Rescuing My Ghost Girl
The dreams returned every few months, several times a year. Without fail. For twenty-one years.
I dreamed of the different bedrooms I called my own so long ago: the blue room, the green room, and the brown room. The green was my favorite.
Of the living room’s red velvet wing-back chairs I used to curl up in, reading.
Of the kitchen counter, where I ate breakfast each morning, looking out the window through the pine trees at people passing on foot or bicycle, often on their way to the beach.
Of the family room downstairs where I spent hours watching VHS recordings of American TV shows because they were in English and therefore a link to home.
In that basement room, I cried hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a broadcast of the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
From ages ten to thirteen, this was the house I lived in, far from my childhood home in the Rockies. This new house was across the ocean, on another continent, in Helsinki.
The recurring dreams started shortly after we returned to the States. In some of them, I visited the house. In others, I still lived there. Often the house appeared different, and I discovered passageways or rooms I hadn’t known existed. Often the floor plan had changed. Or the whole place had been remodeled.
However they showed up, the dreams always had the same two constants: first, I knew I belonged there, and second, I knew I needed to return.
The house dreams began in junior high and continued through high school and college. But they didn’t stop there. Years after getting married, even after giving birth four times, I still had house dreams.
While raising a family, moving, and entering new stages of life, the one thing I could count on to never change was having another disconcerting house dream every few months. Not constantly, but anywhere from two to four a year.
I never had the same dream, and they never stopped. They kept coming even when my oldest child turned thirteen — the age I was when we returned to the States.
Why did I dream of a building I hadn’t seen since I got my first pimple? What hold did it have on my psyche? Generally, the dreams weren’t pleasant. They left me feeling wanting, uneasy. But I loved Finland. Why did I have these dreams, and why were they always upsetting?
In time, I realized that my three years in Finland defined much of the woman I would become. I arrived in Helsinki a girl. I came home a teenager. In between, I navigated the confusing waters of adolescence, which were confused further by doing so in a foreign language and on foreign soil.
Yet because I went through those intense changes and emotions while in Finland, the language and culture — the very soil — became a second home, tying themselves to me in a way nothing else has since. Or could.
So the house continued to call to me, leaving a hole in my heart where part of me belonged, as if I’d left something of myself behind.
Then, in 2008, twenty-one years after I left, I had the chance to go back to Finland. My top priority was visiting the old house, and the current residents generously agreed to let me stop by.
I walked up the steps from the street as if treading on holy ground, and when the heavy wood door opened, I could have sworn that I’d just missed a little ghost of my former self running down the hall and around the corner toward the sauna.
Following my ghost self, I peered into all three of my former bedrooms. Floods of memories came back: Sitting at the vanity table in the blue room, highlighting words I’d learned in my Finnish-English dictionary.
In the brown room, the spot I sat on my bed, leaning against the wall as I figured out a knitting pattern.
Playing eraser wars with my little sister in the green room, where later, I applied mascara for the first time and where I returned after my maturation clinic — which was in Finnish.
The house held emotions so thick that at one point I could hardly breathe. I could see myself sobbing into my pillow as I prayed for help with a burden my twelve-year-old heart could scarcely bear.
I saw myself sitting at the kitchen counter as I had hundreds of times. I walked into the cold sauna and wished I could sit on the bench with the wood stove creating the perfect heat and just be.
I remembered sitting at the baby grand, practicing, but not nearly as often as I should have. I envisioned myself drawing at the dining room table, curling my hair for school in front of the hall mirror.
Everywhere, I inhaled the smells I’d breathed as a child, which I couldn’t describe or explain using any term but home.
The longer I moved through the rooms, the more the ghost of my girlhood slowed down. Instead of running around corners, she beckoned me. She took my hand, leading me room to room like an old friend, wondering why I’d been gone so long but not holding my absence against me.
After soaking in each memory, I took a deep breath, gave the front hall one last look, and went outside. Standing on the porch as the door closed, I expected to have a frantic urge to knock and go back in. But the feeling didn’t come.
The ghost girl had known me, and she’d followed me. As I walked back to the street, I held her close to my heart. I’d come for her, rescuing the girl who’d spent three years trying to figure out who she was and where she belonged. That day, I said goodbye to the house in a way I’d neglected to when I left the first time.
That girl wasn’t left behind this time. She came with me, completing the woman I’d become. I brought her back to the States with me.
What I didn’t expect was for that experience to fill the void my subconscious once probed during sleep.
Not once in the ten years since that trip have I had a house dream. Whatever purpose they once served is gone.
I’ve been able to go forward feeling more whole. My soul is no longer fractured as it was when I boarded a plane at the age of thirteen, leaving a piece of myself wandering the halls of a house in Helsinki’s Marjaniemi neighborhood.
This time the only things I left behind were the dreams.