Sunday, October 31, 2004

Hallowe'en Rant 2004


from a mostly Pagan
and respectfully irreverent perspective...

Most ancient among gods and mortals,
let my worship be within the heart
that has truly tasted life,
for behold all acts of magic and art are my pleasure
and my greatest ritual is love itself.

-- Jim Garrison, Charge of the Crone --

Picture this scene: It is a chill October day. Sodden leaves fall from the trees and stick where they land as if coated with glue. The air is thick and damp, ripe with the odor of decay, rotting vegetation and rancid clay. The clouds overhead are pregnant with the promise of rain. A rumble of thunder in the distance serves as warning of the deluge to come.

Focus on a century old clapboard house situated on a large, unkempt corner lot at a dusty crossroads in little town Texas, not too far from the railroad tracks. Now picture in your mind's eye the house as haunted. Got it?

Haunted. The roof is worn, the siding old and mismatched, some of the windows are boarded over, and the rest of the crusty windows have rusty screens in black frames that hang slightly askew. The doors which have seen too many coats of paint have panes of thick, discolored, wavy glass. The hardware is old and tarnished to a dull, verdigris patina. One should note the doors still lock with a skeleton key. The white paint on the trim is washed out, chalky and peeling. The black paint on the metal railings and corner posts is all but faded away revealing bare metal which has succumbed to the ravages of rust. Along one side of the front stoop, a decrepit and precariously leaning carport almost shelters a vintage Ford from the elements. Shrubs of indeterminate species, a trio of them, struggle to keep their greenery in front of the low stoop. Dry thatch grasses and weeds round out the forlorn landscape. Spindly saplings of chinaberry and native pecan trees are scattered about. One small patch of old-fashioned pink primroses defiantly bloom next to the rickety back steps.

Now, picture this: A pale moon of a face appears in one of the windows. It hovers there in spectral fashion, seemingly without a body. Beside the head in the window an aged and gnarly hand appears to wave or beckon. The door opens a crack with a resounding and creepy screech and then slowly, slowly the opening grows wider and wider. A Woman with wispy hair the color of the first frost emerges. She totters out on spindly legs, supported by a curved bent-wood cane. She is wearing all black - black sweater, black slacks, black shoes. She has alert, black button eyes behind spectacles that sit low on a long, slender nose. Bent with age, the crone's steps are halting and tentative as she ventures past the threshold.

From her thin lips issues the raspy whisper of your name. She raises the cane in recognition, a light gleams in her dark eyes and with a crooked smile, she bids you welcome to her haunted abode. You smile and grasp the elbow of this elderly Dame and though you say otherwise, the thought runs through your head…

Greetings Grand Mother Witch!
Blessings Grand Mother Crone!

If I were telling a Hallowe'en story, this is likely how the Witch figure would enter the picture. She might be wearing a ragged black dress and long cloak instead of a sweater and slacks. In her hands would be a broom handle instead of a cane. And a pointy black hat would sit on her head at a jaunty angle just above the rim of her spectacles. The sound of one's name on her lips would strike a shiver in the heart.

The Crone Figure as Witch:
Witch figures of various types, whatever their sex or function, share characteristics which mark them out as not only abnormal but also frightening. -- John Widdowson

I speak of the fictional stereotype Witch - the Old Woman, the one regarded as a fearful creature. I said, creature -- not human. She is the Hag - the Stick Rider - the Withered One.

She is Grand Mother Witch. She is Grand Mother Crone.

I say this because if one were to take the stereotype image of a Wicked Witch: Comb her hair and clothe her properly according to the current fashion of the day -- well, she would magically transform into someone's beloved Grandmother. And vice-versa. A prim and proper Grandmother dressed in rags and a pointy hat would likely resemble any number of fairy tale Witches.

The physical appearance of Witch-figures is typically frightening and is often almost a caricature of all the most unpleasant human characteristics. -- John Widdowson

We nonchalantly and sometimes unconsciously assign the cruel label: Witch, Crone, or Hag to Old Women as a means of proverbially crossing ourselves against everything her time-worn features represent.

