It’s a long, long way from 1957 to now. Then again, some days my brain insists I am 15. An innocent within an insular environment. I didn’t start to make a conscious change in my life until 1985. That’s the year I got pregnant – on purpose – with my only living child. My #1 son. From that day, I began to read. I read and read and read books. On witchcraft, on Jesus and Mary Magdalene (as lovers and spouses), on Satan (the invention thereof) and the start of the bureaucratic, institutional Evil wrought by the “Catholic” church – whatever that is – on women – and on men – who dared to think for themselves in traditional ways. On ley lines, the energies of the earth, and sacred places all over the world. On crop circles and aliens. On druids and earth spiritualities, of shamanic systems all over the globe pushed and shoved underground with no care or understanding on the part of the missionaries that came to “save” them. On past lives and regressions and Edgar Cayce and Atlantis. Books like Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman and Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb; Many Mansions: The Edgar Cayce Story on Reincarnation by Gina Cerminara; Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life and The Basic Ideas of Science of Mind by Ernest Holmes; Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance; Riane Eisler’s, The Chalice and the Blade; Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler; The Gnostic Gospels, and Adam, Eve and the Serpent, as well as The Origin of Satan all by Elaine Pagels, to name but a few very important ones in my early life.
I’ve also read and read and read, books and articles, on anthropology, archaeology, history, women’s studies and many theoretical paradigms. Ethnographies, memoirs, histories and herstories about Americans, American Indians – Cherokees, Mohawks, Navajos, Hopis, Seminoles, Creeks – Africans, Canadians, East Indians, Papua New Guineans, Russians, French, British, Irish, Welsh, Brazilian, Peruvian, Colombian, on and on and on. And I have read and read and read books, on world religious systems – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, animism, ancestorism – and Christianity; Hundreds and hundreds of pages, thousands and thousands of words. Too many to list except as a bibliography for life.
I have achieved those long-dreamed for, far-off goals. I have the BA, MA, PhD; I am a Dr. Now. I can write with my own authority. I can say my own truths. I think about and can produce my own versions of the “way things are” and how they “could” work. As I stand on the edge of yet another new horizon, I feel much like those first humans who ventured out. Out of Africa, out of comfort or loss or hunger, to step onto undiscovered shores only 80,000 years ago. I do have an advantage. Guidance. Love. From the divine guides and archangels, from my life-partner, from my son, from the womyn in my life for whom I have channeled, counseled, worked and played, from family and former partners and friends and colleagues, as well as from personal knowledge and experience. But, perhaps those first Homo sapiens sapiens had that guidance and love, too. They are us. We just have more knowledge, facts ma’am, than they did. Why not all of our capacity toward emotion as well?
I am driven to write, as is so often the case, this beautiful morn over puzzling through a definition of myself in a magical tradition. While I define myself as a dreamer, a wise-woman who is always seeking to learn something new, a reader, a mystic, a rite-officiator, a professor, a student, a mentor/mentee, I fit nowhere in a neat box. I am a traditional, family. . .what? Witch? Yes, and no. It is a difficult label to use, even though in modern English, it is the closest that I can come. But, that’s what the women in my family are. My mother is a weather-woman. I have witnessed fantastic moments with my mom! One day, she was clipping our poodles on the back deck. It was hot and muggy and the fine silvery hair coming off of the dog was sticking to every piece of exposed skin. She said, “Okay, I need this hair to disappear.” Within 5 minutes, a little devil wind came skipping over the pasture behind our house and hopped right up on the deck. She said, “be still,” to the dog. The poodle’s ears lifted as the wind whirled around them for 3-5 minutes. As the whirlwind hopped down and back toward the pasture, every single piece of hair was gone. Mom said, “Thanks!” and finished the clipping. She didn’t even have to sweep the deck. Humph. I was convinced!
And her mother was even more tuned in. She was the, *ooOWEEOoo* [sound effects], 13th child of the 7th son; born with a cowl and the ability to “see.” Women from all over the county where she lived would come for this little 2-year-old Willie to blow in the mouths of their babies to cure thrush or the colic. It must have worked, as the women continued to bring their babies until . . . Alas, her mother and father both were dead by the time she was four. She was adopted by the people I knew as great-grandparents. Loren and Ida. That was about 1915. She was always very psychic until the day she died. It was hard to fool her about anything. We all called each other “witches” my whole life. But as an adult with the understanding in my head of the harm done by the mere mention of “witch” in other times and other places, I have longed to find another moniker.
