I inherited many things with her house: sweaters organized by color, a set of teacups whose pattern I knew by heart, the two apple trees out back.
On the first night I moved into the house I warmed my hands by making some tea. She grew and dried the mint herself. I looked out the kitchen window into the darkness. There was no moon and the only lights were the masses of white apple blossoms staring back at me from the dark.
My thoughts about them were simple back then: I could make apple pies or butters. I could run a little cottage industry; I could wear one of her aprons and sing her songs quietly over my concoctions. I would bring a little money in from the local bed and breakfasts, but it wouldn’t be about that. It would be about keeping her memory alive. I would call it Sadie’s Sweets, or something saccharine. I would take aesthetically pleasing photos and post them on Instagram. Local guests would ask their hosts where the apple scones came from and the answer would be me, me, me–and Granny.
I knew those dreams would likely die down when I actually researched what it would take to start a business. All I would probably do is wander out to the yard and pick fruit from the branches; I would lounge under them and eat until my hands ran wet with the juices.
As I began to settle into her home, I created my own nightly routine. And despite my name being in her will and on the deed, the place always belonged to her. After I got home, I struggled to determine what dinner to make for one; I would eat while watching something bland on TV, just so I wouldn’t feel alone; I would go into the kitchen and make mint tea from one of the plants she had grown over the years.
I initially relied on mint tea because the plant is so prolific. It would take forever for me to drink all of it. I had begun maintaining her garden and lawns; she let a patch of mint grow wildly in the back, away from the garden, and I knew mint would be there for the rest of time even if I wanted to trim it or cut it away. There were always new shoots and the scent hung in the air. It was safe to drink the mint, it would never run out. Mint for healing, she used to say. Mint for a fresh start.
The tea, the home–all a fresh start. It was all a fresh start and I knew that was what she would have wanted.
She had ruled the pantry and was strict about it. She was the only one who was permitted entrance. I had to allow myself in slowly, despite my name on the deed now. First, I spent days placing my hand on the doorknob. Then, cracking the door in degrees that got larger and larger. Then one step over the threshold. Then another.
Then the wall of scent of some spice hit my face and held me frozen amongst the jars. It was there that I first cried for her, the closet cradling me as her arms had done while she was alive. I fell to the ground and did not explore the pantry further that night.
I was eventually able to stand in front of the rows of jars with her scratchy, almost illegible handwriting on the labels. I recognized most of the herbs by sight. Despite not allowing me in the pantry, she had passed down knowledge about herbs and what our people had used them for. She often kept a few jars handy on the kitchen counter, easy and accessible–mint, dandelion, burdock, bilberry, nettle.
As I gained courage, I looked at a few jars every night. I still wasn’t brave enough to open any of them. I suspected they would remain pristine like a museum exhibit until it was my own time to leave the house. Sure, she had taught me how to foster the plants myself, and I could–I had inherited her green thumb–but these were plants she had poured her own energy into, that she had hung in the basement to dry, that she had jarred and labeled. Besides the mint, a crazy plant that will never die, it didn’t feel right to drink any of the teas stored there. It didn’t feel right to use up these finite resources she left behind.
But I still let myself enter the pantry and look. I still inhaled that mysterious spicy scent that I had come to associate with her. When I stepped over the threshold each night I murmured “Granny” and it was like making an offering to her. I always wondered if she could hear me.
Another night, another herb, another recited remedy. I was surprised by how many of them I knew and how much I knew.
That was until I got to an unknown section of the closet.
These jars did not carry the names of herbs. In fact, I was not sure what the words on them said. Her handwriting was scratchy; sometimes I could see where her old fingers began to fail and the letters drifted off.
This was interesting.
Sadie was a woman of contradictions. While I had grown up she had always been honest. She never hid anything from me. My childhood was lined with my grandmother’s stories about growing up as the child of Irish immigrants who fled the famine, about all of her herbal knowledge; yet there was always a sense of power that hung around her that I could never understand.
That was my granny: a supernatural force, always there when you needed her, always there with her big laughter and something to make you feel better–whether that was tea or cookies.
But what mysterious remedies was she offering in those jars?
