Three-Minute Memoir

October 9, 2017

Witchcraft

By Florence Newman

(Click image to enlarge.)

One Halloween night, when my friend Ellie and I were about eight or nine, we went trick-or-treating door to door around our neighborhood. This was in those dangerous days before parents hovered protectively behind their costumed children to make sure that they didn’t get snatched by predators posing as genial homeowners or receive apples lanced with razor blades. Back then, we two girls were alone as we approached a stranger’s house where a glowing porch light beckoned. I recall the house being set back among some trees, with a long, serpentine brick walk leading to an old-fashioned gabled portico, but such “memories” are no doubt later embellishments conjured up to match the eeriness of what happened there.

Ellie rang the doorbell. We were dressed as society ladies in our mothers’ long gloves and pearl necklaces (we loved playing dress-up), or maybe I was Peter Pan and Ellie was Wendy, as we were one year for a class play called “Midnight in the Library,” in which characters escaped from their books and frolicked on the stage. The light from the doorway must have fallen over a charming picture of childish expectation as we stood there with our innocent, upturned faces and outstretched paper bags. “Trick or treat!” But the woman who had opened the door didn’t offer us candy. Was she short and silver-haired or young, willowy, and brunette? I guess I’ve forgotten. Or else it was hard to make out the details of her figure, back lit in the frame of the door. Certainly we were dazzled when she leaned over and told us, conspiratorially, that she was a witch.

“And I have a gift for each of you. Hold out your hand.”

Of course we did. Into my palm she pressed two copper pennies, then two more into Ellie’s.

“These are magic pennies. Promise you won’t lose them.”

We nodded solemnly, conscious of the awesome power with which we were being entrusted. As we left, Ellie and I looked at each other: she was grinning and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle. Did we believe the pennies were really magic? I, at least, believed they might be. After all, we had read about magic in the Narnia stories and in The Hobbit and The Time Garden and The Enchanted Castle. And before those, there had been fairy tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, which taught us that the world was filled with magic that one could stumble across at any time and that only grown-ups foolishly rejected. Now here was a grown-up who not only believed in magic but was herself a witch, proving what every child secretly wishes to be true.

I never put the pennies to the test: what if they failed, shattering my fragile faith, already under assault by life’s steady barrage of the banal and ordinary? But neither did I lose them. Every now and then, 55-odd years on, when I’m looking for something else, I come across a battered leather box in a bureau drawer and discover inside it an ornate, antique key, badly tarnished; several unmatched buttons; and a square plastic container, about one inch by one inch, through whose top I can see two copper pennies. All thoughts of my original purpose are crowded out by recollections of that night, my friend Ellie (does she still have her pennies?), and the remarkable woman who claimed to be a witch. I am old enough now to be such a witch—a short, silver-haired one—though, as I mentioned, it’s hard to catch children alone on Halloween anymore. Witches were probably scarce even in those long-ago days. Still, I can aspire to be the rare woman who passes along that truly magical gift.

Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Copyright © 2017, Florence Newman
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Today’s Quote

May 2, 2017
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Three-Minute Memoir

April 3, 2016

-2 Revelation

By Florence Newman

It had been a mistake to go to the Safeway, even though the snowstorm wasn’t due to arrive for another two days. The aisles were already crowded with shoppers stocking up on bread, milk, and toilet paper–the Holy Trinity of disaster preparation everywhere. The stereotype of Baltimoreans is that they panic and rush out to the stores at the first threat of a snowflake, but this time their anxiety was justified: forecasts called for 18-24” of snow over the course of the weekend, with blizzard conditions possible. Still, you’d think that hitting the grocery mid-day, well in advance of the storm, I wouldn’t have had to contend with frantic survivalists. No such luck. My usual route through the store—a pass around the healthy perimeter, with brief forays into the shelves of preservative- and sugar-laden cereals, crackers, packaged dinners, and canned goods—was now an obstacle course of bodies and shopping carts. I navigated my own cart, part stealth bomber, part battering ram, among the rest, collecting provisions, then headed for the self checkout machines, which I use almost exclusively these days because 1) I usually don’t have to wait in line and 2) I like the autonomy of ringing up my own purchases, being in full control of the process (until, of course, the scanner goes out of whack). It never occurred to me that I might have another reason for preferring the machines to human cashiers.

The throng at the front of the store was so thick that it took me a moment to realize, in astonishment, that the two self-checkout lines snaked as far back as the lines for regular checkout. I almost abandoned my errand right there. But I hadn’t invested all that time and effort just to go home empty-handed. I decided to try the “15 items or fewer” lanes: those lines had to be shorter, or at least moving more quickly. Unfortunately, they were also at the opposite side of the store. “Pardon me.” “Excuse me.” “May I cut through?” Finally I reached the express lanes and positioned myself at the end of one of the lines. A woman nearby tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind her: the line actually ended seven or eight carts back, midway down the aisle. One look at the impenetrable mass of folks waiting single file and folks milling around the aisle shopping and I resigned myself to wheeling my way down the next aisle over, rounding the bend, and joining the queue from behind.