So, as usual, I went searching for something. Some verbiage in an old language. Old English, Old French, Old German, for something that would ring true. Old Cornish, Old Welsh, Old Irish, Old. . .certainly Celtic. It is as if I could close my eyes and shut out the present world, there are voices telling stories of another age. A combination of tongues, long silent and barely written. I finally found Uelleda, the word means “knowing woman.” A female equivalent to Druid. [Note: I found this title in an obscure piece of writing by the late Alexei Kondratiev, Celtic Scholar extraordinaire. Since then, I have returned again and again to search for the piece and the context with which I found it. I am unable to re-find that piece. It’s as if a phantom let me see it for a few minutes and then whisked it away to some faery isle to not be found again. I have a gut feeling that it is Welsh in origin. If anyone reading this can tell me where to find it, I would be very grateful.] It has been there all along, just behind my tongue in the back left-hand closet of my mind. It is hard to get past the cobwebs spun by the spiders of daily life – make the money, cook the food, raise the child, wash the dishes and the clothes, please the family, please the boss, please the partner, satisfy the crowds – those ban sidhes weave so tightly, so tightly in the brain. But more and more now, as I close in on 60 years upon this earth, clearly past some halfway mark in this time on earth, I slip past the webbing of society to hear the truths. My mothers from here to ages past were “knowing women,” too. And not mere genetics, either, though my biological mother is, as was hers. That’s too easy. Spiritually, with the soul that incarnated over and over from some proto-human Australopithecine “Lucy” to a modern she, he, I constantly gained more experience, knowledge, information, ability. I am of that unnameable, unutterable tradition. As elusive and unfathomable as any secretive society that any group of human beings have ever conceived. And yet open. Some societies call us mystics, some call us witches, some call us shamans. All these labels carry with them some part of the “knowing woman.” A tradition that is an opening for those called, it requires all – body, mind, spirit – and I chose it when called so long ago.
Remember. . .
Memphis 1962…. when I saw the light in the sky as a 5-year-old out of the bedroom window. So bright, it was as if there was a tear in the sky that let in all of the light behind it.
. . .when I played “awake sleeping” so we could go out into the woods after we were put to bed. Little did we now that we were practicing magic, practicing out-of-body flying where we could see the body, my own body, little Christie, in bed even while I flew and flew and flew with owls and bats in the night watching the stars.
. . .when the ants were so fascinating and I wanted to know which one we would have been. Who would I be if I wasn’t me? It seemed like a question that someone should have been able to answer. Yet, no one could.
. . .when I played with the ghost who lived up the stairs in grandmother and grandfather’s house. I went chasing up and down the stairs trying to beat the spirit before it could turn the light on or off. Those old, pushbutton switches that now mark a building as run-down, out of time.
Between 0 and 5, the “experts” tell us, a child’s whole personality is made. Between 5 and 12 comes peer pressure, growing into one’s culture and situation, being enculturated. It is a prelude to adolescence. 1957-1969. That was the time of my life. Goddess! How the entire world changed in that score of years. From “Leave it to Beaver” through three assassinations, race riots, Hippies, Height/Ashbury, the summer of love, bra and draft-card burnings, to men landing and walking on the face of the moon. Music changed. From Peggy Lee to Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. We all changed. There was the ever-presence of war and body counts – US v. Them – on Huntley/Brinkley at 6 every night.
And I was.
All that while, during those 12 years of childhood and play, so much was happening. I have to search hard for those memories from 0 to 12. Sometimes, childhood is a hazy dream. Alice down the rabbit-hole or Dorothy in Oz. Not quite real, but you know it happened. There are pictures that record I was present. A dream in which only moments that stand out. Perhaps illness has taken them. Perhaps just time. One of those moments involved Georgia, my great-great-aunt from Galveston, Texas. Gone so many years, now, maybe 50 years gone. Just her name brings on a beautiful memory.
The house on was bounded by woods on two sides.
Dead-end street, where the sidewalk ends.
