Places that haunt me

emily dickinson house

Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Mass.

When the tour guide said Emily Dickinson’s bedroom was under construction and therefore off limits, I felt so relieved. This great dread dissipated like vapor, and I enjoyed the rest of the 90-minute tour much more than the first portion. But I couldn’t explain it: Why didn’t I want her room, where the magic happened, to be set up and staged like the rest of the house? It’s a museum after all, and the point is to look at, to smell, and to touch (when no one’s looking) history.

Emily’s house, The Homestead, sits just away from the road, on a bump so slight one can’t really call it a hill. The exterior walls are warm yellow, and the whole structure is snuggled tight by tall trees. There is no roped off path that visitors must remain on, no straight and narrow. Visitors walk up the driveway to the entrance behind the house, like visiting a relative.

Skipping the gift shop immediately inside, the house is in historic condition and feels as if someone lives there. It is plain white, and peppered with small photographs and tokens of people who would have lived and died in the home. Emily, her mother and father, her sister Lavinia.

dickinson house

Austin Dickinson’s home (called The Evergreens) next door to Emily’s.

Next door sits her brother Austin’s estate, a strange looking house called The Evergreens. It’s largely unchanged since the Austin’s daughter, Emily’s niece, died and left it to a friend.

The raggedy original carpet coats the floors, torn and worn down in places. Few of the paintings still hang in the parlor where Austin and his socialite wife, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, entertained the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe along with politicians and other notable persons of the day.

It was thrilling, I’m not ashamed to admit, to see the house. But I wondered how Emily would’ve felt about all of this fanfare. After all, she cloistered herself for years of her life, whilst writing:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

I had dreamt about this visit since I was a teenager (and I’ve written about it before). I was a strange teenager. The first time I checked out the complete poems of Emily Dickinson from my library, I was probably fifteen, and I carried the book everywhere, borrowing it again and again.

In a crowded convention hall, dimly lit, I poured over the text before the Christian carnival began. Soon a worship band would come on stage, and people would sing and close their eyes and act like they felt something. They would want to feel good in the moment, somehow, by feeling bad about what they’d done in their lives.

Some friends, girls from church camp, showed up and took me away from the words. Exactly which poem I paused on I can’t remember. One friend read the cover and said, “Ooh, Emily Dickinson. Keep reading that and the girls will be all over you.” She was partly right, though the cause might’ve been my devilish good looks.

It was a weekend for becoming a strong person of faith, and it all made sense then. I had just turned sixteen. Sometimes, it’s difficult to believe that I was in those spaces, that I existed and grew at church conventions. Now it feels foreign, like Emily who found that the church services she used to attend weren’t her thing. She wrote:

Young Emily Dickinson and her family, during financial hardship, moved briefly out of the Homestead into a home that overlooked a graveyard.

Young Emily and her family, during financial hardship, moved out of the Homestead into a home that overlooked a graveyard.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I’m going, all along.

It would be much easier to believe it was all fabricated, that my memories were altered by some nebulous person to hide something. I’m just a dumb Hoosier, though, so it’s no use trying to monkey with my brain further.

Maybe part of me still haunts that space; maybe part of that space still haunts me.


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