Saturday, September 6, 2008


“Only witches can grow parsley.” Said Willenna, in an odd stagy voice.
I supposed that she was mimicking someone, but as to who I had no idea. One of the delights of keeping company with her was not knowing what exactly was going on. We were looking at the verdant mounds of parsley in her herb garden.
Willenna and I met at a plant exchange arranged by a mutual friend. I took some herbs, fancied myself an herbalist already, in my twenties, oblivious to how absurd that conceit was. Willenna was in her seventies then, widowed, a retired school teacher, and a real herbalist. She only brought her weedings to the exchange, but what she had weeded was more than I had ever seen. It seemed that she grew not only an example of every herb that will grow here, but several varieties of each. She generously traded me all of them for something I hadn’t brought with me, and we became instant friends.
Her herb garden was a wonder. She had devoted herself to improving the soil through years of mulching. The soft black earth she had enhanced was so fertile that, as she explained, there was no need for replanting, only removing – the herbs reseeded themselves, moved about with runners and offshoots, situating themselves where the conditions of light, wind, soil and moisture suited them best. The result was gorgeous. Thyme - culinary, wild, variegated, miniature, lemon-scented, and a host more, poured themselves over stones in fragrant flowering mats worked by humming bees. Tiny hairstreak butterflies and skippers hopped about, doing mating dances and defending their elfin territories. Basils of every size and scent grew in lush and compact bushes, fronds of cool feathery dill and fennel splurged up their pollen-loaded umbrels; there were sages, comfrey, coriander, costmarys, rosemarys, marjorams, mugwort, sweet woodruff, sweet annie, southerwood, pink pom-pom-ed chives, lavenders, lemon balms, hyssops, rue, pennyroyals, lavender, a host of mints, peppermint, spearmint, applemint, chocolatemint, variegated mint, candymint, - mounds of daisy-flowered chamomiles exuding drowsy tea smell, borages, lovages, oreganos - Italian, wild and Greek; santolinas, catnips, horehounds - you name it, she grew it.
It was Willenna who pointed out to me the intelligence of weeds, how they grow in association with garden plants whose leaves and manner most resemble their own, to confound our efforts to eliminate them.
Her late husband, Herbert, whom she spoke of often and so lovingly, without a trace of maudlin self-pity, had once asked her what she would like to have for an anniversary present. Rocks was her reply. And because he loved her truly he had an entire dump-truck load of beautiful water-tumbled sandstone rocks brought from the Rockcastle River for Willenna’s herb garden. Lesser women would have asked for diamonds. As it was, nothing could have pleased her more, and no diamond was ever as lovely as Willenna, in her modest blue-jean suspender’d smocks, silver hair neatly short, working away in the midst of her little paradise on earth.
Willenna - Willy as I came to call her, introduced me to another herbalist, a young woman near my age, Cynthia, who was an artist as well. Following Willy’s guidance Cynthia and I assisted in the staging of a garden party, a “Mid-Summer Night’s Eve” for the solstice. The guests, after the manner of the bard’s rustics, were given roles, written out on small cards, such as “The Evil Eye”, (???) “Puck” etc, and lines to read. The food and drink had both herbal and magical associations, the entire party was a wonder of historical research put to practical pleasure. This took place on a balmy evening, the air mild and redolent with Willy’s old roses, eglantine, and the fencerows of honeysuckle laced through the surrounding countryside.
Once Willy knew me well she told me that her aspiration in life was to be “the good witch.” She certainly succeeded in every department that I knew of. Visiting her lovely little house, tucked under massive maples and surrounded by a ring of lily of the valley, was a transporting experience. Even more so the time that she insisted I try a spoon of “rosemary tonic” that she offered in lieu of soda. Whatever it was was considerably more potent than moonshine.
Behind her house, beside the herb garden, was an enormous weeping willow. One sunny day when I admired its size and beauty, she broke of a branch and gave it to me. Just stick it in the ground, she said, and it will grow.
At 89 I asked Willy if she would consider playing Spider Granny in The Road, a dance opera that I was staging in a local theater. She was thrilled, and confessed that she had always wanted to be in a real play, on a stage, but that when she went to college her means were so modest that she put her dream aside. Becoming a school teacher was ambitious in rural Kentucky when she was a girl - becoming an actress, even for a short time, was nothing but folly.
Willy was a natural on stage. But at 89 she had lost her short term memory, and as this became clear in the course of workshops and rehearsals, the choreographer, Kelly Gottesman, and I met to figure out how we could provide her with useful direction. She could remember detailed and very moving stories of the distant past, but if you asked her to walk across the back of the playing space and turn left, the instructions vanished as soon as she heard them.
Our solution was to have a miniature headphone for her, so that each action could be whispered in her ear. I asked a friend, a back country guide who had participated in the desert quest that The Road was a simulcrum of, to be her inner voice.
One of the scenes that we staged required the very athletic Kelly to fasten himself to a rope and jump from the edge of the stage. Stage hands on a catwalk high above would at that moment run with the rope, hoisting him some 20 feet in a high swing out over the heads of the audience. Willy saw it, and asked if she could try it herself.
Kelly advanced this proposal to me, and I closed the theater to everyone except the three of us and the two stage hands. Kelly was afraid that the harness he wore, and the physical difficulty of managing the landing, would be too dangerous for Willy, so instead, he held her in his arms and at 89 years of age Spider Granny flew off the edge, out, up, fearlessly into the unknown.
Asked how it felt afterwards, she said she loved it.

