Wilmington, North Carolina, is one of the oldest port cities on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It has a long and colorful history. It was Cornwallis' headquarters during the American Revolution and it was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. My mother grew up there but moved away when she married my father, but we visit regularly as my aunt lives there and my brother attends the university.
My aunt and uncle have always been serious antique collectors. At one point they even owned an antique shop on the Wilmington waterfront. 10 years ago, when I was about 7, they bought an old house in the downtown historic district. It was built in 1841 and when they finished renovating the structure, which had been close to condemnation before they bought it, it was one of the most beautiful homes in the area. It's a small house, almost a bungalow, with a great live oak in the front yard and a beautiful porch. It has a partially walled garden and several more large oaks in back.
I remember the first time I ever visited that house. I was in love with an old stone bench that was situated in one corner of the property near the fence that separated it from the neighbors' house. It sat beneath a gargantuan tree that dripped with Spanish moss and was surrounded by ivy.
My elder brother and I spent most of the day in the back because he had asthma and they were knocking out walls in the house and creating a lot of dust. Once he went in the house to use the bathroom, and while he was gone I have never been more scared.
What I didn't know then, but what I do know now, is that a banker had hung himself off the tree I was sitting under in the 1870's. He was a fairly shady character and had committed suicide after he failed to be able to pay a debt he owed due to a plunge in gold prices. I was terrified of being alone there, apparently without any reason.
It was midsummer in Wilmington, temperatures are usually in the 90's at this time of year, and I remember being unbearably cold. I sat stock still for ten minutes on that bench watching the path hoping my brother would come to get me soon. When he did, I hightailed it back into the house. I stayed inside the dusty, unairconditioned house for the rest of the day.
After that I refused to be in the back yard alone. I would even drag one of my aunt's five cats out the door with me if I absolutely had to go. This inane fear of that tree has never gone away.
When I was maybe 11, I don't remember the year, I was staying over night at my aunt's house for the first time. We usually stayed with my grandmother, but we decided to stay downtown that weekend instead. I was incredibly excited. I adored the house. It was warm with cherry red walls, hard-wood floors and the whole house was decorated with antiques, right down to the quilts on the beds. They even had an 18th century portrait of a young girl they had purchased because they thought it looked like me. In the guest room was a full-length armoir, like the one in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and I decided I was going to unpack and put my clothes in it. On the inside of the door was a mirror, and I could plainly see the dining room and my favorite of my aunt's cats sitting on a rug on the floor. She appeared to be looking at something and I followed her line of sight. I'll never forget what I saw.
There, standing against a wall, was a tall young man. He had unruly black hair and even from across the room I could see that his eyes were blue. He was handsome, dressed in a long navy blue woolen trench coat with dark trousers and black shoes. For a few seconds he smiled at me, a puckish grin, and then I blinked. When I looked back, he was gone. The smell of sea-salt and sea grasses lingered in the air, strange since my aunt was cooking a garlicky dish in the kitchen. I rushed into the kitchen to ask her if one of her friends was over. I knew my mother and uncle had gone to the grocery store and that my brother had stayed at our house 140 miles away. She informed me that no one was there except for us and the cats.
I went into the living room and sat down on the sofa. I had seen a ghost! I told myself again and again that I had imagined it, but I knew I hadn't. I glowed all weekend. I was never once afraid of this handsome young man. And when the visit ended I went into the dining room to say goodbye. I stood to the side facing the windows and said "Goodbye Frederick." Where had Frederick come from? I never have figured out why I called him Frederick that day, but the name stuck, and I continue to refer to him by that name. On subsequent visits after that I began to notice things. I lost my hairbrush once while inside alone when my mother, aunt and uncle were outside. I left the guest room for a glass of soda and when I returned a few minutes later, my brush was laying on my pillow.
On numerous occasions things of this nature occured. I also was afraid of the dark back section of the house and when sent to get things from there I would feel a hand on my shoulder and would smell the sea. I also got up the courage to go out back alone, or at least I thought I was alone, and would sit on the bench. I was still afraid and at these times I would feel someone brush my hair back.This could have been the wind, except that no wind was blowing. When my grandmother was dying I stayed with my aunt for over a month. I was constantly worried and upset at my grandmother's imminent death. I could feel someone's hand on mine at these times. Not cold like a dead hand, but warm.
Frederick has followed me home on several occasions. He has sat on my bed and stroked my hair when I was sick numerous times. I could always see the impression of where he was sitting on the mattress, but I couldn't see him. Once, while I was at school, I was skipping my lunch to work on a project with a friend. It was fall and the windows of the room were open, making it a little chilly. I said something to the effect of "It's cold in here. When I get up I'm going to close the windows." We both watched as each of the four windows open carefully shut themselves. The room smelled strongly of salt wind even though we were almost 200 hundred miles from the sea.
Frederick has never left, even as I've grown up. When he appeared, I was too old for imaginary friends, and I feel him even now. I'm convinced he was a sailor due to his dress and the smell that accompanies him. What I do know is that he's somewhat of a protector and has watched out for me and comforted me over the years, and that I'm very happy to have him around.