Sunday, May 29, 2005

Ghosts on the Windswept Moors

Everyone has ghosts in their past. Love affairs never resolved, unrealized dreams, failed competitions, family secrets. I planned a two-day excursion to the Yorkshire town of Haworth in search of the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine, two of literature’s most tortured lovers. The novel I’m currently writing is set in the moors, where three Victorian-era women of diverse backgrounds in the same great house are reading Wuthering Heights, the dark, brooding novel by a new author called Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte's original penname). How could I write with conviction about the stark beauty of the Yorkshire countryside without feeling the wind whipping across the moors, walking a craggy-path up a heather-strewn hillside, sleeping in a cottage built from Yorkshire stone, viewing the late evening sunset over the cobblestone village of Haworth?

My visit to Yorkshire drew ghosts from my own life—both past and present. I’ve been a member of an internet writing group for several years. Futurist author Marshall McLuhan was spot-on when he claimed the world would become a global village within my generation. The World Wide Web made that happen. I’ve built weblationships with people through careful participation in various internet bulletin boards. Ian is one of them. A writer from Manchester with whom I’ve traded critiques through the years, Ian met me at the train station in Keighley and drove me into Haworth where I had lodging at the charming Aitches Guest House. Meeting a person whom one’s known only by their words and an occasional posted photograph puts flesh on an internet ghost. Ian and I talked about our current novels, he brought me a copy of the UK computer magazine for which he is an editor, and together we toured the Bronte Museum. Ian’s no longer an internet ghost from a cyber community; he’s a flesh and blood friend.

The spirit of my mother accompanied me on this trip. Visiting England was an unrealized dream for her and one of the things I regretted not being able to do with her. Through the years my mother had developed friendships with several English women—pen pals not unlike my internet weblationships. These women were related to a pastor we had known for many years as I was growing up. Brother Miles had been killed tragically in an auto accident in 1979 and following his death, my mother corresponded with his mother, Mollie, and his daughter, Ruth. Mollie passed away two years before my mother, but still my mother kept her correspondence with Ruth, who is a year younger than me. I had heard about Ruth from her father while he was alive, and then from my mother in the next twenty or so years. When I looked at my itinerary and saw that Ruth lived only a handful of miles from Haworth, I knew I had to look her up. I wasn’t sure how she’d respond to this person who’d known her father more than she had, but I wanted to do it for my mother.

I dug up Ruth’s address from my mother’s address book, but there was no phone number recorded. One of the haunting things about the internet is the easy access to personal data. With Ruth and her husband Philip’s address in hand, I googled their phone number within minutes. Then I called. It was rather scary, calling across oceans for someone from the past. Of course, it was probably spookier for Ruth to be the receiving end of such a ghostly phone call. Ruth answered the phone and after I explained myself, she was eager to meet with me. In all her years, Ruth had never met anyone who knew her father in California. And so I took the spirit of her father back to Yorkshire.

This is where my tears still build as I recall the moment. Ruth and her husband Philip arrived at Aitches exactly on time; Ruth clutching a photo album. We hugged as if we’d known each other forever, and in a sense, we had. I’d known all about her through my mother, but I had no idea that she knew so much about me. She opened her photo album to display pictures of her father surrounded by members of my family—including a shot of me at about 14 years old. I had seen these same photos in my mother’s albums for years, but seeing them here in England transcended expectations.

Ruth’s father had always been something of a specter throughout her life. He felt called to the Christian mission field shortly after Ruth was born and for reasons only God knows, he left his toddling daughter with his wife in Yorkshire while he evangelized America. Ruth grew up trusting her father in doing “God’s work,” but like any child, longed for a daddy. Brother Miles planted himself in Southern California, where he became an itinerant evangelist holding Bible Studies in people’s homes. And that’s where he entered my life. My parents held a Friday night Bible study in our dining room while I hid out in my bedroom until all the preaching was over. And Brother Miles was okay with that. He never badgered me to attend, never preached at me, never cornered me with condemnation. But he did tell me about his daughter my age back in England, and her name was Ruth.

After we shared our memories and poured over photos, Ruth and her wonderful husband, Philip took me in their Land Rover on a tour throughout Yorkshire. Both native to Yorkshire, Ruth and Philip shared a wealth of information about the geography, the climate, the culture, the architecture, and the history. Ruth amused me with tales of how she and her cousins played in the countryside, running through the moors calling “Heathcliff!” and “Cathy!” I shot dozens of photos: a stone house vision of Wuthering Heights rising from a hilltop contrasts with a courtly manor reminiscent of Thrushcross Grange; Yorkshire sheep stopping traffic as they meander down the road; aged stone bridges where automobiles now cross; sacred graveyards surrounding ancient church ruins; heathered hillsides budded in wait of summer’s purple bloom. I saw no ghostly phantoms haunting the moors, but specters of history in legend, in love, and in life haunt my imagination. And so I write.

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