November 7, 2007
The traditional witch image – hump, warts, cackles and all – is the demonization of the Great Mother, the woman of beauty, wisdom and power who shows up in guises during the year but, for me lately, like clockwork on
by Bebe Vaughan
Since the birth of my granddaughter, almost four years ago, I have honored the sacred vigil of All Saints and All Souls – what we, in our ill-informed, unconscious culture blithely call Halloween, by dressing as a witch.
I do not identify with the traditional witch image, affecting the hooked nose, warts, hump and cackling laugh of the traditional witch image disseminated by popular culture. Believe me when I say that there is a special circle of hell reserved for Walt Disney and his paternalistic cohorts on this subject. In witch mode I stand on the threshold of Death: I know unpretty things.
But enough about Walt Disney and his intellectually unkempt ilk. Let’s get back to me.
My witch costume is one of indescribable elegance. It comprises a long black lacy wool dress, as light as a spider’s web, and a long-sleeved, black woolen jacket with silky fur at the throat and wrists. I wear high-heeled black boots, spider and ghost rings on my fingers, webby black earrings and lots of Vogue-style makeup, especially round the eyes. Then there’s the hat. In the past I have worn a tall black-and-orange velvet hat, with a large black spider dangling on threads from the point. Very evocative and appropriate, crying out as it did for a broom, that dreary emblem of toil, enslavement and desperate escape. This year, though, I upped the ante: My hat was a flying wonderment of spangled black veiling fastened to the glistening pink body of a black-legged spider that perched astride my head secured with guy ropes. Forget the buggy, bristly broom; dead glamorous, I looked, and you will pardon the pun when I explain.
The traditional witch image – hump, warts, cackles, see above – is the demonization of the Great Mother, the goddess of death, the woman of beauty, wisdom and power that I have recently decided to honor, consciously, at this time of approaching winter. And demonized by whom? Well, by the male of the species, adherents, largely, to the nervous, insecure, unpredictable and much younger god, the Dad-in-Chief, who is so appalled at the idea of death that he preempts it, usually by hurling destruction from the skies but more recently by murdering his only son. The Great Mother shows up in other guises during the year, constantly reminding us of our mortality: Mothering Sunday and Walpurgis Nacht, for example. She is terribly old and devastatingly accomplished, a priestess, according to Barbara Walker in her wonderful book The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom and Power, of the final rites of passage, and also the “mediator between the realms of flesh and spirit and … funerary priestess and Death Mother, controlling the circumstances of death as she controlled those of birth.” And she has many titles, all regal, all evoking the beauty and usefulness that old women in our patriarchal culture are vehemently denied, Joan Rivers notwithstanding: Queen of the Shades, Goddess of the Underworld, Lady of the Night, and, from China, my favorite: “a beautiful old woman in red garments.”
Well, I thought, my costume certainly illustrates this lot. So, hat secured, I hurried downtown to a large department store to stroll through the lunchtime shoppers and observe, record and encourage comment.
Nobody turned a hair. There would be a flicker of a glance in my direction, and just as quickly a silent denial that a vision had been revealed. My beautiful costume, in that restaurant, was a non-event. Nothing much happened at the Lancome counter, either, nor men’s shirts. The only positive response I received was from the gentle young man in Customer Service. “Wonderful hat,” he said softly.
I left the store and trudged back to my car, swinging my hat by its elastic and feeling very thoughtful about men. About how they cannot question their learned beliefs, recognize their terror and rigidity, accept the truths of their own femaleness and evolve. I generalize, of course – what else can you do in 700 words? – but perhaps this is the reason why I drop out when well-meaning friends start talking about friends of theirs, widowers, perfect for you… Oh dear. Let’s not do this clumsy, off-kilter dance. I am a grandmother. Apart from the creative energy I need for survival, for reading, writing and staying connected to my far-flung family, supporting my friends and heartfelt causes like Doctors Without Borders and Heifer International, my love interest resides with my children and grandchildren. So my November Song to these beloveds, who, evidently, I will not be around to applaud when the leaves turn to flame twenty years from now, states unequivocally that I haven’t one moment of these few, precious days to squander on a skittish emotional involvement.
Been there, gentlemen, done that. Got the T-shirt. Just do us all a favor and stay away from the bombs.
So, my hat bravely restored aloft and my inner world illuminated, I drove to my daughter’s home to take part in the exuberance of the Children’s Halloween Parade – a beautiful old woman in black garments.
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October 24, 2007
“Bet you’re glad to be home!” cry my friends, and I flute indecisively
Home Sweet What? Where?
