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!