They are usually old, wrinkled, bent, crippled and reclusive. They often dress in dark, dirty, ragged clothes. They mutter to themselves or display other signs of abnormal or antisocial behavior. – John Widdowson

The Old Woman is the embodiment of our fears. Most people fear old age, ill health, infirmity, the deterioration of one's faculties and death. Most people fear the loss of their looks. Most people fear being alone. In other words, when we see an Old Woman, we irrationally fear and often deny the realization: that will be me one day.

The denigration of Old Women began centuries ago, and despite our pretense of morally correct consciousness in regard to the care of our elder population, continues even today.

Signs of old Womanhood are not supposed to be seen. Women are socially and professionally handicapped by wrinkles and gray hair in a way that men are not. -- Barbara Walker, The Crone

Definitions from:
crone n. An ugly, withered old woman; a hag.
hag n. An old woman considered ugly or frightful
witch n. An ugly evil-looking old woman

I have an elderly Woman friend in her seventies. She is lively and independent, well-read, educated, charming and intelligent, well into her Crone years and experience. She shared with me this profound and dismaying assessment of her status in our society: Once a Woman reaches a certain stage in her life, she becomes invisible. She goes on to say that people, especially men, in particular young men, young Women as well, talk around her or through her or over her head without bothering to address her in a direct manner, seriously consider her opinion or her status as a person with vast experience in most matters.

By reducing an Old Woman to the status of the Witch Crone as the term is loosely understood (or misunderstood) by the vast majority of allegedly educated masses in present times we give ourselves free license to shun, deride, ignore, neglect and discount the Woman's validity and her sensibilities. In short, we make her sub-human.

This is a subject that has been much on my mind of late, for reasons that will become I fear, glaringly apparent as this rant continues.

I am always more reflective at this time of year and have given myself over to this contemplation. In addition, it has not escaped my attention that my October birthday this year brings me to the number 49. In Old Woman terms -- this numerical juncture is the grade before the summit of sorts - I am not quite there yet but close enough for a good, sharp look over the edge - eh?

The Crone Figure as Wise Woman:
A Woman who calls herself Crone is willing to acknowledge her age, wisdom, and power. Through conscious self-definition, she helps to reverse hundreds of years of oppression, degradation, and abuse aimed at old Women. -- Bayla Bower

I consider myself fortunate to have known my Grand Mothers and Great Grand Mothers on both the maternal and paternal side of my family. I mean, these Women were physical and emotional participants in my rearing. As a youngster I was fascinated with the elderly. I enjoyed their stories and gentle companionship. I never tired of listening to them, talking to them, and working alongside them. It never occurred to me to be bored with them. No, even as a teenager I cannot recall experiencing difficulty relating to them. I spent a good measure of time with my Grand Mothers and I am grateful for each and every moment I have had with these wonderful, Wise Women.

MY PATERNAL GREAT GRANDMOTHER was a demure, genteel lady with finely creased feathery soft skin. She smelled like dried rose petals. She seemed so delicate that one didn't hug her too hard for fear she would break, but the grip in her hands was strong. I marveled that these aged hands had produced such remarkably fine needlework. I remember she wore flowered dresses, kid gloves trimmed with pearl buttons on her hands when she went out and most times she wore a hat with fine netting to cover a head of snowy white hair. She talked so low one had to lean in close to hear what she was saying and her laugh was all but inaudible. She had an endearing smile and a sweet charm all her own. She had the kindest eyes I have ever seen. She lived alone in a tiny apartment, her only companion -- a parakeet with which she would converse. She did not seem lonely, rather she appeared content. I knew this Grand Mother the least of all. I lost her when I was still a teenager. As I consider the matter now, she seemed to gently fade away. I cherish the gentle memory of her. That's what I learned from her - the value of quiet and the mark of true gentility.

MY PATERNAL GRANDMOTHER was, without a doubt, the single, wisest, most influential person in my life. I adored her. I aspired to be her, still do. Sadly, while I am told otherwise from time-to-time, I know I am not anything like her, but the experience of HER keeps me trying.