By Bebe Vaughan
“Be it ever so humble
There’s no place like home
And who needs a castle or showplace?
But this is the thought I must get through my dome:
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place.”
“Bet you’re glad to be home!” cry my friends, and I flute indecisively in response: “Erm…”
I want to be honest in answer, but I don’t know what the honest answer is.
Part of the problem is that I never made a decision, couched in what Theodore Sturgeon once termed “the unmistakable ritual of words,” to leave Europe – which for me then meant London, with Paris a brief hop away – and relocate forever in America. I mean, there was no question of becoming an American citizen: The arrangement was temporary, involving my husband’s teaching job in
There are regional attachments here in
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October 10, 2007
I thought about the power of the past as I watched my grandchildren play on
The Beach at Toulon
by Bebe Vaughan
I think it was as I drove along the corniche at Le Mourillon, the classy section of the boisterous port of Toulon, that the realization struck. In the car, with my sister, my daughter and two of my grandchildren, I carefully searched for a tall house overlooking the
It was the house to which I was brought shortly after my birth, when my mother rose determinedly from her accouchement , packed up her three youngest children, and made, unaccompanied, the trip from
It would have been wonderful to find it, and gaze at it as I had when I started visiting my grandfather again as an adolescent after the war, when he had moved to a smaller house on the Rue Ernest Renan. But the Villa Rita no longer exists. It has been torn down and replaced by an upscale apartment building. So we went in search of the smaller house, carefully scrutinizing every white wall for the unprepossessing wooden door, marked with the number 25, that opened onto a sun-filled courtyard dominated by a sumptuous fig tree shading the glass walls of my grandfather’s studio, where he drew and painted his life’s memories in water colors. My sister and I would walk down the hill and cross the corniche to the beach that was a strip of shiny black pebbles and swim all morning, emerging from the clear blue glass of the water to expose, dangerously, our fair, freckled Celtic skins to the merciless Midi sun.
It was during one of these undistinguished swim sessions that my grandfather, accompanied by my mother, came to the beach to meet us. He was horrified.
“ Mais sácre bleu, Jeannot !” he said. “Are these my granddaughters? They swim like a fruit salad! I can only hope Madame de Quique has not already observed them. She will be insupportable. Il faut faire quelque chose !”
And that’s how I became a really good swimmer. My grandfather found M. Pierre Jacquemin, a former Olympic swimmer with the looks of a movie star, now an efficient remedial teacher of fluid swimming styles. The jetty from which he taught is still there, backed by the ancient fort. M. Jacquemin had no patience with nervousness about water and its denizens. Our lessons started at 9 a.m., at which early hour the local fishermen dived for octopus, who liked the shallows and were known to attach themselves lovingly to morning swimmers. I was terrified of them, but I was in love with M. Jacquemin and would never have dreamed of rebelling, so “ a l’eau!” he’d cry, and into the water I went, in a smooth racing dive, surfacing to stretch out in a businesslike crawl, and back to the jetty, and out again in the elegant backstroke that was my favorite and back and out again in the submerging breaststroke, and under water, there and back, all the while taking in his baritone cries of “ allongez-vous dans l’eàu! Soufflez dans l’eau! Faites glug-glug-glug dans l’eau, Mademoiselle Bernadette!” It went on until noon, when we crept back up the hill to the house on Rue Ernest Renan for lunch, and my grandfather’s self-congratulatory smiles.
But the house has gone, too, to make room for another apartment building. The beach has become wider and has white sand and only a few pale pebbles; three bays have been added, with a park, a children’s playground and a restaurant, La Cave du Lido, where a little shack used to sell cigarettes and Ambre Solaire. I sat on the beach under a wide umbrella and watched my grandchildren play at the water’s edge, and I remembered the story about how as a two-year-old I smote my sister on the head with the sand shovel (hers) I had seized and knocked her senseless at that same water’s edge, and I wondered if one day they would bring their grandchildren here, to swim in the blue Mediterranean, and look back over the generations, and talk to them about the past.
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September 12, 2007
Traveling, Part III
By Bebe Vaughan
Ann’s father was a doctor. In wartime England that meant that he had special dispensations regarding the purchase of petrol, which I now call gas, and was occasionally able, I’m not sure why but with an abundantly clear conscience, to load up his car with his daughter and one of her friends (like myself) from time to time and drive to the South Coast to spend the day.
