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We decided to accompany my mother-in-law on a trip back to her childhood home of Wabash, Indiana. Seeing a person’s hometown is like going to the movies with someone who’s already seen the picture. They want to tell you all about it. They can’t help themselves. In our case, that translated into a heavy schedule of activities planned for us for the three days we were there.

The first item on the agenda was dinner at the home of Richard Ford, a man my mother-in-law knew as a child. We had to rush to get ready because dinner was at 6 p.m. and we only arrived in Wabash at 5 p.m., no thanks to the fact that we passed the left hand turn for the town and missed Wabash entirely.

My mother in law in downtown Wabash

I’d heard about Richard for years, not just because he’s the brother of one of my mother-in-law’s closest childhood friends but because she’s very sentimental about Wabash, and Richard has spent the last several decades using his family’s vast wealth to resurrect it. He painstakingly renovated a 1920s hotel in the center of town. He restored an old theater and drive-in movie. He created a museum dedicated to Wabash County. And he purchased a bunch of the houses abutting his family home and turned the grounds between them into a nature preserve, with a man-made waterfall and a maze made out of trees, that’s open to the public.

As we rushed to get out the door, my husband, Bruce, said, “I can’t find the money.”

We’d taken $300 out of the bank just before we left home. Bruce handed me $60 when we stopped off at a drug store, but he hadn’t seen the envelope of cash since.

“Did you leave it in the drug store?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said, retracing his steps. “I can’t think about this now. My parents are waiting for us downstairs.”

When we arrived at the party, everyone was out on the patio having cocktails. Richard isn’t just a philanthropist. He is a facilitator, using his connections to bring different types of people together. The guests at our dinner party included the editor of the local newspaper, The Wabash Plain Dealer, a man who headed up the National Park Service under the first president George Bush’s administration, a local preacher who’d written a book about Wabash, and a man who used to book Christian Rock acts in New York and Nashville but now heads up the Honeywell Foundation, a local charity founded by Mark Honeywell, a Wabash native who invented the thermostat.

From the yard, we could see Richard’s childhood home, a large brick building that was about a third the size it was when his father purchased it. The elder Ford apparently thought the original house was too large for his family so he knocked most of it down. Richard’s tastes are less restrained. After seeing onion domes on churches in Eastern Europe, he had an architect create a mold so he could install one on his home and another on a building in the nature preserve. He painted them in a green and gold pattern that resembled a twist of soft ice cream.

Wabash’s favorite daughter, Crystal Gayle.

Over cocktails, the former head of National Parks told a story about how The Mall in Washington, DC was under his jurisdiction so when it was time to plan a July 4 celebration there, he invited Crystal Gayle of Wabash to sing. Given that Wabash was being represented, he invited the people of Wabash to attend. He didn’t expect anyone to show up, so when the logistical staff asked him how many people he expected from Wabash, he estimated about 10 or 15. He didn’t know that back home, they had chartered three buses, and 150 people showed up. They were given preferential seats, with a great view of the show, though the editor of the Wabash Plain Dealer missed the fireworks because he was filing story after story about the event for his paper.

Conversation over dinner was interesting, though I’d had a pretty stiff bourbon beforehand, and the only thing I remember talking about is the Five-Hour Energy drink, which is now produced in Wabash. When the company opened up the plant in 2007, a lot of local residents got jobs there, though many of them were let go when the recession hit. Apparently, the company has been pushing the product locally, bombarding the airwaves with television commercials, though hardly anyone at the table had ever tasted it – with the exception of the newspaper editor, who said he sometimes drinks it to stay awake in order to get the paper out.

“Doesn’t it make you jittery?” I asked.

“It has the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” he said, no doubt repeating the commercial.

The next morning just before breakfast, Bruce went to get money from a bank machine. Because he’d lost the envelope with all of our cash, he didn’t even have a dollar this morning to buy a cup of coffee. We had to borrow money from his parents the night before to pay the babysitter. But he returned from the bank after just a few minutes saying he now couldn’t find his bank card.

“Do you remember where you used it last?” I asked.

“I used it to check in,” he said. He went to the front desk to see if they had the card. They did not.

“We’ll find it,” I said. I felt sorry for him. It’s hard enough losing your money and your bank card. It’s worse when it happens in front of your parents.

We ate breakfast quickly and met up with his parents, who were taking us on a tour of Wabash. We drove by my mother-in-law’s first family home — most of the front lawn has now been paved over — and then by her second family home, which was on a beautiful tree-lined street. Bruce asked his father to slow down so he could get a good look at the houses, but his father continued on. We drove by Richard Ford’s family business, The Ford Meter Box Co., and into the south side of town, where my mother-in-law would ride her bicycle to her job as a lifeguard.

