Those Reappearing Shells at The Surf
Ed. Note: We asked our resident ghost and poltergeist expert Fran Migliaccio if she had a ghost story to share with us, and given that The Surf Hotel was the subject of a “Ghost Hunters” episode on Wednesday, Oct. 23, she thought this one was particularly appropriate. It is from her 2009 book, “MORE Ghosts of Block Island.” Halloween is on Thursday, Oct. 31.
Peg O’Loughlin called me on the phone one afternoon in 2005, after the publication of Ghosts of Block Island. “Once when I was a little girl, I was marching in a parade with my sister in Stonington, Connecticut,” she began. “It was a VJ Day parade.”
VJ Day, or Victory over Japan Day, once celebrated as a holiday all over the country and in other WWII allied countries, is now celebrated in this country only in Rhode Island. The name of the holiday, now the Monday of a three-day weekend, has been altered to Victory Day. The actual date of VJ Day is August 14, 1945, and the holiday falls on either the second or third weekend of August.
Peg continued, “As my sister and I were marching in the parade, we both saw my grandmother waving to us. I noticed that she was wearing a pretty pink dress, with blue satin trim. Later that day, I told my mother about it. She said, ‘Oh, you couldn’t have seen her. She died, honey — don’t you remember?’ Yes, I did remember: my grandmother had just died. But I’d seen her, I knew I had, and I described to my mother the dress she’d been wearing. My mother listened, and then told me: just that morning, she had picked out that very same dress for my grandmother to be buried in. My sister and I both saw our grandmother, and we both saw her in the pink dress. My mother said to us, ‘Don’t tell anyone you saw your grandmother — they’ll think you have the evil eye!’ She said it in Portuguese, ‘Mau olhado.’
“But that’s not why I’m calling you,” Peg said, having commanded my full interest and attention. She continued: “One day, years ago when we first moved here, I was helping Lillian get the Surf open.” Peg was referring to Lillian Martin, the vivacious sister of Surf Hotel owner Beatrice Cyr. Lillian helped her sister and brother-in-law, Ulric Cyr, run the Surf during their 51 years in business.
“I ended up working at the Surf that summer, too,” Peg said. “That was in 1992 or ‘93 — we moved to the Island in 1992.
“Anyway, one day before the season started, while I was helping Lillian open up, I was vacuuming the second floor hallway. I was up there all by myself. I noticed a line of little pebbly-like shells on the floor, and I vacuumed them up. I moved on, and I looked back where I’d vacuumed. The shells had reappeared! So, I vacuumed them up again. And they reappeared again — in front of me! Well, I was getting a little tired of that game, so I just said, ‘Hey — I’m cleaning your hotel! Cut out the comedy!’ And it stopped. I vacuumed the shells for a third time, and after that, they didn’t come back.
“Another time at the Surf, I was looking down the stairs from the second floor, all the way to the bottom, past the front desk, to the door on the right that goes into the dining room. I saw a lady in a costume — it looked Victorian to me — sitting in a rocking chair in front of that door. And I said to myself, ‘Oh there’s a lady in a costume down there, that’s odd.’ Later, I mentioned it to Lorraine.”
Lorraine Cyr, one of Bea and Ulric Cyr’s two daughters, always worked at the hotel for her parents. From the time I first came to the Island, in 1986, she took room reservations for the hotel all winter, presided at the front desk and managed the hotel all summer. Until, that is, the Cyrs retired and closed the doors of their beloved hotel, after the 2007 summer season.
Peg continued her story: “I told Lorraine, ‘There’s somebody down there in a costume — what’s going on?’ ‘There is?’ Lorraine asked. ‘Where do you see this?’ So I told her that this lady in a Victorian costume was sitting in the rocking chair in front of the door to the dining room in the downstairs hall. ‘There’s no rocking chair in that hall!’ Lorraine said. I insisted, ‘But I saw this lady in a rocking chair down there, in that spot.’ Finally, she said, ‘Oh, you probably saw Aunt Jennie!’”
I’ve known Peg and Jim O’Loughlin since the late 1980s, shortly after I moved to the Island. Rally and I met them at the summer socials once held at St. Andrew’s Parish Center by members of the parish. The socials were potluck hors d’oeuvres get-togethers, with soft drinks and a small bar set up on the deck overlooking the ocean. Anyone who wanted to go was welcome; we always saw plenty of people we knew, and met plenty of interesting new people and visitors to the Island as well.
The O’Loughlins were still living in Westford, Massachusetts in those days and spending weekends at their home on the Island’s west side. Jim, an engineer by profession, had a boat. Like most engineers, he delighted in having projects to putter with, and the boat was one of them. Peg’s background was in nursing. When Jim retired from his engineering job, the O’Loughlins moved to the Island full time. Peg joined the Ecumenical Choir, and another of Jim’s projects became overseeing the sound systems used for music at St. Andrew Church on Chapel Street in the summer and at the Parish Center on Spring Street in the winter. Eventually, Jim inherited from someone else the job of coordinating the mikes and speakers used in the variety shows, known as the Summer Extravaganzas, that the Ecumenical Choir produced for years.
Peg and Jim raised three children, and are staunch churchgoers and professional people of the pragmatic “real world.” Yet, as Peg let me know with her opening story, she has always been sensitive to supernatural presences.
As for the Aunt Jennie in the rocking chair, she is Jennie Day, the aunt of Almeida Day Littlefield Rose. Almeida died when Lorraine Cyr was 22, in l968; the Cyr family, Lorraine told me, was very close to Almeida. One of Almeida’s grandmothers owned the Ocean View, and the other owned the Surf.