Listen

My grandmother took me aside as a small child and said, “Our family sees things, you will too. We don’t talk about it, ever.”

My father’s family is a fairly typical Appalachian family: they worked hard, had little money, went to church every Sunday, said their prayers at night and looked the other way when they saw things no one else did.

My father, staunch Methodist that he is, emails me regularly about everything under the Sun. This morning I received the email below. I thought I would share it here, because it’s so rare that I hear my older Christian relatives talk about and actually address the things my grandmother told me to never talk about.

And he wonders where I get it from?

Sometimes they are very much in the back ground. You almost have to be expecting to hear them. It is as if they are having a conversation between themselves. Then they seem to come forward if you want to talk to them. Other times they just say things in the clear that they want you to hear. You may look around expecting to see people but real people are not there. They can warn. They share joy. Always pay attention to warnings. E would say they warned her many a time. L knew F S’s time was coming soon. They told her indirectly through him. He told her he sat down while walking from out on the ridge. He heard voices talking of death but he didn’t know whose.

When I was laying in bed dying when my appendix burst, the Sheppard was there at my head all night long. I knew he was there guarding me or just being with me. When I heard the dead stick rattle up and down the rafters of the front porch, he let me know the devil was waiting and I still don’t know why it was the devil and what at that point in my life I had done wrong.

When they had to put the hose down my nose, I had to go to x-ray every few hours. When they were loading me on the elevator for the last time, I knew all I had to do was to let go of the parallel bars I was holding onto. All was black around those bars. I knew not to let go because I would be in the wrong place as a result. I don’t know how I knew unless it was the Sheppard protecting me. The Sheppard never spoke. He had no face I could see. Perhaps it was the Valley of Death of which much is spoken. Since then the voice calls me in the middle of the night. It isn’t the one from the garden. At night it is sharp and piercing by my name. The garden doesn’t call me by name, it is the friend.

Perhaps you will not be the carrier of this curse. It is something to bear. It is definitely another dimension of which Uncle R seems to believe. Your Aunt D doesn’t hear the voices. I am not sure why I do unless L chose me. She use to teach me about them. She always said “You can’t run. You can’t hide!” perhaps she was telling me I would never be free of hearing them. I always thought she was speaking of death alone. Maybe both. You may see patches of light and dark pass you by out of the corner of your eye. I believe there are good and evil forces among them. They are always about their business.

Know this I have had some side effects of the knee surgery. I intend to ride this horse to the finish, as I would rather die than quit walking. The peace was there today as I walked at Dawes with the dog. That is twice now. I have not known it for so long I had forgotten it. It is within you, if it comes to you. It is this serenity like no other. Nothing in this world can hurt you ever again when it is with you. There are forces unseen which do exist. I just happen to be a conduit for some of them. E plays for me on a regular basis now. I would guess by your rule of threes you should always be on the plus side of that count.

It was the last lesson your Grandfather taught me. Die proud and never on your knees, he said. Be proud and never give the bastards an inch. Take it all standing full on. Fear not you will be standing by the shadows of the past.

~ April 3rd, 2016

index

The road that goes down over the ridge where my family has lived for generations.

The first time I ever experienced what my dad is talking about was the night before my grandmother died. She had had Alzheimer’s for eighteen years. I was 21.

She was down to about 80 pounds and had mostly quit eating, so we knew that her passing would be soon.

I went to bed that night as usual and unlike other nights, I dreamed one long dream all night. I woke in the dream sitting in the old, ugly plaid chair in my grandmother’s front room. And across from me, on the love seat, was my grandfather.

I had never met my grandfather, he died when my father was a boy.

We both knew who the other was, but couldn’t seem to actually speak to each other.

We sat there, all night, together, without saying a word, keeping vigil together. Right before I woke up, he stood up and suddenly had a bouquet of flowers in his hand.

Not long after I woke, my dad called me to tell me that my grandmother had passed.

I like the image of my grandmother passing and finding him waiting there for her with a bouquet of flowers. He was the only one she ever loved and they were separated for forty some years.

It took me a long time to reconcile my choices with family expectations and traditions. I know many of my living relatives are disapproving. But someone told me once that death makes us all equal and that they don’t care about things like religion or sexual orientation on the other side. That they claim us no matter what. It took me a long time to realize that my grandfather’s visit was as much an acceptance of me as a vigil for my grandmother.

I think the reason I write about Wicca and Paganism is exactly because my grandmother told me not to talk about it. It took me so long to figure things out. How different would things have been if I had known things at a younger age?

We need to share our stories and listen for the voices. They are all around us, all the time and when they speak, its necessary that we listen. I don’t see it as a curse, but as a blessing. I am a witch. I stand at the gateway between life and death and I am able to speak for those who have no mouths to do so and I can go places that most of the living cannot.

