Monday, October 15, 2012

The Witch in the Attic

The witch in our attic wears a clear plastic shower cap. It is neither her choice, nor her best look, but in the past, squirrels seeking refuge during hard winters have sampled her straggly yarn hair, so the cap is a cautionary measure.

Two and a half decades ago, Witchy was an afternoon project, a composite of clothing filched from family members. Her hooked nose, lined face and sunken mouth were coaxed from a pair of stockings stuffed with cotton. My kids, Casey and Tucker, packed a faded black shirt and gypsy skirt with wads of newspaper to form her hunch-backed body. Casey’s cast-off gray tights became twisted legs, and since Count Tucker no longer required his cape from the previous Halloween, the witch made off with that as well.

Witchy’s annual descent from the attic would initiate our Halloween preparations. The unbecoming shower cap would be whisked away and replaced with a tall peaked hat. The butter churn by the fireplace was moved to make room for her chair, and her belongings – a skull-topped staff, bat-candelabra, and pewter teapot– were fetched from storage and set within easy reach.

In those days, October was crammed with joyful child-oriented activities - scratchy hayrides, haunted houses and pumpkin-picking expeditions. While the slimy chore of carving jack-o’lanterns was never quite as fun as it was supposed to be, the kids’ enthusiasm spiked briefly when Toys R Us offered stencil kits complete with safe miniature knives. All by themselves, Tucker and Casey sculpted a black cat silhouetted against a harvest moon and an eerie haunted mansion.

Every crisp day of vibrant leaves, somber skies and acorns crunching underfoot held ghoulish games and creepy craft projects, and when I’d surprise the kids with cupcakes topped with black cats or pumpkins of orange frosting, I wasn’t worried about sugar. I felt solid in my world, secure in the sense I was doing exactly what I should be doing.

For good and for ill, the past three autumns have passed without much Halloween spirit at our house. In 2009, chemotherapy drained me of the energy for decorating, as did more recently, my father’s illness and death. Yet, last year held an astonishing trip to Thailand to meet up with our traveling daughter, and this summer, Tucker got married. So, what I’ve learned about life, what I love about life, is that generally, after dark times, life is on the other side, waiting with arms wide.

October has cycled around again, and last weekend’s crisp air, vibrant leaves, somber skies and acorns crunching underfoot triggered a sensory tune-up. My childhood antennae unfurled at the scent of woodsmoke, earthy crushed leaves and the golden rod’s whiff of honey. The whine of a saw, the buzz of yellow jackets. Oak leaves reddening, orange pumpkins in farm fields: I was my little girl self in a corduroy jacket; I was the mother who read her kids Halloween stories and helped them…make Witchy.

Inspired, I scurried up the attic stairs and clambered over bins holding the kids’ drawings, stuffed animals, Cabbage Patch Kids, Jurassic Park figures, and vintage Transformers to meet the steely gaze of the witch’s close-set eyes. In her shower cap, she was unimpressive, but that was soon to change.

Together, we made our way back down the stairs, her legs dangling and misshapen, her newspaper innards lumpy, her clothing filthy. I know it’s crazy, but I felt like apologizing.

First thing, I untied the tattered cape and threw it away, then took off the shower cap, and combed her hair into place. Casey, now 29, recently purged her closet and set aside bags of clothes for Goodwill, so I pawed through camisoles, tee-shirts, and dresses in search of anything black. Success. After gingerly removing Witchy’s almost-ancient garments, I helped her into a fresh long –sleeved shirt and gauzy skirt and lent her my black shawl. Beside her, on a small table, I set a wooden box of apothecary bottles and herbs, as well as her skull-topped staff, bat-candelabra, and pewter teapot. In her own way, she looked beautiful sitting by the fireplace.

We both felt better.

With his wife, Tucker, now 32, plans to hold his annual pumpkin-carving party. I doubt he likes scooping the yucky goo any better than he did as a child, but he loves the freshly toasted seeds. On a recent trip to a Halloween store with Casey, she pointed out the sexy little costumes she’d worn during her years in college and New York – Red Riding Hood, a firefighter, a pirate. Hmmm. We shrieked and giggled at the animatronic ghouls and she talked me out of buying the “cheap-looking” ripped black fabric I wanted to drape on the mantle and convinced me to go with tattered mesh netting. And later, when she stopped by the house to visit our Halloween queen by the fireplace, my daughter’s expression was wistful. “I love Witchy,” she said. And I love the memories Witchy conjures.