I didn’t remain the last in line for long: a grandmotherly type looking particularly glum took the spot at my back. For a while, we made small talk about the weather. Then she mentioned that her bank had closed early because it had been robbed, leaving her without cash for groceries. The conversation sort of trailed off after that. I turned to face forward again. The young man immediately in front of me had his foot propped on the base of his cart and his head bent over the glowing screen of a smart phone. Every so often, without taking his gaze off the screen, he would give the cart a shove with his forearms, and grandmother and I would shuffle forward a few inches.

Suddenly I noticed a burst of color. It was a bouquet of bright flowers wrapped in cellophane in the child’s seat portion of the cart two spots ahead. The possessor of the cart was a tall woman with a dancer’s posture, graceful and erect, and gold-silver hair that swept up to show a bit of neck above her scarf. (I only saw her from the back, so I can’t describe her face—though I’ll bet it was beautiful.) She wore a dark wool coat, which stood out among the puffy jackets that made the rest of us look like a flock of Pillsbury Dough Boys. Still, I could hardly take my eyes off the bouquet. There’s a blizzard coming, for God’s sake, and this lady is buying flowers! I took in the other contents of her cart—two small whole chickens (or perhaps they were guinea hens), a bag of brown rice, some fresh vegetables. Then I looked down into my own cart: a four-pack of vanilla Frappucinos, two Fuji apples, a box of low fat Triscuits, a jumbo chocolate chunk cookie, and a packet of sugar-free gum (tropical fruit flavor). The necessities of life.

In my imagination, the tall woman sits at a linen-covered table, the flowers tastefully arranged in a vase at its center. Candlelight flickers over the silverware flanking a china plate full of fragrant slices of fowl, steaming brown rice, and roasted vegetables, as outside the frosted window the winter storm rages.

I glanced again at my own cart: what a pathetic scenario it brought to mind. I realized at that moment that the self checkout lane appealed to me not just because it improved my efficiency, not just because it enhanced my autonomy, but also because it shrouded my purchases in privacy. Ahead, the colorful bouquet drifted down the conveyer belt and disappeared into a bag. The clerk rang up the rest of the elegant lady’s elegant items, and soon she too had vanished. The young man in front of me, having pocketed his cell phone, began placing his stuff on the counter. Before long, it would be my turn. I had waited impatiently for a good half hour to reach the head of the line, and now I dreaded the prospect. There was nothing for it but to follow through. The gum, the jumbo cookie, the vanilla Frappucinos went up on the belt to be lifted and swiped over the scanner by the clerk’s beefy hands. “Busy day, huh?” I said. “Everybody’s getting ready for the snow,” I said. I was babbling, trying to distract the clerk from the hodgepodge of barely-comestibles I’d offered up for inspection. It turned out that my subterfuge was unnecessary: the clerk hardly glanced at what he was ringing up. Although his apron-clad torso remained turned toward me, he was looking over his shoulder at the other lanes teaming with other customers. I decided to take a risk: “Funny the kinds of things people buy during an emergency.” For a few seconds, the clerk faced my way, then his attention was again elsewhere. “We see it all,” he murmured. “Believe me, we see it all.”

FloHdshot2Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman

Today’s Quote

March 9, 2016

DrMurry“Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.”

Ken Murray, How Doctors Die, The Best American Essays, 2012

Originally published in Zocalo Public Square


Today’s Quote

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ron-chernow-1“From the outset, the young Hamilton had phenomenal stamina for sustained work; ambitious, orphaned boys do not enjoy the option of idleness. Even before starting work, he must have developed unusual autonomy for a thirteen-year-old . . . Hamilton exuded an air of crisp efficiency and cool self-command. While his peers squandered their time on frivolities, Hamilton led a much more strenuous, urgent life that was to liberate him for St. Croix . . . He was a proud and sensitive boy, caught in the lower reaches of a rigid class society with small chance for social mobility.”

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Penguin Books, 2004


Today’s Quote

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images-1“The atheist does not say and cannot prove that there is no deity. He or she says that no persuasive evidence or argument has ever been adduced for the notion. Surely this should place the burden on the faithful, who do after all make very large claims for themselves and their religions.”

Christopher Hitchens

“What We Were Reading: 2006,” Guardian, 12/05/09


Today’s Quote

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Chekhov2Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.”

Anton Chekhov (Click image to enlarge.)

Short-story writer and dramatist, 1860-1904.