She was a tall Woman of angular build. She was wrinkled, yes, but I never saw the lines on her face as disfiguring. She had a wide smile and thick, wavy hair the color of burnished pewter. She smelled most often of dish soap and lanolin. She simply was and is a presence. She was good and kind, patient and purposeful. She had a fluid economy of movement that made her seem to glide about her daily tasks. She was a Woman of calm industry. Everything she set her hand to was accomplished to the best of her ability, without haste, without frustration and seemingly without stress. She too, was a fine needle Woman and an excellent cook.

She was generous to a fault with worldly goods and her charitable nature was nothing short of magnanimous. I never heard her belittle or degrade another person, I never heard her complain about anything: her life, her chores, her children, her aches and pains, or her age. I never saw her get angry or show ill temper. And, without raising her voice or showing so much as a crinkle on her brow, she gently showed me the path to honest and more importantly, honorable living.

What I remember most is: she never told me I was wrong. Rather, she would point out a particular behavior or episode in question and in a few well-chosen words simply present an alternate, more forthright method of dealing with the situation in the future. Without fail, her suggestions always made the most remarkable sense to me. I was mystified by her intuitive knowledge although I did not yet know it as that.

The Woman had faith. Yes, she was a Christian. One of two real Christians I have known in my life and the one by which I judge all others who make that claim. Her faith was not something she did or studied or practiced to get right -- it is who she was. She did not preach it. She lived it. I lost this Grand Mother when I was still a very young Woman (in my twenties), but not before I learned much at her side about how to be true to myself without forsaking the welfare of others.

MY MATERNAL GREAT GRANDMOTHER was a lively, spirited creature. She was a plump, robust Woman with a mane of white hair and smooth, rosy cheeks. Her ear lobes were abnormally long from years of wearing large, dangly rhinestone earrings. She loved a shirtwaist (belted) dress, bright with flowers. She had a fresh, starchy scent about her, the smell of the garden and outdoors. She lived to the age of 101 and to the very last she was her sweet self. I am often asked if I know the secret to her longevity. I think I do. She met each day with a smile. She worked when she had to and rested when she could. She was not a creature of excess or one of leisure. She lived simply and attacked each day with vigor and a willingness to accept whatever the day brought with it. She had a sort of a go-with-the-flow philosophy that suited her well.

She walked nearly everywhere. She raised a fine garden and was known for her lovely flowers and tasty blackberries and cream. She was an excellent cook and kept her house neat, clean and starched to perfection. She loved toe-tappin' music and was what we consider a natural musician. She could play the piano, organ, banjo, guitar and a harmonica, all without benefit of instruction. She sang folk songs while tapping her toes and clapping her hands. She laughed easily and often. She told wonderful pioneer stories of knowing Indians, surviving harsh winters and walking beside covered wagons. There was no regular bedtime at this Grand Mother's house, no rules about how early one must rise, no distance that was too far to walk for an ice-cream cone on a hot summer afternoon, no set menu at her table -- one could have what one was hungry for. She was loved by everyone because she loved everyone. She was happy to have her family and friends about her and happy to go visitin' at the drop of a hat. I was in my thirties when I lost this Grand Mother. She taught me much about the joy of living and how to cherish the simple gifts of each day.

One could take these first three Grand Mothers as I have described them and transform them by way of clothing and accessory to represent a pale shadow of the Witch figure of this discussion, but none of them would come off as wicked no matter how well they might look the part. Why? Each of them aged well and gracefully into the stage of the Crone.

Each of them embraced their age and happily imparted their wisdom to a receptive audience. Me. They in essence, became the spirit of the Wise Woman of old with seemingly little effort.

It was the medieval metamorphosis of the Wise Woman into the Witch that changed the word Crone from a compliment to an insult and established the stereotype of malevolent Old Womanhood that continues to haunt elder Women today. -- Barbara Walker, The Crone

MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER is still living mostly on her own at age 94. I began this rant with a fictional rendering of her old home as a haunted house and it is her face that appears as the specter in the window. The description, while exaggerated, is fairly accurate. This Grand Mother is perhaps, the perfect example of the Witch/Hag/Crone figure I have described. If we removed her to the sixteenth century I have no doubt in my mind that her antics would result in her persecution as a Witch. Before I go further I must get this out - I absolutely adore her!