I loved these jaunts. Ann’s mother would accompany us, having lovingly packed one of those nostalgically poignant picnic baskets in which a roast chicken featured self-importantly (everybody kept hens), along with sliced tomatoes from the ubiquitous and carefully-tended kitchen garden, and slices of sparingly-buttered Hovis – that quintessentially English, commercially successful, brown bread that looked like a hand grenade and was expressively maligned by my mother – and a blackberry-and-apple tart. (I’ve never been able to interest my American nearest and dearest in blackberry-and-apple tarts. They just don’t want to know: Their eyes glaze over, they change the subject or, more often, let it evaporate. It’s a continuing mystery.
Once there, at
My thoughts now veer off onto the subject of
And she was happy, I think. Certainly I was, in that company, and I forgot to be afraid. And that was a lasting blessing.
I think these day trips made it possible for me to lay down for a while the crippling weight of my parents’ distress, their shame and anger, their determined blaming, their clumsy ineptitude in comprehending what they were supposed to do about their children. Here with these different parents, I found normality, bright, uncomplicated and untinged by looming darkness. Much later I discovered that my friend was adopted, and I remember being unsurprised by the news. Ann’s parents brought her life journey to the forefront of their understanding of what it meant to be a parent; her future was their investment and their glory. I was dumbfounded by the devotion, and the intelligence, that they demonstrated, that I was too young to name.
August 29, 2007
Traveling, Part II
By Bebe Vaughan
So, with August sprinting toward its finish line and my departure date graven in Air
2) Getting There, or
I remember that I bought an elegant pale-blue carry-on bag, big enough to accommodate overnight necessities (heavy emphasis on makeup – can’t arrive in Marseille looking like a piece of chewed string), books, some woolly socks for padding noiselessly around the cabin, and extra toys and videos for the grandchildren, because rumor has it that Air France says only one carry-on bag, and no dismissing your purse, madame, as sans importance. Well, I wasn’t raised by French nuns for nothing: un sac seulement? You’ve got it.
This suggests I’m concentrating on #2 (see above), although it could mean #3 (also above). And now I notice my passport lying on my desk, in its trade paperback, European Union form, alas for the distinguished, now defunct, hard-back editions of the past. Ah! Those were the days, mes amis!
Or were they?
Suddenly, I remember my attempts, years ago, to secure British passports for my children. I wanted them to have joint nationality which, at the time, did not exist. If you were born in America, as my children were, you were automatically an American citizen – even if your parents were misguided enough to maintain the nationality to which they were born. The Brits smiled with benign superiority upon this position, and calmly said Rubbish! If your parents are British and eccentric enough to have you born in a foreign country, you are a Brit, and so you will remain, no matter what absurd stand the questionable alien government maintains.
Clearly, then, my children were going to have to make a choice. And for them it was a poignant one. But not for me: I have a very garbled attitude toward patriotism because I’ve never been sure whether I’m English or French. My mother’s murmurs of “ mon dieu, que ces Anglais sont idiots!” frequently directed at my father, coupled with her blithe erasure of any aspect of his participation in the creation of her children, tended to make me suspect I was French but, as we lived in England surrounded by climate and other matters English, there was a chance I could be wrong.
So for me it wasn’t so much a matter of patriotism as it was of pragmatism: Corrugated statements came juddering from the White House with unsettling frequency and, as the already war-torn mother of a soon-to-be-draft-age son, I was preoccupied with the question of survival.
So I started my research into British citizenship for my offspring. And I promptly discovered that a mother alone could not assert the child’s origins. No, British law required the staunch word of the father. Now. In hospital records covering the birth of my children there is documented evidence of my validity: That really was me there, great with child, twice. Every contraction was recorded, every centimeter of dilation and every drop of blood was measured, every Lamaze-induced puff, gasp and blow noted. Nothing doing, said Her Majesty’s Government. What we need for citizenship, madam, is to hear from the male parent.
At the time I believed that the father in question had spun off the edge of the world from Ken Kesey’s bus, never to be heard from again. Actually, he was in
But during one of many frustrating conversations with British officials on the subject of The Dad’s whereabouts, an important question arose: “Why,” I asked, “was any man the father of his children?” Well, because their mother says he is, correct? His name is inscribed on the birth certificate because she gives her word. But the legal requirement under discussion implied that maternal units were feeble-witted, devious and morally unfit to carry guts to a bear in a leather apron, despite the two women then running
A moment of shocked silence followed. Then, icily, the official said: “You forget yourself, madam.”
And I lost it. “No!” I screamed. “I am not forgetting myself! I am remembering myself!”
Today the laws have changed, and we have DNA testing. Still, just in case a fun-loving paternalistic blague seeps from the Chambre des Députés while I’m basking in the
It might fit into my single carry-on bag.