My grandmother was quiet and mysterious and knew mysterious things.
She was part gypsy, at least that is what I grew up believing.
She could heal wounds, and cure sickness, and she always knew how things would turn out.
She could predict bad news, and see right through untrustworthy people.
She knew what to do about both.
She had secret recipes, and special remedies,
and wise old sayings, to fit every situation.
She believed in good luck and friendly forces.
She also believed in the unfriendly forces,
and she took great pains to protect us from them.
I would watch her fill a little cloth bag with needles,
and nails and bits of broken wire.
Sometimes broken twigs and spiky leaves and dried nettles–
for the teas and salves and poultices she made,
would end up in the little bag.
She would put the little bag under the door mat.
What are you doing Gran? I would ask.
“Doing what needs doing” she would answer.
My mom would tell me, “Oh it’s something Irish–
a superstition that’s all.”
But I would watch my Grandma hide a bottle of my Grandad’s whiskey,
way in the back of the cupboard.
She would carefully sprinkle a line of coarse salt in front of it,
and then stack the mason jars of peaches and carrots
and crabapples in front of the line of salt.
What are you doing Gran? I would ask
“You can see what I am doing.
Or are your eyes just for show then, and you can’t really see?”
My Grandad would come home, and look behind the piano for his whiskey.
He’d come into the kitchen scratching his head.
He’d open the cupboard and move the jars around.
“Where have you hidden my whiskey Maggie?” he would say.
But he would never find the bottle.
It was right there in front of his eyes, but he couldn’t see it.
If I asked Gran too many questions though,
I was always told something that would make me feel
as if I shouldn’t have asked– as if knowing this information,
would be a terrible burden to me.
It wasn’t what she said, it was what she didn’t say that made me know this.
So I didn’t ask questions–
at least not often.
Sometimes though Gran would make me feel,
as if we had shared a special secret.
I could never remember the secret.
I just knew something wonderful had passed between us.
And every moment I spent with her seemed magic, and precious,
and I was convinced she had remarkable abilities.
I was convinced she could make things happen.
She did things efficiently quickly and without any fuss.
She seemed to do whatever she did, without actually doing it.
She would tell me a story of her girlhood in Ireland,
while she ironed the shirts, baked a pie, washed the dishes,
and swept the kitchen floor.
I would be so carried away with the sound of her voice
and her tales– of the fancy french seamstress that taught her
at the Dressmaking school in Belfast, or the Scottish School Master,
who was sweet on her sister Esther–
that I couldn’t remember the unfolding of the
ironing board, or the basket of white shirts, or the
flour and lard, or the rolling pin or the big bowl on the table,
or the broom or the dustpan. Yet suddenly she would be taking
a golden brown apple pie out of the oven.
And the shirts would be hanging crisp and white on the hangers.
The dishes were washed and the floor was swept.
I didn’t have to ask any questions
I knew she was magic without being told.