September 2nd was my grandmother’s birthday.
She was a seventh child of a seventh child and I think she was a witch. Oh, there was no black cat or tall pointy hat, not much in the way of cackling and I never saw her ride a broomstick. And she didn’t live in a cottage in the wood, or in a caravan, or in a hole in the hillside. She had a small house with net curtains at the window and roses round the door. Nonetheless, I think she was a witch.
She told fortunes, in tea leaves or in the cards, but you had to persuade her because she insisted it was bad luck. There was no crossing her palm with silver either, you didn’t sell magic, you gave it as a gift, because that was how you received it. She charmed warts away using only the water left from boiling potatoes peelings, which had been cooked up for the chickens and mixed with oats for their breakfast. When we had coughs, she would lay slices of huge onions on a plate covered with brown sugar and make us drink the juice. It was horrible, but it scared the coughs away.
She knew when you were sad and knew the right things to say to make you happy. When I took exams, or did something else important, she would lend me her ring for luck. It was in layers of gold with a snake’s head on the side and it must have been very powerful because I always did well. She could tell when women were pregnant even when they didn’t know yet and she could tell when they never would be.
“It’s written on their faces,” she would say. “Look hard and you will see.”
When babies were born, she would mutter a few words over them and make the sign of the cross and press half crowns into their hands before giving them to their mothers. I never knew what she said, but mothers brought their babies from miles around to be blessed by my grandmother.
She was generous and gave away anything and everything. If you admired something, she would give it to you: from a knick-knack on the mantle piece to the beads around her neck, you dared not admire it because she would insist you had it. If you refused, she would nod and agree and you would discover it in your bag when you arrived home. Even food from the pantry could turn into a gift. And if you went to see her wearing something she thought was dragging you down, she would suggest you remove it and would replace it with something of her own she deemed more appropriate. I saw many come out of my grandmother’s house (after rock buns and lots of tea served from a brown teapot) a good deal sunnier than when they went in.
My grandmother had very little money, but she was the happiest person I have ever known. When she died, I was left with her jewel box. It was a simple wooden box covered in shells and inside were the many necklaces and bracelets that I used to play with as a child and one small blue box, empty apart from a piece of paper folded around something hard. When I opened it up, the snake ring was there and five words were written on the paper in red ink.
‘Now it is your turn’.