I am proud to walk in the shadow of those who came before me. I come from a long line of hardworking farmers. It’s not a glamorous legacy, but it’s certainly a strong one.

And I too will ride that horse until the bitter end. I have nothing to fear. I will not budge. My roots sink far into the past and will hold me in the midst of the worst storms. Try, try to move me all you like. It won’t work. I am not just anchored in this world, but in the next as well.

 

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Wailing, Weeping Women

My great grandmother Bertha DeVoe (who I'm amused to note, my father looks exactly like).

My great grandmother Bertha DeVoe, as seen in an old photograph at my parent’s house.

There’s a story in my family about my great grandmother. She died at home in southern Ohio, very near the Ohio River. She was surrounded by family in her bed. As was the usual custom of the time, my great aunts, who were standing at the foot of the bed, let out the death wail.

The death wail is a very traditional keening cry done at a family member’s death. Its not something you see very often anymore, but when you hear it, you’ll never mistake it for anything else. It’s an eery noise that will haunt you for a long time. (The British Library has a recording of one that you can hear here: death wail on wax cylinder).

So my great grandmother dies. The doctor who was also there, pronounced her death and my great aunts let the death wail loose.

My great grandmother sits right back up, looks at my great aunts and asks, “Can I go now?” At the family’s shocked silence, she laid back down, closed her eyes and was gone again.

Needless to say, they did not give the death wail again and as far as I know, my great grandmother still peacefully sleeps in the family cemetery. (At least we all hope she does).

The family grave site.

The family grave site.

Death wails and laments were traditionally done at funerals as well and in Celtic mythology were tied to the tradition of the Banshee.

My family is very Irish and the mythology around the death wail is fairly potent.

In Irish and Celtic mythology, the Banshee (or Bansidhe) is a figure that appears to families to worn about an imminent death. There are many myths surrounding the Banshee, who is said to wail when someone is about to die. In other Celtic myths, the Banshee will be seen washing the bloody clothes or armor of those who are about to die. In Ireland, the more powerful families were said to have their own Banshees and many people refuse to marry into family’s with Banshees, since they are seen to be so unlucky.

Banshees are traditionally fairy women (who funnily enough are also known for herding fairy cattle), but they can also be the ghost of a murdered woman or just a ghost associated with the family they are forewarning.

Banshee sightings have continued to occur even over here in America, especially in the Appalachian regions that were settled by so many Celtic immigrants. Very famously, in 1874 on the Ohio River, Mary Marr met a veiled woman on her path by the river who, when greeted by Mary Marr said, “I am here to tell you, Mary Marr that Thomas Marr has just died. Say your prayers, Lady. I bid you well” and then mysteriously disappeared. Thomas Marr was Mary’s husband, and sure enough, Thomas Marr’s body was found on the riverbank later that day.

And this is not the only story of the Banshee along the Ohio River. In 1935 near Parkersburg, West Viriginia, a little girl and her grandmother supposedly met the Banshee on horseback while they walked to the outhouse before going to bed one night. This occurred during a flu epidemic. The Banshee pointed at them and said, “One of yours is to die this very night!” before disappearing before their very eyes. Sure enough, the little girl’s uncle died of the flu within the hour.

The tradition of the wailing woman is not just tied to the Banshee. The White Lady ghost tradition is found throughout Europe and Asia. And this particular ghost is famous for appearing along abandoned stretches of roads, always foreshadowing the death of a loved one. In America, the White Lady story is usually tied to the death of young women who are tragically killed in car accidents. Usually a motorist will see a woman in white walking along the road where the accident happens. If the motorist stops and picks her up to give her a ride, she will give a shriek after riding for a while and then suddenly disappear, of course scaring the m.

In the South West, you’ll find La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who murdered her children after her husband leaves her for

another woman. La Llorona is a more malevolent spirit who supposedly kills children that she meets in order to appease her own murdered children. She wanders the hills and desserts, weeping for her lost children. A famous song comes from this story:

My family has a somewhat happier ending when it comes to the death wail. My great grandfather was dying in the same bed that my great grandmother died in, and supposedly suddenly smiled. When the family asked him why he was smiling, he said that he could see my great grandmother standing in a beautiful garden. He reported that she said to him, “It’s beautiful here, you’ll like it, don’t be afraid. When you see me again, we’ll be together forever.” He died with a smile on his face a while later, proving that the foreshadowing doesn’t always need a wail, but sometimes just a quiet word.

Letting a death wail loose lets an intense amount of energy go. Grief is never an emotion to think lightly of. It’s no wonder that so much folklore and mythology surrounds women who make those types of noises. I don’t know that I agree that these ghostly figures are unlucky, but I also would prefer not to meet one unexpectedly on the road. Unlike many other fairy figures, there is no way to protect yourself against the Banshee who appears. She comes, she gives you the omen of death, and leaves. Just like the tragedies of life, the wailing woman cannot be stopped, she simply must be survived and surpassed.