Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Samhain: A Time to Remember My Fallen Leaves

October has always been my favorite month, my most loved time of year, and Samhain my favorite of the sabbats. Perhaps it is because I am an October baby. Yet I think it is more so because of the month itself, the mystery of this turn of the wheel, all of the beauty amongst all the decay, and a time to remember my fallen leaves.

Mother Earth, weak and tired from the weight of ripened fruits and vegetables and branches of abundant leaves and flowers, is lightening her load, sending leaves from the trees in a flourish of gold, yellow, orange and red. The sun is warm yet the breezes are cool and crisp and the rich earthy scents of wood smoke and decaying leaves linger on the currents. Hearty and sweet aromas of beef stews, candied apples, and cinnamon waft from kitchen windows and transport me back to autumns of yesteryear. Patios, porches, doorsteps and yards are adorned in symbols of the final harvest like hay bales, cornstalks, gourds, pumpkins, and the jeweled colors of chrysanthemums, breathtaking against the skeletal remains of summer gardens. Everywhere there is magic, an electrical charge of power rippling around me. The veil is thinning. Sometimes I think I can see it, a dark violet shimmer and wave in the night sky behind the stars, like a curtain on the stage of the universe. At times, I feel it, a gentle tug at my soul, nudging me to fly free into the dark. Samhain is near.

I spend most of October with death and decay as I put my garden to rest for the winter. The once bursting garden beds are now full of withered and brown branches, dried seedpods, and spent blossoms. I layer them with fallen autumn leaves, burying them to be reborn in spring. In whispers, I thank each plant for their beauty and abundance as I cover them for another year and wish them a safe and peaceful slumber through the ice, snow and harsh winter winds. I harvest the last of the herbs, bringing them indoors for drying, my kitchen becoming a fragrant final resting place for hanging bunches of herbs and a reminder of the life that was, just a short time ago, growing all around me. Most of my summer visitors have flown south for the winter. Those that remain find shelter in bird houses, wood piles, and mounds of twigs and fallen leaves. After all my plants and shrubs are safely laid to rest for the year and my feathered and furried friends have settled in for the dark time of the year, I leave gifts of thanks to the spirits of nature, to Mother Earth, and to the flora and fauna throughout the garden.

Indoors, I prepare my home to welcome the dead, my beloved dead, my fallen leaves. In and around the usual autumn and Samhain d├ęcor upon my altar, I place a garland of autumn leaves and to it I pin the pictures of the family and friends, the people and pets, who slipped beyond the veil. The pictures have become too recent, no longer the faded sepia or black and white photos of great-grandparents or grandparents but the colorful images of parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and childhood friends, bringing tears to my eyes and a heart-wrenching sob to my throat as I place them on the altar, hardly believing that they are no longer only a phone call away. I spend many moments just staring at their faces smiling out at me from among the brightly colored autumn leaves, speaking to them, hoping for a reply, sometimes imagining that they wave back at me like the photographs in the Harry Potter movies. Perhaps it is my old Catholic upbringing but I leave the pictures there through November 2nd, All Souls Day. There are some people in those pictures who would appreciate that.

Samhain arrives and I let the magic of the day take over. The pumpkins are carved with jagged smiles and triangular eyes and noses and then lit. The soul cakes are made and set aside for later in the evening. I cleanse and bless the house and gardens, clearing the way for those people in the pictures to drop by for a bit, even if it is for a minute. The dining room table is set for the Ancestor Feast, the traditional meal my mother used to make at Halloween – beef stew, biscuits, and a sweet treat, usually an apple crisp. As always, there is one empty seat at the table with a full place setting for whoever wishes to slip back through the veil and join us. Family and friends gather around the table and stories are told, laughter is heard, and tears are shed through dinner. We remember all of those moments captured in the colorful pictures on the altar and many more moments frozen in time in our memories. Yes, they are here at the table, laughing with us, crying with us, missing us like we miss them. As dinner is cleared away, I quietly mourn the fact that my son is “too old” to trick-or-treat now and page through my mental photo album of every Halloween costume he wore through the years.

As the night winds down, I head outside to my patio to light the Samhain fire pit into which are thrown bunches of dried herbs from my garden and slips of paper on which are written the things I wish to leave behind me now. I mourn what once was and embrace what will be. I celebrate who I was (because we all change with each turn of the wheel) and lay the old me to rest. I rededicate myself to my ever-twisting Pagan path and welcome the new me. I sit under the night sky and the parted veil and talk to my fallen leaves, sharing with them just as I would if they were still just that phone call away. The fire dies down to glowing embers, the ashes of which I will scatter in the garden, and I head indoors for another piece of apple crisp and some spiced apple wine in a spot close to my altar. The Jack O’Lantern smiles down at me from there as I look down the road a bit, with tarot cards or runes, at what may lie ahead.

Yet, where there is death there is also life. I look around at all those who gather at the Ancestor Feast table and see my beloved dead in their faces, their habits, and their mannerisms, hear them in their voices and their laughter, and feel them pulsing in my veins. Many of them are present in the image I see in my mirror each day. I stroll around my garden and see the leaves mulching down to nourish the life that will grow in spring. The seed pods of this year’s plants will become next year’s plants. The costumes my son once wore may someday be worn again by his children. Parts of me fall way like the autumn leaves so that I may continue to grow. The wheel turns, the leaves fall, and life goes on.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Magic of Wildwood Days

Long before I was a village wise woman, long before I was a witch, a Master Gardener, or a wife or mom, I was a beach bum. From the age of 8 months until my late teens, I spent every summer, all summer, at the Jersey shore in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey. This came at the privilege of being the daughter of a teacher and a stay-at-home mom and having a longtime family summer residence. With Memorial Day just passing and with the fast-approaching end of the school year and Summer Solstice, I have been traveling down memory lane often, longing for those Wildwood days again. (Before I continue, I must ask you, my reader, to please excuse me should my writing take on a stream-of-consciousness style. Wildwood does that to me sometimes.)

