An ordinary girl born into a family of witches

I wanted to see what my mom and sister did. But as bad spirits descended on our lives, I also longed for normalcy

Published November 29, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

The author's family: Her grandmother, sister, and mother.
The author's family: Her grandmother, sister, and mother.

“Do you see them?”  My mother crouched in the big green chair and stared at the wall above the fireplace.

I didn’t see anything.

“Right there!  And there!”

It was early evening in our suburban Maryland home. I’d come downstairs from doing my eighth grade homework to ask about dinner.

“Spiders!”  Mom pointed.  “Giant spiders.  Crawling on the walls.  The ceiling.”

“What should I do?”

I didn’t see them, but she did and I thought there was a good chance the spiders were real — if invisible to my 12-year-old eyes.  Mom wanted me to get the broom, open the front door and shoo them out.  I did as I was told.  Who was I to argue?  Everyone in my family saw things I couldn’t see.  That’s what came from being the one ordinary girl born into a family of witches.

My maternal grandmother could see the spirit world.  She had regular sightings and conversations with supernatural creatures.  She also found lost objects, healed minor illnesses and predicted the future for her friends and family.  I was visiting Grandma one hot summer in Missouri and a neighbor showed up at the back door.  She was upset.  She had lost her garnet tea ring.  My grandmother held the neighbor’s hands and chanted.  Then she gave her a glass of sweet tea and told her to go home and look in her silverware drawer.  Sure enough, the neighbor telephoned, the ring was there under the spoons and forks.

My mother saw ghosts and omens and had her own gifts.  She always knew who was calling on the phone and even what letters we would receive.  My older half-sister regularly spoke to the dead.  In Missouri, for some reason, being a witch made sense.  The town where my mother grew up was tiny with one stop-light, and our family, the Jacksons — proud, if distant, descendants of President Andrew Jackson — had lived there for generations.  My grandmother knew everyone and everyone knew her and by extension everything about my mother and my sister and me.  They knew my mother’s first boyfriend and what she wore to her high school prom.  They knew I wanted to be a dancer and that my sister was in all the advanced classes at school.  The older folks remembered my great-grandmother and my great-aunts and uncles and told me long, meandering stories about horses and flower shows and barn dances. Everything seemed out of another time. The houses were big, Victorian, old and rundown.  As a child I thought it was because witches lived in all of them and witch houses were dilapidated by definition.  Later, of course, I understood the town was dying economically, the loans coming due on the surrounding farms, the small shops being swallowed up by the Wal-Mart 30 minutes down the highway.

But as a kid visiting for two weeks each summer, Missouri was all about the magic.  My grandmother pointed out fairies in the grass, the elf that lived under the bridge, an angel she saw one night granting wishes in a cornfield.  I never saw anything, but I believed it was there.  My sister saw the elves and angels.  My sister has the same green eyes with dark rings, the same fair skin and light hair as all the Jackson girls.  I take after my pragmatic, Jewish dad — my mother’s second husband.  I have dark, curly hair and brown eyes and not a magical bone in my body.  Grandma knew my father’s blood was to blame.  My sister was blunt about my lack of mystical talent.  “Half-breed,” she called me.  I liked that better than when she said I was “normal” or “ordinary.”  In my family ordinary was the worst thing anyone could be.  My mother kicked my ordinary father out of the house when I was 4.

At home, in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., we mostly kept our abilities to ourselves. We were supposed to be a single-parent family like any other.  Mom taught first grade at a public elementary school.  She drove me to dance lessons and went to the grocery store.  No one showed up at our door asking for predictions or remedies or for Mom to find lost jewelry.  My sister kept quiet about the visits the deceased made to her dreams, the visions she had in the upstairs bathroom or outside in the yard, all the things she talked about freely with Grandma.  Yes, we knew there were no coincidences, nothing just happened, it was all because of magic, but we didn’t talk about it outside the family.  Mom said the world was too harsh, too mundane, too stupid to understand that we were special.  My childhood was fun. We danced and sang.  We built fairy houses in the backyard, made up chants to keep the goblins away, and every night we left cookies on my windowsill for Peter Pan.  Anything, everything, was possible.