All the Moose women were there in Memphis.
Maybe it was a funeral, or a holiday, or just a visit.
I only remember Georgia.
Women, in a procession down the hard-wood hall, going for coffee and kitchen talk.
She remained behind in the little girl’s bedroom to prepare to sleep.
Georgia only let her hair down at night.
That late evening, I watched her remove the tortoise shell comb,
pull out the hairpins.
I watched, entranced, as the perfect knot on the back of her head uncoiled.
“Christie, don’t bother Aunt Georgia!” the admonishment came from the hard-wood hall.
“Leave her be.” was Georgia’s soft reply.
The braids uncoiled. They stretched all the way to the floor.
Little me, 2 or 3 or 4, watched
As she, 98 or 99 or 100, separated the braids and began to comb, 1 and 2 and 3.
100 strokes? One for each year?
No. She began at the bottom.
Carefully combing her pure white hair,
a few inches at first,
then a foot,
then a yard,
until all 5’2″ was free of tangles. She and her hair smelled like rose water.
Silken snow white drapery lay around her on the bed.
Godiva must have done the same.
62″ from the crown to the train behind her diminutive form.
“That hair down there started growing 30 years ago.”
- She went grey at 70. Already an old woman with no more babies to carry.
The hair began its journey.
Through the 1940s as she sent sons to Europe or Japan,
through the 1950s when electricity and indoor plumbing finally came to her Galveston house.
- All the secrets that hair knew went with her later that year.
I wonder if she knew how I treasure that memory.
My hair is growing now. What will it know in 30 years?
Someday, I’ll tell Georgia my story.
And there are other memories as well. Of Fluff, the blond cocker spaniel, of Honeybun, the golden rabbit, of the golden-haired little girl. When we laid together to sleep, the three of us, you couldn’t tell where one being stopped and another began. Lithe spirit, free of the world, until the day harsh truth was forced upon her. . .
Memory Stirs 2003
Where does memory live?
How does it hide from consciousness?
turn the other cheek.
Wait, there are only four! What do you turn when they are all bruised and bloody?
There are no more cheeks to turn.
Fear lived in the house.
With the friendly ghost upstairs
with the food cooked with love and “on time”
with the laughter of friends and relatives
slowly receding into subconscious fear.
Remaking the child into a sloth-like quiet creature.
again, by Rage like his,
Eyes, like his,
Screamed into remembrance by insanity like his,
Suddenly 5 again,
Memory stirs from its dark corner searching for the light.
Searching for release.
I have returned, now, to collect my life.
It was a difficult time to be. 1962. Age 5. Staying with my beloved grandparents. He would later change, make a 180∘ turn around to be a sweetheart-saint to the family as he always was to the brothers of the lodge, the sisters of the Eastern Star, the daughters of Rainbows, the members of the Methodists. But that was almost 35 years after. After she died and he lived to regret. . .After the rage, after the pain inflicted on the most precious ones. I learned a horrible lesson there in 1962 in August just after my birthday. It began with fear.
Fear. . . 1989
Stalks the corridors and stairwells
of the heart without hope.
The one to fear is within
The one without is merely a mirror
for the inward fear.
Release. . .
Free. . .
The child from the self-made prison walls
to find sunshine and laughter,
In days without. . .
I found the memory through psycho-therapy and the solace of Prozac – better living through chemistry – from which I recently tried taking a respite, while writing this book. To my dismay, the rage returned. Blind, red-eyed, hot-white rage. My partner was sure that the Prozac was a mere placebo and that I would be just fine. Sadly, no. Multiple items got thrown and broken in the few weeks that I was Prozac-free. So, I give up, I give in. I understand that just as surely as I can’t produce insulin, my brain does something strange with Serotonin. Too much? Too little? Who knows. Even the hard scientists, the brain docs, don’t know why selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs] work. Only that they do If I had started out on sugar pills in 1996, maybe that would be all I needed, but I’ll never know now. I was a scary person to myself, my child, my former husband. . . But, I digress.