When Willy died her brother asked Cynthia and me if we would conduct her funeral. We met and made a plan – I would sing and recount some stories, Cynthia would read some of the very humorous letters that Willy had written her in the course of their friendship. Knowing, as we did from experience, exactly how Willy liked things done, we felt fairly confident that we could do her final appearance justice.
The first shock came when we discovered that Willy’s brother hadn’t thought to specify her very particular fashion sense to the funeral home. Willy, whose snow-white hair was always kept short straight and neat, was given a large curl permanent. The hairdo, along with an thickly waxed and powdered face made her look alarmingly like George Washington. To compliment the father-of-our-country look she had been dressed in a frilly pink dress. Her brother instantly realized that this was wrong and brought in one of her blue-jean smocks to correct it. But it was too late to do anything about the hair. The final result was that Willy looked like herself, playing George Washington in drag.
When the funeral commenced I was struck by the feeling that this was a comic play, exactly to Willy’s tastes, in which she would play herself deceased and disguised, heavy-handedly, as our first president. Cynthia and I had the droll speaking roles, Willy would play her part by remaining dead.
Between her death and the play, her brother had been petitioned by two relatives who wanted parts themselves. The first was an aspiring singer of inspirational songs, aqua suited and gold be-ringed, who, even though the performance was to take place in a very small room, brought his own microphone and insisted on using it. The funeral directors obligingly plugged it in to their sound system, but had no idea how to control it. The nervous singer’s hymn, delivered in a beginners state of near hysterical tension, roared over the prerecorded celestial strings, harps and choirs with rock-and-roll volume punctuated with shrieks of ear-rending feedback. Still, it was sweet and sincere, and contrasting.
The second contribution was a Baptist preacher. Once when I arrived to visit Willy, just as the preacher’s wife was departing, she had explained that this relation often came to visit her – “I have no idea why. We have nothing in common.”
The preacher started his sermon by stating that everything happened for a purpose, and that the purpose of Willy’s death and funeral was to serve as a warning to us not to do as she had done, (that would be not attending church – I don’t think he knew about her ambition.) or we would all surely wind up where she had, in Hell. The sermon went on for quite awhile, and everyone sat stoically through it. I didn’t know it at the time, but the message was a standard repetition and so no one bothered to pay any attention. I thought it was awful.
The rest of the ceremony went well though, and Willy was buried on a lovely little rocky knob overlooking the woods and fields she had loved so well.

Last night I went outside in the chilly almost spring twilight to pick some parsley. In a swag on the hill I could see the silhouette of the towering weeping willow that grew from the branch Willy gave me. Somewhere in the dark, a screech owl was making a quiet steady purring chain of notes. As I lifted off the old rusted milk-boxes that keep the deer and rabbits from my row of parsley, growing strong even through a winter of hard freezes, I could hear that odd mimicked phrase in my memory, as clear and bright and mysterious as the stars and tiny moon sliver above.

“O who can tell
The hidden powre of herbes and might of Magick spell?” (Spencer, Faery Queene)

"Parsley" is another extract from "Cebah's Kitchen", a collection of stories connected with food, that I've been working on for some time now. (With, I might add, the wonderful assistance of Mistress L., who exercises an almost supernatural control over matters having to do with spelling, punctuation, definition, & the grand structure - grammar.)

I decided to post this piece as a cautionary tale to anyone who might be bewitched by the foul charm which sarcastic & denigrating speech has over mob mentality. Words deliberately intended to gain an advantage by demeaning or hurting another person fit the classic definition of selfish and anti-social spells, even when they are performed in front of huge crowds - and the belief that such practices "work" is a kind of participation. No one takes a step toward heaven that way.


William said...

Donna and I had the privilege of being at that Summer Solstice party, and it was amazing. Willy was a most delightful lady. I remember (up to a point) being quite taken with the mead (honey wine) she and Cynthia had concocted. Donna had to drive home. I don't remember that.

I suspect the mead, which was delicious, had more than just honey involved, and I'd love to know what all was in it. Dan had only told me before hand that Willy was a good witch and the first thing she did was show us her herb garden. I didn't know exactly what to think of Willy, but I immediately liked her.

I hope she enjoyed her funeral.

Dan Dutton said...

I have some great photos from that party - my Mom & Dad, with mugwort wreathes on their heads, crowned as king & queen. My dad loved it - I don't remember any event he ever went to that he seemed to enjoy more. & of course I was thrilled & flattered to take the role of Puck - typecast again!

As I remember William, you were "The Evil Eye"! HA! Maybe that's why they addled you with mead, to protect the population.

Dan Dutton said...

I'll bet Cynthia knows what was in the mead.

Cathy said...

This is one of my favorites from Cebah's Kitchen. Please post some pictures from the Solstice party!