Hereditary Magic

Halloween, 2017

Thirty-three years ago today, my maternal grandmother, Pearl Ethel Taylor Rhodes, crossed from this world into the next.

Five months earlier, she had told me that she intended to die on Halloween.  It was such a lovely time to die, and the passage through the veil then is so easy as to actually be enjoyable.  Or so she said, and I have no reason not to believe her.  She never lied to me.

My grandmother had been raised by a family of hereditary witches.  No, this is not fiction, as much as I realize that it sounds like a line right out of an Alice Hoffman book.   I have often wondered if Ms Hoffman herself came from such a line of women, given that her Practical Magic books have made me exclaim out loud a few times while reading them.  She writes like a woman who knows what it means to have magic whispered into her ear at a very young age by women who have passed down secrets.

My great-grandmother’s birth name was Eliza Alverda Groves, although everyone called her Vert, which of course means that her name was Green Groves.  I think it is a perfect name for a woman raised in a Celtic druidic tradition.  Vert learned her craft from her grandmother, Sarah Ann McLain, who was descended from the line of the Wise Women of Mull. Mull is a magical and mist-encrusted island on the west coast of Scotland, most known as the stopping off place en route to the more storied, holy island of Iona.  But Mull deserves its own renown.  The Scottish islands are some of the most magic-filled places on the planet, and Mull was and is the hereditary seat of Clan McLain (aka MacLean and various other spellings).  There is a legend that the lairds of Duart Castle married into a family of magical women, indigenous island people from an ancient race of fairies who dwelled on the islands of Mull and Iona and Skye, and other Hebrideans.  It was said these fairy women could take the forms of animals and even mermaids.  Perhaps that is the source of the ancient, time-out-of-mind magic of Sarah McLain’s family.     

The Groves women – and there were eight of them – had their own brand of magic, although a few of them had no magic at all.  It’s funny, but being born with hereditary magic is a bit like being able to sing or play the piano or do math in your head: not everyone has it actively bursting out of their cells, although it is somewhere in the DNA.  Vert had enough for everyone, and as the oldest girl she spent a lot of her life as the caretaker in the family, and indeed in her town.  She was the local herbalist and healer.  We still have yellowed, decaying pieces of paper in my family with my great-grandmother’s herbal remedies scrawled on them, complicated concoctions with ingredients that are challenging to obtain in the 21st century.   They are faded and mostly illegible, but there is magic still within those scraps. 

My mother used to tell me stories of visiting Chinatown on a streetcar as a child in downtown Los Angeles, holding her grandmother’s hand as they knocked on doors in darkened backstreets.  They went in search of the elders who received their herbs – and other exotic ingredients – directly from China.  In the world of hereditary wisdom, the relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters is a beautiful and hallowed thing.   Although my own experience with this falls within a Celtic tradition, I believe this is a natural truth in many cultures around the world.  It is the way of the triple goddess: the grandmother/crone shares her wisdom with the daughter/maiden – as the mother is busy running the world around them all.  These are the three stages of feminine life, maids, mothers and crones.  

My own grandmother shaped my life in a way that was profound and unique.  I traveled with her from the time I was very small, and she taught me how to listen to nature.  She was a very modern woman who worked in television in Hollywood, and was something of a pioneer there.  But on weekends she would escape to her cabin in the nearby mountains to spend rejuvenating days among the trees.  That forest was my first “natural school” but my world expanded as she introduced me to the magic of the deserts in the Southwest.  When I was a teenager, she changed my life when she brought me to Ireland for the first time, to introduce me to the Celtic magic there.   Her father’s family was Irish, and his elder sisters had some magic of their own, not coincidentally – but that is another story for another time.  Had she lived longer, we planned to visit the Scottish islands together, but that was not to be.

In the Spring of 1984, when I was 21 years old, my grandmother discovered that her body was riddled with an untreatable cancer.   She sat me down and explained this to me, and then in her inimitable way said brightly, “But that means we must have one final adventure.  I was thinking Jamaica.  Shall we go?”

I was surprised by the choice, although the reason would become clear later.  She had a motive for going to Jamaica, a motive that had everything to do with island magic.  It turns out that all lands which are surrounded by the ocean are filled with magic, and it happened that her own hereditary islands were now too far and too chilly for her to return to them.  The disease in her bones was made painful by the cold, and she needed to be in the sunshine and stay warm.  But she knew of a magical man who lived in Jamaica and she wanted to find him – not for herself, as it turned out, but for me.  He had something to teach that she wanted to leave with me, as I learned how to face “the burden of magic” without my greatest teacher and mentor.

And that was how I found myself on a beach in Jamaica, listening to my grandmother tell me all of the secrets that she did not want to die with her.  Stories from my family that even my mother did not know, stories which it was now my job to protect and perhaps reveal when I saw fit to do so.  And on one of those days on the beach, she told me she would choose to die on Halloween, the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when the veils thinned and it was a simple matter of moving from this world to the next.  She thought it would be fun, and looked forward to the adventure of it.

And that is precisely what she did.

