As she sat in our bedroom gazing out the window, her straggly hair tucked in a shower cap, the witch looked anything but frightening. But when Ava, at age three, saw her last year, the old crone was in her glowering glory, hunched by the fireplace, her potions, Ouija board, and broom within reach. So it wasn’t surprising that our grandniece was hesitant about visiting our house this October. For months after her prior encounter with Witchy, she responded to any mention of “Dave and Lea” with a shudder and “Oh. The Witch.”
I confess to a certain satisfaction in hearing her make that connection. I want Ava to be happy and comfortable at our house, but I have ancestors on both sides of the 17th century Salem Witch Trial travesty and an extravagant enthusiasm for Halloween, so Lea-equals-Witchy? Kind of like that.
Ava is four now. During the spring and summer, while Witchy was safely out of sight in the attic and our activities centered on the backyard, Ava helped Dave plant potatoes in a weathered wooden whisky tub and returned months later to harvest them. She flew a kite with Tucker and blew bubbles with Dave. She picked raspberries in our thorny patch and peered through low-hanging limbs to inspect a nearby swamp. Best of all, our neighbors took in a pregnant feral cat, and Dave and I got credit for Ava’s cozy cuddle with the resulting kittens. According to Lisa, Ava’s mom, we now represent nature, kittens, and intriguing explorations as well as Witchy. Progress.
I’m not sure how she went about it, but Lisa had been gearing Ava up for an encounter with our witch. So, when rain prevented a planned visit to Silverman’s Farm to pick apples and pat farm animals, I suggested Lisa, Ava, and Trevor come to help decorate our house for Halloween. Maybe if Ava unwrapped the witches and skeletons at rest in their tissue shrouds, she’d recognize them as resin, porcelain, and fabric only.
So I dragged out fake tombstones, glycerin-infused oak leaves, pumpkins, and bins, but left Witchy upstairs, glum in her tattered summer garb and shower cap, until Ava’s level of tolerance was established.
Ava arrived grinning with good spirits and eager to face what had once been a source of fear. Dave and I had not been around for Ava’s birthday, so we won points, early in the visit, with gifts of Rapunzel, Elsa, and Anna, the Disney girls, and knew they’d provide a cheerful refuge if need be.
My sisters and friends know of my penchant for this season and often Christmas and birthdays reap a fresh slew of spooks. So it’s always a fun surprise when the tissue paper parts to reveal a new witch or black cat. As Ava delved into the protective layers of white, orange, and black, and hollow eye sockets and spectral limbs appeared, I’d whisk aside skulls and skeletons I’d judge too eerie. My taste does tend toward Victorian ghoulish, I guess.
But Ava’s exposure to the bizarre has been minimal, and she took most of these revelations in stride. When she uncovered a key chain from which dangled a miniature, but very realistic, skull, she gleefully pulled it out. “Aww. Cute. So tiny!” She squealed happily as she hung it from a wrought iron hook on a lamp, as gratified with the effect as if it had been an ornament on a Christmas tree.
Every so often, Lisa would say, “Are you ready to have Witchy come down?”
Despite her relative comfort with the bins’ contents, Ava’s hesitance about Witchy had returned and her “No” was decisive. In fact, she was steering clear of the stairs for good measure, just in case Witchy took it into her head to make an appearance unbidden. Maybe I’d personified this concoction of hand-me-down clothes, wadded newspaper, and polyfil too much.
As witches continued to emerge from cupboards and closets, occasionally Ava would shrink away at first glimpse. “Real or fake?” Lisa would ask.
“Fake!” Ava would assert with spook-banishing assurance.
Some of my witches, mostly gifts from my friend Kate and sisters Rita and Francie, are quite lovely actually, and Ava cooed at a charming, pleasant-faced, bat-winged wonder and declared her a fairy witch. Rita also gave me one of my treasures, a Franklin Mint Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz. She’s as green and dangerous as Margaret Hamilton’s character, so I handed Ava the flowing gauzy cape, hairnet, and broom before removing the bubble wrap over the doll’s face. “Ooooh!” exclaimed Ava once the witch was bedecked in her finery. “She looks like a princess!”
I really do have a lot of witches.
As we girls alternated between cautious bin-unpacking and breaks to play with Rapunzel and Frozen figurines, Dave and Trevor threw a football outside while waiting for Dave’s dough to rise for his weekly batch of bread. Much of the magic at our house is more about Dave’s kitchen wizardry than anything Witchy dreams up, and the slow pouf of yeast, flours, honey, and eggs cast a different kind of spell once the loaves went into the oven and their aroma wafted through the house.
But the afternoon was lingering toward dusk and Witchy was waiting. “Would you like to wear Witchy’s cape?” I asked Ava. “It’s soft and cozy. And maybe her hat?”
Swathed in black velvet and peeking from beneath the wide brim, Ava took a few twirls while I set out a chair and table by the fireplace. I rummaged in the dining room for black candles to set in a web-draped candelabrum, unearthed some antique bottles and a tea caddy so Ava could arrange Witchy’s potions, and then went upstairs to fetch the grand-dame herself.
I carried her down in my arms, a time-worn dummy in an old skirt and shirt, her face a grumpy mask crafted from cast-off stockings. I laughed with over-the-top exuberance as I carried her into the front hall and said, “Just like a big ugly baby, right?”
While Ava’s smile froze at our entrance, it broadened almost immediately. Nothing scary here! She helped me settle the witch onto the chair and arranged the cape while I tucked a pair of boots into place under the skirt. With a flourish, I removed the shower cap, combed Witchy’s squirrel-nibbled yarn hair over her shoulders, and set the tall peaked hat low on her brow.
“She looks angry,” said Ava with a trace of concern.
“Not angry, just wrinkled. She’s happy, actually, to be out of the attic and ready for Halloween. And you helped get everything ready for her!”
It’s easy to dismiss a little girl’s fear over something we know to be harmless, but for Ava, that witch was a threat, a powerful, perhaps magic, threat, yet with a little coaxing, she met her head on. How many of us could do the same?