She is everything the other Grand Mothers were not and so much more, too. If I had to describe this Grand Mother in a single word - the word would be: SHREW. She is very vocal, extremely opinionated and most times abrasive in her bearing.

If I be waspish, best beware my sting!
-- Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew --

She is a diminutive Woman, short, bent, and thin although she was not always so. I remember her as a full-figured, vigorous Woman, with coal black hair and snapping black eyes. She was always front and center at every family gathering. She never got the concept of keeping a low profile. She would never have been a wallflower. She has a lovely, smooth complexion and smells of rosebud salve. I associate her with dark colors, mostly black and red. And blood red roses. Sometimes I think with some bemusement her roses have thorns. At other times, I associate her with the wild, pink primroses that bloom beside that old back porch without a bit of tending.

She is a fine seamstress and an excellent cook. She is musical and loves music. She is considered thrifty but penny pincher is a better term. One of her favorite sayings is: it is too late to tighten your belt if you've already lost your pants. She has always been a pro-active sort... with an in-your-face attitude. She did not, does not share the wisdom of her years in a passive manner. She is aggressive, demanding and controlling. She can be abusive. She loves a good squabble. She says what she thinks with little regard for good manners or even a modicum of discretion.

This Grand Mother did not teach by example, she taught by hard rule, intimidation and the threat of a pecan switch. Sit up straight, chew with your mouth closed, ladies do not cross their legs to put on socks, don't say anything if you can't say anything nice, get your nose out of that book, stay away from the tracks and the folk who live down there, do as I say and do it now, and do not under any circumstances smart off and talk back. No mumbling was allowed. If you had something to say, and you had the guts to say it -- she would hear it said loudly and plainly.

On the other hand, no grandchild ever had a bigger champion. She was/is an excellent co-conspirator who delights in flaunting rules set down by parents. This Grand Mother saw a veritable genius, musician, doctor, lawyer -- a shining star in all of us. She demanded that each of us strive to reach our full potential.

She has a keen sense of humor, was/is a fun-loving spirit and often her take on things (especially politics) is downright hilarious. No child in need was ever turned from her door. If she had what you needed or could get it -- she did. She may have ruled the roost with a loud cackle and disagreeable demeanor but there was never any doubt in my mind that she loved me, cared deeply about me and would do anything for me. Even now.

My Mother is Grand Mother's oldest child, I am the oldest grandchild, my daughter is the great baby or the oldest great grandchild and her son is the oldest great, great grandchild. We are five generations. When the Great Grand Mother was living and before the great, great grandson was born -- we were five generations of Women. Being the First of the First and the Mother and Grand Mother of the First of the First allows me a certain peculiarly elevated status in her mind.

I have always been very close and shared a special bond with this Grand Mother. I spent many long summers and Christmas vacations in her company. Even after I became an adult, with the responsibility of my own family -- we stayed close, spent time on the weekends and I made certain I was present for birthdays and other occasions, even non-occasions so dear to an old lady's heart. We still talk by telephone on a regular basis.

Despite what could be misunderstood as disparaging opening comments about this Woman, believe me when I say, I love and care deeply for her. She was and is a positive influence in my life, especially during my formative years. She taught me to speak up for myself and take matters into my own hands. She taught me I am in sole control of my destiny and to never consider myself a victim of circumstances.

Sadly, because Grand Mother is so cantankerous, her later years have been dull and lonely. All the people she knew and loved and related to on a daily basis preceded her in death years ago. The family stopped coming to visit. The family stopped calling. Few members of the family are hale and hearty enough to withstand her waspish ways. It is hard not to take the things she says personally, because often, her attacks are hurtful. With few exceptions (I might be one of them); nothing or no one pleases her for long.