I stood in the dimness of the room and stared into the first jar marked with the illegible word for a long time until the white chalked label seemed to glow back at me. I focused on each letter over and over until it lost its form and meaning. In this state I was slowly able to make them out, the point and legs of an A, the sharp angles of the M. The label read ALARM.
An ALARM? Like on a home security system? I approached the jar, twisted it open, and the pungent scent of herbs reached my nose. I looked away, returned again, over and over, until the scent became incredibly familiar. It smelled of pine, of greenery, of bitterness: it smelled of gin. A grin lined my face. Yes, there were the juniper berries–small, dark, dried fruits hidden amongst the other herbs. And there was mugwort–the soft fluffy parts contrasted with woody chunks. A piece of yarn hung around the mouth of the jar, a twig of rowan attached.
My grandmother associated these plants with intuition, prophecy. Was she suggesting that in times of alarm this tea should be consumed? Shouldn’t someone who is alarmed take something calming?
That’s not how my granny thought. Here, she was empowering the drinker to gain insight about their situation and to be proactive about it. She was never one to shy away from a problem.
I turned. There were many jars of this nature, jars labeled with emotions like BITTERNESS like DEFEAT like EMPTINESS. When I opened each jar, the corresponding herbs were there. My grandmother had created a complex pharmacy and had left it behind for us. I didn’t recall these jars or these blends specifically. But, growing up, my grandmother had certainly given me many teas and I consumed them without thought. While other kids were guzzling Capri Sun or Juicy Juice, I would pause and gulp down my grandmother’s warming concoction with a bit of shortbread before going outside to explore her vast yard and gardens.
I was amazed and overwhelmed by the huge collection. My eyes stopped when they landed on GRIEF.
The word glowed out at me from the dimness of the closet.
Granny Sadie lived much longer than any doctor predicted. Over time she began to shrink, her back curling, her hands evolving into claws until she had difficulty using them. Yet, she still got up every day and tended to her plants and to her grandchildren. Despite all of the doctor’s reports and warnings about the eventuality of death, we were all still shocked when it happened.
No more Granny.
When I got the call about her death, I continued to get dressed and went to work. It was surreal. As we worked through probate court, the words remained surreal. When I moved into her home, it was surreal.
All of her sweaters in a row. Her porcelain figures on the mantelpiece. The teapot that resided on the stove. The homegrown onions on the counter had begun sprouting, the greenery twisting through the air. Life carried on, but Granny did not.
I opened the container and the sweetness of the apple blossoms hit me before I looked at them. The scent was overwhelmingly suffocating, and Granny’s mysterious spicy perfume disappeared under it. I closed my eyes for a moment to take it in.
The image of the apple trees loomed out of the dark, like ghosts.
My eyes slowly opened, lazily found the contents of the jar. There were layers of dried blossoms and hunks of dried fruit, the juicy flesh shriveled to husks. Broken up sugar cubes were sprinkled throughout.
I envisioned my granny popping a sugar cube or two into my cuppa, even when mam told her to cut it out because I was getting too many cavities. Life’s too short, she had whispered.
Tears blurred my eyes as I looked towards the jar again. Amongst the smell of the flowers, I cried for my granny. My tears started to hit the petals and I moved to close the jar before I ruined it.
But the drops caught something and I stopped myself before closing the lid.
What was that thing amongst the flowers?
I didn’t want to touch the tea with my hands, let alone my tears. I gently shook the canister until the item revealed itself. It was a piece of paper, and in pink ink it read my granddaddy’s name.
I kept churning the canister and the names of dead relatives appeared–an uncle, the brother that died right after being born–names I had heard Granny speak that sounded foreign to my ears–then older words, words I did not know and felt too complicated for my mouth. I continued to churn aimlessly, looking into the flowers as they moved, a gentle wave carrying written messages in my grandmother’s hand. The sugar cubes shifted, slowly hitting the glass bottom with soft noises. The heavy scent of the dried petals continued to waft to my face.
Why would Granny have put paper in one of her tea mixes? What were those ancient words, so quickly seen, now lost to the flowers? The questions came and went as I breathed deeply, and as the apple trees loomed out of the darkness of my mind.