Thirty-three years later in the Spring of 2017, her daughter Donna Mae, my mother, passed on the 26th of April – which would have been Pearl Ethel Taylor’s 111th birthday.   This did not surprise me in the least.  The women in my line are woven together like threads in an eternal tapestry.   And there are interesting numbers at play here with the years, all of those 11s and 33s.  My mother used to say, “Magic contains numbers.”  She first said this to me when I was a little girl and she discovered that I counted everything: the stairs I climbed, the flowers in the garden, patterns on the wallpaper.  I added the numbers in license plates, exclaiming that I was a winner when one of them added to the number 22, my own birth number.  I still do that, something which my late husband Filip teased me about endlessly.  But that, too, is another story for another day.

On Halloween/Samhain, I always feel these women with me, dating back to faceless and nameless ancestral women, women who healed on the islands of Scotland and in the West of Ireland.  This is so strong as to be overwhelming for me this year, with my mother gone now for these six months.       

But this year there is a new twist on Halloween for me.  I am the grandmother now, and I have magical little twin girls who will one day hear the secrets of our people whispered into their perfect little ears.

Happy Halloween, Everyone.  And remember… the magic is real.

Excerpted from my memoir, The Burden of Magic, coming in 2018/2019.  Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved.


Photo of my grandmother in Jamaica in the last months of her life, thrilled to have found a statue of the goddess!

grandma in jamaica002

Anti-Semitism is not “cheeky” and hate is not “ironic”

I am not Jewish. But I am keenly aware that Anti-Semitism is evil, dangerous – and on the rise. I have seen those photos from the event last week with young people, and a beaming reality TV star, giving a straight-armed Nazi salute. This is not normal. This is not OK. This is not “cheeky” or “ironic” as the leader of that white supremacist conference has claimed (I refuse to name these people and give them amy more of the attention they crave).

The Nazi salute is a symbol of mass murder. Of the darkest moment in human history. I often wonder what would happen if you could send all of those clueless “heilers” back in time to spend a day in the thickest part of the Holocaust, to see what it was really like. A night in a freezing cattle car or in a death camp might make them consider their actions for the future.

I think a lot about this, about how to open the eyes of these younger people who are flocking to the alt-right, Neo-Nazi movements, how to help them understand what it is that they are truly supporting, ie, that the Nazi salute they refer to as “cheeky” is actually stating “I support the mass torture and murder of millions of people.” The energy of those actions has consequences to the world around them, as well as to their own souls.  They are now two generations removed from the war, and it is not fresh or visceral for them. They do not feel it.  I am 53, and my generation grew up with parents who were war babies and had granddads who told stories of being in Europe and fighting the Nazis. My grandfather was proud every day of his life that he had spent years fighting fascism in Europe as the commander of a tank corps; he would be devastated by what we are seeing as “normalized” in terms of fascism and Anti-Semitism. When my grandfather bought his home in Hollywood in the 50s, he intentionally settled in an all-Jewish neighborhood in the Fairfax district. He felt in his bones, til the day he died, that it was his duty to defend and protect his Jewish brothers and sisters.

But the generation which has followed my own was not raised with firsthand stories of Nazi atrocities.  Most do not have this immediate frame of reference.  Instead, some of them see “glamour” in the dark side – which Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, openly celebrates with comparisons to pop culture icons like Darth Vader. Some think it is a game, like playing dress up, or are acting out their rebellious streak. They are sadly  desensitized to the horrors and suffering that were the reality of Hell on Earth for millions of people. And I am not sure what the cure is for that. We are clearly failing to educate the populace on the horrors – and the causes – of the rise in fascism that facilitated the Holocaust. There is certainly great literature and powerful film which portrays some of the suffering from WWII, and I have to believe that educators are using these tools. But it seems to me that it is not enough to have a chapter or two on the Second World War.  Memorizing names and dates and famous battles is not enough to educate our children on what must NEVER AGAIN happen.

Perhaps our high school students should have to take a full course on genocide: the causes, the suffering and its aftermath. And yes, it will be uncomfortable and shocking and they will need to watch things that make them scared and sick, but perhaps we have shielded them from the horrors that we inflict upon each other a bit too much.  The only way to truly say – and mean – Never Again is to understand at some visceral level what and why we are committed to that notion. The genocide against the Bosniaks in 1995 was not that long ago, and yet we have mostly forgotten about it already – if we were even aware that it happened at all.  I visited the memorial at Srebrenica a few years ago, the site of events that are beyond comprehension, a genocidal massacre which occurred against the Bosniaks in July of 1995.  The impact of that site on my mind and psyche was indelible.  I will never shake the essence of Srebrenica from my consciousness – nor should I.  We listened to stories from survivors, and walked among the haunted buildings where the unimaginable was facilitated.  It made me, and those who traveled with me, physically ill.  I was literally sick for a week after that visit.  But the understanding of what we are capable of is something that will and must stay with me every day of my life.

I wish that all of these young Americans who are embracing these terrible ideas that relate to genocide could be sent to experience places like Auschwitz and Srebrenica.  They need to understand that genocide begins with words, and with slogans – and salutes.

I do not need to be Jewish to powerfully oppose anti-Semitism. I do not need to be Bosnian to care about genocide in the Balkans. I do not need to be Muslim to care about hate crimes and Islamophobia. I need only to be human.

We are all one human family, and an attack on One is an attack on All.