In my preteen years, Mom began to embrace her skills more and more.  She said our house was haunted and that she spoke regularly to the ghost.  The ghost told her things, helped her make decisions, even occasionally what we would have for dinner.  If we made the green light on the drive to school, it was the spell my mother had recited.  Signs and omens appeared regularly both in the sky and in the Washington Post.  It was a little much, even for my sister.  She was a teenager by then, more interested in sex and drugs than magic.  She did not want to be embarrassed.  Mom was quick to point out who among our friends was evil and who was fine.  My sister always liked the evil boys.

One day Mom ran out of the house so abruptly she left the front door standing open.  I saw her on the sidewalk, talking, laughing with someone I, of course, couldn’t see.  She came back inside, smiling with happy tears in her eyes.  Her father, long dead, had come walking down our street.

“Didn’t you see him?” she asked me.  “Didn’t you?”

When I shook my head, she patted my shoulder, smoothed my curls back and told me she was sorry.  “Maybe it’ll come,” she said.  “One day.”  But I could tell by her face she didn’t really think so.

In Missouri that summer, my grandmother healed my sister’s boyfriend.  Bobby was a local farm boy, cute, with brown arms and a white belly I saw at the swimming hole.  He had warts all over both his hands like a dusting of powdered sugar on his tan skin.  Grandma took off her wedding ring and ran it back and forth over every wart while she chanted.  She said a final prayer, made us all say, “Amen,” and then let him go.  A week later my sister told me Bobby touched her breast with his hand and there wasn’t a wart on it.  That was the year Mom began taking the car to drive to the next town.  She’d smoke a cigarette and use the pay phone to call her new man back in Maryland.

Shortly after we returned home and after the spiders on the wall, my mother broke down.  It was like that, like the car breaking down: She was moving along in her usual way and then one by one things began to clunk and stall and go wrong.  First, she stopped eating anything except Saltines crumbled into a glass of milk.  She ate this with a spoon.  A special spoon and a particular glass that sat always on the counter beside the sink.  She thought other food was poisoned, a unique poison that affected only her, not my sister or me.  Next, she forbade us to wear certain clothes — like turtlenecks — and anything black or purple.  Then there were words that were prohibited.  “Butter.”  “Lavender.”  “Jesus.”  She went to work as a teacher each day, but when she came home something else would fall apart.  She was afraid to answer the phone.  She wouldn’t sleep in her bed.  She played solitaire for hours at a time.

That man she had called on the pay phone, the tarnished Swede who would become my first stepfather, saw less of this than my sister and I.  When he came over in the evening he saw Mom happily making dinner and thought she didn’t eat because she was watching her ever-diminishing weight.  He saw her sitting at the Steinway baby grand in our living room, a gift from my father, and refusing to touch the keys, and he thought it was because she — who used to be a concert pianist — was too shy to play for him.  He didn’t know there were bad spirits lurking in the music waiting to be released by her playing.  In the space between the notes, she whispered to me, that’s where they live.

One morning that spring, my mother came into my room to wake me for school.  I heard her and pretended to be asleep.  I breathed in her scent.  She had almost stopped eating, but still she smelled of all my favorite foods.  She stroked my forehead with her fingers, smoothed back my curly hair as she always did.

“Get up, Diana,” she said.  “It’s your birthday.  You’re 5 years old today.”

It was not my birthday, and I was almost 13.

One by one, other larger parts of her failed.  She threw her shoes — all of them — at my father one Friday when he came to pick me up for a visit because somehow, magically, he had made them all too small.  She set out to drive my sister and me to school and decided to go to Missouri to see her mother instead.  Two hours later, she pulled a U-turn on the highway — drove right across the grassy median — took us to school and dropped us off, saying, “Have a good day” as if nothing had happened.  Then there was the night she didn’t know who I was.  She looked at me, turned to her boyfriend and asked, “Who is that girl?”   I didn’t care about her powers anymore, I just wanted my mother to be normal — whatever that meant for her — but she was badly broken.  The doctors, the hospital, my father coming to stay with us were necessary.  It wasn’t just a flat tire by the side of the road; she had exploded.