It was 1999 when I was again searching through the rubble for myself, again. Escaping pain, escaping fear. Escaping the “Thorazine shuffle” through a new job. A new house. A new life. A divorce. A new love, too! But. Oops! Not the right one, again?!? And again?!? It was as if the Grail knight was whispering in my ear, “you chose poorly.” I was convinced of my monstrousness, convinced that there was no good inside of me. If there was, how could it happen? Over and over and over again. Uncontrollable rage came at me. Chairs tossed, bookshelves broken in pieces, screaming I was not good, not good enough, doing everything wrong. Blame and rage, fear and violence. And I was uncontrollable rage, too. For years I kept cheap Libby glasses so I could pull one out of the cabinet and throw it against the floor to hear the explosion, so my head wouldn’t explode. Pain, just like in 1962. Age 5. Hiding behind the chair.
Four or five and happy for feet and voice that sang and danced.
Blond as the cocker and the rabbit.
Lithe and free.
She could not.
Quiet, even after sunset, is hard for the free.
The warning “shshshshsh” became part of it.
Song and dance.
Fury approached in the guise of a loved one.
Belt raised to replace joy with fear to stop them.
Feet and voice.
abandon all hope
She took it.
Pushed behind the green chair for safety.
The beating meant for me landed on her instead.
Silence and rage.
And suddenly everything changed, in 1962, I was no longer the free. No longer the lithe. No longer the innocent. This memory, released from its vault in 2002, made me, makes me, question everything. Everything about who people are. I had always blamed by mother for “abandoning” me to the grand-folk for six weeks that desperately hot desperate summer. Since that day, I was never the perfect little girl again. She abandoned me. But, no. There were good reasons for me to stay there. My daddy worked too much, too long, and babysitting – well, day care – was hard to come by in 1962. Mother was the national secretary of the bowling gals. An important job. So I stayed with the grandparents. It should have been okay. I guess no one guessed that anything so violent could happen when the beloved granddaughter, the only grandchild, was there. That night, when everything changed, my little lithe body stopped its function, stopped its play, stopped its dance, stopped its song and gained 40 pounds in 5 weeks.
Green Chenille 2003
I have longed for that green chair these 40-odd years.
Old. Chenille. Forest green.
1950s and in style. . .well, maybe not. . .in 1962.
Mahogany feet and strips of wood down the arms to meet them.
Sturdy, like the tree it came from and looked like to the 5- year-old.
The leather and metal did not reach the 5-year-old body.
It reached hers instead.
Till the rage had eased
Till the red eyes were spent
Till exhaustion took the rage back to bed.
Just like that.
Just tears and ice in the dark.
I never saw the bruises, but I felt them
I stayed in that green chair for 40 days.
How ashamed I was since that moment. Until 2002, though, I never knew from where that shame came. And I, being the least powerful, learned an innate lesson about the theory of domestic violence and power that night. When powerless, strike out. Beat something or someone into submission. Now we know what happens. The rage and shame and insecurity of the witness to violence or inequality becomes the violence, becomes the tyrant, in order to find oneself within the experience. I became the rage, became the tyrant, just to explain myself. To explain why a monster lurked within me. To explain why I was unworthy, unlovable, unacceptable in my own skin that the other tyrant had given to me.
There was no one lower in the pecking order, being the only child. Just the pure-blood poodle. So I punished her. I convinced myself that my mother loved her more than me. She never punished the poodle nor made her cry. So I made her cry. Twice. I have never gotten over that guilt. That was over four decades ago. And the dog loved me more. Stayed by my side, like she knew something was very wrong. That first Misty lived till 15 or more and loved me every day of her beautiful life. Even though I made her cry, twice. As I cry now writing it.
And then, I in my foolish rebellious teens, still inadequate, still in terror, still fat. Still told every day of my life that I was stupid and fat, I turned around one day when we were on the little boat on the Tennessee River and hauled off and slapped the shit out of my grandmother; right across the face for no reason whatsoever. I think she had told me to do something. Oh, my grandfather was furious. But I mustered the courage to say to him, “oh, it’s okay for you but no one else, huh?” We didn’t speak for a long time, he and I, and that was never resolved. Perhaps he just forgot about it. But an incident far into my teens where he came to my rescue could have been a recalcitrant act to put at least some things right. That night, I lay with my head in her lap and begged her forgiveness,
I’m sorry,” like the 12 disciples taking the blame for the cruelest slap of all. I was forgiven by her. I have only recently forgiven myself. Or have I? I still repeat “I’m sorry” to the point that my life-partner is fed up with it. Says how pathetic it is. He sees no reason for me to say “I’m sorry,” but isn’t that what the Beast said to the Beauty? I’m sorry that the monstrousness is in me, the rage machine, the red-eyed, out-of-control creature devours everything good in the world. Except when Prozac is present. Even now I take it. But, I’m not as angry these days. That is a blessing.
