My Own True Ghost Story

 

My paranormal life, with all its awe and impossibility, began with my earliest memory of all:  waking up in my little bed sometime after midnight to the sound of ghostly footsteps on the stairs.  The phenomenon was one that occurred every single night in the house on Bell Avenue, on Chicago’s northwest side,  from the day my mother and father bought it until the time I began high school some fourteen years later, but it was one to which I would never grow accustomed.  (The photograph here shows me in front of the house circa. 1993, when I was studying religion and American culture in graduate school. )

In fact, I know now that it was the fear of that nightly visitor that led me to a lifelong interest in the Other Side.

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The house on Bell Avenue had been built by my mother’s great-uncle, Andrew Erbach, who helped to develop the largely German neighborhood of Northcenter, an enclave of the Lakeview settlement of Chicago.  My mother grew up two blocks away from our home, and even as a young woman working her way through school at Victor Adding Machine, she’d heard stories of the house’s haunting.  Years later, my mom became a fifth-grade teacher at St. Benedict Elementary School, just across the street, where I would attend, and there she met my father, Adalbert Bielski, a beat cop on traffic duty who led her across Irving Park Road each morning and afternoon.

When the two married, in the Fall of 1966, my dad’s apartment at Fullerton and Kedvale became their home together, but almost at once, my mom found herself expecting my older brother, Adalbert James, and she longed, naturally, to find a proper house.  Her search began and ended at the run-down orange brick home her uncle had built, which at the time stood across from the convent of St. Benedict, the communal residence of many of the school’s teachers.  When my mom saw the “For Sale” sign on the property, she was enchanted.  Nothing would stop her from making this unlikely place her family’s home.  When my dad saw it, however, he was less than enamored of the ruined floors, the dilapidated plaster, and the second- floor bathroom toilet, which had fallen through the ceiling to the front room below.  “It‘s a barn,” he said.  My mother was optimistic.

As the months went by, no offers came, and my mother became a frequent drop-in at the real estate office, asking whether the price of the place had decreased.  Though endless weeks went by without a nudge, one day, at last, her persistence paid off.  The asking price of $22,000 had dropped to $17,500, and my dad said okay.

For months, while my mom waited for the baby to arrive, my dad worked to make the house livable.  The job went far from smoothly, as he used fly-by-night labor recruited from the Bluebird Tap at Ashland and Irving Park, but sometime after my brother was born, the first floor had reached a state akin to livable, and the Bielskis moved in.

For two years, my mom and dad slept in the formal dining room on the first floor.  My older brother, Adalbert James, slept in a crib in the adjacent kitchen.  During those years Chicago cops worked rotating shifts, some months from 8 am to 4 pm, some from 4 to midnight.  Other months, they’d endure the first watch, from midnight until just after dawn.  During the nights over the course of those years, when my father was on duty, there were times my mom would awaken in that makeshift bedroom, sure she had heard sounds from the uninhabitable upstairs halls.  Decades later, she would still recall the breathless times spent standing in the darkened kitchen alone after midnight, my brother softly breathing in his crib, as she strained, listening with every nerve, to verify some movement beyond her imagination. When the upstairs rooms were finally renovated, some three years later, the doubts she’d had about the reality of the sounds instantly dissipated.  In fact, in the course of a single night, we all became believers.

I don’t quite remember that very first night we slept in the upstairs rooms–my mom and dad at the top of the stairs, my brother and I at the back of the house–but my mom and dad (and even my brother) always would.  The night came during my dad’s turn on the evening watch, so he returned home soon after midnight and, after my mom had fried him a plate of eggs, they climbed the stairs to bed.  Sleep came quickly, but almost at once they were awakened by the sound of footfalls on the ancient oak stairs, the treads creaking in succession from foyer to landing, for all the world as if someone were stealthily making his way to the second floor from the front hall downstairs.  Instinctively, my dad reached to the nightstand for his service revolver and, a moment later, swung around the door frame to confront the intruder.  To his  astonishment there was no one there, though, as he looked down the steps, the sound of the footfalls continued as clearly as before.  After a few moments, my anxious mom called out to him.  His response was: “Lory, come look at this.”

And so, that night, the two stood together at the top of the hall, mesmerized by what they could hear, but neither see nor quite believe.   Roused by the sound of voices and the blazing hall lights, my brother and I–just four and three years old–soon joined them.  I am told that I stared for the briefest second, then at once began to cry.