I wanted to believe in the elves, the ghosts, the people she spoke to I couldn’t see.  I did not want to believe she was crazy.  I assumed — with desperate, childlike fervor — that the coarse, conventional world had attacked her because she was so fine, so delicate, and so completely extraordinary.  My mother was beautiful. When she walked into a room all eyes followed her, men fell over themselves to light her cigarettes, pull out her chair, buy her a drink.  Even my father, angry and rejected, said she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  That beauty and vulnerability were part of her power.  “Witchy,” my father told me definitively, “but not witchcraft.”

Post-hospitalization, Mom found a psychiatrist she met with every day.  She was afraid of drugs, wouldn’t even take an aspirin, so she white-knuckled her way through psychosis.  She married the Swede and fighting with him took up a lot of her psychic energy.  If she saw things — which I’m sure she still did — she didn’t share.  When the phone rang or the mail arrived, Mom said nothing.  When she stared over my shoulder and I turned to look, she never said anyone was there.  She ate a variety of soft, milky foods and went to sleep in her bed.  She was easier to live with, but she stopped dancing in the kitchen, stopped making Mickey Mouse pancakes for dinner, and no longer gave advice to people in the grocery store.

That next summer when we visited Grandma, Mom lied about her marriage to the Swede, about the hospital and the shrink.  If Grandma noticed Mom as subdued and uncharacteristically tentative, she didn’t mention it.  We went to church as always, we visited with what family was left, but we didn’t sit around the kitchen table telling ghost stories.

In the middle of one night, Mom crept up to the attic where my sister and I slept and woke us up.  She told us to be quiet so we wouldn’t wake Grandma and had us follow her out to the backyard.  My sister and I exchanged a glance.  Where were we going?  What would she do?   She spread a blanket on the ground and we sat down under the stars and waited.  With a flourish, Mom brought out a secret package of store-bought cookies.  She smiled devilishly and pulled the plastic package open.  My sister and I laughed.  Grandma would have been horrified at the mass-marketed sweets, but we were relieved that Lorna Doones were all Mom wanted to offer.  We whispered and giggled like girls at a slumber party and ate too many cookies.  My sister started to tell us about the dream she’d had about Great Aunt Jessica and my mother shushed her.  She didn’t want to hear it.

I had my one psychic experience the following summer in Missouri.  Grandma was in the hospital dying of lung cancer.  It was a Sunday evening, and I was 14, bored and lonely, sitting on the pale green couch in Grandma’s tidy living room.  It was hot and the windows were open.  The sheer curtains moved in the breeze and the old rocking chair—that now sits in my Los Angeles living room—swayed a little back and forth.  Slowly, fading up into focus, my great-grandmother Granny Jack appeared in that chair.  And then one by one standing around her I saw other people in old-fashioned clothing, about a dozen men and women I didn’t know.  I wasn’t scared. I was thrilled.  The phone rang in the kitchen.  I turned to hear my mother answer it and begin to cry.  My grandmother had died.  When I looked back, all the ghosts were gone.  As my mother and I drove to the hospital I told her what I’d seen.  She patted my thigh, said nothing.  I think she thought I was trying to comfort her.  Maybe I was.

My mom died young.  My sister still speaks to her and Grandma regularly in her dreams and occasionally gets a visitation while she’s cooking.  The signs and omens continue for her, magical occurrences abound.  She has a shrine in her house of old photos of Mom, Grandma, Granny Jack, an aunt or two in sepia tones that I think I recognize from my visitation.  Nothing like that has ever happened to me again.  I never developed any gifts of any kind.  I have always been ordinary.  I used to watch for signs of the abilities in my children.  My daughter is blond and fair.  She’s extraordinary, as is my dark-haired son, but in the best way — the way all children are to their parents.  The way children should be.

I’m not a witch.  I’m not crazy either.  But the fear of being ordinary wakes me in the middle of the night.  I sit up, my heart thumping, and hold my breath, listening for a voice, a footstep, even just a sigh that never comes.  In the dark I can almost feel my mother bending over my bed to smooth my hair off my forehead, but she isn’t really there.  I still wish I had some ability, some connection to beyond. I still want to see what no one else can see.

By Diana Wagman

Diana Wagman is the award-winning author of five novels. Her latest, “Life # 6,” arrives May 2015.

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