into a rental car and headed toward Charleston, where we planned to spend the day.
When you are part of the sandwich generation, you compartmentalize your fears
When you’re in the middle of the family sandwich, caring for aging parents as you’re launching your adult children, you have to compartmentalize your fears. With my daughter and two sons headed north, I turned my focus to my parents, and considered the possible pitfalls of a day trip to another haunted city filled with cobblestones. How could I minimize the walking for my parents who seemed less steady on their feet these days? We had nearly completed the two-hour drive to historic downtown Charleston when my worries about my parents went out the window.
My cell phone buzzed, and the display told me it was Louisa. But the voice on the other end belonged to Grace.
“First of all, we’re OK. But…” Grace paused.
But. A three-letter word, followed by a pause that gave me a second to brace for the worst. What could it be, a flat tire?
“The car’s on fire.”
“The car’s on fire?” I repeated aloud. Steve, who was driving, looked at me. My parents, who were sitting in the back seat, got quiet.
“We pulled over to the side of the road, and we’re out of the car. The fire seems to be just in the rear, on the passenger side — wait, no, now the entire car is engulfed in flames,” Grace said.
My brain froze, and my eyes filled with tears. I tried to think. Was this really happening? How could I best help them? What were the right questions to ask, and what advice could I give?
Grace mentioned that she had fled the car without her purse and overnight bag. Louisa had taken only the car key and her cell phone which had been in her jeans pocket when they exited the car to shouts of “Get out of the blast zone!” Grace then said she had to go because the sheriff’s deputies had arrived. I didn’t want to hang up, but she promised to call me back when she had more information.
“We’re almost to Charleston, but we will turn around and drive to where you are,” I told Grace.
My dad would later marvel at how calm and collected Steve and I were, how effortlessly we worked as a team, when presented with this new parenting crisis. I didn’t feel calm or collected in the moment. We quietly divided up tasks as we drove back toward Savannah; calling our insurance agent, the airline to get two additional tickets for our next-day flight to Minneapolis and the TSA to find out how we could get Louisa and Grace on the flight without driver’s licenses or passports.
We dropped my parents off near the Savannah city center, close to the trolleys. It was my parents’ first trip to the city, but they were experienced travelers, and I had to trust that they would be okay on their own for the rest of the day.
Louisa and Grace were waiting for us outside a rural county jail where they’d been taken after the incident on the freeway; the burned-out skeleton of a car was taken somewhere else to be examined by the fire marshal and an insurance adjuster. We would never learn the cause of the fire.
By the time we embraced them in teary hugs, Louisa and Grace had already made three lists: a list of things they’d lost; a list of things to do; and a list of things they were thankful for. I could barely speak, I was trying so hard to be strong for my daughter, whose eyes were red and puffy from crying.
The kindness of strangers
As we drove them to Savannah, with a stop at Target to buy pajamas and toothbrushes, they told us about the people who’d driven past and honked at them, alerting them to the plume of smoke coming from the back of the car; the couple in the RV who stopped to help because they had daughters about the same age; and the guardian angel named Shelly, who let Louisa sit in his air-conditioned cab and take shelter from the 96-degree heat and intense noon-hour sun while Grace called me from Louisa’s phone. Shelly, whose truck was inexplicably packed with boxes and boxes of single-serve cereal and a week’s supply of fresh shirts, had also offered to drive them to the Atlanta airport, if necessary.
This part was almost too much for me, the kindness of strangers. It was the only magic I really believed in.
That evening, over pizza and beer with my parents, who had found their way back to the mansion, Louisa and Grace told us one more story. The last of Louisa’s belongings to succumb to the fire — the last thing Grace could see that withstood the conflagration until the volunteer firefighters arrived — was the wool sweater Steve knitted and presented to Louisa when we dropped her off for freshman orientation. Our lifelong Harry Potter fan had chosen Ravenclaw colors, blue and bronze, and the striped sweater had gotten her through all four years of college. It seemed like a hopeful sign that it had nearly survived. I told her it made me think of Fawkes, the phoenix in the Harry Potter books, who bursts into flames and rises from the ashes.
I kept up the façade of motherly strength until Steve and I crawled back into that four- poster bed shortly before midnight. A muffled, woeful noise kept me awake, a sound that came from inside the house, from inside me. I clung to Steve in the dark and sobbed, inconsolable, in the waning minutes of that awful day. I didn’t really believe in voodoo curses or witch’s spells. I was haunted by the ghosts of what might have been.
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Joy Riggs is the author of Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man (Nodin Press 2019). She writes about parenting, history, and travel from her home in Northfield, Minnesota. She’s the mom of a college freshman, a college senior, and a successfully launched college graduate. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.