We were faculty brats. This means we were one of those geeky families for whom finding the television in the house required the help of Sherlock Holmes. After all, it was placed such that it had to be wheeled away whenever my mother was working at her desk, and since my mother liked to write, and she also happened to be in charge of the family finances, the television was often hidden away in the corner. On a Sunday afternoon, you were more likely to enter our house to find it completely silent, if my father didn’t have Bach or Handel playing on what my parents called the “victrola” (one of those things that was actually a piece of furniture, far more important in our house than the huge, cabinet-ed, color TVs all my friends had that I so coveted), everyone’s nose buried in a book.
Needless to say, growing up on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C., home of Joe Camel, the Winston Cup (that’s a race for those who don’t know, and I’m not talking about horses), and about 500 "Christian" mega churches (back in the days when in most other areas of the country people didn't consider all these things to be emblems of American patriotism and freedom, but rather thought that upholding such things as The Constitution and its Bill of Rights were), we were not the most popular kids in school. Luckily, we had other faculty brats we could befriend.
One of these friends was Norman. Norman was an only child who must have, at times, been overwhelmed by our raucous clan (and we were quite raucous once you dragged us away from our books). Nine times out of ten, though, he’d join right in, being, for instance, one of the scariest of “giants” when we played a game in which “it” was a “giant” who went around capturing people and putting them in a dungeon where they had to stay until someone came to rescue them. I idolized him when I was very young, mainly because he was one of the "older kids" (being all of about a year and a half older than I was), and I idolized the older kids.
Usually, the older kids (following the lead of Forsyth and Lindsay, our two older sisters, who were the bosses when others came to our house to play) wouldn’t hang out with Ian and me, unless they needed more players for a game. Often, they’d do things like close themselves off in their bedroom, playing poker and listening to Steppenwolf, telling us we were too young, because the album had such songs as “Goddamn the Pusher” on it. As if we didn’t hear the word “goddamn” a hundred times a day around our house, and as if, at age eight, I knew what a “pusher” was. Norman was different, though. He’d hang out with Ian and me, probably because he was sick of all those girls (it seems most of the kids around our age, for some reason, were mostly girls), and at least half of the Ian-Emily team was a boy. I considered my skinny little self to be the toughest Tomboy around, so maybe that helped, too.
Anyway, Norman had come to stay with us for a few days while his parents were away, and on this particular afternoon, we were playing some sort of hide and seek chase game. He was determined to find the best hiding place in our house (a rambling old farm house) and had descended to the basement to do just that. I’d heard him go down, and knowing full well there were no truly good hiding places down there, figured he’d probably be back up in just a few seconds. He wasn’t. He was down there for quite a while. I was beginning to wonder if maybe there were some secret rooms down there we’d never discovered. Suddenly, he re-emerged, racing up the steep steps, the look of excitement on his face unmistakable.
“You have a grave in your basement!” (And you thought the Hardy Boys were the only ones who ever found treasures and mysteries just lying around in familiar places.)
Norman was not given to lying to us, but this sounded quite unbelievable. How could we possibly have a grave in our basement and not know it? We all raced back down together to discover that by “basement” he meant the scary crawl space neither Ian nor I had ever been brave enough to venture into for more than a couple of feet. We made our way through the dark tunnel, backs hunched, until we finally reached the rounded tomb, marking the grave. (My memory is failing me here, because I have no idea if we had flashlights or not, but it seems we must have. However, I can’t imagine Norman had one when he originally found it.) Our house was sitting on top of a grave! One for a baby, no less (“the infant son of”), we discovered when we read the engraving.
Thus began a long relationship with the curiosity that would help keep us from being the complete outcasts of the town, despite the fact we didn’t have a pickup truck with a gun rack sitting out in the driveway, wall-to-wall carpeting all over the house that was furnished with “suites” right out of The Newlywed Game, and a television set for watching that game show and others prominently displayed in a room called “the den.” Kids would come to our house for slumber parties, and we’d lead them on late-night tours to the “grave.” Many of these tours were aborted before we’d even reached our destination, because some of the kids who seemed so eager to see it just weren’t, well, all that brave, once they’d entered through the door of the crawl space.
Of course, romance and adventure is almost always about covering up things that really aren’t so romantic (even the Hardy Boys always got to the bottom of the mystery). My parents deduced early on that this tombstone couldn’t possibly be marking an actual grave. It was sitting on top of the plastic that had been laid down in the crawl space. No one knew for sure, but their theory was that it had been some sort of prank performed by the boys who’d lived in the house before we bought it, a tombstone they’d stolen from somewhere and hidden under the house. But none of our visitors had to know that. Can you imagine a slumber party in a house in which the best “ghost story” of the night has to do with the baby who's been known to "come a floatin' right out of that crawl space," witnessed many times by those who don’t sleep through the night? No wonder my father always complained that “no one slumbers at a slumber party.”