Authors: Reba White Williams
We’ve worked out the entrance fees to the festival pretty well—the children in kindergarten through fifth grade get in free; older children can come free if they work for the festival—helping set up and take down chairs, running one of the booths, or whatever else needs doing. Everyone else pays a dollar to get in, and there’s also a “contributions” box for the school to use to buy extras. Every family is asked to bring at least one nonperishable food for the local food pantry. Adults use money at the various stands to buy items or to play the games, but the children use food items for the pantry to pay for what they want. We work hard to make sure no one in Slocumb County goes hungry, and this is one of the ways we replenish the pantry’s supplies.
I think our little town has done a great job of turning Halloween into a time for good deeds instead of mischief, taking out the scary parts and shifting the emphasis from the pagan toward good deeds. But there’s always room for improvement, and sometimes it takes a fresh eye to see it. I wasn’t surprised when Coleman came up with ideas.
The Slocumb County Library is a short walk from our house and has a lot more books than the school library, ‘cause it has books for grownups, not just books for children. Miss Sutton, the librarian, is real nice and likes to help people find the kind of books they want. Aunt Polly took me to the library as soon as I could walk, and I’ve been borrowin’ books ever since. I usually visit the library nearly every week, but in June and July I was so busy helping Miss Ida, working on the produce stand and spending time with Coleman, I didn’t get there. In August when we found out how much Coleman liked reading, Aunt Polly took us to the library to introduce Coleman to Miss Sutton and to get her a library card.
Miss Sutton tried to steer Coleman to books for her age group, but that didn’t work. Coleman likes to wander through the shelves and choose her own books, and she takes out all kinds of things, not just children’s books. Aunt Polly told Miss Sutton it’s all right to let her check out whatever she wants. Coleman has lots of interests, and Aunt Polly doesn’t think books will harm her.
We went to the library the day before yesterday. Miss Sutton had put up a big display of books about Halloween, and some of the subjects people think of as Halloween-ish, like bats and witches. Coleman picked out a book called
The Day of the Dead
All About All Saints and
, two books about bats, and a book about witches in Salem, Massachusetts. We’d just watched
The Wizard of Oz
, with Judy Garland, and Coleman must have been thinkin’ about it, because she asked Miss Sutton if she could recommend a book on good witches, like Glenda the Good in the
Miss Sutton thought for a minute, then said, “We have a novel called
The White Witch
but I don’t know—it’s a book for grown-ups by Elizabeth Goudge.”
Coleman beamed. “I
Elizabeth Goudge books. I’ve read
Linnets and Valerians
The Little White Horse
my favorite book in the whole world
“Yes, but—well, wait a minute, I’ll let you look at it.” She went to the grown-ups’ section and came back with a book and handed it to Coleman.
I saw what Miss Sutton meant. It’s a thick book with lots of little bitty print and no pictures—hard goin’, I’d say. But Coleman added it to her pile. I took out only one book,
The Little White Horse
that Coleman liked so much. I’m real busy helpin’ Miss Ida and Molly and Elaine with cookies and such for Halloween parties, and what with homework, too, I don’t have much time for readin’ right now. Just as well I only took one book, ‘cause Coleman needed help carrying all hers.
By suppertime, she’d done with the bat books and had a lot of questions to ask Freddy when she sees him at school. She’d looked through the Salem witch book and decided not to read all of it, but it puzzled her, and at supper she asked Aunt Polly and Miss Ida about it.
“Were those people in Salem, Massachusetts sick? The folks who thought everybody was a witch?” she said.
Aunt Polly looked up from her macaroni and cheese. “I think they were—uh—disturbed,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“Everybody acted crazy. I read about witches and possessed people in the Bible, but I always thought they were sick, and that the evil spirits in ‘em were the sickness, and God healed them. But killin’ people cause they thought they were witches like they did in Salem—the people who did that must have been sick, too,” Coleman said.
Miss Ida nodded. “I’ve always thought so. The Bible says, ‘Judge not lest you be judged,’ and the people in charge should have tried to help those poor people. Those were terrible times.”
“Do you think there are any witches now?” Coleman asked. “Is the Herb Lady a good witch, like Glenda?”
Aunt Polly choked on her iced tea. “Rena Dorman? Heavens, no, she’s not a witch. She’s a Presbyterian. Whatever made you ask that?”