These memories, that spectacularly violent event in my 5th year fundamentally changed who I was, in a mere moment. It also changed who I would be – no – more like changed how I made my choices, later in life. Whether or not the event actually was a causal factor, I’ll never know. But, by the time mother returned for me that summer, I had gained 40 pounds and embarked on an odyssey of failing self-esteem, failing positive body image, and failing health. From 5 to 59, I have struggled with it all.
But. Here’s the anomaly. There are things so good from childhood it boggles my mind. Thinking on it, my grandfather could be the kindest, most fun, helpful person. He was loved by so many in the community. It brings me up short. Knowing, having watched, the violent outburst – and knowing my own – how do I reconcile one face with the other? Are we, humans, all Janusesque? Do we all have a deep hidden side that we keep medicated with Prozac or gin or weed? That’s part of the need to write and get my thoughts out. I have memories and moments so precious, so meaningful, that it seems like the violence didn’t really happen. Perhaps that’s why/how it got buried for so long, fomenting until the lance let the head loose. Let me relay some beautiful memory, as well. These are lessons in being the “knowing woman,” though unnamed, at the time. They are positive and life-shaping as well. Some are of my grandmother, too, and mostly in the kitchen, it seems. Well, at least in my mind she was always in the kitchen. That’s how she loved us, cooking, and I was at her side whenever I could be.
Kitchen Witchery 2008
I learned the way around a kitchen.
Navigating through flour and buttermilk
kneaded to perfection.
Up to our elbows in dough, white and damp.
All the shades of white from the flour to the buttermilk,
the sweet milk, baking powder, baking soda, salt.
Then the creamy texture of too-soft playdoh, waiting for the slab,
the huge bowlful of dough plopped out onto the wood with satisfaction.
I smell it.
I hear it.
“You’ve got to get your hands into it, Christie!
Spoon’s just plum worthless.”
An ancient wooden rolling pin brought from Saltillo appeared from a kitchen drawer.
Turned white by flour in preparation for the task ahead.
Rolling out the dough to just the right thickness. . .
“too then and they’re hard-tack, too thick and they won’t cook through. A knuckle and a half.”
The rolling was so important
“only do as much as you need, no more, no less”
those old Methodist ways.
“You’ll get it right soon enough, just keep practicing.”
Then that old metal orange juice can. Just a couple of inches across.
Cut, 1, 2, 3, 4. . .10, 11, 12
Then roll it out again and
Cut, 1, 2. . .5, 6. . .8, 9. . .11, 12.
Two dozen, just right for breakfast.
Then there was the cooks’ biscuit.
The last lump of dough, one big biscuit just for us because we pulled another miracle out of the flour bin.
Hot, perfectly brown, red-eye gravy.
These are the best biscuits ever!
And all she said, with a small, small smile. . .
Kitchen Witchery 2008
The sausage was always better at Mema’s.
One day, I was in her kitchen and found out why.
From a shelf in the pantry, a heavy, metal ferocious-looking meat-grinder emerged.
Too heavy for her, Papa attached the thing to the edge of the white-and-gold-speckled Formica counter-top.
Then he would crank and she would push huge hunks of farm-yard-fresh pig.
The big silver bowl beneath caught the freshly ground pork.
We must have turned it a hundred times. I managed two full turns! It was my meat, too!
It was late October, just after a first frost.
Hog killin’ time. The only time to kill a hog was frost.
Not a good sow, either.
“Sows are too valuable, Christie.
They are the mommies of next year’s piglets.”
Mental note, as a little girl,
Girls are precious and not edible!
But how does it become sausage?
In the pantry on the left side of the window,
Mema rummaged around choosing tins of McCormick.
