Caussey's Corner

Where Is Lavender? A Ghostly Romance From the Days of WWII

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The Mohawk River is a river of passage. It is the door from eastern New York between the Adirondack and the Catskill Mountains to the west. For generations it has carried all types of people and cargo from New England via Albany to Syracuse; then becoming a springboard on to Buffalo and the Great Lakes. Just south of the Mohawk and east of Otsego Lake lies Cherry Valley. This small, pristine, and fertile valley is the setting for the story about to be told.

The time is 1943. War rages in Europe. The city of Stalingrad was barely hanging on against the Nazi hordes. The Japanese attacked and have fed on most of Asia since 1939. Now they are slowly withdrawing across the Pacific toward their homeland, with US Marines and British Commandoes in pursuit. All that remains of Rommel’s Afrika Korps is bleached bones and rusting tanks scattered across the sands of the Sahara at places like El Alamein and Tobruk.

It is now May of 1943. Italy would surrender to the Allies in September. Bob and John were seniors, and on their way to the senior dance at the local high school. The evening was cool, and the smell of fruit trees filled the valley air with pleasantries that helped keep thoughts of the war away and not once part of their conversation.

Bob and John didn’t have dates and were going “stag.” Bob had borrowed his uncle’s old Ford truck and John, a fancy black sports coat from his brother, who had just recently married. His brother was so proud of the coat that he had sewn his name, Benny Turner, on the inside of the collar.

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Photo: @arinaerish via Twenty20

They headed north on the Old Orchard Road, but as they approached Black Flat Bridge, they saw an attractive girl wearing a pastel dress, standing on the side of the road near the bridge. John saw that she was truly beautiful, and encouraged Bob to pull over immediately.

John introduced himself and Bob to the girl. She said her name was Lavender and she lived nearby. The boys invited her to go to their senior dance with them. The girl quickly agreed, indicating she loved to dance.

Lavender got in between the two boys and they started to the dance. As the cab of the truck was crowded, John placed his arm around Lavender, reflecting how cold her shoulders felt. John and Lavender talked all the way to the school. This annoyed Bob, so when they arrived, he went on in ahead of the couple. He announced to all his friends that John was coming, and bringing the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.

John and Lavender danced every single dance. John found himself dancing with a degree of expertise that he had never known before. The other students marveled at how well the couple danced together, and even made suggestions that they were witnessing a summer romance in first bloom.

Bob, who had become a little annoyed and somewhat jealous, suggested they leave. As they drove Lavender home, she again appeared cold, so John placed his borrowed coat around her shivering shoulders. She suggested that since she lived near the bridge, they could just let her out there. They stopped on the bridge. When Lavender got out, she stood next to John, and gave him a cold, moist kiss on the cheek.

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Photo: @andrealism via Twenty20

“Thanks for taking me to the party. It has been a long time since I have danced,” she said.

Then she walked across the bridge, disappearing into the fog that restrained the truck’s headlights.

Bob laughed and commented to John that he had lost his brother’s coat and all he had was a kiss to show for it. John said that she must live in one of the few houses on the other side of the bridge, and they would come back the next day and get the coat.

The next day, the boys drove across Black Flat Bridge and started making inquiry about Lavender. No one seemed to know her, and appeared to not want to talk about it. The last house along the road was bigger and appeared better kept than the other homes they had visited. They knocked on the door and an old, slightly stooped lady answered. They asked if she knew Lavender. She said that she did, and that Lavender was her daughter. The boys felt that there must be some mistake, because the woman appeared to be too old to have a daughter so young. Maybe she had meant to say granddaughter or great-granddaughter.

They went in, and the old lady took a picture from the mantle. “This here is Lavender. Her name was Emma Strong, but she liked to be called Lavender because of a dress of lavender that I made her for her 16th birthday,” she said. “This was taken in 1901, when she was 16 years old. She died in 1903.”

She handed them the picture. The boys both looked and knew that this was the girl they had taken to the dance. They explained what had happened to the woman. The old woman just smiled, appearing to not be surprised.

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Photo: @nikkicron via Twenty20

“Lavender really liked to dance. In fact, she was killed by a wagon and team of horses down by Black Flat Bridge, while waiting to go to a barn dance one night.”

The boys told the old woman that Lavender couldn’t be dead because they had been with her last night. “You can go find her grave in the cemetery by the church down the road if you don’t believe me,” said the woman.

The boys drove to the old cemetery. As they got out, Bob commented that they would never find her grave among all the hundreds that were in the cemetery. They looked out across the stillness of the graveyard.

“There,” said John, “What is that on that tombstone?”

The boys walked over to a grave that had a tall thin, granite monument on it. The word “LAVENDER” was carved in bold letters down the narrow stone. At the very bottom were the words, Emma Strong Born May 16, 1885. Died May 16, 1903.

Hanging on the tombstone was a dark dress coat. On the inside of the collar was sewn the name Benny Turner.

This story was told to me or I may have dreamed it. It is just that. A make-believe story. But if you should happen to find yourself near the Mohawk River in central New York some warm May evening, I wouldn’t pick up any strangers. Especially if they are wearing a soft purple dress and go by the name of Lavender.

Durhl Caussey is a syndicated columnist who may be reached at this outlet or at [email protected].