For thirteen years, the footsteps continued, each and every night, jarring us awake each time as they had that very first time.  My brother and I grew up, my mother and father grew older, we–and the house–changed in so many ways.  The footfalls were a constant for all of us–something strangely familiar and utterly reliable, though the nature of them completely undermined any sense of stability we might have garnered from anything else as habitual.

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Along with the footsteps, another movement–at the time totally imperceptible–began that first night, in that house, and deep inside each of us.  We couldn’t have known it then, but that night a door opened for all of us.  That door swung wide on an immoveable sense of wonder and curiosity–and yes, fear–that started with those footfalls and goes on even now.   That night, the house put us under a spell that has never quite been broken.  And though, thirteen years later, the footsteps finally ended, that door has never closed.

 

It wasn’t until I was nearly thirty and Chicago Haunts, my first book, was published that we discovered the likely identity behind those seemingly endless phantom footfalls.   We learned the story from Marilyn Gulan, a friend of my mother’s who had taught with her at Horace Greeley Elementary School, not far from the Lake.  Before my parents bought the house on Bell Avenue, Marilyn and her husband had lived in the single frame house directly across the street from our future home.   According to Marilyn, our former tenants were an elderly brother and sister who had grown up in the house and, after their parents and other siblings had passed on, remained.  The sister suffered a serious mental illness which confined her to the house for her whole life.  Most likely, she should have been institutionalized but was not.  Day after day, Marilyn told us, she would sit at the window of the house on Bell Avenue, staring out into the wider world that was, since infancy, lost to her.

Heartbreakingly, this woman had longed since girlhood to become a nun–a path, like most others, closed to her because of her health.  What she did, then, was to participate in her longed-for vocation the best she knew how.  Each morning, she would adorn herself in a long, black dress and a  black veil she had sewn herself.  And this was the garb she wore each day, during those hours–and years–of sitting at the front room window.

It’s hardly surprising that the house gained a reputation as haunted, with its somber, unmoving woman in black stirring the imaginations of the hundreds of school children tramping past the place each day, terrified and entranced at once by her mystery.

But that the house was in fact haunted?  That the rumors were more than mere legends? How to explain it?  It was a question that has tugged at my mind since that first footfall,

because the Woman in Black was not the only entity that haunted me as a girl, nor the only inspiration for my future life of ghost hunting.  In fact, one of the most enchanted places I’ve ever known was just two blocks away: my grandmother’s house, where my mother had been born.

The house was a towering Victorian two-flat, quite unlike the typical Chicago two-flat I live in today.  Upstairs, my grandma, Frances, and her husband, Joseph, raised six children–three boys and three girls–in a cramped two bedroom apartment.  For most of her life, my mother’s bed was the front room sofa, where she would study by the light of street lamps before turning in, while her brothers slept in the attic and the baby in the formal dining room.  As restricted as the living arrangements were, the house was rendered magical by an astonishing garden at the back of the house, overflowing with heirloom poppies, floxgloves, bleeding hearts and forget-me-nots, and made mystical by an aging sundial, a wooden windmill my Uncle Joe had built, and a rock garden and grotto he had fashioned in my grandmother’s honor.  It would be impossible to describe the impact that garden had on my cousins, my brother and I when we were growing up, the eight of us often spending days or weeks together there in the Summertime, but I will mention that many of those nights were spent on the back porch of my grandmother’s flat, overlooking the garden, while my aunts and uncles and my older cousins told  thrilling stories of the paranormal.

It was on those summer nights that I first heard of baby Frances, my grandmother’s firstborn, who had died of pneumonia as an infant, and whose cry even we sometimes still heard drifting through the house as we slept on the front room floor on those hot nights.  It was on those evenings that I first heard my grandmother’s stories of growing up in Wisconsin, when embalming was unheard of and loved ones were often buried alive.  It was on one of those nights that I first heard the story of my great great aunt who sat up at her own wake and attacked her husband with the fireplace poker for mistakenly declaring her dead.

