I have been dreaming about my mother.
I often do at this time of year, for many reasons really, but she loved autumn and I choose to believe that is reason enough.
My mom was a Hedgewitch. She did not use that term, she probably would have loved it though. She never really labeled herself, but when she did, it was always something vague, like, “I am a green-woman.” or on one occasion I heard her call herself a woodwife which I found out is the name for a type of supernatural creature that often cures the sick in Germanic mythology. The description fit as my mother was a slender, ginger, milk skinned woman with fierce blue eyes and a gift for making herself invisible in even the most crowded situations.
The kitchen in our little bungalow was possibly my favorite indoor room in the whole world when I was a child. For much of the year, bundles of herbs hung drying from colored strings. It was her habit and later on mine to walk through the room and brush our fingers through the hanging bunches to release that intoxicating aroma. It could stop you in your tracks if you let it, the scent of warm summer, wild, green, alive, a drug that no pharmaceutical company could duplicate and an odor that no incense maker could best.
The herbs were coded by the colors of the string, but mum truly didn’t need the colors. I think she did it mostly to teach me and to make her selections of them faster if someone came calling, needing something.
Mint in a dozen varieties from tiny bundles of Corsican mint with leaves the size of a ladybug to the newest hybrids that smelled of chocolate, pineapple or lemon.
Lemon balm, Blue Vervain, Great Mullein, Rosemary, Betony, Lemon Verbena, Thyme, Basil, Wormwood, Sage, Saint John’s Wort, Yarrow, Nettle and my beloved Pennyroyal, all hung in row upon row with dozens of others, both medicinal and culinary. Below them on the top of an old bookshelf sat a row of paper plates with blossoms and seeds drying on them. Morning Glory, Moon Flower, Lavender, Honeysuckle, Violets in spring, rose petals in the summer, apple seeds and orange skins in the fall. The scent of that room still comes to mind any time I think about it and brushing up against a rosemary plant in a garden center or touching mullein plants in the wild can whisk me back to that space in an instant, much to my continuing joy.
In the early days there was only one restriction and that was that I was not to meddle with any bundle tied off with purple string, any seed or flower on a plate with a purple leaf drawn on it with magic marker and I was not to tamper with the herbs, tinctures and compounds in the purple bottles and jars. These were from mothers Bone Garden, or Black Garden. It was a difficult rule to adhere to because often the flowers from those plants were the most intriguing and beautiful. I never broke those rules, but I was always drawn to those plants, as she was.
The Mandrake, Belladonna, Datura, Monkshood, Henbane, Digitalis, Mistletoe, Yew and Hemlock were not things that mum had a need for on a regular basis, (or at all) but she grew them, tended them, talked to them and cared for them like she did all of the others. I can still see those dark purple bottles and jars, standing in rows on the top shelf of our herb closet, like dark sentinels, watching, and waiting to be needed.
The other herbs went into bottles of blue for healing, green for tisanes (or teas) and yellow and red for culinary uses. The sound of those jars clinking against each other was one of the most comforting noises of my young life and I had not realized how much I had missed it until beginning to type this paragraph and finding my eyes wet.
I remember once when we were on an overnight trip up to the Allegheny National Forest, we were visiting friends and my mother happened to see an old wooded wheel that had originally belonged to a spinning wheel but the rest of the device had long ago been broken and discarded. The wheel had nine wooden spokes and had been made easily a hundred years ago. My mother’s eyes caught fire and I watched her talk to Vaughn and his wife for over an hour about what they knew of its history.
That wheel went home with us, Vaughn was the son of a midwife and knew about healers and so he loved and respected my mother and so it had seemed pre-ordained that it should work out this way as the wheel had belonged to his mother.
Mum had me hang that wheel from the ceiling in the kitchen, horizontal to the floor and that became her favorite drying rack. She would tie the strings to the spokes each one a little closer to the hub so that the bundles became green spirals. Each fall when the last bunch of herbs had been dried, mum would have me take down the wheel and would have me rub oil into the wood. The oil had been steeping all summer with mint and rosemary in it and by the third year, the wheel smelled good enough to eat.
