In 1957 my parents, younger brother and I settled into a cottage on the family estate at Rose Hill in Aiken, South Carolina. Aunt Bill (Claudia Lea Phelps) was my paternal grandmother's older sister. She lived in the big house up the hill. Rose Hill had been built by my great grandfather Sheffield Phelps and was typical of the late 19th century in Aiken, South Carolina, a winter resort for wealthy northerners. Rose Hill, like many of the mansions in town, was the family's residence from October until May. During the summer months the family returned to the north or traveled abroad.
The house was finished in 1901, surrounded by lavish gardens, a tennis court, stables, greenhouses, kennels and other outbuildings. Sadly, Sheffield Phelps did not live long enough to enjoy the house. In December 1902 he and his son were hunting in the nearby countryside when both drank from a well contaminated with typhoid. The boy recovered, but his father, only 35 years old, died on 9 December.
Sheffield's widow an attractive 30 year old was Claudia (called Gaga by her descendents). She became a bitter woman. Sheffield's financial mismanagement had left her nearly destitute with three young children to raise. It was only with help from her sister's husband that the Phelps family kept their home and social status.
It was this latter point on which Gaga was most tyrannical. She was the daughter of a prominent Delaware banker, and Governor of Delaware, Preston Lea. Her father-in-law had been William Walter Phelps, former minister to Austria and Germany. Gaga entered into fierce competition with the rest of the Phelps family on producing the "heir" to her father-in-law's political mantel. Thus she made careful distinctions between those children descended from her son Walter and those from her daughter Eleanor, with the former favored and the latter as second class kin.
In her latter years she began to drink heavily, dying on 31 Mar 1955 of colon cancer aggravated by cirrhosis. Aunt Bill, who had been her mother's constant companion, maintained Gaga's sitting room, dressing room and bedroom just as she had left them. It always seemed to me to be a short of shrine, an inner sanctum to be respected. While I despised the Pink Room because it was depressing, I was in awe of my great grandmother's rooms. I entered quietly and left quickly.
Mother always described Aunt Bill as a "squashed" personality, someone who had lived so completely under the will of her mother that she never really became her own person. Then again Mother never really got on well with the old lady. Gaga was mean-spirited, contemptuous of others, and quick to belittle -- and my mother was not willing to put up with that sort of thing.
Gaga would continue as a presence throughout the Rose Hill estate. Mostly she could be felt in her preserved rooms, but the cottage at the bottom of the hill was not off-limits. She and Aunt Bill had lived in the cottage as a cost saving measure during WW2. The room that had been Gaga's now belonged to my mother (my parents having divorced in 1958). Even as a small child I knew there was something different about Mother's room in the cottage. If she was out of the house, that room was always cold -- even when the heat blasted out of the vent -- and going into the room made my skin crawl. If I went into that room to get something I usually came running out, gasping for breath. It was a truly chilling experience. And I didn't understand why I felt that way.
It was only after many years (bearing in mind that Gaga died when I was a toddler) that I came to know more about her and the effect she had on others in life. By the time I was in my teens I had come to accept the reality of living in a house with my great grandmother, someone who had been dead for over a decade but no one had been brave enough to tell her "you can't take it with you and it is not yours to keep."
Things with Gaga finally came to a breaking point in July 1974. Aunt Bill was on her usual summer trip to Bar Harbor, Maine and my brother Al was staying in the downstairs bedroom, assigned the job of looking after the old house. This being the 70s and Al being a typical 19 year old, there was a;ways a party going on somewhere. With that huge house all to himself it was only natural that he would invite over a few friends -- They drank and partied until about midnight. Feeling happy, Al went upstairs to turn off the lights and was overwhelmed by a sense of sorrow and extreme unwelcomedness as he approached the area of the Pink Room. He chose to leave the lights on until morning.
On the second evening the same gang came over and after hearing about Al's feelings upstairs the night before came up with the idea that maybe they could "re-vibe" the house. With liquor looted from the well-stocked bar and the usual herbal intoxicants they partied in every room of the house, including Gaga's suite. After that things got weird. One lad decided he wanted to "crack the safe" and randomly spun the two dials and then pulled the handles. The safe doors opened at odds that Al calculated to be 1 in 100,000,000. Panicked, Seth attempted to close the safe -- which contained a vast fortune in silverware -- and to everyone's horror the doors locked open.
Al spent several hours taking the safe doors apart, resetting the tumblers and refilling the door space with sack crete he found in the garden shed. After his friends had gone home, Al felt the same overwhelming mass of despair and disapproval flowing through the house, but thought he could avoid it by just not going upstairs. He was almost asleep when the toilet lid in the adjacent bathroom banged shut by itself.
On the third night Al went to visit a girl, listened to music with her and shared a bottle of Aunt Bill's bourbon. Mildly drunk he returned to Rose Hill before midnight. Coming in through the kitchen at the back of the house, he was immediately overwhelmed with the You are REALLY unwelcome blues, which was - scary. As he passed from the servants' part of the house into the main hallway, he glanced up the curving staircase. There on the landing, he saw Gaga glaring down at him. Truly terrified, he threw all his belongings out the front door -- not willing to carry them through the house to his car at the back door. He walked around the outside to the car, drove to the front, loaded up, and drove to the cottage down the hill.
Mother and I were both up. She looked up and remarked, "You look like you just saw a ghost." Al said "That's not funny. I did." Whatever we thought was going on disappeared when we saw that he was pale and shaking. That just wasn't Al. He told us what had happened -- well, most of it. Some details were kept from Mother, but shared with me later.
Mother in the hopes that there was a "rational" explanation, suggested that maybe Aunt Bill had come home early, because Aunt Bill and her mother looked very alike. Al said, "No way. She was too short to be Aunt Bill."
Although we spent a lot of time with our great aunt until she died in 1984 and Al often sat drinking with her, we all stayed clear of the upstairs unless it was absolutely necessary.
For instance, at one time I was asked by my great aunt to do an inventory of the house's antiques, comparing the current arrangement against the inventory made when Gaga died. Again I was working in the summer while Aunt Bill was away. The servants were there during the day and so I was not as scared as if I were alone. I had already resolved my issues about the Pink Room. That just left Gaga's rooms to freak me out. Since my purpose was for the benefit of the property, I resolved that the old girl was just going to have to give me "permission." As I readied myself to enter her rooms I called out, "Great grandmother, I am here by request of Aunt Bill to make a list of the items in your rooms. Now just let me do my job." I waited for a few moments, then walked in. The rooms felt clean to me, empty of the energy that was so prevalent the rest of the time. I completed the inventory and left. The next time I went to those rooms the you don't belong in here was back. I apologized for my intrusion and left.
While we could never expect to get the old girl out of Rose Hill, the cottage was another matter. On one occasion when Mother was away, my friend Diane stayed with me. I put her in Mother's room. In the middle of the night Diane startled me awake by arriving in my bedroom, asking if she could sleep with me. When I asked what was wrong, she replied "There's some old biddy sitting in the chair next to the bed."
I felt the old chill return. "What was she doing?" I asked.
"Nothing really," Diane said, "but I got the feeling she didn't think I belonged there."
I apologized to my friend and tucked her in with me. Gaga was just not going to let go of the property, death be damned. In the end it would take another ghost to send Gaga out of the cottage.