There were many things that remained untouchable in Granny’s home, despite my name on the deed and my food in the fridge. The idea of reaching into that canister with the purpose of digging out the slips of paper seemed sacrilegious. Try as I might, after what seemed like many minutes of tossing the flowers, the words did not appear again. I fingered the twig from the apple tree that hung from the neck of the container. Apples. Apples. What had Granny taught me about them?
I knew Granny and Granddaddy planted the trees themselves and fostered them until they fruited several years later. She made an apple cake every Sunday, pooled in a warm custard sauce. My mouth watered at the thought; despite many attempts after her departure, it was one recipe I had been unable to get just right. She had taught me the recipe and I stood beside her many times, adding the cinnamon to the batter and combining the oats with the streusel topping. But perhaps there was something she added when I wasn’t looking that she never disclosed to me. It seemed there were many things she hadn’t left behind in her will.
A smile lined my face as another memory came in. After trick-or-treating in her neighborhood, I would come back to Granny’s place bedecked in my princess gown. Granny never tried to force me out of it and would spend the night complimenting my beauty and calling me her royal highness. At first, the evening would start with me prancing about, nose in the air, the royal leader to my entourage of one. Once I was finished, Granny would make me some tea and we would sit, pinkies in the air, and drink it like ladies. An examination of the riches from my pillaging followed. My grandma favored chewy sweets, and my Twizzlers and Tootsie Rolls would magically disappear while I gobbled Butterfingers, my hands gaining their own chocolate coating.
After we discussed all the beautiful and scary costumes, we began our own celebration. My fingers would soon grow wet with orange pumpkin flesh while we dug out the guts and the seeds, which Granny saved to roast later on. The memory made me close my eyes and the buttery, salted crunch manifested in my mouth. The image of the pale apple tree loomed out of the dark at me yet again and I was startled by it, so I jumped, catching the tea container before I dropped it.
I continued to think about those late October nights while placing the jar back on the shelf. Granny would always tell me the story of Stingy Jack, and how we made the jack o’lantern to protect ourselves from any wandering evil spirits. Then she would take me by the hand and lead me to the apple trees.
My eyes opened and landed on the jar on the shelf, and one of the elusive scraps of paper looked back at me.
Saint Brandon stared back at me from the icon hung above Granny’s altar. His eyes peered out of a face hallowed with age and half-covered with a wild, unruly beard. I stared at the wooden boat he held in his hands and the words of the rosary drifted up from my memory: …now and at the hour of death.
I had not touched many things in Granny’s home since I inherited it; I could still sense and smell her everywhere, the stench of mothballs hung heavy in her closet. I was periodically able to put away one or two items. My mother had suggested donating some of it, but I could not bear the idea–although I was not sure where everything would find a home, her attic and cellar already populated so many treasures.
But I had not touched any of her religious altars, or even considered it. Saint Brandon had stared down at me while I walked by every day, surrounded by half-burnt candles. I stared at the dark wicks, long and curled in the aftermath of heat. These could have been the last candles Granny ever lit; she would never light any again.
I reached out to touch them, to put my hands where hers had been. The wax felt cool and heavy and bumpy under my fingers, trails where it had dripped.
Sure, St. Brigid’s eyes followed me every time I walked down the hall to Granny’s room. Sure, the only times in my life Granny tried to straighten my hair were for church. I went but often lost myself in the droning of the service. Mom had worshiped at the bottle and had never really made a place for Jesus in our home.
Below Saint Brandon’s gaze were the candles, and a small wooden boat. I struggled to remember what this Saint watched over, but nothing came to me. If I were honest, I wasn’t even sure what the more famous Brigid protected–I just knew her as the cloaked woman.
Besides the boat, a pile of twigs gathered from Granny’s apple tree. A prayer card.
Help me to journey, beyond the familiar into the unknown…
Every Halloween, Granny took me out under the apple trees. We dug into the earth, which was firming up but hadn’t reached frozen just yet. We would place an apple into the hole.
Granny was not a strict teacher; when she taught me about her brews or her bakes, she allowed me to do only as much as I wanted. If I ran off, uninterested, she would give me a candy or a baked good. But Halloween was one of the only times she would make me focus.
She cradled her hand under my chin, her eyes looking into my own. I would only realize later that I had inherited those blue eyes, amongst many other things.