My mother in law told us that Wabash was the first electrically lighted city in America. A man from Cleveland had invented an electric light machine, and he wanted to test it somewhere. Hearing that he was willing to pay some money, Wabash’s town council volunteered to be used as the test site. Four 3,000 candle-powered lamps were hung from the flagstaff at the county courthouse, and when a switch was flipped, the candles went on, sending out a blinding light that could be seen for miles.

“People on the south side of town could read their newspapers by it,” my mother-in-law said, no doubt parroting the stories she’d heard as a child.

My mother in law told us about Modoc, the elephant, who was in town for a circus, but while waiting to perform, a dog barked, sending her fleeing. The elephant ran through downtown Wabash, smelled peanuts roasting in the local drug store and stormed the door, knocking the roasting machine over and eating the peanuts that were all over the floor. She then smashed through the back door, frame and all, and continued on a rampage for five days, making national headlines.

Eddie sitting on Modoc replica

My mother-in-law told us about a white woman named Frances Slocum who was kidnapped by the Indians but that her brother never stopped looking for her. By the time he found her years later, she had become a member of the tribe and was married to a chief. Despite the years, her brother recognized her by her finger, which had been disfigured as a child. She refused to leave the tribe. For years after she died, an old Indian sat vigil by her grave with a shotgun. I’d heard my mother-in-law tell this story before, and I’ve always detected a bit of intrigue in her voice, as if Frances Slocum could have been her or any one of her friends.

As we drove by my mother-in-law’s high school, Bruce once again asked his father to slow down, but his father took no notice. We then went to the cemetery where my mother-in-law’s parents are buried. As we headed back to the car, Bruce turned to his father and said, sharply, “Next time we go by something, can you stop?”

“All right, all right,” his father said, smiling. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed for being scolded or if he thought it was funny that his son was miffed.

Frances Slocum’s shoes.

When we got back to town, we stopped off in the Wabash County Museum. We watched a short film about the town, and in one scene, an 18-year old employee of a local mill talks about how an old farmer would come into his mill every few weeks with a couple of ears of corn and ask him to grind it up. The young man finally told the farmer if he’d bring in half a dozen ears of corn at once, the young man wouldn’t have to walk up and down the stairs so much, he wouldn’t have to change the belt on the machine so many times, and the farmer could save time and gas money because he wouldn’t have to make so many trips to the mill.

The farmer looked down at his feet and considered what the young man said. “But then we wouldn’t get to visit,” he replied.

“Well, now, I guess you’re right,” the young man said. “I’ll see you next week.”

While the museum was filled with artifacts from Wabash’s history, many of the displays were of world events and how they affected Wabash. It reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” in which Manhattan’s 9th and 10th avenues and the Hudson River loom large, and the rest of the world just sort of trails off from there.

My mother-in-law’s father

As I moved through the museum, Bruce walked over to me and said his mother had found a photo of her father on the wall. When I found her, she was standing in front of it, beaming like a school girl. In the picture, her father is straddling a bicycle wearing a black suit jacket with a boutonnière, black derby, round glasses and has what looks like a handlebar moustache. His eyes had a playful, mischievous look, and I saw in them something familiar: my husband.

When we got back to the hotel, there was a message on my telephone. I didn’t recognize the number. When I listened to the voicemail, a gentleman said, “I’m looking for Caren. If this is Caren, and you’re in Wabash, Indiana, please call me. My name is Ron.”

For a moment I thought it was someone who’d read my blog and wanted to offer me a book contract. I always hope to be discovered, like Tracy Chapman in a subway station. I called him back immediately.

“This is Caren. And yes, I’m in Indiana,” I said. “Who is this?”

“Did you lose some money?” he asked.

Good Samaritans in Indiana

“We did!”

He’d found the envelope full of cash. It turns out he was staying in our hotel because there was a country western singer playing down the street, and he’d found the envelope on a ledge near the ice machine. Inside the envelope was the deposit slip I’d received from the bank when I deposited some checks before we left. He Googled the name on the deposit slip and found my web site, which listed my cell phone number.

I met the man and his wife in the hotel lobby and retrieved our money. I offered to pay him $40 for his honesty, but he declined. I then asked him if I could at least buy them a drink. He again declined. I wondered what would have happened if we’d lost the money in our home state of New Jersey. We might have gotten a call from someone who came upon our money, but I imagined the packet returned to us would have looked like the end of a fishing line, when you’ve felt a nibble, and you reel the line in quickly only to find an empty hook with a shredded piece of worm and a bit of seaweed.

