My grandmother admitted it to me one day. She was a witch.
She said it with that twinkle that I caught dancing in the corner of her eye, a joy she could not push down. Joy is not something one should have in a religion that was all about control, and certainly not be celebrated, admitted….rather confessed. But she was full of it. Joy, that is. And as hard as she tried, she could not suppress it.
I spent my first four years at my grandparents’ house, while my mom was off teaching biology to her students. It meant I was with my recently retired grandfather, retired from the police force. He would take me in his Chevrolet, out into the woods of West Georgia, or on his farm there. Or, we might go driving around the streets of Atlanta that he knew like the back of his hand. Whitehall, Lucky, Pryor, Sweet Auburn, Lee, and the iconic Peachtree. He was unconsciously schooling me in the way of the wilderness and the city, and they would, and do, remain in polar tension within my soul. A love for the wild and the urban, juxtaposed, in dialectical tension, although my grandfather would never frame it in those philosophic terms. He knew about balance, and had lived it himself, at home in the woods or on his beat on Broad St..
Other times were spent in the presence of my grandmother, Glennie Mae. She would allow me in her kitchen to help prepare Southern concoctions that came deep from the ancestral plain. There was indeed magic in the way she prepared chicken and cubed steak, drew flavor from vegetables, and crafted biscuits light enough to escape to heaven if you weren’t paying attention.
But she also told me stories. She was known as the best Bible teacher at Oakland City Baptist Church, and she would relate those biblical narratives that I would later study and exegete. But the way she told stories of David, my namesake, Moses, Paul, and that Jesus, rivaled any Hollywood producer or any jackleg TV preacher.
She also told me stories of her life, something she obviously passed on to me. She loved to tell of her childhood in Texas, as her father, John Columbus McBrayer and mother, Mattie Worthy McBrayer, who lived outside of Waco, Texas in a town called Mart, and a settlement named, Battle. My grandmother spoke in grand images when referring to Texas, a land made of rich, black dirt, flat as far as you could see, with field upon field of crops. She could conjure up cinematic scenes of gigantic storms, full of thunder and lightning, as she retained the trauma from being a little girl in such a force field. When “it came up a storm”, as she described it, in our house in southwest Atlanta, she would telegraph fear and concern, mostly fear, across her face, and have us get under the bed in the bedroom. My inheritance from this in my childhood was a fear/excitement reaction, an adrenaline rush that I could not diagnose back them, but feel even today. It’s a rush, and a sense of connection to this mystery that swirls around me.
She once told me of the time my great-grandfather was plowing in those rich fields. He had a sixth-sense, she said. She baptized it by naming it a “vision”. He “saw” my great grandmother falling down, and so he ran from the field to the house, finding his wife bleeding from the premature childbirth of the fourth child. Mattie did not survive the childbirth, like many women of that time. Grandmother said that she was buried in a graveyard there in the corner, by a single mesquite tree. John Columbus packed up his McBrayer family and headed back to Georgia, where he would continue his farming.
This story made an impression on my young psyche. Being a budding scientist, like my mother, I asked how her father “saw” this thing happening, even though he was not in the physical space to observe it. She replied, with a change of tone in her voice, “He had the gift.”
Later, when I asked her about it as a young man, that twinkle returned as she quietly cued me to the secret, “I have the gift, as well. So does your mother.” When I asked my biologist, scientist mother about the exchange, she said, “Your grandmother is a witch…and so am I” as she smiled. I pushed my interrogation adroitly, “What do you mean ‘witch’?” and she only replied with a smile.
That story stayed with me for awhile. It was fed by moments when I remembered her catching me when I was sneaking around as a adolescent, when she predicted some untimely event in our lives, or when she would intuit someone’s illness, or on two occasions, a death. When it happened, I would simply utter the declarative statement, “Witch.”, at which point, she would smile in a way I still remember.
Go with me now to 1992, when I was a new priest in Tyler, by God, Texas. I was feeling mighty homesick, missing Atlanta, and the state of Georgia. I felt like an outsider, even though Tyler was more Southern than it was Texas….something I could say just to get a rise out of the prideful locals. “I thought I was being called to a parish in the Great State of Texas, only to find out that my church actually was in Mississippi.” Imagine their love for me.
In any case, I was homesick. I was on the board of an organization that was meeting in San Antonio, so I took off on a stormy Fall day for the gathering. As I was approaching Waco, I saw a road sign on the left side of the road, indicating that the city of Mart was thirteen miles to the left. In a split second decision, I turned left onto this highway. Curiosity, my super power and my distractor.
I continued on the road toward Mart for a while, on this flat land that provided a basement for these threatening dark skies. The coming storm made me smile as I remembered my grandmother’s fear that occurred in this general area almost a hundred years ago. There were no road markings. I intuitively made two right hand turns, leading me to a cemetery. I parked my car, and walking into the football field sized repository of the dead, I noted a lone mesquite tree at the back of the lot. I walked straightway to that tree, remembering my grandmother’s story. It was a surprise, and yet not, as I came to my great grandmother’s grave, marked with a headstone.
The hair on the back of my neck was dancing. An electrical storm was gathering but that was not the source of the charge I was feeling in my body, not dissimilar to the one I’m getting as I am typing this. As I knew, she had died in 1900. What I did not know that her birthday was my own, June 30th, her day in 1873, mine in 1954. How spooky is this scene. Fade to Rod Serling. “Imagine, if you will, you are traveling in a different dimension, into another time.”
The upshot of this wild moment was surprising. First off, it made me feel connected to this woman who gave birth to my grandmother almost a hundred years ago. In my quest to find ancestral connection, this was a profound link.
But perhaps even more important in that particular time in my life, I was standing in the place where my great grandmother lived, and died, and was buried in the rich, black dirt. I grabbed a handful, clutched it, and felt it in my hand. I opened my fingers and let the soil fall back to the ground. I was filled with a new feeling, a fresh sense of place. Texas was my place, my home. It is a strange road that led me to my sense of belonging in this beautiful, strange land. It was a magical, mystical moment for which I will be forever grateful. What a long strange trip it’s been.
I guess it’s good to have a few witches in your bloodline. Blessings.