We always feed the dead on this night…
We would cover the apple with soil. She would send me inside, asking me to light a candle in the kitchen window. I would look at the way the apple trees loomed out of the dark before sparking the flame
I was never brave enough to join Granny after that. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to. The talk of spirits made me afraid. I would return to my candy, often allowing myself one of the sweets Granny preferred. A feeling of wrongness would continue to descend on me.
I would run up the stairs without looking behind me and dive into bed, my costume still on and tangled around my thin ankles. It was one of the only times I voluntarily clutched the rosary, repeating the words before I fell asleep.
Saint Brandon. Patron of travelers. Bran mac Febail, that ancient traveler. Men who went out seeking other realms. Men who were beckoned by otherworldly women.
Halloween crept closer and closer. A day when the veil is thin, when it can be traveled across.
Where had Granny been traveling to, out amongst the trees? How much wisdom did that pantry contain?
As the days approached Halloween, I realized it was something Granny had never really trained me for. She had taught me how to make beef stew and bannock. I knew how to brew any style of tea so it was steeped just right, without becoming bitter. I knew how to combine herbs and oil, how to slather them over the aching parts of bodies to make pain melt away.
But I did not know how to travel: the farthest I had ever been was Granny’s backyard here in rural upstate. It felt completely foreign to Mom’s house in the city built on the backs of bottles. Granny always welcomed us, or most often, me–we would bake and she told me stories. Someone finally saw me, finally listened. I was loved and I was safe and I was free to roam the grounds.
Sure, I had climbed those apple trees over a million times; I had plucked their fruit and buried my face in their flowers.
But had I ever really truly looked and seen them?
The internet told me that the ancient Celts believed there was a magical apple branch that could transport you to the other side.
But where, where would it take you? Granny’s heaven, or something much more ancient?
Granny always taught me that we are a strange people, Catholics that still relied on the plants for their medicine.
But which was true? Was it both?
I found myself stopping at Saint Brandon’s altar and reciting the prayer on his card whenever I passed.
Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with you…
Where would this journey take me?
I entered the pantry over and over, churning the jar of flowers, a blend of names appearing to me.
Who would I see on that night, out there in the dark? Who would I see?
I continued to pray. My prayer often involved sitting in Granny’s pantry, closing my eyes, and taking in the spicy scent.
I repeated Brandon’s prayer over and over.
When the night came, his words lined my mouth. I found my way to the trees in the dark. The moon was small, but I knew my way after all those years. The trees loomed bright from the dark. The trees loomed.
As I approached I plucked a fresh apple from a branch. The dead deserved the best. I dug into earth that was harder than I expected, but I should have known better. It was cold; I had worn one of Granny’s old sweaters. I could smell her on it–not that unknown spicy smell, but the smell of her shampoo and the sweetness of talcum powder and I started crying over and over again; she was so close yet so far. I grasped a rock and started going deeper into the soil. I had been chanting Brandon’s name at first but it faded to Granny’s name, Granny Granny Granny….
I buried the apple, her old words leaving my mouth: I bury this apple to feed my dead….
I sat on the hard ground. I lit the candle from Saint Brandon’s altar. I gripped the apple tree branch. I closed my eyes. I allowed the identity of being Catholic only by family lineage drop; I let everything drop, all defenses. Tears continued to pour down my face. Yes, the house was a blessing, but also a curse: to live so close to her, yet so far. I buried my face in the sweater and breathed in the smell of her again. She had been the only person to truly see me, or to even take the time to try. Now I lived in this huge house alone. Time was slipping by. I was getting older. Would anyone ever notice me again? Would I eventually find a husband in a bottle, as my mother had done?
Granny, Granny, Granny…
My hands clutched the branch. What would my future hold? On this night, in the long run? What was left for me? What ever had been? A sad little girl pickled in her mother’s liquor, left alone and bullied and longing for Granny? There was no more Granny, there was no more Granny, there was no more.
I heard the distinctive step, followed by the long pause as she swung her bad hip, the thud as the cane hit the ground.
The ancient Celts called Halloween Samhain and they believed it was when the veil was at its thinnest and that we could reach over to the other side, if only we took the time and tried.
Help me to journey, beyond the familiar into the unknown…
The rasp of her voice was as dry as the leaves as she joined me in prayer.