In the last few years of her life, (mum died of emphysema at 54) her ability to grow and keep herbs and her desire lessened, and I deeply and heavily regret not taking on the mantle of it then, but I am fairly certain that I was not in any way ready.
She sent out letters and in response, envelopes came from all over the world, each of them with stamps, small amounts of cash, little hand written notes and even empty baggies or pouches in them. And little by little, I helped her empty the cabinet. We mailed bags of seeds, dried herbs and flowers to people in New Mexico, Washington state, Canada, the UK and France and even one to a lady in the Dominican Republic. All of them herbalists, Hedgewitches, midwives and healers and a few hardcore botanists, all of which mum had kept up hand written correspondence with through much of her life.
Eventually it was all gone, except for one huge green jar with a cork stopper that held Pennyroyal, my favorite herb, and though many of you have probably read this story, it bears repeating…
It was a July afternoon, half way between my birthday and hers, the rain had been falling heavily for an hour and I could not find her in the house.
The apple tree was old, gnarled and broad, stretching to shade most of the back yard under its gently fluttering leaves. Wind chimes hung from its thick branches, playing sometimes singly, sometimes in concert, always beautiful and magical. Beneath that great canopy of music and green, my mother sat, bent and wizened even then in her early forties. Her copper hair, silver at the temples, unkempt, littered with blossoms, twigs, the flotsam of a summer afternoon in the garden. She had eyes the color of robin’s eggs, always narrow as if the world were too bright, and hidden behind peach tinted lenses.
She was waiting for me, two wrought iron chairs set with their backs to the tree’s scarred trunk, a tiny circular iron table with a cement top, inlaid with geometric tiles in earth tones. On a dark green tea towel rested an ironstone pitcher, ageless like she, and two mismatched but elegant tumblers, already filled half way with soft green mint leaves and irregular chunks of ice, chiseled off with a pick.
I picked my way carelessly through the raindrops, heavier still now beneath the tree laden with all that it had captured during the storm. She saw me coming and was pouring before I had even found my seat.
I had no need to ask, one had only to allow the scent of the Pennyroyal to invade the skull through the nose and all else seemed to mute and become indistinct. It was July and her first seasonal jug of Pennyroyal tea would not wait until the end of a rainstorm, it would not wait at all.
Sweet with raw sugar, with a scent like mint gone wild and drugged with lemon balm, it leeched coolness from the ice until mother decided that the alchemy was correct. I did not reach for my glass until she did, but did so with a hand visibly shaking for this was ritual, ceremony, as powerful as any Catholic or Heathen rite, this was magic and mother was the crone bringing her wisdom to offer and allowing you to choose to accept it, or not.
I accepted and I drank, eyes closed to allow the tongue and the nose freedom to take over, while behind my lids, colors exploded with the wash of the tea over my taste buds, resting a moment in supplication before sliding down to begin its work in my belly.
Mother giggled at the rain, dripping through the leaves and into the pitcher. “Each glass will taste a little different because the rain will make it more wild.” she said. She was right, and we tested the theory until every drop had been taken, every sip, every gulp, and every sigh, its wild taste coursing through us, healing and quickening our lives.
I knew how the play must be carried out, how serious my sadness must appear, how sullen I must become in that one moment, so that she would be free to huff in theatrical exasperation, rise slowly from her chair, take pitcher in hand and make her way to the kitchen to carefully infuse another batch for her son who was struck so melancholy at the end of the jug. She never knew that I could catch her secret smile, but she knew I knew, as I knew she needed this, even more than I did, which was a lot.
By evening, soaked to the skin and laughing at anything that should strike our fancy, poems and tales traded freely and a third pitcher almost down to the dregs, dad would arrive home, come out on the porch, shake his head in almost king like disdain, grab his folding chair, his mug and a bag of ginger cookies and join us beneath the still drizzling apple tree.
Only once the fireflies had begun to alight on the lavender and butterfly weed, did we rise, hang wet clothes on the line and wander into our unlit bungalow to resume our pantomime as everyone else.
Mother made pennyroyal tea. I hope someone makes it for you. I will, if you are willing to sit outside and drink it with me.
I am taking up the mantle now, the growing will begin in the spring and her legacy will live on…
Take care of yourselves…