The Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House is not haunted.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you about a couple of the ghosts who linger there. There’s a difference between haunting and lingering, in my opinion. The SMJ House feels like a comfortable home that no one wants to leave, even after they die. A home where, long after dinner is over, dishes cleared, candles burned down and moon risen, the spirits of family, friends and visitors drift around, reluctant to leave. They hope to linger on the porch only a short while longer, gazing down on the lights of town spread out below, maybe listening to the tinkle of the piano in the parlor.
The house really belongs to Alberta McMurphey, Her mother and father, Dr. and Mrs. Shelton, built the place and Alberta lived there most of her life, was married there, raised her six children there and now remains to oversee things and make sure nothing improper goes on. It is she I always thought about when dressing up for the Christmas party or Living History Day. I’d stand in front of the long mirror in the blue bedroom and imagine Alberta looking over my shoulder, tsk tsking. I’ve had a few people mention my apparent tendency to float down the great oak staircase, and I suspect this effect was Alberta’s doing, trying to make the most of my ungraceful, and distinctly unpolished ways. I was playing hostess in her house, after all.
My most personal connection came, to my surprise, with Eva Johnson’s husband, Curtis. Eva was the one who insisted on buying the house, and it’s due to her that the house is now a public treasure. Curtis was a bit of a recluse, a veteran doctor who served in both world wars. I ran into Curtis early in my career at SMJ as I was poking about in his inner sanctum up in the tower. That little room is stuffed with his memorabilia from both wars and his stay in the Philippines. As I toured his collection I was overcome by an overwhelming sadness. Being prone to depression myself, it didn’t occur to me until I sat in my car later with tears dripping that I realized I’d been visited by Curtis, that I’d stumbled across a great well of sadness that lingers on in that one lonely little spot in a house otherwise filled with laughter and grace. Through him the horror of war touched this haven of Victorian politeness and delicacy. It is Curtis we occasionally hear walking the stairs or pacing the kitchen floor when no one else is there and it is Curtis who reminds us how precious a home really is.
Is it haunting when, across the decades wildly different souls meet, acknowledge their shared fragility, and move on? If only we all had such a place to return to, a place to gather and to linger in good company.