“In Oz there are good witches and bad witches, and I know it’s a fairy tale, but I thought there might be somethin’ to it, because when Tiffany Cranford said the Herb Lady was a witch, I knew Miss Rena couldn’t be bad, so I thought maybe she’s a white witch like in Oz, or the book I’m readin’—”
“That Tiffany Cranford needs to have her mouth washed out with soap,” Aunt Polly said, real cross-like. “I never heard such foolishness.”
Coleman looked interested. “Do folks
wash out children’s mouths with soap? What does it taste like?” she asked.
Miss Ida frowned at Aunt Polly and said, “No, honey, I don’t think they do. Aunt Polly means Tiffany shouldn’t say such silly things, and somebody should explain to her what Rena Dorman does—which is nothing but good, and has absolutely nothing to do with witchcraft. We’ll go see Rena, and after our visit, I think you’ll be able to put Tiffany straight. I’ll call Rena tonight and make a date for us to go to her house tomorrow after school, if she’s free.”
“Yes, ma’am. Can I ask another question?”
I, not ‘Can I,’” Aunt Polly said. “What do you want to know?”
“I read this book on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, and then I read a book on the Day of the Dead in Mexico. And, I can’t understand why All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days are Christian, but it seems like we don’t approve of the Mexican Day of the Dead. They sound like they’re mighty close to the same thing. And Mexicans are Catholic—Christians—and their church doesn’t think the Day of the Dead is bad.”
“Why don’t you leave the books with me, and I’ll see what I can figure out?” Aunt Polly said. “I don’t know enough about the Day of the Dead to comment. I don’t think anybody around here—uh—celebrates it. I don’t know any Mexicans in Slocumb County.”
I was surprised. “You don’t? There are Mexican children at our school. Well, I don’t know if they’re still Mexican, but their families come from Mexico,” I said.
“Are there a lot? Who are they?” Coleman said.
“I don’t know how many in our whole school, but in the second grade, there are three Garcia children: Manny—his whole name’s Manuel—Maria, and Josie. I think Manuel and Maria are twins, and they should be in third grade, but their English isn’t too good.”
“I didn’t know they’re Mexican,” Coleman said. “They’re all nice. Josie is the smallest in the class after me. I like her best.”
“Give me the books and we’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Aunt Polly said.
I’ve always had problems with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, never could keep them straight. Thanks to Coleman, I finally understand. All Saints’ Day is November 1st, and All Souls’ Day is November 2nd. All Souls’ Day is set aside for praying for the dead, while All Saints’ Day is a celebration of the saints of the Christian Church, many of whom were martyrs. For Protestants, the saints may be people who have lived very good lives, not necessarily canonized.
I had to get all that clear in my mind before I could begin to understand the Day of the Dead. I knew almost nothing about the Day of the Dead, although I associated it with skeletons, and parties in cemeteries. I thought it sounded gruesome.
It turns out that the Day of the Dead is not scary at all—just the opposite: it’s a joyful occasion. It’s about celebrating and honoring loved ones who have died. The celebrations take place on November 1st and 2nd, and in some areas, several days before and after.
Families tidy and decorate the graves of their loved ones, often with orange marigolds, but also with other flowers, sometimes bright red ones, and candles. Families build and decorate shrines or altars in their homes, where they place pictures of deceased relatives, statues or pictures of the Virgin Mary, favorite food and drink of those they are celebrating, and flowers and trinkets or symbols they associate with their dead loved ones. At night the cemeteries are full of joyous people—including children—eating, drinking, and playing music.
I explained everything as I understood it to the girls, and they were fascinated. “I’d like to see one of those altars,” Coleman said. I would, too, and I made up my mind to go talk to Mrs. O’Quinn about the Mexican children and the Day of the Dead.
This afternoon Aunt Mary Louise drove us out in the country to visit Miss Rena. Her house is a storybook cottage. It’s painted white with green shutters and a green door. It has four windows in front, and a chimney on one side, and a little porch on the other side. Her window boxes are full of yellow mums, and there was a scarecrow and a huge pumpkin on the front steps. A big white cat was sitting beside the pumpkin. Miss Rena says the cat’s name is Drusilla.
