The soul in Suite 100: A ghost story

  • Julia Staab, who died in her Santa Fe home in 1896.Some say her ghost still haunts the place.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • The Staab home, built in Santa Fe in 1882.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • Julia and Abraham Staab.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • The original door to the Staab house, with its carved entry bearing Abraham Staab's initials, in the La Posada de Santa Fe.

    La Posada de Santa Fe
  • Julia Staab's bedchamber, where she spent the last days of her life, and where she died, is now Suite 100 in the hotel.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • The Staab family plot in the Fairview Cemetery now sits, weedy and pest-infested, amid the bustle of Santa Fe.

    Hannah Nordhaus

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On my way out of town, I stopped at the cemetery where Julia and Abraham were buried. It must have once been a pastoral, tree-shaded spot on the far edge of the city, the resting place of Santa Fe's non-Catholic Anglos, but it had fallen on hard times. The once-lush Kentucky bluegrass lawn was gone; it died a few years ago, when the cemetery board stopped paying for irrigation. Prairie dogs had found favorable territory there, digging networks of tunnels that had begun to undermine the gravestones. Back when the graveyard was a going concern, the indigent were buried in cardboard coffins, which later disintegrated. Burrowing animals had begun to bring up bones from below.

The land was so barren it could barely support weeds, ground returned to desert, red-beige and prickly; the grand American elms and lindens and horse chestnuts also bare, perished, I feared, for lack of water. In disrepair, this home of perpetual care reinforced death's chilling finality: there were slabs sinking into the ground, headstones sheared in half, souls forgotten. Just outside the chain-link fence was a busy six-lane road crammed with rush-hour traffic and an electrical substation, all wires and superstructure, and a state building of the institutional sort -- thick walls and few windows -- and, on the edge of the cemetery, incongruously, a preschool play-yard -- possibly the creepiest playground in the world -- providing the only splash of color in the entire tableau, besides a few fake flowers laid here and there.

The Staab monument sat dead center in the cemetery, carved of pale gray granite -- 15, 20 feet high, perhaps -- a gothic S adorning the top, the word "STAAB" carved in simpler letters below. At its foot was a square of dirt surrounded by a low granite wall. It must once have held flowers or grass, but now it sheltered only dirt and weeds. The words "Father" and "Mother" were carved at the monument's foot. I yanked on the gate in the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the plot, and walked in for a closer look at what was left of my forebears. Inside was a symmetrical assortment of five smaller granite headstones flanking Abraham and Julia's monument -- those of their children -- now covered by tumbleweeds, encroached on by shrubbery, crawling with fire ants.

I took a few photos, and when there was nothing left to study or discern, I tossed the tumbleweeds into the dust beyond the fence, brushed the ants and dirt from the stones, and closed the gate behind me. This was what endured: the stones, the bones, the ghost stories that tie me to this high desert basin and the Sangre de Cristos rising to the east, shrine to another wandering Jew. Those, and the smell of the desert earth after it rains, and the penstemons in August; and all the vague, sweet, unreliable memories I have collected in the years of visiting this place, of monsoon summers and glazed winters and yellow-tinged falls, even the dusty, turbulent springs. Which is, really, more than enough.

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