Years later, when I was in high school and my grandmother was gone, my Uncle Joe lived alone in her old flat, where a heart attack took him, one night, to the other side.  When he was alive, Uncle Joe had spent the first hour of each morning feeding the birds in the backyard.  He would tear up a loaf of bread and, sitting at the old wooden table, scatter it over the porch railing for the sparrows, cardinals and pigeons that would congregate in the garden at dawn.  The morning after his death, my Uncle Norbert, who lived downstairs with Aunt Frannie, came out of their flat to take out the garbage.  As he passed under the porch to make his way to the alley, Uncle Norb was showered with torn-up bread, as if my uncle were still alive, feeding the birds as he had always done.

The events that transpired at my grandmother’s house had company, too, at her son Eugene’s home a few blocks west.  When Eugene married Catherine Schroeder, they moved into a single-family house across Western Avenue in which the previous owner had committed suicide, hanging himself in the garage one Winter morning.

My Uncle Gene was an insurance salesman, and had worked out of the den off the front room of the pleasant home, so he and my aunt were home together most of the time.  One night each week, however, Uncle Gene would go out alone to his lodge meeting, leaving Aunt Katie in the house alone.  As soon as he closed the front door behind him, as Katie would tell, the locked kitchen door would swing open, almost as if in response.  Sure that this was the ghost of the former tenant coming in from the garage, Aunt Katie (utterly fearless) would call out, “Come on in! Gene’s gone out!”

 

      When I wrote the first volume of Chicago ghost stories, Chicago Haunts,  I dedicated the book to my father, Adalbert Stanislaus Bielski, and readers have often asked me why.  It’s no secret to those who know me that I credit much of my interest in the paranormal–and in Chicago–to my late father, who died just weeks after I began college, soon after my eighteenth birthday.

When I was a child, like many of my peers, I hated school. Luckily for me, my mother went back to work as a Chicago Public School teacher when I began kindergarten, and my father took early retirement from the Chicago Police Department to care for me before and after the half-day school program. My father had hated school, too. Moreover, he loved my company and preferred to have me spend my days with him than with my teachers and classmates at St. Benedict Elementary School.  And so I rarely went. When the inevitable inquiries came from teachers, the school secretary and, later, the principal, Adalbert Stanislaus Bielski — gruff, loud, and more than a bit intimidating — would scare them off for days or weeks at a time, with my mom none the wiser.

I still have the report cards from those days: 14, 27, 45 days and more absent. And I smile when I remember the distinctive education that my dad provided on those days. For they were spent decidedly afoot; indeed, I credit my dad with introducing me to the Chicago I grew to adore, as well as to some of the city’s most famous ghosts.

One of the places we frequented was Graceland Cemetery, the breathtaking ossuary at Clark Street and Irving Park Road, just up the street from Wrigley Field.

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When I was eight, my dad taught me to drive there, sitting me up on a phone book in the green Duster so I could see over the wheel.  If I did well, he would reward me by taking me to the grave of little Inez Clarke—the enigmatic ghost girl believed to still play among the graves on stormy afternoons (photo left, by Matt Hucke of Graveyards.com)–and to view the foreboding statue of Eternal Silence, the hooded figure who guards the grave of Chicago magnate, Dexter Graves.

Many days, my dad and I would visit relatives and friends in the old neighborhoods where he’d worked and lived.  Stories of the supernatural were always close at hand.  Sometimes we’d visit the old Maxwell Street Police Station, from where he’d retired, and the desk sergeant would tell me Chciago ghost stories of the screaming they still heard at night from the notorious old basement lockup, where inmates had died by the dozens when the district was one of the bloodiest in the world.  Some days we spent time with old buddies in Albany Park, where my dad had attended Transfiguration School as a boy, and where–one dreadful afternoon at the age of twelve–he had seen what he described as a devil’s tail hanging from the bedroom window of the family home.

On a freezing Fall morning one year, my dad introduced me to Chicago’s most famous phantom, Resurrection Mary. Most researchers, most ghost hunters, most documenters of her life and afterlife have met the elusive Mary in magazine articles, newspaper clippings, or – classically — around a campfire in hushed tones. I met her on a barstool at the tender age of five, drinking a Shirley Temple at Chet’s Melody Lounge at 11 AM on a Wednesday morning, when I was supposed to have been in school.
I think this is why, twenty-five years later, I became enchanted by one particular incarnation of our most precious Rez Mary: a 12-year-old South side girl named Anna Norkus. Like me, Anna was also a second-generation Eastern European American Chicagoan. Like me, she loved life and music and dancing. And, from a very young age, Anna was (like me) her father’s best friend.