What most do not understand is we, her family, are as much a part of the problem as she is. How agreeable would you be, if you were a 94 year old lady, who has given your life to the care of your family - if you found yourself sitting alone all day, every day? Shunned. Neglected. Forgotten. Is there any other way to see it? So many live so close and do so little. It is deplorable. Few understand that what Grand Mother needs is interaction. Her mind is still active and requires real, engaging conversation. She is the type of person who thrives on debate. And, she needs someone to listen.

The friend in her seventies that I spoke of earlier told me recently that she encountered a similar issue with her own Mother. She felt her Mother was sharing all sorts of nonsensical and trivial information with her about obscure relatives and past events and finally asked her why she felt compelled to do so. Her Mother simply replied that she had no one else to tell it to. The friend realized that when an old person speaks of the past, often repeating a certain episode over and over, they are really trying to make sense of their life. They are trying to validate their existence, and perhaps resolve their reason for being. The friend resolved to become better at listening. Ditto.

Grand Mother, without this interaction, without someone to exchange ideas and information, without someone to do the listening has withdrawn to a world of shadows and memories. She has grown bitter, distant and reclusive.

My aunt, who rarely visits or calls her own Mother, and often is resentful when she does visit, said to me once that she didn't like to stay too long with Grand Mother because and I quote, "All she talks about is dead people."

My exasperated response to that asinine comment was as follows: Dead people! Well, I am thinking if she had more live people in her life on a daily basis she'd have more than dead people to talk about! And just for the record, which dead people do you not want to hear about? Your Father? Your Grand Mother? The Aunts? The Uncles? Your recently departed Sister?

I recently reminded the family to no avail of one simple thing:

I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. -- Helen Keller

The something that I can do is as simple as expressing love and interest. Apparently, that is asking too much.

Over the past few years, I have lived far from my roots. Upon each successive visit home I have been able to mark Grand Mother's unwholesome decline. I have born witness to a Woman on the edge of nowhere. She simply does not exist except in the ghost lands of her memories.

Yes, this Woman is haunted. Her house is haunted. The sound of laughter and the living have departed her space. What must it be like to sit and court the shadows of darkness, contemplate the inevitable and wait and wait and wait…?

I have witnessed my Grand Mother's transformation into the ill-favored stereotype Crone; I have witnessed her persecution as a Witch, so to speak. She is no longer a viable individual. Like so many centuries of Old Women -- she is ultimately and horribly -- dispensable.

Her Womanly Wisdom, the sum total of her person, is but kindling on a funeral pyre of regret and disillusionment.

I have been told that such is just the way of things, but it is in my nature to challenge the status quo. And, by so doing, I will have learned much from this Grand Mother after all.

Perhaps I may avoid some of the pitfalls of aging, perhaps not rely on the questionable devotion of family, perhaps value the friendships I have and strive to maintain them, perhaps make myself useful in ways I have never thought of before, and perhaps be more creative, more spontaneous, and more adventurous.

[I] ...will not become invisible, trivialized, or shamed by a society obsessed with youth and terrified of aging. -- Bower

I will own my age and strive to make these the best years of my life. I will accept my physical limitations to some extent but I vow to test them often. I will explore new realms with mind and heart. I will trust in the power of intuition. I will remember that life is miracle and magic. I will acknowledge and accept that I cannot be another person's conscience but continue to believe that what we send out in the world comes back to us in full measure.

... and my greatest ritual is love itself. -- Garrison

Finally, I will remember to love and allow myself to be loved.

As I light the candle of remembrance this year -- I will call the spirits of my Beloved Grand Mothers and ask that they bring what comfort they can to the Grand Mother who is still in the land of the living. Perhaps they can also provide patience to those who care for her.

If we are to be well, we must care for ourselves. We must not cast the Old Woman out, but become her more abundantly. -- Germaine Greer

Brightest Blessings to You and Yours
this Hallowe'en 2004
and Cheerful Greetings to Grand Mother Crones Everywhere!

Respectfully yours in caliginous chaos
An it harm none – do as you will…
© 2004 (text revised 2018) All rights reserved