Sage and plenty of it! Rubbed Sage, only McCormick. Once, long ago, they’d grown their own sage in the kitchen garden, next to the huge, old stand of asparagus. But that was in the country, on the river, when mother was young.
Now, it was McCormick.
Salt, pepper, sage, sage, sage, salt, cayenne.
“Remember, you have to mix it up with your hands! No spoons! Don’t fret, child, your hands will warsh.”
Then, patties formed from perfect little balls of fresh sausage.
Between the palms, roll, roll, roll the ball. . .
Then pat it a little at a time. . .
Back and forth in our cold, cold hands. . .
Slap, slap, slap. . .
Right into the already hot cast iron on the stove.
Sausage never tasted so good.
I lost part of that lesson – that females are precious – when we all do, I suppose. After 5 before 15, when girls become women and are entrenched into some patriarchal system not of our making or choosing, most females learn their “place” and never leave it again. It is good to remember the original lesson. Girls are precious. I would not return to that for nearly 30 years in a Women’s Studies intro class at Middle Tennessee State University. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Kitchen Witchery 2008
Little deep, deep purple clusters of seeds and sugar,
We always went berry-picking right around the 4th of July.
Everyone watched and waited for the patches of tangled briars to be covered.
First, around First Sunday, snow-white, tiny fragrant blossoms.
It always turned off cold, again, right before the blossoms.
“We’ll have to light the stove today! It’s Blackberry Winter, Christie.”
Then we watched as the flowers fell and tiny green, green
sour, sour nubs formed where the flowers used to be.
Bees disappeared from the briars once the blossoms fell to find a fresh batch of ingredient for their own magic.
Some folks gathered that, too, but not us. That was a gift. Some other families knew that magic,
those succulent secrets,
and we shared in the bounty.
Bought Decatur County honey in quart jars.
My people knew where the blackberries grew.
Mayapple green to white to light pink, crimson and finally, to purple-black.
Full and delicious.
At dawn we picked in the counties where the family was born,
Hardin and Decatur on the Tennessee River and the Mississippi state line.
Early July was always hot. I mean, melt you into your shoes, 100% humidity, sweat till you need salt pills, hot.
Somehow, though, when we got to Sugar Bottom or White Oak, I didn’t feel the heat.
Pails full of berries.
Mema and Papa and mother did most of the picking. I ate most of what I picked.
There were also plenty of nature’s toys around.
Box turtles, salamanders, frogs, toads – the wart-giving kind – rocks, sticks, creeks, and woods.
Once, while I was peeing in the woods, I sat right on poison ivy. The tiny blisters itched so much
Mother wrapped my calamine-soaked legs in gauze so I wouldn’t spread the poison
everywhere. I’ve never forgotten how to identify that three-leafed assassin.
But, it was
Blackberries. Gallons. Five or six some years.
That would be enough. Always leave plenty for the next folks to pick. Never take the last.
And there would be more in a week, too.
We walked out of the briars to the cars to survey the damage.
Blood was always drawn in exchange for the sweetness of the berries. Hands scratched, sometimes faces, legs, ankles, arms, even through long sleeves and dungarees.
Sunburns and Chiggers and Mosquito bites.
It was all okay, though, because we had our Blackberry treasure.
And there was respite for our pain.
The drive to the Sulphur Well was on rutted, gravel back-country roads. It still is.
If June was rainy, the roads were like washboards that rattled the car and your teeth till you couldn’t draw a breath.
If June was dry, driving the roads left yellow clouds of dust billowing behind the car that hung in the still, hot summer, as thick as fog.
Then the smell of it invaded the car, my nose.
Sulphur. Rotten eggs.
It permeated the air.
The spring had been there as long as anyone could remember. In the 1930s, the CCC had added a pipe and a concrete trough to make it more accessible.
People from three counties came to collect what in tall, thin, green glass Coca-Cola bottles and empty glass vinegar jugs. No plastic. Remember no plastic?
It was the only place to get really cool on a 100-degree 100% humidity southern summer day. That water was ice cold.
Where the mineral-laden stream tumbled out of the pipe and into a stream, the edges were black with the mineral. The plants that thrived there were black, too.
The stuff stank.
Mema made me drink big, cold gulps of it. I had to hold my nose. But, I felt cooler and healed.