The Summer before my dad’s death, I happened to be home the July afternoon that the phone call came from my Aunt Jessie.  Jessie was the longtime girlfriend of my dad’s twin brother, Andrew.  The two lived alone–well, with a poodle named Dolly–above Jessie’s elderly mother at the top of a treacherously steep staircase on Erie Street, near Grand Avenue.  This particular afternoon, Andrew had gone across the street to repair a window in one of the apartment buildings they owned on the block.  An unfortunate–and frankly unknown–series of events ended in Andrew’s three-story fall from the window and the frantic phone call to my dad from Jessie.

My family immediately headed to Northwestern Hospital, where the paramedics had rushed Andrew, but my dad didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry.  When we asked why he wasn’t more upset, dad said simply, “He’s already dead.”

In fact, Andrew had actually spoken to my dad on the telephone after the accident, claiming that he was fine, swearing like a sailor, and insisting that he didn’t need to go to the hospital.  Despite his animated response to the fall, however, we did find out–hours later–that Andrew had died in the ambulance on the way to Northwestern.  Only my dad–his identical twin–could have known.

Six months later, in early December, my mom and dad were watching television in the living room of the house on Bell Avenue when–from out of nowhere–my dad turned to Mom and said, “My brother’s at the door.”  My mom just looked at him, then calmly stated, “Andrew is dead.”

My dad didn’t respond at first, but crossed his arms and continued watching T.V.

A minute later, he said it again: “Lory, I’m telling you, my brother’s at the door.”

My mom, patient, rose and crossed to the foyer.  Opening the front door, she checked the porch and stairs and returned to the couch.  “You must be hearing things,“ she said.  “A branch against the glass, the air in the storm windows.”

“I’m telling you,” he replied, “Andrew is at the door, and he’s come for me.”

Though the incident passed, a day later my dad took me for a ride on Lake Shore Drive, stopping at Montrose Point, where we used to fish sometimes when I was little.  We sat on the rocks that early December afternoon, and the sun was really bright.  Just before we got up to leave, he turned to me and said, “I want you to know that I’m going to die.  And that’s it’s okay. Don’t you worry, Annie.”

Now Anne is my given name.  Ursula is actually my middle name, but the one that I’ve used since I was twelve. When I began going by my middle name, my Dad–who had been opposed to such an ethnic name when I was born–was one of the first people to consistently call me “Ursula.”  He hadn’t called me Annie for years, but now here it was again.

I think I called him a fool and told him to stop it.  At seventy-two, he was in nearly perfect health and without any reason to suspect the end.

We went home.

The next day, my dad stumbled in the kitchen and fell against one of the tall, old, iron radiators, hurting his ribs.  Thinking he had bruised them, he decided to stay in bed for a day or two while he recovered.  Two days later, he walked down the stairs to open the door for my mom–and collapsed in the front hall.  As it turned out, he had broken two ribs, one of which had punctured his lung, causing internal bleeding.  Less than a week after the knock on the window, my dad had passed away.

 

My own true ghost story didn’t end when my dad passed away.  In fact a few days after the funeral, my brother came home from a meeting and was getting ready to go up to bed when a thunderous banging began on the back porch door, as if someone was desperately trying to get in.  The door shook as though it would become unhinged, yet no one was there: the door was paned in glass and, clearly, no one stood beyond.  The banging went on for nearly fifteen minutes, while our mom and I slept soundly just upstairs, unmoved.

In the weeks that followed, we became gradually unglued by all manner of phenomena: footsteps on the stairs, as we’d heard when we were children; voices in the next room that would dissipate when we entered. One afternoon, we heard my electronic keyboard playing upstairs; yet when we entered my bedroom, it was under the bed, as it always was, with no batteries installed.   As the time progressed, the activity increased, until each evening was punctuated by loud hammering from the basement.  One Friday night, about two months after my dad had died, my mom and I were watching television in the front room.  My brother and I were attending college in the Western suburbs, and I had elected to come home that night, while my brother stayed at school.  At about nine o’clock he called us, and he was quite homesick.  We were all still very taken with my father’s recent passing, and we had been clinging to each other through those first weeks.  That night, on the phone, we talked for many minutes.  He said he wished he’d come home.  We said the same.