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About 2 a.m. last Thursday, the recording on my son Eddie’s “Winnie the Pooh” tabletop game began to play. First the music: Buh duh dah, duh duh dah, duh. Then Pooh’s syncopated voice: “Can. You. Help. Me. Find. My. Friend. Eye. Ore.” I don’t know why the toy went on. You either have to press one of its buttons or knock into it as you walk by for it to begin playing. In my semi-consciousness, I decided the cat must have crawled across it. It was either that or an intruder, and I preferred to think it was the former.

It went on by itself.

The next two days were filled with activities, and I didn’t give the Pooh incident a second thought. I stubbed my toe on our kitchen table leg and may have broken it. I frantically made phone calls to report a story on which I’m behind. And Eddie and I went out to lunch with our friend, Doris. We then went to an antique store made up of booths from different dealers, and Eddie ran around lifting small items from one booth and then depositing them in the next when he would find another item more interesting.

Saturday night, after my husband, Bruce, put Eddie to bed, we retired to the living room to watch television. As often happens, I fell asleep on the couch at about 10.30 p.m. and Bruce went upstairs to bed. Around midnight, I was awakened by our cat, who was swatting at something in the next room. I didn’t know what it was, but it’s usually something I care about deeply, so I yelled out her name, “Fish!” and then tried to go back to sleep. But it was fruitless. Once I’m up, I’m up, and so I went upstairs and tiptoed into my office, which is just off of our bedroom where Bruce was asleep, and I turned on the computer.

I checked my email and went on to Facebook, reading posts and clicking on links to stories I would never find interesting during the day. After about an hour, I decided to go to bed. I turned off the light in the office and crept into bed, feeling my way around the metal bars of our iron footboard in the dark. As I lay down on my pillow, I could see the light of the computer monitor emanating from the office, and I considered shutting the office door, but I figured the screen light would shut off soon enough, and I didn’t want to have to get up and negotiate the metal footboard with a broken toe again in the dark.

Our bedroom light mysteriously went on.

About two hours later, something woke me – perhaps Bruce’s snoring — and as I opened my eyes, I had to squint because the overhead light in our bedroom was on. It seemed especially bright, like car headlights. I woke up Bruce.

“Did you turn on our bedroom light?” I asked.

“What light?”

“Our bedroom light. That one,” I said, pointing to it. “Did you turn it on?”

“No. Why?”

“I don’t know how it got on.”

“I don’t know,” he said and rolled over.

When I woke up again the next night and found the light on, I wasn’t even surprised.

“It’s on again,” I said to Bruce.

“So it is,” he said and turned over to go back to sleep.

I view the existence of ghosts much the way I view the existence of God: with a lot of skepticism but a healthy respect that borders on fear. Basically, I don’t believe they’re out there until I’m given reason to believe they are – and then I want to run like hell. Bruce’s sisters say they have heard ghosts in the guest room of his parents’ house. It’s an eighteenth century stone house, and every time we spend the night there, I lay in bed with my eyes wide open for about forty-five minutes, listening to the floor boards creak and the radiators pang before I relax enough to fall asleep.

The haunted guest room

I’m not someone who sees ghosts. My mother is our family’s self-appointed medium. She says moments after my grandfather died, he came to her in her sleep to say goodbye. And she tells the story of how my brother, Steven’s image came into her room one night when he was very young to say he had to go the bathroom. She called it his “astral projection.” A few minutes later, my brother actually did walk into her room to say he had to go.

I may have seen a ghost once, the ghost of my father, about five months after he died. It was 10 years ago, and I was in my parents’ house in Florida, sleeping in the guest room, which is across the hall from my parents’ bedroom where my father died. I was lying in bed not yet asleep, my eyes open, and suddenly a circle of little lights began to dance on the ceiling above me. I assumed it was headlights coming from the street below, though I didn’t hear a car, and I was on the second floor of the house. I watched the lights as they moved up and down, as if someone were holding a dozen little flashlights and shaking them back and forth. I was captivated. After about five minutes, they stopped, and that was that.

At the time, I thought the light display might have been my father, showing me he was there. But it was in a period when I thought lots of things were my father, like a plastic bag that the wind carried next to me one morning as I ran down the boardwalk. The bag followed me for about half a mile before the boardwalk turned right and the bag went straight, getting caught on a metal fence rail. I jogged in place for about 30 seconds hoping the bag would extricate itself, but it didn’t.

When I woke up this morning, I thought about our bedroom light and wondered whether it was caused by an electronic malfunction. We use a remote to turn the light on and off, and I wondered whether we were now on someone else’s frequency. We once installed a battery-operated doorbell that used frequencies like those that open a garage door, and every time our neighbor’s doorbell rang, so did ours.

My father, as a young boy

In fact there are probably logical explanations for all the recent happenings in my house. But I prefer to think it’s my father wanting to visit me and my son, Eddie, who bears my father’s name. After all, today is my father’s birthday. It’s not surprising he’d want to spend it with family.

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