That spring water could cure anything.
We washed ourselves completely.
Every scratch and puncture the briar patch meted out was soaked in the cold, smelly, magical water.
The bug bites and poison ivy, everything healed under the ablution within a day or two.
It was Magick.
But that is not the end of the Blackberries. After the picking and bleeding and washing and healing, there were the actual berries to contend with. And they couldn’t wait. They had to be dealt with directly, no matter how tired everyone was.
Making fruit jellies: Redcurrant and Blackberry Jellies
Kitchen Witchery 2008
That the summer earth produced berries for our pleasure was a gift.
As an adult, now that there is no one to go picking any more, I appreciate that all the more.
Today’s pitiful pints are sad, bland substitutes for the buckets of jewels I remember.
Once the berries were at home, there was a certain way to use them.
Fill the sink with cold water.
Dump in a bucket of berries.
Wash and sort the good, usable berries from the
debris of the patch, leaves, dirt, bugs, worms,
under-ripes and over-ripe juice bombs.
Then, to cooking.
Now, there has always been some dispute about the perfect jelly. We had three contenders.
Mema – whose precious jars sometimes contained perfect, wiggling jelly, but just as often contained perfect blackberry syrup or perfect blackberry rock candy,
Ruby – whose precious jars most often contained a lighter purple version of wiggling jelly,
Mother – whose precious jars of wiggling jelly were far more consistent, perhaps due to her Home Ec BS from UTK and meticulous style.
Everyone had their favorite – usually one’s own mother’s amethyst concoction.
There is lively debate to this day.
I never learned the ritual of jelly-making.
Maybe next summer. . .in the Tennessee blackberry patch.
Once the berries were home, I was always shooed out of the kitchen because jelly making was such a big deal. Very important. The big guns came out. Huge pots and dozens of jelly jars kept and stored year after year in the back of the big pantry. After you finished with a jar of jelly, the jar, the ring and the lid were washed, dried and stored away for the next year. It was a sadness when jars broke because money would have to be spent in the summer to replace them. Mema and Mommy always made enough jelly in July to last the entire year.
But, there was another use for those blackberries. Immediate and gratifying and perishable, we waited all year long for Blackberry Cobbler. The cobbler was born of the same place as the biscuits, the flour bin. Crust rolled thin and flaky with so much glorious blackberry juice that the pastry was soaked with the purple sweetness. I can taste it. I can smell it. It was like nothing that I have had as an adult, even at the finest restaurants in the country. And, oh yes, homemade, hand-cranked ice cream. Better than Hagen-Daas or Ben and Jerry’s or any kind of ice cream I have tasted since. We had an old, old-fashioned ice-cream freezer. It was wooden, a bucket, really, stained green and faded to a mossy color. The metal mechanism was stored back in the pantry where the jars and meat grinder and big pots for jelly-making were kept. And it was literally man-powered, at least in my family. Daddy and Papa were the crankers. It took at least an hour of constant cranking to get the “cream” frozen. Inside the bucket and below the crank works there was a stainless steel cylinder when the fresh-cooked still-liquid cream was poured. That was a mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar cooked on the stove-top until it was “just right.” Daddy and Papa poured cracked ice and rock salt between the bucket and the cylinder and commenced cranking. Non-stop cranking. You knew it was getting there when there was lots of grunting and panting and puffing from the men and it would literally grind to a halt because the cream was so frozen, the paddle inside the cylinder wouldn’t budge another inch. That ice cream on top of the cobbler was bliss. A definite high-point to every summer of my young life.
It’s odd to me now that so much of my memory is centered in the kitchen and in the summer. Summers are hot down south. Bobbie always swore that living in Memphis meant living below sea-level because of the devilish heat of the summer. My partner asked me what it was like without air conditioning. Hmmmm. . .
Without A/C 2010
August, Memphis, 1960s. 100 degrees and 100% humidity.
No. Air conditioning was unknown.
I have no recollection of being Without. . .anything.
Without means desolation, knowing there is something
and having to go. . .
Without clean water.
Now that means something!
But, Air Conditioning?
Life before A/C, now that’s something to think about.
Life was life.
On those 100/100 dog days, we cooked and worked very little.
There were cold salad suppers with fresh tomatoes.