About ten minutes after the phone call ended, my mom and I heard the most incredible sequence of sounds from the front hall:  keys turning in the locks, the noisy old front door opening and closing behind itself, the locks turning again, and the chain sliding across the latch.  We turned to each other while we heard the distinct sound of the interior door brush against the foyer carpet.  I opened my mouth to say, “Adalbert is home,” but the words caught in my throat.  My brother and I had spoken on the phone just ten minutes before.  In those days before cell phones, he was forty miles away.

There was no doubt in either of our minds that someone had come in the front door, but it was impossible.  We were sitting in full view of it.  The experience was so real that we became immediately convinced that an intruder had someone gone upstairs without us seeing.  My first instinct was to run, to go next door and call 911.  My mom, ever sensible made another, whispered suggestion:  “Let’s wait at the foot of the stairs,” she said,” and listen.”  Our house was nearly a century old, and she was right: if someone upstairs took a breath, a floorboard would creak.  We would know.

So we stood there, at the base of that staircase our ghost had traversed each night when I was a girl, and we held our breath, and we listened.  Not fifteen seconds later, a wondrous thing happened.  We heard the sound, not of a creaking floorboard, but of a mountain of boxes tumbling down.  A moment later, we were finally next door, calling the police.

The neighborhood, then, was absolutely serene, and five minutes after our call six squad cars arrived on the scene.  My mom and I stood outside, on the neighbors’ steps, freezing in the February night, while twelve officers searched the house, two by two.  We were utterly certain that, any moment, one would come out with our invader in cuffs.

But none did.

A search from attic to basement by six pair of Chicago’s Finest yielded no one, and nothing had been upset, despite the incredible sounds we had heard.

In the end, the last pair of officers left, asking us if we’d be okay.  My mom and I, trying to be tough, said yes.  When they walked down the stairs, I heard one say to the other, “Must be ghosts.”

The next day, I called our parish office and asked to speak to a priest about a personal matter.  I was put in touch with the newly ordained, who had received his commission just the Summer before.  When I stammeringly told him what the problem was, he said, “Don’t be embarrassed.  It happens all the time.”

That young priest came to dinner that winter Friday night.  My mom made her specialty:  Wiener Schnitzel, with all the trimmings.  We laid the table in the beautiful dining room my great Uncle Andrew had built, with the built-in oak china cabinet, where we had celebrated so many happy times.

We had to stop the meal halfway because of the footsteps upstairs.

The priest went to the foyer and retrieved his prayer book.  He stood and made the Sign of the Cross.  “Sustain our hearts,” he began, “and make us glad and grateful.”  We left the festive table, and we followed him through the house as he blessed each room.  There was a different prayer for each one, I remember, and we heard rumblings as we went.  There was the prayer for the kitchen, where we asked to “be thankful for our daily bread.”  There was the prayer for the bedrooms, in which we asked for the grace “to keep watch with Christ.”   There was even a prayer for the bathroom, where we prayed “to be refreshed in mind in spirit.”

When we had finished, we returned to the dining room.  We stood around the table, where, twelve years later, we would toast my father’s memory, after my wedding, with family and friends bursting the house, and champagne everywhere.  “Be our shelter, Lord, when we are at home, “ he said, “our companion when we are away, and our welcome guest when we return.”

Everyone sat down again, and I went to the kitchen and poured the coffee.

All was quiet in the house on Bell Avenue after that night.  That is, until August of 2018 when my mom passed away.

Two months shy of her ninety-first birthday, my mom was found dead by her morning caregiver in the kitchen Mom had loved so much–where we had once prepared the dinner we served to the priest who had come to put Dad’s ghost to rest so many years before.

A few days after the funeral, I was alone in the house in the adjacent dining room, crying as I took down my mother’s china and collectibles, dusting them to prepare the house for sale, a thought which devastated me.  At a moment when my quiet tears turned into a gasp of sobbing, suddenly an enormous crash erupted from the enclosed back porch.  My tears abruptly stopped as fear gripped me.  I softly walked to the kitchen, passing through it to the porch.

Mom had kept her microwave oven on top of a cabinet there, next to the back door. She would heat up her oatmeal and tea in it most mornings. I’d warmed up many jars of red cabbage for our holiday dinners in it, too, over many years, and the baby bottles for our daughters when they were little.

With no one else in the house and myself two rooms away, the glass door of the oven, about two inches thick, had shattered into a million pieces.

-Ursula Bielski

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