rattling doors

Rattling Doors

As I work on the cookbook, I am reminded of many great stories from my family’s restaurant, the Treehouse, which operated in Eugene from 1977 to 1997. I needed no reminder of this story, though. This short tale of the rattling doors holds a very special place in my heart and soul.

Since it is Halloween weekend, I offer you this most positive ghost story. I don’t care for spook and gore, but I believe the spirit world is ours to access when we need it most.

Rattling Doors: A Ghost Story

The building that held the Treehouse had once been Ford’s Drive-In Restaurant. We had old postcards of the place but otherwise didn’t know a lot about it. Its heyday had been in the 1950s, and I don’t believe my parents had ever even eaten there. We did know that the place was said to be haunted by the ghost of Mr. Ford, who inhabited the upstairs attic apartment until his death. Various stories in the twenty years we occupied the place confirmed the haunting. This is mine.

Treehouse Restaurant, Franklin Blvd., Eugene, mid-1980s

It happened to me just as he said it did to him on a calm summer night. No wind blowing to offer any rational explanation. No one else to bear witness.

My father was in a private room in the cancer ward at Sacred Heart Hospital, close to the U of O campus and just a few miles from the Treehouse restaurant where the rest of my family and I had gathered for a late meal. We had left him to rest for the night after spending the bulk of the previous days with him. He was experiencing the last stages of prostate cancer, diagnosed about two years prior.

rattling doors
Mom and Dad’s 25th-anniversary party, upstairs at the Treehouse, 1980. (I’m in the hot pink polo)

We were gathered in the mini banquet room upstairs. The downstairs dining room was empty at the end of our meal, the waitstaff was gone, and most lights were off. The only activity besides our group upstairs was the kitchen crew cleaning up for the night.

As we wrapped up the evening and prepared to go home, I made my way downstairs to use the restroom behind the front desk, which occupied the space where my father’s office had been located before a remodel. It was dark and a little creepy walking through the main dining room, and I probably wished I had made my sister come with me, as it was quite a trek from where the rest of the family was gathered. I’ve never been comfortable in the dark. I don’t recall what was on my mind beyond being scared and sad and in disbelief that my big strong father, with his larger-than-life personality, might be leaving us. I don’t remember any details of the dinner conversation or exactly who was there and who wasn’t. The powerful moment that occurred as I exited the restroom was the only clear memory that survived.

rattling doors
The front desk where my mom put Dad’s picture next to her prized Mike Smith oil painting.

When the restaurant was in its infancy in the late seventies/early eighties, my dad spent many late nights there. Often he was not alone, there was a lot of drinking with friends and staff in those days, but there were plenty of nights he did stay alone in his office catching up on work. It was on such a night that he gave credence to the rumors of Mr. Ford’s haunting.

As he told it, he was all alone in the building; the dishwasher, who was usually the last of the staff to leave, had gone home. He was working in his office with the door open so that the big glass double doors, locked for the evening, were in clear sight. It was a windless summer night, so when he heard the rattling at first, he assumed someone was trying to get in, and he got up to see who it was. He wasn’t one to hide in his office, and he would have confronted an intruder. Vagrant hippies did not scare him, and they came around a lot because my mom would put soup and rolls out for them. There was no intruder, though, or vagrant hippie.

There was no one in sight as he looked beyond the glass onto the dark parking lot. He began to dismiss it, but before he could turn around and go back into the office, the doors rattled again right in front of him. He not only could hear the rattling, but he could also see the doors moving. He said it looked as if someone was on the other side physically shaking the doors. This was not the wind. He was emphatic on that point.

Dad, center, as the cowardly lion in one of the Treehouse dinner shows, aka Elegant Evenings. His business partners Jim and Danny played the scarecrow and tin man.

It was a remarkable story coming from my father. He did not believe in ghosts. We could tell it freaked him out, but he was a big talker and loved to tell it to whoever would listen. I’m sure some of us believed him, and some of us didn’t. I don’t remember my reaction to the story; my personal experience colored any prior memory, so I’m unsure what I thought at the time. I was pretty young and prone to fear, so I would imagine I didn’t want to believe the building I spent most of my waking hours in was in any way inhabited by a ghost, friendly or not.

In the late evening of July 14, 1989, as I exited the restroom and began to head back upstairs to my family, I walked next to the wide glass double doors, tightly locked for the evening. I heard the rattling first, then turned, looked, and I could see the doors moving. It was as if there was someone on the other side shaking them to get in. I very uncharacteristically stood there and looked out into the night to be sure. Of course, there was no one there, and, though I was unnerved, I wouldn’t say I was frightened. I felt a weird sense of calm. The same doors my dad saw and heard inexplicably rattling outside his office several years prior now moved for me, causing a startled stillness and creating in me a sense of profound knowledge. An assurance that this life, which I was so afraid he was leaving, is not all there is.

I have experienced that same feeling of “knowing” many times since, and I always consider it a gift. That first time though, as a twenty-year-old on the eve of losing her dad, was life-changing.

(I should add, once that magic moment passed, I sprinted back to my family, pulse racing, heart pounding. It was one of maybe three times in my life I have sprinted.)

When my dad passed over the following day, with my five siblings, mom, and I at his side saying the Lord’s prayer, it was truly awful, but I knew for sure he was not gone forever. I hear from him all the time, usually in the form of a rainbow.

Thank you, Mr. Ford, wherever you are. I’m sorry your old building is now a parking lot, though I’m certain, you moved on to higher realms ages ago.

rattling doors
Dad at his restaurant

Wishing you a safe and magical Halloween!

It’s said that All Hallows’ Eve is one of the nights when the veil between the worlds is thin – and whether you believe in such things or not, those roaming spirits probably believe in you, or at least acknowledge your existence, considering that it used to be their own. Even the air feels different on Halloween, autumn-crisp and bright.

Erin Morgenstern