There were popsicles from the Big Freezer that were so icy
your tongue stuck to them like to flagpoles in January.
There were sprinklers sunning in every back yard and
kids running through deliciously tepid water.
There was no without.
But now, back to the kitchen witchery. While I am told that I am a good cook, maybe better than most, I am not a woman who is tied to the kitchen. Of course, within all of this time, I also had the influence of my aunt, my mom’s sister, who from an early age, was book-smart and head-strong and career-set. She was the other end of the spectrum from her mother. She was never married, fiercely independent and savvy about business and dollars. Perhaps I am a mid-point in that continuum. Someone between the extremes of my kinswomen.
The last place I will leave as a memory from the 1960s is the little town where they all grew up. Saltillo. Even though I never lived there on a full-time basis, until Daddy, Mommy, and I moved away over the mountains to a place called Charlotte far to the east, our life still centered around that home. Saltillo. Once it was a booming town on the Tennessee River that knew traveling Romanies, yes, gypsies, riverboats that brought gamblers and shows to the town, thriving trade, hotels, and cafes – one of which was even owned by my family. My great-grandmother was the postmistress of the town. That building still stands, all of these years later.
By the time I knew the place, Saltillo was a sleepy dot. Circumvented by the new roads for cars that replaced the river traffic, it has been slowly dying since 1965. There is so much precious memory still there.
Bright Rain Coming 1990, revised 2009
The hot, dry days between August and September
were always a time for returning to the river –
home of my mother and grandmother and beyond.
In 1969, the houses are old and creak when you walk across floorboards
the porches, small oases with swings and gliders and fans on hooks, are silent
in the late summer afternoon.
No air stirs
no insect or bird sings
no respite from the heat.
From somewhere far away, a breeze pushes the leaves on the 100-year-old oak tree.
Laying beneath its formidable canopy, playing with smooth river pebbles and tiny shells, periwinkles and mussels, you feel that breeze.
It brings the world back to life.
So, you look upriver, up the Tennessee that lies half-a-mile away as still in its bed as the 100-pound cats at the bottom, and you see them.
The mountains of dark thunderheads every one with a silver lining.
There is a scent of rain on the breeze, cool rain, and the sun behind.
We kids called it Bright Rain.
We ran to the porch ahead of the “Behemoth” to watch her come in.
Waiting, watching her progress up the Tennessee was the best of hours.
Behemoth brought the sun-parched earth cool, cool water in great torrents.
Sheets that blocked out the oak tree, electric energy that bounced from the mountainous clouds down to the place where we stood on the porch.
We all shrieked. Every time.
20 degrees cooler and the rest of the evening to play in the newly made ponds and streams,
frogs awake and begin singing to the storm.
Fiddling their legs together with their own renditions of
“She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.”
When I went to Saltillo in 2009, the great tree was gone. The stump is there, like a huge table to lay out a picnic and a cedar tree next to it, obviously young. That the tree is gone made me weep. It was dead, they said, taken for the most part by one of those grand storms. I knew the storm’s voice, too. Listening to her power, her raw beauty, I wanted to be it, the Behemoth. At the same moment I was terrified and hid my head, covered my ears when sidhe, the ban sidhe – wild woman screaming – indulged herself.
BEHEMOTH: The Storm’s Voice 1995
The behemoth stretched and rolled herself up from the bottom.
Splendid, she thought, and put her energy forth in a glorious electric array to both entice and frighten the Lilliputian ground dwellers.
Being omnipotent, she could not comprehend their panic
as she unleashed the full strength of herself,
as a gift,
onto the beautiful earth.
Was not this her home?
Was not this her place, her meaning, her life,
to grant the earth the healing water of her body?
The life giving energy of her electric personality?
The splendid roar of her own voice?
The purging wind of her own breath?
“My full fury and my whole contentment in this place,” she roared to her sister ban sidhe,
“shall be brought forth here!”
The array extended itself to the ground for the final time.
The water, drenched, then drizzled.
The roar, deafened, then dissipated.
After all, her time was brief enough, hours, minutes, slipping into the
robe of some softer being, some gentler wind, then
she would be no more.
Born only to serve the earth, her mother, she gladly gives all that she is to breathe life into