August 9, 2018


She could never make herself a cup of tea without hearing her grandmother's voice saying, "Stir your tea clockwise, Alida, so the sugar melts in better." Alida's grandmother's life seemed to be governed by a host of such illogical pronouncements. Why sugar would melt faster stirred clockwise than in any other fashion, no one ever explained. Pressed for an explanation, all the old woman said was that it helped the sugar go into the tea. And the herbs into the soup, etc. The only thing she would stir in the opposite direction was a basin of hand laundry, once the soap was worked through, because, she said, there you wanted to get the dirt out of the clothing. It was, like much about Grandmama, a bit of a mystery when she was a child.

But then Grandmama tended to be right about a lot of things. Her explanations---or rather, lack of explanations---for the why of her actions might be vague or unscientific, yet the actions themselves had good results. Her soup was better than anyone else's; better than her sister's, who used exactly the same recipes but didn't observe the stirring directions. The sugar, stirred "correctly", did seem to incorporate just a smidgen faster in the tea.  Alida, who slept in an old cherry-wood cradle at her Grandmother's insistence, did not get any of the infant illnesses that swept through their village every year. Rather infuriatingly to Alida, who had chafed at wearing hats all through her childhood winters, she was correct in insisting that wearing hats could keep a person warmer and thus healthier, although she had simply stated, as an article of belief, that wearing a hat would keep one from catching a cold. When Alida was older, preparing for university, she understood how perfectly rational and useful information could be passed down in garbled form as folklore. Ancient observations combined with a child-like hope of evoking desired outcomes through ritualised actions. It sat a bit uneasily in a modern world. She had always kept quiet about it in front of other children, feeling it marked her family as a bit provincial, unsophisticated, well---odd.

Some of Grandmama's behaviour was straight-up magical thinking, no question. Like the time when Alida was very sick with pneumonia, too sick to be taken to hospital, and Grandmama got her sister to bring over a small statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart, which they wrapped in white wool and hid somewhere in the church basement with his face to a wall, saying they would not turn him around until Alida got well. Gran and her sister were regular church-goers, like most of the older women in the town, but Alida was fairly certain that their heterodox style of personal belief would have dismayed the priest. The church had plenty of its own magical thinking, but Grandmama's went perhaps further than they cared to countenance. And she was pretty sure that the priest would have been undone if he knew about the swaddled-up Jesus statue charm hidden in his own church that week or so... As it was, he wondered what the woman did with all the holy water from the rusty old church dispenser she was always asking him for. Alida knew: much of it went into or onto her, when she was sick or injured. Her atheist parents, especially her father, thought the old woman's ways ridiculous at best; there had been a small scene once, where he shouted a bit about the unhygienic holy water being given to his daughter to drink. Gran was directed to boil it at least, prior to administering it to Alida, although it's doubtful she ever really did.

Spiritually speaking, Grandmama was more of a Virgin Mary devotee, although again, her take on theological aspects of Mary worship probably weren't quite what the church had in mind. Her Mother Mary wasn't very different from ancient Magna Maters. When Alida learned about various goddesses around the world, and especially when she studied Slavic folk beliefs, she realised how much they had in common with her Gran's personal Mary cult. In later years, her own spirituality took on a look and feel similar to her grandmother's, though without the church as intermediary, and very likely, even more similar to their distant ancestors. It seemed that really, it was only the names that changed over the centuries...

Why are things always most precious to us just before we lose them? Why do the leaves, which go through most of the year a pleasant but fairly monotonous green, suddenly flare into unbearable beauty just before they slip away in autumn? Why had it taken her so long to appreciate the unstinting care and the curiously antiquated customs her grandmother had fenced her childhood with, combatting illness and nightmares, bad grades and unpleasant classmates, sick-bed ennui and adolescent moodiness with the same calm sweetness and country cooking and unspoken tenderness? She had always loved her grandmother, despite going though a period of finding her faintly embarrassing, and a later (very brief) time of looking down on her lack of formal education. Alida had never thought her less than intelligent, though. She may never have seen her read anything for pleasure, but years of playing games both verbal and board-based showed her to be sharp enough, and her mind was stored with a great deal of practical knowledge. Alida's love for her grew increasingly poignant as her grandmother aged, and reached a frantic crescendo of impending loss when the old woman had a fall and went into surgery for a broken hip. She *knew*, as her grandmother had always just known (and her mother too, though she didn't speak of it), some things. She knew her grandmother would not leave the hospital and recover, and she was right. The room filled with the scent of her---cigarette smoke, Coty Parfum de Muguet, and violets---when the news came.

Alida recalled Grandmama's hands, crinkly with age and use, with the sapphire wedding ring their only and constant ornament, and thought how capable they had looked. Capable she undoubtedly was, in house or farmyard or nursery. And kindly, and soft; her rounded body was always comforting to Alida when she was small, and she could never wish her svelte or in any tiniest way different. It seemed inconceivable that she would never again see her grey eyes or hold her hands again. She did not inherit the sapphire ring, although her grandmother had wanted her to have it. She had very little that had belonged to her, just a few random things that no one else would have wanted: a small triptych of Mary flanked by angels which had stood always on her dressing table, a handkerchief or two, a large cooking pot, two measuring spoons, a wooden spoon carved of holly that her grandmother had insisted must always remain in the family for the safe-guarding of the house from lightning. What she did inherit was an untaught surety with herbs in cooking and in remedies, an array of superstitious lore that she consciously cherished, a way with cats and chickens and babies, and a sense for when the weather was changing. Perhaps she had in her very blood a recollection of how things had been in former times from this small round woman, her mother's mother, as much as she had other witcheries from her other side of the family, cloaked in their taller bones and blonder hair.


midwifing the future

lately there has been much discussion about eco-despair, and the unavoidable degradation of everything, and the urgency of action to fight-...