My Mother the Witch

What if your mother was a witch? Do you think she would have done things a bit differently from other mothers? Based on my experience, you would be right...
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what if your mother were a witch? Do you think she would have done things a bit differently from other mothers? Based on my experience, you would be right...

My mother Maggie, as she likes to be called, has referred to herself as a witch for a couple of decades now -- at least since she was in her early 70s. That was around the time she started adding 8,000 years to the date: She would date her letters to me 9989 instead of 1989 and 9992 instead of 1992, to signal that she was reckoning time from the estimated beginning of Goddess worship. Nowadays, at 92 years young, she talks about the Goddess often, keeps an altar with a Goddess statue from Malta, and regularly wears a large pentacle around her neck.

Maggie claims that she first learned about Wicca and witchcraft from me around 1990. But, in retrospect, it's evident that even decades before her daughter moved to San Francisco and met some witches, Mummy, as we called her when I was a kid, already abounded in incipient witchiness. Looking back, I think she was a witch before I knew it, and even before she herself knew it.

Mummy let us play naked in our suburban backyard when we were toddlers, so that some of the neighbor mothers scolded her for neglecting us. From a witchy point of view, she was doing us a huge spiritual favor. Witches believe that nakedness is the best state for attuning oneself to universal energy and accessing spiritual realities, and while most of us reserve our naked worship for private moments, some witches do carry out their formal group ceremonies while "skyclad."

Like all Wiccans, Mummy had a deep reverence for nature. I particularly remember her loving frogs and insects. She would go to great lengths to protect creatures from being hurt. At one point, during a summer in Maine, she hung signs made out of shirt-cardboard, meticulously lettered with black Sharpie, in places where spiders wove especially stunning webs. I can still remember the wording exactly: "Please do not disturb these spiderwebs. They belong to the spiders who spun them."

An early believer in "health food," as it was called in the 1970s, Mummy read Prevention magazine and books by Adele Davis (of Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit fame). She mixed up concoctions such as orange juice with brewers yeast and water flavored with apple cider vinegar and honey. 35 years before green drinks became a fad, she blended carrot and celery juice in a primitive version of a Vitamix, in which all the vegetable fiber collected on a filter and had to be scraped off and discarded frequently. Then there was the yogurt maker she bought to make homemade yogurt, with its teeny white ceramic cups, and the considerable effort she put into tracking down "brown bread" when it was available only from a little company called Pepperidge Farm, which another Margaret, Margaret Rudkin, had started in her garage.

And this was a woman who didn't even enjoy cooking -- at least the kind of cooking she was expected to do daily for her husband and five children. With the rest of us, all of whom mocked her gently for her "weird" private eating habits, she ate hamburgers and Spam and Miracle Whip and Velveeta. But her private concoctions told us a different story, that food mattered on a very deep level. I now imagine that was because she understood, as Wiccans do, that the body is sacred and that to eat with true absorption, gratitude and reverence is a holy rite that interweaves, inextricably, the spiritual and the physical.

It is significant that Mummy never tried to make anyone else feel bad about not eating the way she did. I can't recall her ever pressuring anyone to try brown bread or cider vinegar water. What made Maggie witchy more than anything else, it seems to me, was her adherence to what Wiccans call "the Wiccan rede": "If it harms no-one, do as you will" -- the passion of her belief in innate human dignity and freedom. She read books like Charles LeBoyer's Birth Without Violence and A.S.Neill's Summerhill with enthusiasm, long before she knew that witches respect every person's right to choose their own path -- even (or perhaps especially!) babies and children.

Now at 92, Maggie is still an extremely sensual woman who seems to derive unabashed joy from everything physical in her life, whether a hug, a flower in bloom, a crème brulee or the face of a baby encountered in the supermarket. She has cats, as she always has, whom she adores so much she talks to them for hours at a time; she always seemed to have one on her lap. Not all witches need a "familiar," but I have never seen anyone pet a cat as passionately and eloquently as my mother.

Maggie is extremely sympathetic to the idea of Reincarnation, a common (though by no means universal) Wiccan belief. Nothing in the world is wasted, she says. Every flower and raindrop and animal comes back again as part of a new form, so why shouldn't that happen on the spiritual level as well? This interest doesn't only date to recent years; since the 1970s, she has been reading books on reincarnation. I recall her taking a Past Life class in the mid-1980s that inspired her so much I tried the technique myself, both of us lying on our living room rug clutching copper wires (apparently the better to channel energy) and listening to the meditation tape. It was a strong bonding experience during which each of us felt we remembered startling and helpfully illuminating previous lives.

For decades now, Maggie has been a voracious reader of witchy books about female-centered spirituality, such as Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman or The Alphabet and the Goddess by Leonard Shlain. But even before the women's spirituality movement took off, she read with passionate interest books such as Pleasure by Alexander Lowen and The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, building her belief in the sacredness of the body and the sacredness of the world -- in short, the principle of immanent, as opposed to transcendent, spirituality -- long before she could have known that these beliefs are the core of Wicca.

While Maggie may credit me with her introduction to Wicca as a religion, I credit her with something equally important: my introduction to Wicca as a way of living.

Lately, there is quite a controversy among historians of paganism about the roots of the contemporary religion of witchcraft or Wicca. Some have argued that it dates back to Neolithic fertility cults, while others are convinced it was invented by British intellectuals in the early 20th century. I don't concern myself too much with such debates.

I know that even if Wicca is a new religion, most of its basic ideas are as old, and as strong, as the hills.

And a tradition that dates back through Maggie is venerable enough for me.

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