In the backyard, there’s a little bitty orchard with six apple trees and two beehives, and a tiny stream runnin’ into a pond with water lilies, and two ducks. Like us, she has a few chickens and a cow, but she also has a nanny goat with a kid. I
petting that baby goat. I wish we could keep goats. Only not a billy. They’re mean and smelly.
I love Miss Rena’s garden, too. She grows vegetables like us, but she has some we don’t have—tiny squash, and baby tomatoes. And she has a garden that’s just herbs, with little signs saying what the herbs are. We have mint growing in our yard—we put it in iced tea—and we buy cinnamon and ginger and such, but she has dozens of herbs, and most of ‘em I’ve never heard of, never mind seen. I wanted to ask her what she uses ‘em for, but there wasn’t time ‘cause there was so much to see and do.
We went indoors to wash our hands, and the storybook house is even nicer inside, with dried herbs hanging from the kitchen ceiling, and bowls of flowers everywhere, and a basket of pinecones by the fireplace. But we didn’t stay indoors. She took us out to a rose arbor—it still has pinky-orange roses blooming on the branches climbing over the arbor—with a table set for a party underneath it. There was a yellow cloth and a big bowl of roses from the arbor, and her china is thick and kind of cream-colored, and she told us it came from a North Carolina pottery. We drank apple juice with spice in it, instead of tea. Yum, yum.
Most of what we ate I never tasted before. There were egg salad sandwiches—least, that’s what I thought they were, until she told me it was tofu, and what colored it yellow was the curry powder and mustard. (I’ve seen tofu at the supermarket, but it looks like soap, and I never knew how you ate it.) The crunch in the “egg” salad was cauliflower! And we had little cucumber sandwiches with mayonnaise mixed with dill (I never heard of dill in anything but pickles), and watercress sandwiches that tasted kind of peppery (I never saw watercress before, but she showed me where she grows it). And we had baby tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese Miss Rena makes, mixed with olive oil and chives from the herb garden. (Miss Rena says she tries to eat mostly things she grows, but she has to buy the olive oil and the tofu.) And we had little round squashes stuffed with chopped squash and onions and seasoned with what she said was fresh thyme. (She’d baked the little squashes, but she served them just barely warm. She says that’s how they do it in France.) All this food I’ve never seen or tasted makes me wonder what else I don’t know about cookin’ and food. Should I think about studyin’ home-ec like Molly and Elaine Byrd? I don’t have to decide yet, and I’ll ask the Lord for guidance.
When I thought I couldn’t eat another bite, she served homemade apple sherbet—it was
good—and ginger cookies so thin I thought she must have ironed ‘em. I was so full I was feelin’ kind of sleepy. But all of sudden I heard what Coleman was sayin’, and I woke up fast.
“Miss Rena, are you a white witch? I’ve been readin’ a book about a white witch, and she had a white cat like Drusilla.”
Aunt Polly looked horrified, and Miss Ida’s cheeks turned pinker than ever, but Miss Rena laughed. “Is the book you’re reading by Elizabeth Goudge?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Have you read it?”
“Yes, and I enjoyed it. If you’ve finished it, you know that witches—even white witches—use spells because they think spells strengthen their potions. But Christians don’t use spells. I don’t know any spells, and I never met anyone who does. Wait here a minute. I want to get something in the house to show you.”
I could see Aunt Polly warmin’ up for a big scoldin’, and Miss Ida would say her piece, too. But they won’t do it till we get home ‘cause that’s the rule: no scolding in front of anyone. Poor Coleman. She’s in for it.
Miss Rena came back with a stack of books. One of them was a University of North Carolina yearbook. I’ve seen ‘em at Aunt Mary Louise’s—a bunch of Byrds have gone to Carolina.
She showed us her picture in the book, lookin’ lots younger. “I studied pharmacy at Carolina, but I didn’t want to work in a drugstore or a hospital, so I went to schools in New Mexico and California and France to learn about herbs,” she said. “And when I’d learned as much as I thought I could, I moved here, because I wanted to grow my own herbs, and my own vegetables. I’m what’s called an herbalist. When you get to it, you might want to read mystery novels about a monk, Brother Cadfael, who lived in England in the olden days; he was an herbalist. I have a present for the two of you to read.”