It started the Friday morning before Memorial Day on my way to work. As I got to the Wawa for my morning coffee, there were the cars loaded up with bags, beach chairs, boogie boards, and smiling people wearing sunglasses, sun hats and flip-flops, all ready for the long summer-opening weekend at the beach. Completely jealous, I muttered under my breath, "Bastards!" and threw open the store door. And the flood of memories began, in snap shots and slow motion film in my head.

Packing up the car at an unheard of 4:00 in the morning, Locking up our little row home for the summer and checking the door what seemed like a million times before leaving. My parents, me and my then only younger sister piling into the small yellow Toyota Corolla and getting on the road before the sun rose on the eastern horizon. Traveling exactly at or under the speed limit, back roads only because my dad could never tolerate the main highways to the shore. My mother passing orange slices to me and my sister in the back seat and lighting my dad's pipe for him because he had to concentrate on the road. Giggling with my sister as quietly as we could so as not to distract Dad. More orange slices from Mom to keep us quiet. Stopping along the way, several times, so my mom could pick some reeds and wildflowers from back bay marshes or so my dad could could check out an odd gravestone jutting out at the roadside where my mom would place a wildflower. Oh what a strange trip it always was and a very long one at that!

We would arrive at the family seaside residence somewhere in the mid-morning. Oh that old beautiful house! It was built by my paternal great-grandfather and other relatives, I believe, in the 1920's. Six bedrooms, one and a half baths. A huge side lot full of plants and mimosa trees. Open front porch, screened back porch. Small laundry room. Outside shower. An old wooden garage that, as I recall, only housed cars in the event of a tropical storm or hurricane and served mainly as my dad's study during the summer as well as containing all the beach gear, the bikes, and the garden tools. And there we would stay, from the last day of school until Labor Day. Hours upon hours on the beach, playing in the sand, splashing around in the ocean, eating bologna sandwiches and sipping warm iced tea from a thermos. Nights either on the porches or under the mimosa trees in the yard or taking long walks along the bay to see the boats go out for night fishing and to watch the sun go down over Sunset Lake. Rainy days were spent at the library or in Cape May, going from antique store to book store to the lighthouse at the Point.

Weekends were most always a full house. On Fridays, my great Aunt Elanor and Great uncle Salvie, would arrive for the weekend, car packed with bags from what they called the American Store (in today's lingo - the Acme). My sis and I would  help haul the bags inside where we would unload the canned tomatoes, olive oil, paper goods and meats from the butcher. Uncle Salvie would take us to the fish market to get the flounder for the Friday evening meal (because in those days you could not eat meat in Fridays if you were Catholic which they all were). Then, later in the day, my great Aunt would arrive on the express bus from Philadelphia, She always had treats - jellied fruit slices and chocolates - for me and my sister, We'd shove what we could into our mouths before anyone noticed and help her get bags settled in her room. Friends of my parents would drop by. Eleanor and Salvie's son, and my dad's cousin, Fran, often came. It was a weekend of fun, family and good food. There were afternoon gin and tonics on the porches for the adults before dinner while my sis and I played in the yard after the beach.

And this went on, day in, day out, week after week, until Labor Day. It was life at the shore. Okay, it wasn't all good. There was arguing, there were frustrations, there was chaos sometimes. But we were at the shore. The sand, the sea, the sun, the salt air. Ah, yes, the shore! Confession: I cry every time Bruce sings that line, " 'Coz down the shore everything's all right".

Years later, when my parents divorced, job situations changed, and my great aunts and uncles passed away, the house passed, by way of screwed up last wills and testaments, to Fran and that was the end of those idyllic summers in Wildwood Crest. Although my dad's mom, who died when he was 5, was once part owner of the house, a portion of ownership never passed into my dad's hands. He still went to the house though, spending about six weeks every summer with his new wife. By then I was dating my later-to-be husband and he and I would pack up the car every Friday night after work and speed down the Atlantic City Expressway and the Garden State Parkway in a 1980 V8 Ford Thunderbird, taking an amazing 70 minutes even in all that weekend traffic to get there, spend the weekend sitting on the beach and frolicking in the ocean, only to race back to the city in crazy traffic on Sunday evenings. My husband proposed to me at Sunset Lake. My son went there for the first few years of his life, every weekend of the summer. Life got in the way, life changed, circumstances changed, and we stopped going.

That house in the Crest was my dad's peace and solace. It was the place he went every summer of his life from birth to the year before he died. It was the last place he saw his mother alive. It was where he met my mom, where he met my stepmom. It was part of his very being, part of his life. It was his life. The night my dad passed away, I knew where he wanted to be, where he needed to go. As he took his last breaths, I told him to go there, that his mother waited for him there. And that is where I know he is now, spending every second of eternity at the Jersey Shore in Wildwood Crest. That house is his Summerland.

I haven't been in Wildwood for a while now. It's just a bit too hard for me still. I'll get there eventually. But, when I want to feel like my old beach bum self, like I did over the Memorial Day weekend, I just put on some suntan lotion so the scent of coconut, sand and salt envelops me, throw on my tankini under my favorite broken-in denim jeans or capris with a tank top and my oldest pair of flip-flops so I feel like I am at the beach, sip a gin and tonic outside on the patio pretending that I am under a mimosa tree or on that front porch, close my eyes, and imagine I hear the roar of the ocean, the boat horns sounding on departure, and the call of the gulls in the distance. I am transported back to the magic of those Wildwood days.